Cultural Catholicism and the Call to the Laity
A few days ago, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins from the Gospel of Matthew was read at Mass. During the sermon, the priest commented on a surprising aspect of the story. We’re always told that we should share what we have with others. It comes as rather a shock when the wise virgins refuse to share their oil at such a critical moment. What can we learn from this aspect of the parable?
Christians are certainly called to share their wealth and time with others. In Matthew’s Gospel, the parable of the virgins comes shortly before his depiction of the judgement on the nations, in which those who gave generously to the poor are saved, while those who failed to do so are rejected. The oil in the lamps, however, does not represent material goods or even spiritual gifts. Rather, it represents the Christian’s loving and faithful response to Christ. This faith can’t be shared. Nobody can make our personal response on our behalf: it is a deeply personal choice made by each individual.
The importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ means that cultural Catholicism can not save us. A Christian society and culture can make it easier for us to respond generously to Christ, but it can’t replace our personal response. In a Christian culture, a larger percentage of individuals may live outwardly decent and Christian lives. Living a decent life, however, isn’t sufficient for salvation, nor is mere social conformity.
Without proper catechesis, a Christian culture can even impede the making of a personal commitment to Christ by masking the importance of such a decision. Those in a Christian culture may never come to realize that such a choice is necessary, and may instead remain content with going through the motions. I discussed this complicated relationship between personal commitment and cultural values in an earlier post.
Cradle Catholics can be particularly susceptible to seeing the faith as merely mechanical and routine. Many of us were baptized merely because of our parents’ decision. Baptism does make us members of the Church, but baptism needs to be “activated” by a personal choice.
Sherry Weddell discusses this issue in her book Forming Intentional Disciples. She points out that the Church has always distinguished between the valid reception of the sacraments and the fruitful reception of the sacraments. Validity depends on the basic matter and form of the sacraments and the right intention on the part of the minister. The fruitfulness of the sacraments largely depends on the interior deposition of the recipient. Jesus always comes to us in the Eucharist, but whether his coming will transform our hearts largely depends on our cooperation. To illustrate this point, Weddell quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope Benedict XVI, and The Catechism of the Catholic Church. In particular, she cites CCC 2111 and CCC 150:
2111 Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.
150 Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature.
For those who want to explore this subject in more depth, I highly recommend Forming Intentional Disciples.
The Modern World
We currently live amidst the ruins of a collapsed cultural Catholicism. In the 1940’s and 50’s, Catholics in the USA still tended to live in enclaves of cultural Catholicism, the so-called “Catholic Ghetto.” Catholics sent their children to Catholic schools staffed by religious orders, socialized principally with other Catholics, read Catholic periodicals and publications, and joined civic and fraternal organizations composed of fellow Catholics. The situation in many Catholic countries was similar.
All seemed well, but a dangerous complacency seems to have crept in. Catholic culture was being passed on, but it was not always fostering a deep personal response to the Faith. When push came to shove, this cultural Catholicism collapsed. Social and demographic factors disrupted traditional Catholic enclaves and societies, and with their disintegration Mass attendance and other markers of Catholic practice declined. How many times have we heard the hackneyed phrases “I was an altar boy, but . . .” or “I went to Catholic schools, but . . .” from someone who no longer practices the Faith, or no longer even identifies as Catholic? This is the final fruit of culture without conviction.
Vatican II and the Call to the Laity
Even as this dissolution began, the Holy Spirit inspired Pope Saint John XXIII to call an Eccumenical council. People were surprised—the complacency mentioned earlier made it appear that there was nothing for such a council to do. Ultimately, the Council addressed the fundamental problem with the old cultural Catholicism by reiterating the Church’s teaching on the universal call to holiness. The Council called on the laity to follow Christ wholeheartedly, instead of just going through the motions. This theme runs throughout the Council documents; it can be clearly seen in the following quote from Lumen Gentium:
Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity . . .They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history. (Lumen Gentium 40)
The message of the Council was not in time to prevent the collapse of cultural Catholicism. Indeed, the essential message was often buried by the fierce debates that rocked the post-conciliar world. Reactionaries and progressives alike focused their attention on modifications to the old cultural shell. The Council’s challenging call to true spiritual renewal went largely unheeded in many places.
God has not abandoned his Church, however. The challenge of the Council remains before us. If we take it up, if we choose Christ with all our hearts and let that choice inform every aspect of our lives, we can become a force of true renewal in the world. From our personal commitment a new, more vital Christian culture can emerge, one that grows from and supports personal conviction, but does not replace or supplant it.
Image of Catholic schoolchildren in the 1960’s from National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution