Monday, April 4, 2011

To Spare Feelings or to Save Souls

The picture to the right is a painting by Anthony Van Dyck of St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, physically preventing the Roman emperor Theodosius from enter into the cathedral. It so happened, that the emperor, in order to supress an uprising in Thessalonica, killed 7,000 of its citizens. St. Ambrose demanded that he do several months worth of public penance; and penance the Roman emperor did. This was a crucial turning point in world history. The era of the all-powerful State was coming to an end.

The first post of this series: To Spare Feelings or to Save Souls- Sometimes we have to make a choice

The man of faith used to care more about the soul of his neighbor than his feelings. He knew that it was necessary at times to disturb the latter in order to save the former. In recent decades, however, pastoral practices in the Catholic Church have, more often than not, catered to feelings rather than to the soul.

Take for instance the following examples:

It is a common practice in the Church to marry a couple who is cohabitating without having them repent by first living apart (thus to demonstrate a willingness to practice the virtue of chastity);

It is a common practice to have infants baptized and to have his or her parents renounce sin during the baptismal rite when they have no intention of returning to Mass the following week;

And it is common practice to admit candidates into the fold who have not resolved to believe and live out all that Christ commands through his Church. This is especially to the common practice of contraception; an issue that many Catholics in positions of authority will not

These low pastoral standards are justified on the pretext that by requiring the sinner to repent before having access to the Sacraments is tantamount to scaring them off. It is further based on a mistaken belief that saying “no” or denying something sacred to an unrepentant sinner is contrary to Christian love. Clergy and laity alike have forgotten the age-old principle articulated by St. James: “For whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it.” (2:10) That is to say, it is not enough to accept only some of what Christ taught; as if his commands were optional. We must, on the contrary, accept the whole corpus of his teachings. Easy access to the Sacraments for people who have no intention of repenting from serious sins and amending their lives gives an impression that the commands of Christ are optional.

In any case, the results of such practices are far from attracting the multitude to the altar. On the contrary, prospective converts yawn at our low standards and go elsewhere. In fact, as Pew Research studies have indicated, if non-Catholics were a denomination, it would be the largest one in the United States. Low Mass attendance, the closing of parochial schools and an increase of ex-Catholics in recent decades can be traced to an over-accommodation to those who want both Mammon and God. These low pastoral standards and offering the Mysteries of Christ to anyone have led to a demystification of the Church and an overall breakdown in unity. With that, the Bride of Christ, that is, the Church, has less appeal to souls who are in search for God.

These considerations are not even the most important when it comes to the pastoral and moral standards we hold up (or let down). These accommodations (the lowering of the bar, if you will) find no justification in Scripture, in the writings of the Church Fathers, among the Saints, and Tradition at large. Let me say it another way: The Church’s low requirements for being admitted into the Church, for being catechized or for receiving any of the Sacraments are a departure from the pastoral traditions of the mid-twentieth century and every century going all the way back to the Apostolic era. As recently as the 1940’s, to be Catholic or to stay in communion with the Church one had to believe all of Catholic doctrine and live according to those doctrines; that is, live the life of Christ to the full. In early Christianity, for instance, bishops repeatedly examined candidates over a three year period in order to ascertain their commitment to Jesus Christ. The Catachumenate (ancient version of RCIA) was principally one of spiritual formation- and a probation period; it was not just a series of listening to talks or a process of passively receiving information. And to be sure, being admitted into the fold was not automatic. Mother Church was a jealous mother.

Our Lord said do not give holy things to dogs and pearls to swine. Without saying as much, we deem that to be a little too judgmental; at least according to twenty-first century standards. We think no more about what Jesus said and then we open the doors of the church without requiring anyone to repent. The result is that we leave the sinner unchanged! Feeling unchallenged to live up to high standards, these people leave the Church. To attract these unformed and unchallenged souls back to the fold, we develop ministries like “Catholics Come Home.” Although an excellent ministry in its own right, Catholics Come Home compensates for the problem of having low standards. In addition to reaching out through ministries such as these, we would do well to deal with the root of the problem itself. And what might be that problem? Again, the failure to demand repentance like our Lord did, like St. Peter did, like St. Paul and other Apostolic Fathers did- a kind of repentance involving a change of life that conforms to the life of Christ –as a condition of entering the Catholic Church and remaining in communion with her.

And so we come to address given by Bishop Aquila of Fargo, Pennsylvania to his seminarians in March of 2011…the next blog (the second post of this series)