Thursday, July 12, 2007

Why St. Francis Was Right

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with one of the most pithy and often quoted saying on effective evangelization, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” This line is most likely the great saint’s reference to the Apostle John’s appeal in 1 John 3:17, “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” In a time where book after book is written laying out elaborate and well thought-out apologetic defenses on the faith, these two little gems of advice seem to shine with a beautifully simple light. While there certainly is a place for more scholarly approaches to evangelization, many times the most effective method of spreading the Gospel is through deed and not word.

But why is this true?

I recently ran across a phrase I last remember hearing in a psych class in college. The phrase is Cognitive Dissonance and I think it sheds light on why St. Francis’ advice works so well. Here is a definition I found on Wikipedia (hey, Fr. B made a Wikipedia reference in the bulletin the other day so that makes it a legitimate source):

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term which describes the uncomfortable tension that may result from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one's beliefs. More precisely, it is the perception of incompatibility between two cognitions, where "cognition" is defined as any element of knowledge, including attitude, emotion, belief, or behavior. The theory of cognitive dissonance states that contradicting cognitions serve as a driving force that compels the mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, so as to reduce the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions. Experiments have attempted to quantify this hypothetical drive. Some of these examined how beliefs often change to match behavior when beliefs and behavior are in conflict.
One of the most common hurdles we as Catholics have to scale when it comes to evangelizing Protestants is the fact that what we believe is usually not what they think we believe. For example, I have heard many people make a claim to the effect that Catholics think it’s ok to go to Mass on Sunday and then live like Hell Monday through Saturday. Others make the claim that Catholics never read the Bible, or that they, lacking any sort of saving faith in Christ, try to work their way to heaven. And the list goes on and on. They sound like ridiculous claims to you and I, but many people are certain they are true.

Even with good arguments on our side, many refuse to listen because they are convinced that whatever we have to say is wrong – even before we say it. No amount of arguing can persuade them otherwise. So how do we break through this? How do we reach past these prejudices and begin to evangelize the person who holds them? This can be though, especially if they are a friend, spouse, child, or another family member, but it is possible (Scott Hahn talks about successfully evangelizing his wife Kimberly this way in his book Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace).

This is where St. Francis and cognitive dissonance comes in. When we live our Catholic faith, and I mean really live it day in and day out, the people who hold these false views of what they believe Catholicism is will eventually notice that what they believe and what they see aren’t matching up. A “tension” will grow due to the conflict between what they think Catholics believe, and what they see you doing.

As the definition above states: “The theory of cognitive dissonance states that contradicting cognitions serve as a driving force that compels the mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs …” While it may take some time, maybe a lot of time, a person who sees a Catholic regularly reading the Bible will not be able to maintain a belief that Catholics don’t read the Bible. Or a person who sees a Catholic family praying together and putting their faith firmly into action will have a tough time justifying the idea that Catholics put little value in either.

So we should all remember that living our faith is just as important as learning our faith. Whether we like it or not, our actions have a better chance of challenging anti-Catholic attitudes than solid arguments do. Nothing speaks louder, with fewer words, than a faith well lived. Like St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

St. Francis of Assisi … Pray for us!


Deogratias said...

I know very little about psychology, (thanks for the lesson) but I understand something about the consumer culture we live in.
The people I work with don't want to be pounded over the head with dogma, but they are very interested in joy. Not the warm fuzzies, but true joy that can come only from living a truly Catholic life. They see it, and they want some. The culture can be used to our advantage to evangelize, if we are willing to walk to the narrow gate. May God be with us on this journey, and Saint Francis, pray for us!

Laura The Crazy Mama said...

I agree (surprise surprise) that your actions do speak so much louder than actual words (i.e. I can preach all I want, but it's how I raise my family and act toward others that show my love for God and my faith). But on the flip side of that, if a person shuts out any analysis your actions because of how they perceive you (how you look) then this whole theory is shot. I don't intend to change my look to any degree but I believe that we all need to have a certain amount of open-ness (which comes with social maturity...later for some than others!) in regard to how we view people in order to find their true natures and help each other understand where we are all coming from and where we all need to get to!