Prerequisite: Catholicism 101
In Catholicism 101, I tried to present the Faith as simply as possible. The key point was that God transforms us into new creatures, capable of entering into a unitive relationship with God where we share in the Divine nature. Our motivation for seeking this transformation is that it results in a genuine and everlasting happiness. If I gave it a name, Catholicism 101 would be called What Catholicism Is. In contrast, the name for this essay, Catholicism 201, would be called What Catholicism Is Not.
The above description perhaps doesn't sound much like the Catholicism most people typically know. I think there are confusions today and I'd like to identity a few of the big ones.
A Religion of Rules
A lot of people like games. Games are fun, they give us an opportunity to be #1 by following a complex set of game rules. As we win, we feel good about ourselves; we did something better than others. For many Catholics, Catholicism is like a game to be played with a lot of rules to follow and whoever obeys the rules best wins. Winners go to heaven and losers go to hell. For such people, obeying a known set of rules feels comfortable, while disobeying a rule results in a feeling of guilt - this is the infamous Catholic guilt so duly mocked in our culture. The mindset is legalistic, where God is a daily judge, determining winners and losers, and priests are referees telling us if we're following the rules correctly or not. In reality, God is our loving Father, bestowing mercy on us in this life. Priests are God's stewards, distributing sacramental grace and truth to the children of God. The rules, that is, the Moral Life we Catholics live, are behavioral habits we ought to develop by the practice of self-giving love. These behavior habits of the Moral Life help us learn how to fit-in in the Father's household. If we think like that, we can tie such actions to the big picture of grace, mercy, and union with God.
A Religion of Emotional Comfort
Religion is a comfortable thing. The sense of belonging to a community of people, an understandable pathway through the daily diffilcuties of life, turning to our sympathetic Father when life gets hard - these are the nice things of religion. But the enjoyment of comfortable feelings is not what Jesus taught. He taught us a more rigorous, intellectual approach to knowing and loving God. That's one of the reasons for this Bible blog - it's not easy to understand God's Word and we all need some help to learn. As we study our Faith, we can see that God expects us to use our minds in this religion, and not so much our feelings. Yet many, perhaps most, have an emotional attachment to the Catholic Faith. They like the customs and the familiarity, they like the feeling of belonging to a parish, a group of people who maybe feel like a family. Who doesn't like things like that? But these are the icing on the cake, not the foundation. My foundation must be one of understanding what is true plus my assent to such truths. That is, I must learn and know the Faith. Furthermore, I shouldn't believe something contrary to the Faith because it feels good to me or appeals to my sense of empathy. If some Catholic doctrine seems a bit out of whack with my own ideas on the subject, then its a good time for me to study the idea deeply and understand why there is a difference between a truth of the Faith and my own ideas.
A Religion of Authority Figures
We think of The Church as this big institution, with a pyramid-shaped organization like a business corporation: CEO-Pope at the top, then a layer of executive-bishops, then a bigger layer of management-priests, finally a wide base of worker-laity. In fact, the term The Church is frequently used these days to refer to just the bishops (as in, "The Church says all Catholics must fast on Ash Wednesday"). This is not correct. First of all, The Church is our phrase for the Mystical Body of Christ - the body of all believers united in Christ. There is no rank, only different functions. The hierarchical structure we hear about applies mainly to the clerical state as a form of order for them; the laity have only a limited role in this hierarchical structure.
Second, those in the clerical state are not bosses or leaders of the laity. They are stewards of the Most High. A proper image would be the household of an English Lord or King. God is the father of this family and we are His children, who enjoy a lavish life of (spiritual) wealth and luxury in our Father's mansion. Bishops and priests are the servants who serve the family, distributing the (sacramental) goods of our Father's wealth to every child. I am beyond grateful to the bishops and priests for making this household a beautiful, well-coordinated environment, full of sacramental grace and the teachings of the Faith. But they are still ordinary men, just like me; they are my brothers, not my leaders. Their authority is of a very different kind, unknown to the world, understandable only in the Faith. (See HERE for more.) Any secular leadership they demonstrate is "icing on the cake," a worldly benefit to help the Church with its worldly affairs.
A Religion of New Ideas
Christianity is a remarkably novel idea: God transforms us into gods, sharing in the Divine nature, and virtually nothing is required on our part. This, in itself, is a great novelty in the history of religions. And yet, it seems not novel enough for some. I'm going to introduce an ugly word here: heresy. Catholicism has never been without heretics, that is, restless Catholics who were lured to some other ideas contradictory to our Faith and who then tried to spread their ideas with missionary zeal. Our time is no different. Historically, most heretics were priests who were moved by loving intentions. Furthermore, their teachings were predominantly true to the Faith, but one or two things were off. In this, many were led astray as the overall teaching seemed solid. Today's heretics have mainly focused on moral doctrine, especially sexual ethics. Many Catholics have been only too happy to accept such new ideas, which allow greater sexual latitude. A review the Catechism of the Catholic Church would be helpful.
A simple example of this today regards the use of birth control. In the 1960's, some theologians began to teach that married couples could use artificial birth control, based on the direction of their own consciences. But they were wrong; they forgot the basic idea that ours is a transformative faith. We're not looking for how we can live our lives like other people, to fit in and feel content. We're looking for the life that leads us to a transformation in Christ, a radical life of self-giving, even self-sacrifice. By using birth control, we turn a sex act into a selfish act of using our spouse for our own purpose, rather than one of self-giving love to our spouse. We give up that transformative path and fall back on the comfortable. Not using birth control isn't a rule or a law imposed by clerics - it's part of a way of life that we chose because we ultimately want something better.
A Religion of Relativism
"Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires." (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Conclave Opening Mass Homily, 18 April 2005)
These words were uttered by Cardinal Ratzinger the day before he was chosen to be pope - Pope Benedict XVI. I underlined the phrase that has been re-printed so many times: a dictatorship of relativism. What does this mean? The future pope continues:
"An "adult" faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth. We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith - only faith - that creates unity and is fulfilled in love." (ibid)
This relativism is one of the "New Ideas" I mentioned above. Relativism is the idea that truth is not objective, not outside of ourselves. Rather, it is subjective, an interpretation of reality inside of ourselves, subject to each person's mind, or to a group's collective consciousness. It results in a mindset of "truth for me" vs. "truth for you," where both truths are valid. The Faith admits only one truth, which is objective reality. The responsibility of every person is to seek that reality and, upon discovering it, intellectually assent to it. That different people come to different conclusions on what is real does not change the reality. It only means some were successful in their discovery process and some were not. Cardinal Ratzinger described relativism as a dictatorship, a loss of freedom. Why? Well, as Jesus said, "The truth will make you free" (Jn 8:32) Real freedom exists in knowing what is true, what is real. Believe it or not, many Catholics have fallen prey to a relativistic approach to Catholicism, a fluidity of belief where there is room in the Church for many different ideas and beliefs. As Card. Ratzinger says above, such a minset is helpful for coping with modern times, but that is not the way of the eternal God. God quite literally made reality; God teaches us, therefore, what is real.
A Religion of Our Times
Finally, I mention a rather common idea among some Catholics - that we are living in a unique time in Salvation History; such people see the Faith through a lens of what's happening now. This idea is popular among two diametrically opposed camps in our Church: Progressives and Traditionalists. For the Progressive camp, the Second Vatican Council ushered in a new era of the Spirit. The old is gone and we are to only look forward. We should let the Spirit guide us, in new forms of liturgical worship, in new approaches to catechesis, in new ideas (see above). For the Traditionalist, the world has gone mad and we are perhaps in the end days or maybe a Divine chastisement is immanent. We survive by holding fast to the customs & culture of the past, just before the world went mad. Historically, the Church has always had such a group who believed in an immanent judgement from heaven on wicked mankind, yet no such obvious disaster has ever come. Conversely, the Church has always had its progressives, preaching newness. They always fade away and newer newnesses find their way to the foreground.
It is ironic that these two groups, at enmity with each other, are two sides of the same coin. What's meaningful to them is that there is a very important spiritual event going on in their lifetime, and that is exciting and makes them feel special. Jesus did tell us to always watch the signs of the times; however, after 2,000 years, it seems probable that we will likely live and die in the common, ordinary Faith of our Fathers. And that is actually very exciting indeed.