Archive | January, 2013

Catholicism “Lite”: Less Fulfilling?

31 Jan

Catholic liteBack in the 1990s, when I was the editor of Lay Witness magazine, we were creating an ad for the (then) new Catechism of the Catholic Church, opposing it to a fictitious “Catechism ‘Lite.’” You know what I’m talking about: only half the commandments of the regular Catechism, and one-third the doctrines.

Over the past couple decades we’ve seen countless variations of this humorous (and, to our sorrow, often accurate) description of an approach to Catholic faith and life that is watered down, minimalistic, and largely uninspiring. In fact, we might say “Catechism lite” or “Catholicism lite” and not have to complete the thought. One goal of the “Year of Faith” is that all of us would embrace the fullness of the faith with renewed zeal and joy.

At the same time, I’ve found that while most practicing Catholics would take the “Catechism” over “Catechism lite” in theory, the real-life situation can seem unduly complicated. As I discussed earlier this week, those who want to believe, celebrate, and live the Catholic faith in its fullness are often labelled, sometimes pejoratively, as “conservatives” and not simply as “Catholics.”

I realize this is a game played largely by dissident Catholics who are trying to legitimize their own brand of Catholicism or political agenda. Yet not only do political terms like “conservative” and ”liberal” not fit in Church discussions (really they’re only alienating stereotypes), but there′s something else: Calling the full embrace of the Catholic faith “conservative” makes it seem as though it’s only one of a spectrum of equally acceptable ways of being Catholic.

In fact, it suggests that the goal would be somewhere between the extremes of “conservative” and “liberal.” Let’s split the difference and go with eight of the ten commandments (I think many would suggest the 6th and 9th for exclusion!) and three-fourths of the doctrines. For some, that may not be “Catholic lite,” but surely Catholic “enough.” Continue reading

Musings of an Accidental Conservative

29 Jan

liberal and conservativeI have long disliked the label “conservative.” I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it per se, but I’m not a political ideologue. I am a Catholic who believes what the Church teaches, and for that reason alone I’m often called a “conservative” these days.

After reading Bishop Finn’s recent post in which he courageously affirms that the National Catholic Reporter, long considered a leading voice of “liberal Catholicism,” should not be considered a “Catholic publication,” I figured the time was ripe to give my top ten list of reasons why “liberal” and “conservative” are not useful terms when it comes to Catholic beliefs. These are in no particular order:

(1) Term Limits

“Conservative” and “liberal” are already entrenched as political terms with their own specific meaning. The terms are necessarily adversarial and divisive when used in the context of the Church, since they imply a struggle for supremacy between two more/less equally legitimate camps. With St. Paul we might ask, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). When we try to use two emotionally charged terms from one context and apply them in a completely different context, of course there will be misunderstanding exacerbated by strong emotional responses.

(2) Not in Catholic Lexicon

Okay, when we hear the terms “conservative” and “liberal” we think of political terms. But let’s go further: they are not Catholic terms in a strict sense. I’ve been though all 2,865 paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church many times, and I don’t recall ever seeing those terms used. Instead, the Catholic Church has its own vocabulary to describe one′s relationship to the Church. Shouldn’t we use that instead? The problem of course is that many consider themselves Americans first, and Christians or Catholics second, so they let American culture define the rules of engagement even within the Church. Perhaps during this Year of Faith we can strive to recover a more fully Catholic worldview.

(3) Radio, Radio (second Elvis Costello allusion this month, but accidents happen)

We tend to think of “liberal” and conservative” as two extremes on a continuum, sort of like a radio dial. The stations at the left side of the AM dial (in the 500s or 600s, say) would be “liberal” and the stations at the far right (1500s and 1600s) would be “conservative.” Both have a place on the radio dial, though people might gravitate toward the numbers in the middle away from the two extremes, where most of the more popular stations tend to be located.

Similarly, we often hear of Catholics who are 100% with the Church described as “conservative” or even “ultraconservative,” while those who dissent from the Church on hot-button moral issues are called “moderate.” Maybe a Catholic who is truly a Catholic is considered a “conservative” by political pundits, but all Catholics must be “conservative” when it comes to upholding Christian moral teaching in the public square. What are we saying, that being “too Catholic” or “too religious” is one extreme, and being hostile to God, religion, and all public morals is the other extreme, such that the desirable middle ground is to be “sorta Catholic” or “mildly dissident”? Yet I’ve personally run into that sort of thinking many times in the Church.

(4) Conversion

Nobody should go around calling people heretics or apostates. Yet we go way too far in the other direction. We’re not willing to speak hard truths with charity. We’re not willing to say that any position that conflicts with established Catholic teaching on faith and morals is heresy. Instead, we call it “liberal,” which is then taken as a legitimate, perhaps even chic, way of being in the Church. While most people don’t want to consider themselves heretics, many consider the “liberal” tag a badge of honor. My point here is that those who part ways with the Church should be called back into full communion. We’re less inclined to do so when we regularly use euphemisms to conceal the need for repentance and conversion. Let’s face it: When we tolerate dissent and heresy rather than call to conversion, we are not truly loving our brothers and sisters in Christ.

(5) Good Liberal vs. Bad Liberal

Of course part of the problem is that the terms themselves are vague and ambiguous, especially given the frequent blending of their political and ecclesial ramifications. “Liberalism” in the sense of favoring the social legitimization of evils such as abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage is an abomination for Catholics. “Liberalism” in the sense of favoring big government programs may be problematic for Catholics at times, such as when the principle of subsidiarity is violated, but it’s not quite as cut and dried (but close). And then there’s “liberalism” in the sense of the Church’s staunch defense of human dignity and social justice, which generally speaking is a very good thing (when the concept isn’t hijacked). But in the Church, “liberal” typically equates with “dissident” or ”heterodox,” which is clearly not a good thing, yet is given cover because of its legitimacy in some political contexts.

(6) Good Conservative vs. Bad Conservative

The Church has been entrusted the “deposit of faith” (cf. 1 Tim. 6:20), which she protects and “conserves.” She holds fast to Tradition (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15), and she’ll prevail against the ”powers of death” (cf. Mt. 16:18). So while the Church is a living organism that grows and adapts to new situations, there is no doubt a pervasive “conservative” dimension to her essential constitution. Since being a faithful, practicing, “normative” Catholic is also considered being “conservative” in a political sense, we must resist the temptation to “default” our way into uncritically accepting all aspects of political conservativism, even as we generally embrace the conservatives’ approach to many issues, especially what are generally called “social issues.”

(7) This Ain’t a Democracy

It should go without saying that the Church is not a democracy. Yet the more we politicize the Church, the more weight we give to the assumption on the part of many that, in the words of the dissident “Voice of the Faithful” organization from a decade ago, we can “keep the faith, change the Church.” If we get enough people to show up at a town hall meeting or to sign some petition, would the Church change her fundamental structure or reverse her moral teachings? Of course not! So why use political terms that suggest with proper maneuvering we might be able to elect a new Pope or push through an agenda that’s fundamentally at odds with the Catholic faith?

(8) Divine Element

Because of the political, democratic connotations of “liberal” and “conservative,” we tend to downplay the fact that Christianity is about following Christ. It’s His Church, and it’s one (and holy, Catholic, and apostolic). In politics, we’re trying to get others to side with us, or at least to vote for our candidate or issue. In the Church, it’s the other way around. It’s about God’s grace changing us, persuading us to follow Him more completely and unreservedly.

(9) Stop Thinking

Obviously in the political realm we sometimes have to speak on a macro level, and so blocs of people who tend to vote a particular way are labeled as such. Yet I think we should resist labeling and resist being labeled as much as possible in the Church. It’s an excuse to stop thinking, or even to write off somebody without really knowing them. When someone is identified as a “liberal” Catholic by a “conservative” Catholic, or vice versa, then we’re institutionalizing division and dissent within the Church, and wounding her witness to the world.

(10) Communion, not Class Struggle

The key term in understanding the Catholic Church is “communion,” as through God’s grace centuries of strife and division are overcome in the person of Christ, in whom we truly become brothers and sisters. In our largely secular society, many people consider themselves “Catholic” but really don’t fully identify with or participate in the life of the Church. Then there are others who stay in the Church to reform her in their own image. Rather than see in all this chaos some sort of class struggle between the so-called “liberals” and “conservatives,” we should perceive a call to foster both the visible and invisible bonds of unity within the Church (see Catechism, no. 815; there is also a wonderful discussion in Pope John Paul II”s encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, nos. 35 and following).

In other words, we must be better Catholics and build better Catholics. Without the conviction of faith, then it’s only about tactics.

Sacred Banquet

28 Jan

st_thomas_aquinasO Sacred Banquet,
in which Christ is received,
the memory of His Passion is recalled,
the soul is filled with grace,
and the pledge of future glory is given to us.

–St. Thomas Aquinas

For more on this beautiful antiphon by the Angelic Doctor, click here.

St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!

Undivided Heart

25 Jan

religious sistersThe next document in our series on the documents of Vatican II is the 1965 Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis). A few preliminary thoughts on this document:

(1) One blogger has noted that the document could really have benefited from having headings, and happily did the work for us. If you choose to read this document yourself during the “Year of Faith,” you might want to use these headings to help keep the “big picture” in mind.

(2) Some readers may not be disposed to reading this document, because they assume, based on the precipitous decline of religious life in the years immediately following Vatican II, that Vatican II must not have said anything worthwhile on the subject. This decline in religious vocations had several causes, but Perfectae Caritatis isn’t one of them. Some religious communities have struggled not only in keeping their numbers up, but even more importantly, in remaining faithful to their religious charism and to the Church. We see some of this playing out in the recent controversy involving some aging members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. However, the communities that have embraced the Church’s teaching in Perfectae Caritatis and Pope John Paul II’s follow-up document Vita Consecrata (“Consecrated Life”) tend to be the ones that are thriving in our time. Click here for one such example.

(3) In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) we have an overview of the various states in life in the Church. In some of these subsequent documents, specific members of the Church (e.g., laity, priests, bishops, etc.) are addressed. Perfectae Caritatis takes the broad teaching of Lumen Gentium and then focuses more specifically on consecrated life. This approach models for us the importance of viewing religious vocations from within the larger context of the Church.

I especially invite readers to consider this passage from section 12 of Perfectae Caritatis:

“The chastity ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt. 19:12) which religious profess should be counted an outstanding gift of grace. It frees the heart of man in a unique fashion (cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-35) so that it may be more inflamed with love for God and for all men. Thus it not only symbolizes in a singular way the heavenly goods but also the most suitable means by which religious dedicate themselves with undivided heart to the service of God and the works of the apostolate. In this way they recall to the minds of all the faithful that wondrous marriage decreed by God and which is to be fully revealed in the future age in which the Church takes Christ as its only spouse.”

This idea of consecrated persons having an “undivided heart” is further amplified in two passages from Vita Consecrata, the 1995 apostolic exhortation of Pope John Paul II that reflects upon Vatican II’s teaching on consecrated life. The Holy Father magnificently sets forth the beauty and depth of loving God with an undivided heart:

First, from section 1:

“In every age there have been men and women who, obedient to the Father’s call and to the prompting of the Spirit, have chosen this special way of following Christ, in order to devote themselves to him with an ‘undivided’ heart (cf. 1 Cor. 7:34). Like the Apostles, they too have left everything behind in order to be with Christ and to put themselves, as he did, at the service of God and their brothers and sisters. In this way, through the many charisms of spiritual and apostolic life bestowed on them by the Holy Spirit, they have helped to make the mystery and mission of the Church shine forth, and in doing so have contributed to the renewal of society.”

Later, from section 21:

“The chastity of celibates and virgins, as a manifestation of dedication to God with an undivided heart (cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-34), is a reflection of the infinite love which links the three Divine Persons in the mysterious depths of the life of the Trinity, the love to which the Incarnate Word bears witness even to the point of giving his life, the love ‘poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 5:5), which evokes a response of total love for God and the brethren.”

Praise God for the call to love and serve Him with an undivided heart! May many young men and women generously respond to this unique call!

For more information on this subject, I strongly recommend the Institute on Religious Life.

Introducing the Devout Life

24 Jan

St. Francis de SalesToday the Church celebrates the feast of St. Francis de Sales, a 17th-century bishop and doctor of the Church. St. Francis de Sales is known as one of the true masters of the spiritual life. Through his spiritual masterpieces, such as Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God, he continues to guide many men and women on the road to holiness.

I especially recommend Ralph Martin’s recent bestseller, The Fulfillment of All Desire, which synthesizes the insights of St. Francis de Sales and other spiritual giants into a single volume for contemporary readers.

In the Office of Readings for today, we are given the following excerpt from Introduction to the Devout Life, which exhorts all of us to strive for sanctity in our daily lives:

“When God the Creator made all things, he commanded the plants to bring forth fruit each according to its own kind; he has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character, his station and his calling.

“I say that devotion must be practiced in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman. But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular. Continue reading

Living Vicariously

17 Jan

ServantsoftheGospelThe next document in our series on the documents of the Second Vatican Council is the 1965 Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church (Christus Dominus).

I really appreciate Vatican II’s specifically on the individual bishop. Some Catholics rightly put great emphasis on the Pope’s authority, but then downplay the role of the local bishop. Others affirm the authority of the bishop, but only inasmuch as he is part of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). In the first view, the bishop is merely the minion of the Pope. In the second view, the bishop is most essentially our representative with the national body. Neither view gives sufficient respect to the authority of the bishop himself.

Against both of these caricatures, Vatican II stresses the role of the individual bishop. While affirming the specific role of the Pope as pastor of the universal Church, Christus Dominus provides that bishops “having been appointed by the Holy Spirit, are successors of the Apostles as pastors of souls. Together with the supreme pontiff and under his authority they are sent to continue throughout the ages the work of Christ, the eternal pastor. Christ gave the Apostles and their successors the command and the power to teach all nations, to hallow men in the truth, and to feed them. Bishops, therefore, have been made true and authentic teachers of the faith, pontiffs, and pastors through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to them” (no. 2, footnotes omitted).

We’re all accustomed to referring to the Pope as the Vicar of Christ. After all, it was Peter who received the keys (cf. Mt. 16:18-19), and as Catholics we recognize the Pope’s role as Christ’s chosen representative to rule and guide the universal Church until the end of time.

But one teaching that sometimes gets overlooked is that the bishops are not simply vicars of the Pope, but vicars of Christ Himself in the particular Church (i.e., diocese) assigned to them. They legitimately exercise their role only in communion with the Pope, but nonetheless they personally exercise their office in the name of Christ as a successor of the apostles. The bishop is neither a mere representative of the Pope nor does he legitimately exercise authority apart from the Pope (see Catechism, nos. 880-96, especially 894-95).

Some may be surprised to know that a number of Popes have even referred to Christian parents as vicars of Christ in the home. For example, Pope Pius XI, in his 1929 encylical Divini Illius Magistri, wrote: “Parents . . . should be careful to make right use of the authority given them by God, whose vicars in a true sense they are.” Of course this truth connects well with Vatican II’s emphasis on the family as the “domestic Church” or “Church in miniature.” Continue reading

Working for Sunday

15 Jan

st joseph the workerA friend recently asked me, “Isn’t human work the result of the fall? How should Catholics view the subject of work?” Here’s how I responded:

In the beginning, God fashioned man in His image and likeness and called him to “cultivate and care for” (Gen. 1:15) the land that was given him. Therefore, work was part of human life before the fall, and thus it is not in itself a punishment or curse. Since the fall, work has become burdensome (see Gen. 3:17-19), but it has also been redeemed by Christ.

The life and preaching of Christ is instructive. For example, we know that He spent most of His years tending to the carpentry trade that St. Joseph taught Him. Once His public ministry began, He described His mission as involving work: “My Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn. 5:17), and He often likened His disciples to laborers for His harvest (e.g., Mt. 9:37-38).

He taught us to be diligent in our work, but also not to be enslaved by it. We must not let work or other worldly concerns consume us with anxiety, but rather we must see our work as a way of honoring the Father.

Work is a duty. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (no. 264) teaches: “No Christian, in light of the fact that he belongs to a united and fraternal community, should feel that he has the right not to work and to live at the expense of others (cf. 2 Thes 3:6-12).” Work enables us to participate in the ongoing work of creation as collaborators with God. In doing so, we become who we were created to be, we honor God through our use of the gifts and talents He gave us, we provide support for ourselves and our family, and we help build up the human community. Continue reading

Winning Souls, Not Arguments

10 Jan

ecumenismAfter our Christmas hiatus, we continue this series on the documents of Vatican II with some reflections on the 1964 Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio, or “Restoration of Unity”).

Ecumenism, or the building of unity among Christians, was one of the pastoral priorities of Vatican II. It’s not surprising, then, that an entire conciliar document would be devoted to this topic. The emphasis on ecumenism is brought home in the opening paragraph of the Decree on Ecumenism:

“The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided (1 Cor. 1:13). Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”

Since Vatican II, Catholics at all levels have grown in our ecumenical sensibilities. As Blessed John Paul II noted in his 1995 encyclical on the subject (Ut Unum Sint, or “That They May Be One”), ecumenism “is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the Church’s traditional activity,” but rather “an organic part of her life and work” that “must pervade all that she is and does” (Ut Unum Sint, no. 20).

I think most Catholics instinctively “get it,” but it doesn’t always play out very well in our encounters with non-Catholic Christians. There are a couple reasons for this.

First, in my opinion, we tend to treat ecumenism and apologetics (the art of explaining and defending the reasonableness of our faith) as mutually exclusive or even opposing disciplines. I’m sure we’ve encountered an approach to ecumenism that so emphasized principles such as “unity,” “charity,” and “communion” that real doctrinal differences were overlooked—either out of ignorance or to avoid perceived conflict.

We’ve also encountered an approach to apologetics that promoted doctrinal correctness in a harsh or unattractive way—hardly a recipe for “Christian unity.”

The problem is that we sometimes put too much emphasis on the argument rather than the person. When that occurs, apologetics is reduced to winning arguments and ecumenism is wrongly viewed as avoiding or even conceding arguments. Rather, the goal must always be to lead others in truth and charity into full communion in the Catholic Church, the Family of God.

Truth (apologetics) and charity (ecumenism) are opposite sides of the same coin!

Further, in his encyclical on ecumenism, Blessed John Paul II rejected doctrinal compromise as incompatible with fidelity to the Gospel. So clearly apologetics has its place, and its renewal in recent years has had a positive influence on the Church. Apologetics done appropriately advances authentic Catholic unity by (a) removing unnecessary stumbling blocks, (b) clarifying misconceptions, and (c) demonstrating the reasonableness and consistency of Church teaching (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15).

When it comes to both ecumenism and apologetics, we also tend to put too much emphasis on our own efforts. In ecumenical discussions, we implicitly think, “if only I’m nice enough, tolerant enough, or open-minded enough.” Meanwhile, in apologetic discussions, we implicitly think, “if only I’m smart enough, prepared enough, or convincing enough.”

The fact of the matter is that Christian unity, like faith itself, is mainly a matter of grace. For that reason, I want to leave readers with the following excerpts from the Decree on Ecumenism which stress our own personal renewal in Christ as the indispensable key to promoting Christian unity:

“There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds (cf. Eph. 4:24), from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way. We should therefore pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble, gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity towards them. . . .

“All the faithful should remember that the more effort they make to live holier lives according to the Gospel, the better will they further Christian unity and put it into practice. For the closer their union with the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, the more deeply and easily will they be able to grow in mutual brotherly love.

“This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name, ‘spiritual ecumenism’ (nos. 7-8).”

We Believe in Love

9 Jan

St. John and JesusThe first reading at Mass today (and any day) is not taken from the Gospel, but it sure is good news! Below is the text, with verses that I find especially inspiring highlighted:

Beloved, if God so loved us,
we also must love one another.
No one has ever seen God.
Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us,
and his love is brought to perfection in us.

This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us,
that he has given us of his Spirit.
Moreover, we have seen and testify
that the Father sent his Son as savior of the world.
Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God,
God remains in him and he in God.
We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us.

God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.
In this is love brought to perfection among us,
that we have confidence on the day of judgment
because as he is, so are we in this world.
There is no fear in love,
but perfect love drives out fear
because fear has to do with punishment,
and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. (1 John 4:11-18)

Putting on Heirs

7 Jan

St. RaymondToday is the feast of St. Raymond of Penyafort. As readers will recall, I have an adopted son named Raymond, and having this great Dominican canonist as a patron saint played into our name selection. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I (or should I say, my son) was getting a Dominican “twofer,” as there is another great Dominican Raymond: Blessed Raymond of Capua, the spiritual advisor of St. Catherine of Siena. Of course, only a few years after Raymond’s birth, his sister Mary Kate became Sr. Evangeline, a Dominican sister.

Given Raymond’s special feast day, I thought I would share with our readers some further reflections on adoption and what it teaches us about God.

Adoption in the human family is often misunderstood today. Even more so is our adoption into the family of God, the Church.

Being God’s children by adoption doesn’t mean that we’re second-class citizens in the kingdom of God, as though God couldn’t have had “children of His own.” And it’s not some sort of legal fiction, as though He simply lets us think we’re His children to help our self-esteem.

Rather, we’re confronted with the controversial passage that through Baptism we truly become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). Our adoption in Christ means that through grace we are able to participate in the very life of God.

If we were gods in our own right, we wouldn’t need to be adopted, just as if my adopted son Raymond were by birth a Suprenant, we wouldn’t have had to bother with all the bureaucratic red tape that goes with adoption in the human family. And if God were distant and uninvolved with us, we would not truly be His children. Continue reading