Monday, December 18, 2006

On what it means to be Catholic and living in the U.S. approaching the year 2007

It’s no secret that practiced Catholicism in the U.S. is a bit of a mixed bag. With the demise of urban immigrant communities and the Catholic ghetto, Catholicism in much of the country, in middle America, has become Protestant in both belief and practice. Items of the faith that we were once picked up through experience no longer exist, because those rituals that provided the non-verbal teaching are no longer practiced. Catholics are poorly catechized (there’s a thesis here about the Catholic Church not having made the transition into literate society yet and what that means pastorally) and many adult Catholics are spiritually immature; this is often why they find Protestantism enticing.

“Well, at least we have the real sacraments!” is an oft-heard cry, but with it carries a smidgen of triumphalism and something more pernicious – that it doesn’t matter what they or we believe, as long as our sacraments are valid. We then give a point in argument to our critics: that all that holds us together is what the Catholic Church teaches about itself legally – that as long as one is tied to the pope, one is doing just fine in the spiritual sojourn.

Is it enough to believe one is receiving the sacraments? Sure, but it fails to acknowledge that when we experience God, that experience is also, necessarily, sensual: through our eyes and ears, in sounds and smells and light. We have to face this embarrassing fact: our current Masses in places in this country may not provide spiritual nourishment for the well-catechized Catholics (or any Catholics for that matter). Of course, the ultimate nourishment is Christ himself, but the regard and treatment of the Eucharist that can occur in some Catholic parishes is so irreverent that it is difficult to see the Groom offering Himself to His bride in such practices.

Honestly, I worry less about the sins committed by the members of the Church, including her hierarchy, than about the issue above. If one believes about the Church in the way I do, it makes complete sense that she would be attacked by Satan in the worst possible ways, and I am glad we have grievous sinners in our midst – they and I need the Church more than any other. I also am fully aware that the Church Militant has been and will be afflicted by any number of diseases and rot fitting our fallen world until the Second Coming, none of which takes away from her holiness and her continual renewal in Christ.

That Catholics (and all Christians) should embrace suffering, the suffering of the Cross, in their earthly journey is nothing new. If the great suffering in one’s life that one must endure is bad liturgy, than that’s one of the easier crosses to carry. But can the scandal of our modern Catholic practices (or non-practices) actually cause spiritual deadening? I have gotten up and left Masses at some Catholic Churches; others I’ve vowed to never attend again. But viewing this as an “all-over” problem, a disease within the current Church, is it so? Or is that perception shaped by the Internet and other media sources? Are we showing how American we are when we bitch and whine about how the liturgy isn’t up to par? (I once had a clinical engineering professor who often said that Americans could never accept a universal health care system – we are much too particular and demanding.) And what were things like before these liturgical problems?

I see a great number of Catholics who failed to sufficiently teach their children in the faith, even pre-Novus ordo. People stayed Catholic (and the so-called cafeteria Catholics still do) because it was part of their culture and heritage (or they would no longer get the thrill of rebellion if they joined a Protestant denomination more to their liking). I’m not sure an improved liturgy would correct that, nor should it: I don’t think the liturgy is necessarily meant to be informational, but experiential. It should be where we meet God and that occurs in our entire body and soul, not just in our brain. There’s a good argument to be made that the Catholic Church has given up points to Protestantism since the Reformation: that Catholics, especially in America, have adopted Protestant liturgical practice, Protestant belief in sola scriptura and sola fide, and anyone who unquestioningly adopts the American way as The Best is working under some heavy Protestant presuppositions.

Yet there is always hope. Two major weaknesses in Protestantism, the appeal to private judgment and the principle of revisability, have become more exposed due to the antics of some of the Lutheran and Anglican denominations, and the rise in Catholic apologetics has led to the conversion of many spiritually mature Protestants to the Catholic faith. The latter tend to desire a reversion to the fullest expression of the Catholic faith possible, hidden in the modern world. There is also hope to embrace a friend’s considerations: we must face the fact that we are at odds with the currents of this world, and look to the example set before Constantine, before the possible great mistake of combining the secular with the religious, for guidance.

An afterthought: it is a signpost to me that when the major Protestant denominations began to embrace the use of artificial birth control is when they began to become increasingly heretical to the point of unitarianism in belief. A similar phenomenon has happened in American Catholicism. There is something fundamental in the denial of the existence and participation in the Trinitarian life and its model in marriage that occurs in the use of artifical birth control that allows heresy to eat away from within.