My wife and I are grateful for our faith. We try to model the importance of putting God first to our three young sons. But it is becoming increasingly clear how diverse the Catholic faith is—rigid and rule-burdened at one extreme, casual and self-directed at the other. I told my pastor about how beautiful I find the Catechism to be, and he cautioned me about taking it too literally. As we chatted he complained about some of the daily communicants who come to our parish during the week, and then write letters to our bishop to point out violations of protocol for which he’ll be called on the carpet. He said Jesus warned his own faith community about getting too distracted by all the little rules and missing the larger point—love, mercy, compassion. These are just a few examples of our increasing sense of division within the Catholic faith; it’s beginning to feel less like a unified family and more like a random (but righteous) crowd at a bus terminal. Everyone has an opinion. One scoffs at a devotion. Another calls the Pope names. Another kneels on the floor to receive Eucharist. Another receives it with the triviality of trying a free sample in a food market. Even the bible is subject to many kinds of interpretation and debate. As a result, we suddenly find ourselves feeling quite alone. Left to ourselves, my small family can’t rely solely on our own discernment—we need guidance. How can we find the truth? Tom
Dear Tom, Many thanks for your heartfelt letter, and I hope I can convey my conviction that the middle ground is by far the largest domain in the Church. You are certainly not alone.
In every group I think the noisiest people are in the wings. This is seen in politics, journalism, and just about everywhere. This is especially true today when there is a media-fuelled greed for the unusual, the extreme, the ‘news-worthy’. I saw a magazine advertised as being “opinionated” - apparently a term of commendation! You will never see a headline that says, “Priest agrees with his bishop!” - even though there are far more who do than there are who don’t. It is distressing to see how ego-driven many (not all) of the most vocal people are - left-wing and right-wing alike. When one or two ego-driven people make noise, suddenly they have an audience, then a movement - which attracts others who like to be a bit different and who enjoycontroversy. This serves their need to feel special, different, even a little heroic. There are many who want to be little popes in their own circles. There’s a retired policeman in the west of Ireland who utters condemnations of preachers - practically bulls of excommunication. With no theological education at all such people imagine they can sniff out heresy everywhere. I have to sympathise with your pastor who has a one- or two-man Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in his parish. The irony of the right-wing ego is that it is not at all different from the left-wing, as became very clear in the schism of Mgr Lefèbvre. Right-wing people are just as willing (or rather more willing) as left-wing people to tear asunder the body of Christ.
Of course that doesn’t explain it all away; but it explains a large percentage. Among honest people too there are real disagreements, about matters that range from the less to the more essential. I believe that the biggest challenge now is to discern and hold the essentials of the faith: the vast stream of wisdom that flows to us from the age of the apostles. The aim of The Catechism of the Catholic Church was, like that of the Second Vatican Council, “to strive calmly to show the strength and beauty of the doctrine of the faith” (Pope John Paul’s Apostolic Constitution introducing the Catechism). It was, the pope said, “a reference text.” It was the fruit of “intense work done in a spirit of complete openness and fervent zeal,” and he expressed joy that “the harmony of so many voices truly expresses what could be called the ‘symphony’ of the faith….It testifies to the Church’s catholicity.”
‘Catholicity’ is the key word. The word ‘catholic’ means universal, not left-wing or right-wing. In the Catholic tradition there is a largeness of mind and heart that has nothing to do with vagueness: there is nothing vague in the thinking of St Thomas Aquinas, for example. The word ‘orthodox’ is being appropriated by people of extreme narrow and rigid views, who then describe all others else as woolly liberals. This is a travesty of the tradition. If you want a good example of the refreshing vigour of the Catholic tradition (from a period that even the most right-wing person would have to consider safe - long before the Second Vatican Council!), see G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (1908), which is available on the internet (www.ccel.org).
Finally, ours isn't the first time that Christians have been at loggerheads with one another. The history of the Church provides not just examples of it but rather one continuous example! In 57 AD St Paul had to call the Corinthians to order and to unity: “It has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:11-13). In our own time, the very fact that the Catechism was brought out was an acknowledgement of the diversity on the ground, and a practical guide to finding our way through it.
So what I would suggest, Tom, is that you shouldn’t take much notice of what those individuals in your parish do or say - there’s no accounting for what individuals do or say. Study the Catechism and don’t be afraid to read the classics of the faith, stay with the great truths, and “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
God bless you both and your young family.