On October 29, 2015, Seamus Hasson and his wife, Mary, were jointly honored with the St. John Paul II New Evangelization Award, presented by the Catholic Information Center. This essay is adapted from his remarks upon receiving the award. Read Mary’s remarks here.
Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, teaches that religious freedom for all of us follows from the truth about each of us. It’s an argument from our common humanity. Our intellects seek out the truth; our hearts—or in classical terms, our wills—yearn for the good; and our consciences drive us to seek out the true and the good, to embrace what we believe we’ve found, and to live accordingly.
Dignitatis Humanae not only made this the great project of our lives individually, but it set in motion a profound debate between the modern and postmodern world on the one hand and Dignitatis Humanae’s own vision of freedom on the other.
Actually, the debate is between two different visions of the human person that give rise to two different visions of freedom. Dignitatis Humanae says we require freedom to seek the truth, and to embrace what we believe we found. The opposite, secularist view says there’s no such thing as truth. Rather we require freedom to define our own lives through our own actions without impinging on claims of morality and eternity. The culture wars, properly understood, are not a fight over who God is. They are a fight over who we are. The debate over freedom is a debate over whether we’re persons born with our eyes focused for the far horizons, who yearn for the good, who search for transcendence—or whether we’re accidental organisms adrift in a cold and lonely universe, where any intimations of immortality are nothing but cruel Freudian jokes to be confronted and rejected, and temptations to believe in God only worsen one’s angst. That is the debate.
Now all this talk of evangelizing the culture and of religious liberty grounded in the dignity of the human person can soon begin to sound rather abstract to many people, particularly people who are not interested in the culture wars. But evangelism, while it may not always come easily, can nevertheless be very simple. Saint John Paul II expressed the same truth as Dignitatis Humanae with characteristic poetry. He said, “Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life.” A one-liner.
One of my favorite gospel passages is also about an evangelistic one-liner: Saint Luke’s story of the angel and the shepherds. On its surface, it’s a very familiar story. The angel appears to the shepherds in the field and says, “Do not be afraid. Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” The original Greek is even more interesting. The original Greek says, “idou gar euaggelizomai umin”—“Behold, I evangelize you.” What was this evangelism? Remember, the shepherds are among the simplest, most ordinary characters in the New Testament. And the angel proclaims to them Good News that’s likewise very simple. Again, a one-liner, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” Now, to a person with a theology degree (and someone once said that “To a man with a theology degree, the whole world looks like a symposium”), this announcement poses at least as many questions as it answers. A savior from what? From the Romans? What kind of Messiah is this? What does it mean to call him Lord anyway? (Luke calls it evangelism.)
Now there’s much more that the angel, if he’d been scrupulous, could’ve packed into that sentence. He could, for example, have said, “Through the fiat of an immaculately conceived virgin, the second person of the Blessed Trinity has become man in the hypostatic union.” In which case the shepherds would’ve been completely baffled, and probably would’ve run away. As it was, the dose of truth the angel administered worked. The very next thing we see is the shepherds encouraging one another, saying, “Let’s go over to Bethlehem and see this thing,” or in the Greek, this “rhema,” this “word,” that’s happened. Soon after that the shepherds are telling everybody the “saying which had been told them.” In other words, having been evangelized by the angel’s one-liner, the shepherds soon became evangelists themselves, and passed along what good news they had.
One-line personal evangelism still works. The couple times I’ve been able to go door-to-door with the Legion of Mary have taught me the same thing. The simple statement, “You can’t begin to imagine how important you are to God,” resonates very deeply with many people. It almost always prompts the question, “Why?” The answer: “Because God made only one of you. He’ll never make another, and He doesn’t want you both to miss out on being friends with each other. Come back to Mass and see for yourself,” likewise, resonates deeply. It works.
It’s similar for evangelizing the culture to the truth of Dignitatis Humanae, the truth of religious freedom. Recall Saint John Paul II saying that “Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life.” Every human life. The hunger for the ultimate truth about ourselves is universal. And so, noting that we’re born with our eyes focused for the far horizon, with a conscience that impels us to seek out and embrace the true and the good, is not very far from a full-throated argument for religious freedom. It simply requires pointing out that the thirst for the truth can only be slaked authentically if it’s slaked freely. Or, in other words, you can’t coerce love of God any more than you can coerce human love. This is a lesson that must be learned and relearned by every generation of teenagers. You simply can’t beseech or besiege the object of your affection into loving you. If you should manage to succeed in exasperating her into saying, “Fine, all right. I love you,” the one thing you can be sure of is, she doesn’t.
The Church has many great heroes. Thank God that the bishops were there when HHS decided to impose its mandates. Thank God the Little Sisters of the Poor were there. But much of the work of evangelizing the culture falls naturally to ordinary people who don’t have philosophy degrees, who’ve not spent a lifetime thinking about just this moment when suddenly a religious freedom crisis erupts in the middle of a parent/teacher conference, or breaks out at a zoning board hearing, or comes up before the city council. What then? Then, be a shepherd and give as much of the truth as you have. We ordinary folk should not be daunted by our failings and our shortcomings. We shouldn’t be afraid of who is staring back at us in the morning mirror. We should simply be shepherds and do our best to do what needs to be done. There are many opportunities to do extraordinary things in the present moment. Our ordinariness is no excuse for missing them.
Kevin “Seamus” Hasson is the founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the first-ever pro-bono religious liberty law firm dedicated to defending people of all faiths. Hasson stepped down as president in 2011 due to Parkinson’s, but continues to serve as president emeritus and on the board. Hasson is the author of The Right to be Wrong: Ending the Culture War over Religion in America and Believers, Thinkers, and Founders: How We Came to Be One Nation Under God.