Saturday, June 20, 2009

What Does "Practicing" Mean, As in "Practicing Catholic"?

The speaker was discussing his own book called “The Practicing Catholic” in a midtown New York City parish. He is an ex-priest, married, living a most comfortable life with the proceeds from his books and many well-written articles. Because of his stances, sometimes antithetical to and widely dissident from traditional Catholicism, he has been classified a “fallen away” Catholic. Yet he strongly insists that he loves the Church, cherishes rich emotional memories of his childhood and is practicing the Catholic Faith.
 
It leads one to wonder what is a “practicing Catholic”? How big is the Big Tent of this religion? One of the many strengths of Catholicism is its flexibility and breadth of embrace wherein one finds the simple but powerful influences of Mother Teresa, Mother Angelica and Padre Pio uplifting thousands of devout Catholics to meaningful, beautiful lives and at the same time one can find slightly cynical, semi-doubting, irreverent, hostile Catholics who would never “leave” the Church they criticize. Mysteriously, the latter group would be affronted should anyone dare to suggest that some more “modern and liberal” denominations might be more congenial to their views. However, such persons might have more direct Faith in basic Catholicism than they admit even to themselves. Perhaps, since many of this group have been educated beyond the level of their parents, we might be observing an interesting situation of non-resolution of an oedipal conflict. In fact, this speaker acknowledges that his personal relationship with his father (although a well educated brigadier general of the Vietnam era) was one of long term conflict. Could this be transferred unconsciously to a conflict with “Mother” church? Are dissident Catholics really fighting their Parents?

The man in question allegedly held at various times great differences with his own Church. He argues publicly, so goes the scoop, that women should be ordained priests, that there must be married priests, that gay marriage must be accepted, that opposition to contraception must be dropped, abortion should be allowed and roughly do away with the whole Bishop thing. The Church must be continually castigated for anti-Semitism, for the Inquisition and the Galileo affair. It seems odd that either he didn’t know of the many statements of Pope John Paul II on this subject or else he deliberately glides over the truth. I would prefer that he be ignorant than malicious. Some wit suggested that there is already such a Church which the speaker seeks. The Unitarian church where all his values are preached and upheld where it seems almost anything goes, doctrinally speaking! But he wouldn’t leave this Church---ever. Why not?

In his talk he referred at least twice to the crowd rouser mechanism of “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” It was as if he was blasting the Church for holding such a barbaric stance. The penumbra, the nuance, the unspoken, was that Catholics teach the damnation of all people—except themselves. He knows full well that is simply not true. What is true is that the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople articulated the belief that it is only through Christ that one can be saved. This is vastly different from what he said. Every Hindu and Buddhist and Jew and Methodist can be saved but ultimately only through Jesus. If certain unsophisticated persons spouted such distorted and misinterpreted views as he mentions, then, it was not the Faith talking. But individual dissenters!! He knew the clarification of Pope Pius XII in his monumental encyclical, Mystici corporis which taught that anyone in good Faith belongs to the level of salvation. His statements bordered on the dishonest or disingenuous which perhaps may be explained by the impromptu question and answer style he was using at that moment. Perhaps, his shooting from the “hip” would not surface if he had a quiet moment to think. He surely must have heard of the Jesuit priest (Fr. Feeney) in Boston who was “excommunicated” for holding exactly what the speaker claims was authentic doctrine. One would hope that on review and with the grace of God, he would revise his sloppy use of terms.

Relevant to his rants about Jews, it is interesting that the many converts of Jewish background didn’t seem disturbed by the use of the word “Perfidious”. The word means “unbelieving” as describing those who have not accepted Jesus as a Personal Saviour. Any amateur theologian might easily make a powerful case from Scripture Tradition and Reason that any one who does not accept Jesus is “unbelieving.” But since Perfidious has developed an “emanation” of insult, most of us are pleased with the Church’s deleting that word from our sacred Liturgy. But I, as a Catholic Jew, am not sent into some kind of frenzy by the word. Jewish converts like Edith Stein (St. Benedicta of the Cross) or Raissa Maritain or other intelligent Jewish converts do not miss the forest for a tree! A mature approach to the Catholic Faith is highly preferable to the vitriolic obsession of the speaker with this subject.

In his relatively small audience sitting in the front row was an older man who self identified as an ex-priest with deadened and lost ideals. He described himself as being reared in the era where Pat O’Brien and Spencer Tracy were omnipotent and noble screen priests, way above the maddening and mediocre crowd and whose role he wished to share. His real life priest experience never matched his fantasy so he left the priesthood. Then he could be “honest”. (?) His voice was full of hurt and anger but with the accusing tone of the typical aggressive dissenter (typical, that is, of my experience). A woman stridently criticized the American Catholic Church of dragging its feet while justifying her right to criticize since her husband had founded the National Catholic Reporter, a liberal organ for Catholics unhappy with the history of the Church in this country.[1] She asked “Where are the leaders?” To my ears she was asking for enthusiastic dissident Catholics who would challenge and change the Church in ways congenial to the Speaker’s views. He replied that she could find such leadership in the Paulist Fathers whose company he had left for “truth and honesty” and even beyond that for money and a wife. I was personally piqued by this recommendation since I myself am a Paulist Father and I have found in this Society strict loyalty and devotion to the Church. I don’t enthuse by being grouped with some unhappy critical clerics who remain “on the job” with lukewarm adherence.

Even though the word “myth” is a legitimate one for historical research and analogic illustration, the speaker noted practices of some Catholics, less articulate than he, as being na├»ve and sheeplike. Again, he underscored all religion as principally how one treats the “neighbor.” I found little, if any, reference to God in his remarks. Indeed, a psychotherapist colleague who saw the same Television presentation thought that the speaker “hated the Church.” I am hesitant to go that far even if a case might be made in that direction. And I presume should that be the case his “hatred” would be unconscious.

It brings one back to the primary question: the clarification of the meaning of “practicing”. And the viewpoints are highly variant. Some are content to say that making one’s Easter duty suffices to meet the requirement of the practicing Catholic. Personally, I find such a stance highly inadequate and almost insulting to those fervent ones who struggle, often at great emotional and physical cost, to maintain their Catholic identity in an open and persistent fashion. As I recall Jesus said something to the effect that not those who cry “Lord, Lord” enter the kingdom of heaven but only those who do the Will of My Father…….

There are others who occasionally attend Mass, some what mechanically, want their children baptized as Catholics and who certainly want their weddings to be in a Catholic church especially if it is “pretty.” They are, however, tepid in their support of Catholic views in “the public square” and glaringly superficial in their knowledge of Catholic fundamentals. They simply don’t know. The knowledge of the Faith was not the speaker’s deficiency. His was, rather, one of deep emotion (and which perhaps, in nature, could be redacted, unfortunately, as spiritual). Yet, the huge majority of these tepid ones hinges, I think, on poor catechesis and unlovely example.

Some Catholic leaders, of course, suggest that we should simply adopt the dissenters and those who pick and choose Faith ----- in the hope that they will come back. Unfortunately, it rarely happens the way some would wish. Besides it does not take much energy for that stance. Read the paper. Watch TV and see what happens. Leave it to God.

Yet, it would be likewise superficial, in my opinion, to portray the practicing Catholic in mere measurement or statistics. It is not about how many schools and hospitals we have. It is important to see that Numbers are not our goal here. It is something far deeper. It is about identity, belief self concept. In my work with converted SSA people (homosexual persons) I have been struck by their recalling their active “gay” days when they saw all things through a kind of gay lens. Everything was understood and interpreted in terms of gayness. In a sense, the “practicing” Catholic sees, similarly, all things through a Catholic lens. The real Practice does call for a permeation of the faith through one’s very being. Catholicism is, indeed, in a sense “totalitarian”. It is supposed to affect every area of our lives. This explains, at least in part, the enormous negative reaction from the believing Catholic community upon the bestowal of high public honor by the University of Notre Dame on the Number 1 political Pro-abortionist in the country. It seemed as if the academic community did not care at all for Catholic principles. This was not a case of not knowing any better. It was worse. It freely and without hesitation ignored or dismissed Catholic teaching, practice, history and authority as irrelevant.

In all our Catholic history, we have observed the norm of true Practice: “Sentire cum ecclesia” or think with the Church. Feel with her. Obey her official teachings. Remember where the “Church” is. We have always believed that “Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia” (where you find Peter ---and his successor--- you find the real Church). There is no room for the cafeteria Catholic in this structure. When one disbelieves a single basic Catholic teaching, it is no time when he believes nothing, practically speaking, of the Faith. On the other hand, practicing the Faith means more than the external. It is the interiority, the wholeness, the submission to God, the living it out in all things that makes the term “practicing Catholic” meaningful.

Archbishop C. Chaput noted in his article in First Things (June/July 09) that Catholics have to begin admitting that we have been lying to ourselves, to each other and to God by claiming to oppose personally some homicidal evil--- and allowing it to be legal at the same time. Strong words and yet worthy of serious consideration. He fears that many of the 65 million American Catholics simply do not care. Such an assessment is more frightening than mere ignorance. If we cared, he claims, we wouldn’t be wasting our time arguing whether legalized killing of an unborn child is somehow balanced out or excused by other social policies. He startles the Catholic reader by accusing us of forgetting how to think as Catholics. And that there is nothing more empty headed in a pluralist society than telling citizens to keep quiet about their beliefs. A healthy democracy requires the opposite. It is not of the practicing Catholic’s world to create one’s own truth and then baptize it with an appeal to personal conscience.

St. Paul, the apostle of Truth, was ready to pay the price for his fearlessness and fidelity to Christ. We do need the sense of his urgency. This cannot be a question of elegant academic discussion or smooth public oratory. The only thing that matters is truth. Obviously, it is painful for the millions of truly practicing Catholics to watch so many persons who call themselves Catholics compromise their Faith. To see them submit their hearts and consciences to the Caesars of our day is not only sad but burdensome. We feel like St. Paul that “we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles—but God’s folly is wiser than men and his weakness more powerful than men” (1Cor:23). May the remnant of truly practicing Catholics become the ultimate beacon in the darkness.

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[1] I had interviewed one of the founders of the Reporter on Television and had indeed found him critical, unsmiling and unhappy with the Church in those days. Apparently the emotional level at the paper remains about the same today.