Friday, December 21, 2007

The Gift of Faith


Often in our prayers of thanksgiving, we offer to God our gratitude for the gift of faith. During this Christmas season, many of us might refer to our faith as "the greatest gift of all."

While faith is a gift from God, it is often modeled for us by others. My parents never missed Mass, unless they were sick. I remember driving for an hour with them to church one Sunday when we were vacationing in Arkansas (Catholic churches weren't all that common). My mom would pray often before starting the car.

I prayed fervently at times when she was driving.

I'll never forget getting up one night to get a drink of water when I was about seven years old and glimpsing my dad on his knees at the foot of my parents' bed as he said his night time prayers.

I knew my parents were people of faith not only from their prayer, but from the way they lived.

But I have a question for you, dear readers.

How would you describe your faith? What does this great gift look like in your life? What are its characteristics and qualities? How does it impact your daily life? How would you describe the faith you hope your children have? If you aren't quite living your faith as you'd like, what is your goal? Describe how you'd like your faith to be.

One caveat: if you use the phrase, "practicing Catholic" or "active Catholic," please describe what you mean by that.

I promise to share my own response to those questions in a few days.

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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Revisiting the Spiral of Silence


Sherry wrote a few days ago about the Spiral of Silence, a communications theory postulated by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann over 25 years ago. As Sherry succinctly described it, "Neuman's idea is that most people have an intuitive awareness of the majority sentiment within a group, and most are less likely to speak up when they find themselves in the minority. The silencing effect thus reinforces itself: if a 40% minority does only 20% of the talking, they perceive themselves to be even more outnumbered than they truly are and are thus even less inclined to speak. Hence, the spiral into silence.

Neuman found that individuals avoid speaking out on controversial issues due to an innate fear of social isolation."

I believe part of the point Sherry was making was missed. What is sometimes proposed as a Catholic way of living the faith without talking about it may actually be a response to the clearly secular nature of contemporary American culture. In many popular television shows Christianity is often trivialized (think "South Park"), or Catholics are depicted as ignorant and superstitious (e.g., "Dogma"). That is part of the "opinion expressed as dominant by the media." I won't even go into the sound-byte treatment of magisterial pronouncements in the secular press. The media in our country fosters a culture of silence among Catholics.

But while poll after poll indicate 95% or more of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, our contemporary misunderstanding of the Jeffersonian idea of the separation of Church and State tends to marginalize religious conversations even more. Stephen L. Carter, a law professor at Yale wrote, "The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion," and advanced the thesis that American law and politics "trivialize" religion by forcing the religiously faithful to subordinate their personal views to a public faith largely devoid of religion. Carter cogently argues that religious beliefs are marginalized in our society and political stances founded on faith treated as invalid. This adds further pressure upon the believer to keep his or her mouth shut.

Contributors at ID are sometimes accused of being "Protestant" or too focused upon talking about faith, rather than living it, or focusing on subjective feelings rather than sacramental reality. I would propose that talking about one's relationship with Jesus, along with participating in the sacramental life of the Church, personal prayer, and performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, are all essential elements of the Church's communio.

Fr. Robert Barron, a priest from the Archdiocese of Chicago who teaches theology at Our Lady of the Lake University, describes communio as being like a rose window in a cathedral, "a wheel of light and color, all of whose elements are focused around a center that is invariably a depiction of Christ…it is a symbol of the well-ordered psyche, the well-ordered city, the well-ordered cosmos…Jesus preaches this communio message when he says, 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and the rest will be given unto you.' In other words, find the center, and the periphery will tend to fall into place around it."

If Christ is the center of our life and the object of our love, it would be unusual for him to not crop up in our conversations from time to time. I talk about the people I love with others. I am terrible at keeping really good news I've received to myself. And if we are indeed living our faith and becoming more and more like him, then "through this wordless witness" we will "stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how [we] live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst?" Pope Paul VI said, "Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one. Here we have an initial act of evangelization." [Evangelii Nuntiandi, 21]

But as the Pope explained, "There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed. The history of the Church, from the discourse of Peter on the morning of Pentecost onwards, has been intermingled and identified with the history of this proclamation." [EN, 22]

St. Paul certainly talked about Jesus, and was filled with a sense of urgency over the importance of that proclamation. "But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring (the) good news!'" Rom 10:14-15

The spiral of silence may explain why we may tend to not talk about our faith. Talk is cheap, but a life lived in such a way that it doesn't make sense unless God exists is bound to generate curiosity - and plenty of opportunities to give the reason behind our behavior.

But the same dynamics that prevent one from speaking against a perceived majority perspective also tend to prevent one from acting in a way perceived as strange – and Christianity is the strangest Way. So it should not be surprising that a recent survey from the Barna Group on Christians in America indicated virtually no difference in worldview and behavior from that of non-Christians.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

"To hunt, to shoot, to entertain" - is that all there is to the lay vocation?

I just discovered Catholic author and blogger Mark Shea's latest article, which is up on the website of InsideCatholic (the successor to Crisis magazine).

It's on the subject of clericalism, which has been much discussed amongst those of us who have struggled with Protestant vs. Catholic concepts of Christian leadership. This is a very charitable and clear-headed consideration of the issue. Here's a taste:

"A few years back, Russell Shaw wrote a terrific book called To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity. It took its title from an amazing remark by a 19th-century English monsignor who loftily declared, 'What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all.'

"John Henry Cardinal Newman disagreed, pointing out that during the Arian crisis, it was the laity who kept the Faith while the majority of bishops vacillated, caved to heresy, or were silent during the 60 years of the crisis. That doesn't mean that the Church operates on the principle vox populi, vox Dei. But it does mean that clericalism ought to be avoided."

I encourage you to click on the link in the title of this post and read it all. Great food for thought.

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Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Do Tell!

Sherry and I are having some fun grappling with various ideas for our new workshop, Making Disciples. One of the sections we will have in that workshop will be about RCIA. How can we make it a more effective evangelizing process that introduces people to the basic kerygma, or proclamation of the gospel? How can we provide an environment that fosters and supports conversion to Christ and His Church?

One critical question involves the problem of trying to understand where people are on their journey of faith, and recognizing the different needs people will have because of their diverse backgrounds. For example, should the Buddhist who's becoming Catholic be in the same enquiry group as the practicing, life-long evangelical? While most parishes generally have separate RCIA "tracks" for the unbaptized and baptized, few, if any, recognize distinctions within those groups. Yet young adults who've grown up in a post-modern, post-Christian world have different questions and attitudes from the baby-boomer, for example. The former atheist may have a radically different set of questions than the former Lutheran or baptized but uncatechized Catholic. You see the challenge!

One approach we've begun to experiment with is the possibility of asking different questions of different groups of people. For example, for an unbaptized person we might ask, "If you could describe your relationship with God based on a relationship you already know, which relationship would be the best analogy?"

For the baptized but non-catechized Catholic or the candidate, we might preface that question with,
"In your relationship with God, do you tend to relate more to one Person of the Trinity more than the others? If so, with which one, and with what human relationship you're familiar with would you compare it?"

So how about you? Would you care to answer whichever question is appropriate to your situation? Here are a few possible relationships to get you thinking…

Father, Mother, Spouse, Professor, Friend, Mentor, Lord, King, Shepherd, Colleague, Collaborator, Enemy, Judge, Critic, Brother, Sister, Servant, Rescuer, Doctor, Healer, Companion, Guide, Counselor, etc.

Please feel free to use a relationship that is not listed above, or a combination thereof.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

We Are All Saved and We Have All Earned It But None of Us Are Saints Because That Wouldn’t Be Humble.


10 years of nearly continuous travel from parish to parish and thousands of personal interviews have given us a fairly good sense of typical ordinary-Catholic-in-the-pew’s worldview regarding intentional discipleship and our ultimate salvation -- at least among Anglo laity in the US.

(The worldview of the clergy is naturally very different but many clergy share in the assumptions described here in surprising ways. Priests are remarkably like human beings in this regard.)

The American church is huge and very complicated, so the culture I am about to describe would not include those groups of Catholics heavily influenced by evangelicalism (such as in the deep south), the charismatic renewal, traditionalism, lay movements or third orders, parishes that regularly do evangelism, groups with a strong social justice orientation or Catholics in “hotbed institutions” like Catholic universities or seminaries. Neither would this describe Hispanic Catholics, Vietnamese Catholics, etc.

The worldview I’m describing is common among ordinary-Anglo-cradle-Catholic-laypeople in ordinary parishes in the west coast, midwest, high plains, intermountain west and east coast.

Caveat: I am writing in a hurry and my tongue is rather firmly in my check. But I am also really describing attitudes what we have encountered over and over again in the field. There are remarkable exceptions everywhere but there is also, in our experience, a startling consistency across dioceses and regions.

The major premises could be summarized as follows:

  1. We are all saved and we’ve all earned it but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.

    A fascinating, if unlikely, mixture of practical universalism, Pelagianism, and work-a-day Catholic humility seems to have been absorbed by Catholics across the country.

    This homespun version of universalism runs something like this: *Decent* people are automatically saved because of their decency, and almost everyone is essentially decent or at least means well, which is basically the same thing as being decent. God would never condemn a decent person. Salvation is pretty much yours to lose and you can only do so by intentionally doing something really, really, not decent like mass murder and then not saying you are sorry.

    Pelagianism was an early 5th century heresy that held that original sin did not taint our human nature and that human beings are still capable of choosing good or evil without God's grace. Pelagius taught that human beings could achieve the highest levels of virtue by the exercise of their own will.

    The contemporary American version holds that human beings can attain acceptable levels of *decency* by their own efforts. We earn our salvation by not doing the really, really bad things we could do if we chose. In real life, it is pretty close to impossible for most people not to attain the minimum decency requirement. (See caveat above).

    Since basic decency suffices for salvation, holiness is completely optional, and is the spiritual equivalent of extreme sports. Authentic, salt-of-the-earth ordinary Catholics are appropriately humble and know their spiritual place. They do not pretend to be something they are not (see point #2 below).

    Note: the role of Christ and his Paschal mystery in this view of salvation is extremely obscure.

  2. There are two basic Catholic “tracks”:

    a) The “ordinary Catholic track” which includes 99% of us. Your parents put you on this track by having you baptized as a baby. This track can be divided further into 1) “good” or practicing ordinary Catholics; 2) “bad” or non-practicing ordinary Catholics; and 3) pious ordinary Catholics.

    All ordinary Catholics, good, bad, or pious, are saved through their essential *decency* or meaning well and nor screwing up horribly. (see #1 above). God does give extra credit for visible devotion or piety.

    b) The “extraordinary Catholic track”: priests, religious, and saints (.1%).

    God plucks a few people out of Track “a” and places them on track “b”. That is what the Church means by having a vocation.

    Priests and religious are also saved by being decent but the standard of decency is a bit more rigorous for them because they can’t have sex.

    Sanctity is reserved for the uber-elite: When someone becomes a saint, it is the mysterious result of spiritual genius or an act of God and is not expected of or related to salvation for “ordinary” Catholics (see #1), because God decreed they should be on a different track. Authentic, salt-of-the-earth ordinary Catholics are appropriately humble and know their spiritual place.

    c) There is no “disciple on the way” track. When many Catholics hear the phrase “intentional disciple”, they immediately think of the only known alternative to the “ordinary Catholic” track in their lexicon, which is that of the saint and is supposed to be reserved for the uber-elite. They naturally presume that the aspirant to discipleship is pretending to have been plucked out of the ordinary track by God and is, therefore, an arrogant elitist (see #1 above).

3. Corollary A: Widespread discomfort with “conspicuous conversion” because it violates #1 and #2. Sometimes referred to as “enthusiasm” or “pietism” or “Protestant”.

4. Corollary B: don’t ask, don’t tell because that’s what you do when we are all saved and we’ve all earned it--but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.

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