The last 10 to 15 years has seen an increase in the desire of the laity to know what we believe about our faith. In the past, Catholics really relied on the Priests to answer questions that involved anything other than the minimal understanding of the faith. It’s true that much of this still occurs, but a lot of progress has been made in this area. Stuff you all know I’m sure.
Items are in many ways “shaped” by the environment they exist in. Whether a tree, a duck, a rock, or an idea; outside conditions in some ways effect the characteristics which become more fully developed. A sapling that is planted next to a mature tree will not grow straight, but will bend in a direction away from the larger tree and toward the available sunlight. The tree will not invest as much energy in developing the side of it that sits in the shadow of the larger tree, but will put all the more energy into the side that is hit by the sun. Based on its environment, a part of itself has been given less attention while another has been given more.
In the last 500 years, the greatest environmental challenge the Catholic Church has faced has been from Protestants. We are now pretty familiar with their arguments and have a good idea of where to find most of the answers. Questions on items such as the Pope, Mary, the Eucharist, Purgatory, etc. which would have had us scrambling for cover are now much less frightening. But these questions are only “big” questions in a Christian environment. In an environment that assumes God exists, Jesus is his Son, and by his death salvation has been made possible. But is our environment changing?
As atheism, agnosticism, and Islam gain momentum in the world, the questions and challenges faced by the Church will change. Aspects of our faith we have taken for granted will now be challenged by a world that refuses to. Having answers to questions on matters where Catholicism and Protestantism is and will continue to be important, but so will be questions like how do we know God exists, how can three persons be one God, and how could Jesus be both fully man and fully God. A world where we cannot assume that Jesus is God, or even that God exists is a very different world than most of us are used to.
There’s a difference between knowing facts, like where a certain Catholic teaching can be found in the Bible, and understanding concepts behind those teachings. The Catholic Church has been blessed with a history full of intellectual and spiritual giants that many of us today are never exposed to. Let’s face it, for many reading page after page on the two natures of Jesus may not be appealing unless they feel the need to move beyond just belief. As the world around us changes, the need to move beyond belief does too.
So while the environment in which Christianity exists changes, it isn't uncharted territory. We can be encouraged that our faith in the first century was planted in a completely non-Christian environment and even against all odds thrived. And we can also be confident in the guidance of the Holy Spirit through the wisdom of our leaders. After all, the Pope's first encyclical and book were not aimed at issues that separate Protestant and Catholic (for example the nature of Baptism or man's justification), but at the very nature of God the Father (God is Love) and God the Son (Jesus of Nazareth).