The “kerygmatic” deception

vat fireThe Catholic Church in our day is in the midst of a terrible crisis; a veritable apostasy as evidenced by the religious indifferentism, anthropocentrism, and hostility for Christian doctrine that is all-too-often promoted even from the highest places in Rome.

Many are asking, how did we ever managed to get to this regrettable place?

Was it the Council? A dereliction of duty on the part of successive popes? The unprecedented liturgical disaster visited upon the Church courtesy of Paul VI?

Surely, it is all of these and more, but one answer that probably doesn’t come immediately to mind, even though it should, is this: the kerygmatic deception.


Two weeks after Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to abdicate, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, in an interview with National Catholic Reporter, discussed the upcoming papal conclave.

He said that the next Roman Pontiff would have to be a “missionary-in-chief,” explaining:

Engaging secularism is going to be the major challenge. I think that is going to mean a return to a very basic kerygma. We sometimes get so caught up in one or another aspect of the teaching, we forget that if a person hasn’t been introduced to Christ, if a person hasn’t embraced the risen Lord and the church that’s an expression of that experience, what we’re saying just sounds like a bunch of rules or negative statements limiting their personal freedom. We have to get back to that core kerygma.

In other words, Cardinal Wuerl wanted a modernist pope; a man like himself, who believes that “the church” is but “an expression” of one’s individual “experience” of God, and most importantly for the present discussion, a man who would likewise denigrate doctrine in the name of kerygma.

Whether or not Cardinal Wuerl cast a ballot in favor of Jorge Bergoglio is formally unknown, but one thing is certain; he got his man.

Writing in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, the foundational document of his pontificate, Pope Francis said:

The centrality of the kerygma calls for stressing those elements which are most needed today: it has to express God’s saving love which precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part; it should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom; it should be marked by joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines which are at times more philosophical than evangelical.

So, what is this “kerygma” of which these men speak?

“Kerygma” is a transliteration of the Greek κήρυγμα, which means “preaching” or “proclamation.”

The word appears eight times in the New Testament and is related to, although distinct from, kerusso (κηρύσσω), euaggelion (εὐαγγέλιον) and didache (Διδαχή). We’ll have more to say about these terms when we return to Sacred Scripture in a moment.

In the present context, “kerygma” refers to the initial proclamation of Our Lord’s saving work to those who as yet have not encountered the message of salvation, or as Pope Francis put it, “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” (ibid)

According to the kerygmatic evangelical paradigm, the evangelist is primarily called to invite, encourage and accompany his listeners in experiencing God’s saving love, as opposed to teaching and forming them in the ways of Christian life.

As for the role of those doctrinal truths that inform our behavior (the “bunch of rules” to which Cardinal Wuerl referred), “nothing,” according to Francis, “is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation.” (ibid.)

This manner of thinking is relatively new, but not entirely so.

In his Advent homily in 2012, longtime preacher of the papal household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa put it thus:

At the Church’s beginning, the distinction between kerygma and didachè was clear. The kerygma, which Paul also calls “the gospel,” concerned God’s work in Christ Jesus, the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection. And it consisted in brief formulas of faith, such as the one taken from Peter’s address on the day of Pentecost: “You crucified him, but God raised him up and has made him Lord” (cf. Acts 2:23-36), or: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).

The didaché, on the other hand, indicated the teaching subsequent to the coming of faith; it referred to the development and complete formation of the believer. The early Church (especially Paul) was convinced that faith, as such, blossomed only in the presence of the kerygma.

In other words, the authoritative preaching (kerusso) of binding truths and the teaching (didache) of Christian doctrine is only proper for those who have already “embraced the risen Lord and the church that’s an expression of that experience” (to quote Cardinal Wuerl once more).

Presumably fresh on the minds of both Fr. Cantalamessa and Cardinal Wuerl was the Synod of Bishops that had taken place in October 2012.

In an article published by America Magazine the following year, Cardinal Wuerl recalled:

In the propositions from the synod on the new evangelization, there is a whole section on the primacy of the kerygma—the good news that Jesus died out of love for us, is risen from the dead and wants to be with each of us today in our life journey.

What is the impetus for this emphasis on kerygma?

According to Fr. Cantalamessa, the signs-of-the-times demand it:

Our situation is becoming more and more similar to that of the apostles. They were faced with a pre-Christian world to evangelize; we have before us, at least to some extent and in certain quarters, a post-Christian world to re-evangelize. We need to return to their method by bringing anew to light “the sword of the Spirit”, which is the announcement – in Spirit and power – of Christ who died for our sins and who rose for our justification (cf. Rom. 4:25). (ibid.)

It is presumably for this reason that Pope Francis stated in his 2013 interview with Fr. Anthony Spadaro, S.J.:

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation [kerygma] in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.

The treatment of kerygma as given thus far raises a number of questions:

1) Is it really the case that the majority of those within earshot of Holy Mother Church today (i.e., those who are not isolated in remote missionary lands) are either devout Jews awaiting their Messiah, or pagans that have scarcely ever heard of God’s loving plan of salvation in Christ?

2) Does Sacred Scripture attest to this notion that the Apostles withheld the preaching of authoritative and binding exhortations (kerusso), as well as other doctrinal teachings (didache) until such time as their listeners had already embraced the good news delivered (euaggelion) in their initial proclamation (kerygma) of God’s love, His saving work, and His will to enter into communion with us in Christ?

3) Lastly, from where did the idea of boiling evangelization down to “focusing on the essentials” as part of an appeal to human experience come, and how did it manage to find its way to being adopted by post-conciliar churchmen as the quintessential model for evangelization?

Let’s address each one in order.

Monsignor Charles Pope, a “conservative” priest and blogger with traditional leanings who is familiar to many readers of this space described this evangelical program as follows:

In effect, this kerygmatic approach was seen more as a proclamation addressed directly to the hearer, and is a call to conversion, rather than as an extended appeal to the reason or to motives of credibility.

As for the justification for such an approach, Monsignor Pope, like Fr. Cantalamesaa, maintains, “In some sense, the current times are not unlike the pagan world in which the apostles first proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

He added, however:

It is true, that the West is more an ‘angry divorcee,’ and the ancient Gentile world which was more like a virgin awaiting her groom. But there are still some parallels, and our presumption that most people heard the basics of Scripture, and the gospel is generally a poor presumption today.

I appreciate Monsignor Pope’s caveat, but it doesn’t go far enough.

The kerygmatic approach described in the above quotes given by Fr. Cantalamessa, Cardinal Wuerl and Pope Francis is not proposed as a specifically missionary program, certainly not as such things have traditionally been understood at any rate, but rather as a fundamental reworking of the Church’s response to the Divine Commission as given by Christ:

Go therefore to all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and holy Ghost, teaching them to observe everything whatsoever that I commanded.
(cf Mt. 28:19-20)

With this distinction in mind, I would say that Monsignor Pope’s exception is really the rule – namely, the majority of the world doesn’t suffer from a lack of exposure to “the basics;” it suffers because it rejects Christian truths. In many cases, these truths are rejected as much, or more, out of ignorance than insolence.

And why?

Because they are no longer being proclaimed and explained.

It’s no small coincidence that the de-Christianization of men and societies in general has been accelerating exponentially since the Second Vatican Council on forward:

This is precisely that time when our churchmen, popes included, practically ceased preaching and teaching important doctrinal truths; e.g., the Kingship of Christ, the unique identity of the Catholic Church, and the obligations incumbent upon all men toward each.

In other words, the kerygmatic approach is largely responsible for creating this monster.

Furthermore, as the body of Pope Francis’ work aptly testifies, this emphasis on preaching a “Christian lite” message of God’s love that is stripped of uncomfortable doctrinal truths inevitably morphs into something that is but generically “religious.”

At best, the overwhelming majority of modern day hierarchs are stuck in kerygma mode (with many not even willing to go that far), and having convinced themselves that the world simply isn’t ready for anything more substantial, they never seem to get around to “teaching everything whatsoever that Jesus commanded;” much less calling anyone to conversion.

Ultimately, this program devolves into religious indifferentism, the centerpiece of which is a man-centered initiative wherein the name of Jesus Christ is scarcely even mentioned.

The proponents of this so-called kerygmatic approach argue, however, that Sacred Scripture suggests that even the Divine Commission itself implies the primacy of the kerygma inasmuch as “baptism” precedes “teaching.”

That, however, isn’t really the case, which brings us to question number two.

The Greek kerygma appears in the New Testament eight times, two of which are in the Gospels. In both Matthew and Mark, we find reference to the preaching (kerygma) of Jonas as follows:

The men of Ninive shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they did penance at the preaching of Jonas. (Matthew 12:41 and Luke 11:32)

Let’s now take a look at what Scripture tells us about the preaching (kerygma) of the prophet:

And Jonas began to enter into the city one day’s journey: and he cried and said: Yet forty days and Ninive shall be destroyed. (Jonah 3: 4)

Does this sound like the “kerygma” of modern day churchmen, or is it precisely the sort of preaching they are determined to avoid at all costs? (A rhetorical question, indeed.)

The fully committed “new evangelist” will undoubtedly insist that surely Jonas must have first softened up his audience with platitudes of God’s love as kerygma always comes first, especially as it is found in the New Testament.

Actually, no, it doesn’t.

In the Epistles, where the word kerygma is most often found, when read in context, we almost always find reference to kerusso as well.

Kerusso means “to proclaim after the manner of a herald, always with the suggestion of formality, gravity and an authority which must be listened to and obeyed.” (cf Strong’s Greek Lexicon)

That said, the account of Saul’s conversion and subsequent preaching very clearly suggests that kerygma does not enjoy the kind of “primacy” modern day churchmen would have us believe:

And immediately there fell from his eyes as it were scales: and he received his sight. And rising up, he was baptized. And when he had taken meat, he was strengthened. And he was with the disciples that were at Damascus, for some days. And immediately he preached [kerusso] Jesus in the synagogues, that he is the son of God. (Acts 9:18-20)

As indicated, the preaching that Saul immediately undertook “in the synagogues” (i.e., among those who had not yet “embraced the risen Lord”) was not kerygma;
it was kerusso.

In fact, kerygma doesn’t appear in the Acts of the Apostles even once! What we do find, by contrast, is multiple references to kerusso, euaggelion and didache, with the latter and its derivative, didasko, being the most frequently used of all.

Incidentally, the Divine Commission to “teach” as given in Matthew 28:20 (above) uses this very word:

Didasko: to hold discourse with others in order to instruct them … to discharge the office of a teacher … to impart instruction and instill doctrine. (Strong’s Greek Lexicon)

Think about this for a moment…

The detailed Scriptural (i.e., Divinely inspired) account of the Apostles’ activities immediately following Pentecost and beyond tells us that they expended considerable energy imparting instruction and instilling doctrine. And let us not forget that the world in which they evangelized was so entirely hostile to their preaching and teaching that every last one of them, save for St. John, was martyred.

This alone undermines the argument in favor of a kerygmatic return to basics as given by Fr. Cantalamessa and others; namely, the contention that “our situation is becoming more and more similar to that of the apostles…”

Finally, we come to perhaps the most important question of all; that relating to the origins of the so-called kerygmatic novelty, and make no mistake about it, a novelty it is.

Like so many other post-conciliar novelties, this too is painted as a fruit of ressourcement; an ancient treasure just recently unearthed.

According to Pope Francis, “We have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the centre of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal.” (cf Evangelii Gaudium 164)

While “rediscovered” seems to imply “antiquity,” the near singular focus on kerygma promoted by our churchmen today is rooted not in Early Church tradition but in recent Protestantism.

Writing in defense of Pope Francis’ kerygmatic obsession in the Wanderer, Catholic historian Philip Trower stated:

The first people to think of making this distinction between kerygma and didache were the Protestant theologian Rudolph [sic] Bultmann and an associate called Dodd for reasons which it is not necessary to go into in this article.

Oh, but it is necessary to explore Bultmann’s reasons for inventing the novelty of kerygmatic primacy; that is, if one is to fully appreciate the danger that it represents.

In his treatise, Kerygma and Myth, Bultmann explained:

The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character … It proclaims in the language of mythology that the last time has now come. “In the fullness of time” God sent forth his Son, a pre-existent divine Being, who appears on earth as a man. (1 Gal. 4:4; Phil. 2:6ff.; 2 Cor. 8:9; John 1:14, etc.) He dies the death of a sinner (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 8:3.) on the cross and makes atonement for the sins of men. (3 Rom. 3:23-26; 4:25; 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:14, 19; John 1:29; 1 John 2:2, etc.) His resurrection marks the beginning of the cosmic catastrophe. Death, the consequence of Adam’s sin, is abolished, (I Cor. 15:21f; Rom. 5:12ff.) and the demonic forces are deprived of their power. (I Cor. 2:6; Col. 2:15; Rev. 12:7ff., etc.) The risen Christ is exalted to the right hand of God in heaven (Acts 1:6f.; 2:33; Rom. 8:34, etc.) and made “Lord” and “King”. (Phil. 2:9-11; I Cor. 15:25.) He will come again on the clouds of heaven to complete the work of redemption, and the resurrection and judgment of men will follow. (I Cor. 15:23f, 50ff, etc.) Sin, suffering and death will then be finally abolished. (Rev. 21:4, etc.) All this is to happen very soon; indeed, St. Paul thinks that he himself will live to see it.(I Thess. 4:15ff.; I Cor. 15:5lf.; cf. Mark 9:1.)

All who belong to Christ’s Church and are joined to the Lord by Baptism and the Eucharist are certain of resurrection to salvation, (Rom. 5:12ff.; I Cor. 15:21ff., 44b, ff.) unless they forfeit it by unworthy behavior. Christian believers already enjoy the first installment of salvation, for the Spirit (Rom. 8:23, II Cor. 1:22; 5:5.) is at work within them, bearing witness to their adoption as sons of God, (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6.) and guaranteeing their final resurrection. (Rom. 8:11.).

To all of this, Bultmann rhetorically asks, “Can Christian preaching expect modern man to accept the mythical view of the world as true?”

His answer:

To do so would be both senseless and impossible. It would be senseless, because there is nothing specifically Christian in the mythical view of the world as such. It is simply the cosmology of a pre-scientific age. Again, it would be impossible, because no man can adopt a view of the world by his own volition — it is already determined for him by his place in history. (ibid.)

For Bultmann, the solution is to engage in a kerygma that focuses on “the proclamation of the decisive act of God in Christ;” the truth of which modern man is “capable of verifying in [his] own experience at whatever period [he] happens to live.” (ibid.)

There’s no need for an authoritative teaching Church in this scenario; man, on his own, can verify what is true and what is not simply by experience (a very close cousin to emotion). This is, of course, a thoroughly Protestant idea.

He continued:

Our task is to produce an existentialist interpretation of the dualistic mythology of the New Testament … When, for instance, we read of demonic powers ruling the world and holding mankind in bondage, does the understanding of human existence which underlies such language offer a solution to the riddle of human life which will be acceptable even to the non-mythological mind of today? (ibid.)

According to the kerygmatic paradigm, such is only possible if our preaching is ordered toward “expressing God’s saving love which precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part” (Evangelii Gaudium 165); inviting the religious experience while deliberately avoiding the didasko that imparts instruction, instills doctrine, and forms mankind according to the duties incumbent upon those who would wish to live as children of God.

So, how did this Protestant novelty make its way into Catholic circles?

One will hardly be surprised to discovere the answer: the Jesuits.

Protestants such as Barth and Bultmann, followed in part by Catholics such as Jungmann and Lakner, identified revelation, very closely with the kerygma – that is to say, with the proclamation of God’s mighty deeds in Jesus Christ. This kerygmatic theology had a strongly existential quality because it saw the kerygma as intimately related to human experience to the demands of Christian living. (Robert Imperato, Christian Footings, pg. 110, University Press 2009)

Fr. Josef Jungmann, S.J., a contemporary of Bultmann, was mentor to one Fr. Johanes Hofinger, S.J.

According to a biography written by Dr. Mark Markuly, currently the Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University:

Hofinger was part of a group of European theologians who established the intellectual foundation for the Second Vatican Council. The names of Karl Rahner, Hans Kung, Henri de Lubac or Yves Congar are more known in theological circles, but Johannes Hofinger was also a powerful force in the ecclesial renewal. He was noted for stressing a religious education philosophy that sought to re-claim the root or core message of Christianity, distilling the Catholic tradition down to the existential dimensions of greatest significance for living the faith. Following and developing the thought of his mentor Josef Jungmann, S.J., Hofinger referred to this approach as a re-claiming of the “kerygma” of the early church, the elemental message of God’s love and gift of salvation provided in the life and death of Jesus Christ.

The influence of the heretic Bultmann, and fellow Jesuits Hoflinger and Jungmann, is entirely evident in the current pontificate. Like the conciliar revolution in general, Pope Francis is taking their kerygmatic novelty to its logical, and decidedly destructive, conclusion; religious indifferentism, anthropocentrism, and all out hostility for Christian doctrine.

If for little else, we might be grateful for the fact that Pope Francis, inadvertently or not, is laying bare the extent of the current ecclesial crisis and the novelties and falsehoods that are contributing to it like none who has gone before him.

Let us hope and pray that more and more of our brothers and sisters in Christ will, by the grace of God, have eyes to see it for themselves.

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