Saturday, June 11, 2011

On Becoming Catholic: The Church Fathers had it right


In 1825, a German priest by the name of Fr. Johann Adam Mohler wrote a fantastic book (a little on the scholarly side) entitled, Unity in the Church. In it, he reveals how the Holy Spirit, through the teachings and the pastoral practices of the early Fathers, made the Catholic Church a unified front and a strong force in bringing about a new Christian civilization. A vital part of what made the Church an instrument of mass conversions and cultural influence was her spiritual formation of candidates in the Catechumenate. Their methodology went beyond mere instruction or the reliance on concepts alone. Living the Christians virtues and repenting from past sins was a must.

The Early Christian Catechumenate:

The RCIA of early Christianity was known as the “Catechumenate.” For several centuries it lasted three years and was attended by frequent prayers known as exorcisms. Exorcisms were simply prayers against any evil spirit that may have hindered the candidate's conversion. It was also a recognition that the sinner, who once belonged to Prince of Darkness, was not only called to do good but to also renounce evil.

The Catechumenate also involved a close scrutiny of the life of the candidate by the local bishop. A well known bishop of Hippo by the name of St. Augustine, one of the greatest Father's and Doctor's of the Church, would even ask the candidate's acquaintances how he or she lived during the Catechumenate. This process known as “the scrutiny” was an examination in order to determine if the candidate was serious about living the life of Christ. At the very least, the believer had to observe the Ten Commandments, be free from mortal sin and make a sincere effort to live out the Christian virtues. What is more, all of Christ’s teachings, as taught by the Church, had to be believed. It was only then that the candidate could hope to enter into the full communion with the Holy Catholic Church.

RCIA’s Reliance on Instruction:

The ancient Catechumenate was founded on spiritual formation and examination, unlike many RCIA programs of the latter part of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty-first century. In recent decades, RCIA programs have not been based on spiritual formation so much as instruction and lectures. Many, if not most, modern day RCIA programs require that the candidates attend these instructions; but not much more is asked of them. And by and large, RCIA leaders do not insist upon the observance of God’s laws nor the unconditional and full assent of Christ’s teachings as a precondition of entering the Church.

Much like schools of ancient pagan philosophy, the RCIA program relies on the communication of mere concepts. There is no time of testing or real spiritual formation which necessitates repentance or a break from sin. Instead, candidates are put on a conveyor belt where they receive instruction on the Catholic Faith and proceed into the Church whether or not they have accepted anything that they have heard or learned. To become Catholic, all a person has to do is show up to class on a weekly basis for nine months and fold his arms and listen. Nothing more is required. But it wasn’t always like this.

Catechumenate and Spiritual Formation:

Before the 1960’s, being received into the Catholic Church was a matter of spiritual formation than it was a process of receiving instructions. Truth was to be passed on, not just by the communication of mere concepts, but by living out the moral virtues of the Gospel. Holiness, to be sure, always has been the most reliable source of knowledge. This is one of the great legacies of the Saints. The best training for becoming a full-fledge Catholic from the early Church to the mid-twentieth century was an instruction in the truth's of the Gospel, to be sure, but it also consisted of a sincere effort in the observance of Christ's laws. Without this sincere effort to break away from the life if sin and enter into the life of Christ, the subsequent graces received from the Sacraments would yield little fruit.

Pagan Philosophy and Concepts:

When Christianity first entered the world stage in the first century, it communicated truth in a revolutionary manner; much different from its pagan counterparts. The old schools of the pagan philosophers proposed a system of concepts to live by but their former life remained as it was before. They did not- nor could they -make a clean break with their old ways of thinking, speaking and behaving. What is more, the concepts that were handed down were a reflection of what they already were but not the better person they should have become.

Perhaps, this is why Clement of Alexandria, a Father of the Church in the second century, said the following: “We do not assert that knowledge consists in merely in concepts, but it is a divine science and a light that has arisen in the soul through obedience to God; it reveals everything to humanity, teaching human beings to know themselves and God.” It is holiness, not just learning alone, that leads to the life-giving knowledge of Christ.

The Life of the Spirit:

On the other hand, Fr. Johann Adam Mohler said that “Christianity gave a creative power, able to beget a new life to its adherents; it made individuals aware that they was nothing aside from a continual living relationship with God, and it taught them that they must take up their instructions with humility if they wished to know anything.” Moreover, the Spirit who gave life to the ministry of Jesus and further conferred redemptive value to his sufferings, is the same Divine Person who is communicated to the believer through the Sacraments. And although the candidate seeking to become Catholic had yet to receive the life of Christ through the Sacraments, he or she could count on the preliminary workings of the Spirit. Indeed, before being received into the Church, God inspires the soul’s yearning for a higher more noble life. But the preliminary working of divine grace is only fully realized in the totality of believers, that is, in the Catholic Church.

Doctrinal concepts and definitions have value insofar as they “express the inner life that is present with them.” No doubt, dogma conveys definite truths to the mind. But it is the life of the Spirit that brings them to fruition. Indeed, without the breath of the Holy Spirit revealed truths remain a dead letter; just ink on paper.

The early Christians, therefore, did not put a lot of emphasis in concepts alone or that Christian concepts were better than pagan ones. They did not want the Gospel to be chosen because its philosophy or ideas were superior to their pagan counterpart. The non-Christian or candidate who wanted to join the Church had to be proven in his or her association with Christians as well as living out the Faith. If Christians were convinced that the candidate believed that the teaching of Christ was from God, their admission followed.

Apostolic Truth and Totality of Believers:

In early Christianity, if anyone ever doubted what the true Christian doctrine was, the doubter was not given Scripture to study or a set of Church documents; instead, he or she was to learn the revealed truths passed down in the individual’s church, especially those churches in which the Apostles themselves taught. From that point forward, the believer who wished to join the Church, the community of the faithful, was to unconditionally accept all of her teachings. The reason for this, Fr. Johann Adam Mohler argued, was that the divine Spirit testified in the whole church where the fullness of Faith was to be found. ”The individual believer as an individual could err," he said, "but never if that individual clung to the totality," that is, to the Church. He then went on to say that “the totality of gifts of the Holy Spirit is in the totality of believers.” Full Christian maturity, therefore, depended on accepting and living out all that the Bride of Christ had to offer the individual believer.

A very important Scripture passage in understanding the necessity of total fidelity to Christ’s teachings is from James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it.” St. Augustine, just a few centuries later, elaborates on this principle by saying, "There can be nothing more dangerous than those heretics who admit nearly the whole cycle of doctrine, and yet by one word, as with a drop of poison, infect the real and simple faith taught by our Lord and handed down by Apostolic tradition."

Conclusion: Allowing Error and Sin is to Allow Division

This is where Fr. Johann Adam Mohler contribution comes to the fore. He points to the reason why the Church’s influence on civilization would break down in subsequent decades. Today's Catholics have the advantage of hindsight and can see (and must admit) that our shepherds, teachers, dioceses and parishes are no longer perceived to speak with one voice and to act as one. If the RCIA programs throughout the world are not based on that spiritual formation similar to the Catechumenate and if they do not require repentance from error and sin as a precondition of entering the Catholic Church, then unity among her members will continue to break down. What is more, conflicting messages will undoubtedly be conveyed. The result can only be more of the same, that is, a world that has grown cold by skepticism.

“The battle of division,” Mohler predicted, “will last longer, the more sin and error is found in the Church. The result is always like its cause: the more error there is among a greater number inside the Church, the more numerous will be the opposing errors in the separated parties and the longer will be the battle...Thus all sects that were in the Church in her first century disappeared, and all parties that separated from her later have destroyed themselves.

It is only an infinite multiplicity, not a unity, and each one among many, each individual heresy, already bears the seeds of destruction in itself.”