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Savvy and the preaching of the Gospel

30 November, -0001

In a thought-provoking booklet, Desmond Fennell responds to Vincent Twomey’s book on Irish Catholicism.

Published by Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie.



  • Reflecting the situation
  • Clarifying the situation
  • Towards a grasp of the present situation
  • The change of rules
  • Christians and the change of rules
  • Fundamentalist liberalism in Ireland
  • The mass media
  • Democracy and pluralism
  • Modernity and the Irish Church
  • Irish exceptionalism
  • The language environment
  • The paedophilia scandals


    In The End of Irish Catholicism? Vincent Twomey outlines a renewal of the Catholic Church in Ireland based on faith, theology, liturgy, celebration and administrative restructuring. In this booklet Desmond Fennell adds, as another necessary ingredient, canny knowledge of how things are today in the secular world, and the reflection of such knowledge in the Church’s activity. Culd the language of Catholic preaching, by being more alert to the world around it, become more clearly relevant – seem more in touch?

    Because the Irish, unlike most European nations, lack a civil ethic, independent of religious morality, the effective anti-catholic propaganda of recent decades has produced a state of social alienation and instability. The Catholic Church has a central role to play in restoring sense where life seems senseless, relieving stressed and desperate souls, and raising sad hearts to joy.

    Vincent Twomey’s The End of Irish Catholicism? has examined the present crisis of the Catholic Church in Ireland and sketched a programme of renewal. I enthusiastically endorse this programme, centred on faith, theology, liturgy, celebration in all its forms, and administrative restructuring. I missed sufficient emphasis on intellectual mastery and awareness of the secular situation and the use of this to make the preaching of the Gospel more effective. I want to argue for equal emphasis on this aspect of the Church’s activity.

    Broadly understood, the preaching of the Gospel can be engaged in by all Christians and take a great variety of forms. In these pages, while I have all those forms in the back of my mind, I am thinking mainly of the delivery of the Gospel by means of words and other symbols. This embraces speaking from the altar, doing a radio interview, teaching a religion class, taking part in a talk-show, writing books, newspaper articles or pastoral letters, running web-sites or radio or television stations, and publishing books, videos, cds, magazines or newspapers.

    In whatever form, and even when done in love of God and one’s neighbour, preaching the Gospel is not in itself a virtuous activity, but an attempt to be that. It is an effort to realise a good, namely, effective communication of the Gospel. And as with all efforts at realising goodness, it depends for its success on knowledge of the environmental reality in which it occurs. Traditionally, we have called the possession and employment of such knowledge ‘prudence’.

    In English the meaning of this word which names the first of the cardinal virtues -the one without which no other virtue can be exercised -has decayed. We rediscover its true meaning only in its dictionary definitions and their etymologies; for example, discretion and its derivation from Latin words for sifting and discernment; or even better, circumspection and its transparent meaning of ‘noting the environment, taking everything into account’. The German for prudence, Klugheit, comes nearer to retaining the original vigour of the word. It derives from the adjective klug, which my German dictionary renders as, among other things, ‘astute, alert, sagacious, cunning, shrewd, clear-sighted, discerning, wise’.

    It is with Klugheit in mind that the German philosopher Josef Pieper writes:

    The pre-eminence of prudence means that realisation of the good [say, ‘communication of the Gospel’] presupposes knowledge of reality. He alone can do good who knows what things are like and what their situation is. The pre-eminence of prudence means that so-called ‘good intention’ and so-called ‘meaning well’ by no means suffice. Realisation of the good presupposes that our actions are appropriate to the real situation, that is, to the concrete realities which form the ‘environment’ of a concrete human action; and that we therefore take this concrete reality seriously, with clear-eyed objectivity.

    ‘Savvy’ seems an adequate rendering of the virtue that Pieper is talking about. It expresses more or less what Christ had in mind when he commanded his disciples to be ‘wise as serpents’ in whatever they would do or say. He was telling them not to be ‘clueless’, but to be very much ‘clued in’.

    Reflecting the situation

    Clarifying the situation

    As occurs with the mere reflection of the shared situation in the evangeliser’s discourse, so, too, with this clarification of it: it furthers acceptance of the Gospel in either of two ways. When the recipients are well-disposed, it evokes gratitude towards the evangeliser as for a gift received, and consequently a greater trustful openness to his message’s Gospel core. When the recipients are ill-disposed, it disconcerts them by its perceptible but unwelcome truth, reduces their public standing (if they have such) as definers of the situation, and consequently lessens their ability to offer confident opposition to the Church’s teaching and to build support for this. (Even a superficial perusal of the Gospels shows that this is a very Christ-like manner of dealing with opponents of the Good News.)

    Towards a grasp of the present situation

    (1) I am writing about the necessary use of such knowledge for the effective preaching of the Gospel in Ireland. But in view of the fact that the Irish Church is a large corporate entity engaged in many activities, such knowledge is obviously also essential for its successful management, including its determination of strategies and its allocation of resources.

    The drift of my argument must by now be apparent. I believe that, in recovering from its present crisis, the Irish Catholic Church collectively – but in particular its professional evangelisers, and most particularly its top leadership – need to have and use profound and exact knowledge of the contemporary secular situation and of the Church’s place in it.(1) The relevant situation embraces the Western world from San Francisco and Vancouver to Stockholm, Warsaw and Palermo. It obtains, in a particular, Irish form, throughout our island. For my part, greatly daring, and as an appetiser to what an ‘intellectually profound and exact awareness’ might be, I continue with a meditation on the situation I have just delimited.Beyond this basic role which savvy plays in all effective evangelisation, there is a further role it can play if, rather than being merely instinctive and approximate, it is intellectually profound and exact. When the savvy of the evangelisers has this quality, their cannily chosen language not only reflects the secular situation; it also clarifies it – and does so to a much greater degree than the politically conditioned explanatory discourse that the situation exudes. Their profound and exact savvy performs this function even when, because of limited time or the limited cognitive interest of an audience, they revealonly, so to speak, the foreground of what they know. Always, from the profound and precise background of their knowledge, flows an informed understanding of the immediate and particular. And this, regardless of time available or of audience, enables them to supply coherence to the disjointed perceptions of most people, of whatever educational background, regarding the way things are.In all effective evangelisation, whether carried out by ordinary Christians or by professional evangelisers, savvy, meaning ‘alert knowledge of how things are and the use of this in action’, plays a basic role. It enables the evangeliser, who must use words and other symbols, to choose such as reflect the secular situation, general and particular, that is shared by him with the recipients of his message. This reflection by him of the lived-in situation, shared and more or less known by his recipients, furthers acceptance of the Gospel in either of two ways. When the recipients are well-disposed, it evokes trust in the evangeliser, and consequently openness to his message’s Gospel core. When the recipients are ill-disposed, it evokes respect for the evangeliser, and a consequent weakening of the preconceived intention to reject what he is saying and to urge others to do so.

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