Many times I have heard former Catholics say they left the Church because they found, "It was just a bunch of rules." Not only that, I've heard "practicing" Catholics describe their faith as rule-following, or be caught up in the laws of the Church to an extent that I never heard them talk about Jesus. I've met Catholics driving a car with the bumper sticker that says, "The Church teaches it, I believe it, end of discussion."
That kind of belief is wonderful where the Church's teaching is clear and unambiguous on certain big issues, like abortion and same-sex marriage. But there are many, many areas of public life in which Catholics and other Christians of good will can bring their faith to bear on particular issues and come up with differing prudential judgments as to what might be a prudent course of action. And, often times, I believe many different approaches to a social problem need to be pursued simultaneously.
But there are other areas of life in which the relationship with Christ - a person who loves me and is with me and upholding me in trying times - is much more significant. What I've been going through with my parents and sister this week is an example. As I contemplate my parents' dying (which may still be a good way off), I draw tremendous comfort from knowing Jesus' love for me and them. While I would mourn their passing, I trust I would also rejoice in knowing they are with Him, because they are with Him now, in prayer and the sacraments. I am already tremendously grateful that God gave me such good, loving parents, and that I've enjoyed their love and protection for fifty years.
And of course the Church teaches that God loves them, and I believe that, too. But I also know it, just as I know, and not just believe that my parents love me. I have experienced that love, just as I have experienced the love of God for me in his Son, Jesus and in the Holy Spirit who guides me each day, if I'm willing to listen and trust.
In Ardor and Order, an interesting little article on the Charismatic Renewal in mainline Christianity (which includes Roman Catholicism) by David Neff writes that some, like New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson are concerned that the charismatic elements of Christianity, so pronounced in the readings from the Acts of the Apostles that we've been hearing during the Easter season, are being lost, or seen as in opposition to the hierarchical elements of the Christian community. Johnson laments "the clash between the external, public dimension of religion—doctrine, sacraments, church structures (the "exoteric")—and the private search for a personal relationship with God (the "esoteric")....Christian mysticism that finds no center in the Eucharist or the Passion of Christ drifts into a form of self-grooming."
Neff writes, quoting Johnson,
But it is likewise true that when the exoteric fails to acknowledge "the life of individual transformation," it becomes "a system of law" and "an instrument of social control." Worse, without the transcendent, the exoteric can produce a barren, this-worldly activism, as happened, Johnson says, in both the social gospel and liberation theology movements.
What does the faith have to offer when extreme forms of the exoteric win and transcendence is banished? Society-building forms of Christianity and Islam "must compete on an even plane with other worldly ideologies [that] … can offer a better and more humane society than that proposed by a religion that … lacks any room for the spirit that soars toward God."
This is similar to what then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in 1983 in the forward of a book by Cardinal Suenens, who was an early champion of the charismatic renewal in the Catholic Church: "What is the relation between personal experience and the common faith of the Church? Both factors are important: a dogmatic faith unsupported by personal experience remains empty; mere personal experience unrelated to the faith of the Church remains blind."