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Osmosis, Conversion, and Catholic Culture PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 03 January 2007 09:21

We are already getting some great comments of considerable diversity on “The Question That Must Not Be Asked” post below. The two I quote below articulate the poles of American Catholic experience regarding the issue of discipleship with particular clarity:

 

First comment:

“Sherry, I think it's great that you converted, but I don't really want that sort of Protestant kind of discipleship in our parishes. Catholics lives in a different sort of culture. If we wanted a different kind, we'd convert to a Protestant denomination. You expect vivid, dramatic change, which is a Protestant (rather evangelical Protestant) characteristic. Catholic culture is different. Change happens more by osmosis. What gives you the right to come in and demand that Catholics change their culture to suit you?”

 

“You expect vivid, dramatic change, which is a Protestant characteristic” Hmmm – you mean like Protestants like St. Paul, St. Francis of Assisi, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross(Edith Stein), etc.

 

Second comment:

“Bingo! You just described why I left the Catholic Church. There was no instruction or encouragement in living a Christian life. Hope this doesn't offend, but it honestly was my experience.”

 

No offense taken. I think we are listening to the same cultural reality being described from two very different perspectives.

 

I know from my travels that many cultural Catholics in the US do tend to regard any clearly differentiated experience of conversion or spiritual awakening as “dramatic” and therefore “Protestant”. Part of this is a consequence of living in the only western country with a huge and exceptionally vibrant evangelical Protestant movement which tends to hold up the St-Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus experience” as the paradigm for conversion. (You don’t often hear these kinds of comments from Catholics in Australia, for instance)

 

But I would like to point out a few things:

 

1) The experience of a clearly transforming conversion, whether dramatic, quiet, or in-between, is not Protestant. Like the Bible, evangelicals got it from us. If clear, transforming conversion were a Protestant invention, we would not expect to see it occur among Catholics prior to 1517. As anyone familiar with pre-Reformation history or the lives of the saints, life-changing conversions – and some exceedingly dramatic - are a routine part of wholly Catholic practice and spirituality.

 

2) We need to distinguish between a “clearly differentiated conversion” and “dramatic” conversion; between the beginning of “initial faith” and the on-going life of faith that result in salvation and the beatific vision.

 

Salvation is neither the fruit of a single event or decision but neither is it the result of a long, unconscious, impossible-to-differentiate-one-moment-from-the-other, glacial ooze that mysteriously but triumphantly results in complete sanctity at the end of one’s life.

 

As St. Augustine pointed out: God does not save us without us. We simply cannot be saved “unconsciously” or without any volition on our part. Cradle Catholics cannot simply be carried passively along by the culture into which we were born. At some point, we have to choose to accept the grace offered to us and to follow Christ as a disciple. And it is that choice, however it is made, however long it takes, however quiet or dramatic the circumstances, that is the issue at stake in intentional discipleship

 

Transformation into the image of Christ is a life-long weaving together of a series of larger and smaller “conversions” manifested in long intentional obediences in the same direction. But because human beings live in time and space, the process begins somewhere. Like falling in love, the awakening of initial faith is often experienced as a “big bang” rather than a tiny whisper, although a whisper would do. The initial discovery of another’s beauty and loveability isn’t the same as a life-time of faithful marriage but without the discovery, the marriage would never have taken place. Like falling in love, initial faith changes you and changes the direction of your life.

 

If we lived in a world without any love songs or love stories, one might come to the conclusion that the phenomena of “falling in love” was rare instead of universal. Similarly, there is more than one way to interpret a culture in which people regard “conspicuous conversion” as foreign and excessive and in bad taste and “non-Catholic”. It could be simply that that profound conversion is going on all over the Catholic world and it is simply bad taste to acknowledge it publicly – a sort of “don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses” approach. Pretty dramatically at odds with Christ’s commandment in Matthew 28 but possible.

 

Or – there is the possibility that many Catholics have never experienced initial conversion and hence, have nothing to talk about. Intentional discipleship can’t help but seem “foreign” to those who have never experienced it. If the pastoral leaders we have worked with are even remotely close to the mark, 90 - 95% of Catholics in the pews are not yet intentional disciples.

 

3) I do think that you are right. It is a matter of culture. Not of Scripture or magisterial teaching or the writings of the saints, which as Keith points out, all urge us to conversion and transformation and never mind about whether it is dramatic or not. In fact, I have a new name for the culture you describe: The culture of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

 

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" culture operates at several levels:

 

Individual:

1) Never ask where George or Sue or Tasha is in their relationship with Christ.

 

Never, never ask them directly: Where are you in your relationship with God at this point in your life? Never ask "would you consider yourself an intentional disciple?" Asking directly seems to violate some kind of unspoken bargain - if you show up (i.e., attend Mass, are "active" in the parish, we won't ask you what your lived relationship with God is really like.

 

We can tell this is an unspoken bargain because of the universal knee-jerk response that we get from cradle Catholic (not converts!) pastors, pastoral associates, theologians etc. across the board when we suggest that we ask - even in the most gentle, natural, unobtrustive way. They almost all immediately say the same thing:

 

"We don’t do "me and Jesus"! That's Protestant, foreign, evangelical, invasive, judgmental, etc. Who am I to judge someone else's spiritual state?"

 

Of course, we haven't said anything about "me and Jesus" nor are we advocating it - but just where did the idea that to ask someone *directly* about their lived relationship with God is anti-Church, non-ecclesial, non-Catholic, and judgmental become so universal? What has given us the unspoken conviction that *not to ask* is truly Catholic?

 

What makes us assume that to ask is to judge instead of an essential pre-requisite to serving them effectively? In so many other areas we stress that to ask and to listen carefully and respectfully (about their family's needs, their sacramental needs, the needs of the homeless, etc.) is charitable. What had convinced us that to acquiesce in a situation where only 5% of our people, on average, are disciples is somehow the definition of charity?

 

Pastoral/ecclesial:

2) Never ask if we (pastoral leaders) are doing what we are supposed to do. Just stay busy. Focus on programs and institutions. Never, never ask what impact our activities are having on the vast majority of parishioners. Never, never ask if we are being effective at the fundamental thing Christ asked us to do - make disciples.

 

I took part in a theological symposium in Chicago last summer on the parish and was stunned to hear a brilliant Roman professor of ecclesiology (who is familiar with our work) articulating the classic understanding of the pastoral office: to teach, to sanctify, to govern. I had always assumed that the point of teaching, indeed, the test of teaching was "are others learning?", that the point of sanctifying was to help others become holy, etc.

 

As I listened, I realized that the focus of classic Catholic theological reflection on the topic was all clerical - i.e., on the correct steps that the priest was to take. No where in the presentation was there any awareness or curiosity about the spiritual and personal impact of the actions on the recipient of those actions. No one was asking “Are those being ministered to actually learning, becoming holy, etc?

 

While I had run into this constantly on the ground in conversations with innumerable priests and parish associates, now I realized that it was also rooted in the ecclesiology that came out of the Reformation experience. (Formal ecclesiology was a by-product of the 16th century when Protestantism challenged the Church’s sense of herself in a whole new way. Robert Bellermine’s work is usually regarded as the first comprehensive Catholic attempt at ecclesiology), Protestants were attacking the objective value and efficacy of the priesthood and the sacraments so Catholics naturally focused upon defending the faith at the controversial points.

 

Five centuries later, we live in a profound different situation and need to look again at the other side of the equation. It was this realization that led me to write “’The Question that Must Not Be Asked”

 

3) Don't tell: Don't clearly articulate the kergyma in order to awaken personal faith. It is too invasive, too simplistic, too embarrassing, too Protestant, too much like a TV preacher, etc.

 

To be honest, I've seldom met a cradle Catholic priest or pastoral leader who 1) has actually thought about the content of the kerygma and attempted to articulate it; and 2) is wrestling with the idea that we could be undermining people's salvation by not preaching it. In 19 years as a Catholic, I've seldom heard it clearly preached or intentionally articulated by Catholics to other Catholics.

 

The vast majority of priests, pastors, and pastoral leaders I've dealt with function as practical universalists: that short of mass murder, everyone is going to heaven and so why bother with basic proclamation - especially about the Paschal Mystery - and therefore, the issue of intentional discipleship?

God saves us without us. Just get ‘em in the door but even if they don’t seem to darken the door, they will come back someday. On their own terms and their own time. When they get married, when they have children. (Despite that fact that surveys tell us over and over that huge numbers of today’s young adult Catholics are not coming back for marriage and not baptizing their children because the last vestiges of Catholic practice have ceased to have meaning), Nothing eternal is really at stake.

 

Almost always, if someone doesn't function as a universalist, I find they have been 1) influenced by evangelicalism and/or the charismatic renewal or 2) have a charism of evangelism (which trumps culture any day and ensures that you cannot not ask the question), or, 3) increasingly, that they have been influenced by us. When and how the initial proclamation of the gospel dropped from the picture, I don't know.

 

Peter Kreeft, a well known Catholic professor at Boston College, asked every student he had for many years, "if you died today, would you go to heaven and why?". Nearly all were the product of 12 years of Catholic schools; nearly everyone expected to go to heaven because they were a basically good person; very few students *even mentioned Jesus* as part of the reason.

 

That’s the product of a Don't Ask, Don't Tell culture that doesn't not preach the kergyma to its own and does not consider intentional discipleship to be normative.
 

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