In An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, St. John Henry Newman distinguishes between “real” and “notional” assent and understanding. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying his argument, “notional” knowledge is the sort of knowledge we have of abstract concepts. In a notional way, I assent to the proposition that 2+2+4; I believe this to be true. We also have notional knowledge of many concrete realities that we haven’t directly experienced; for instance, my knowledge of Julius Caesar, and my assent to the reality of his existence, is notional.
We gain “real” knowledge through direct experience. I have real experience of my parents, and can give a real assent to their existence. We can also have a “real” knowledge of some concrete realities we haven’t directly experienced; for instance, Newman explained that he could have a “real” knowledge of a fire in London even when he was hundreds of miles away. This was possible for him because he had direct experience of London, and direct experience with fires, though not with this particular one.
Newman does not mean to say that notional knowledge and assent aren’t real, but rather that such knowledge and assent aren’t based on concrete experience. He goes on to explain that notional knowledge generally does not touch us as deeply as real knowledge.
Our knowledge of God can be either notional or real; Newman calls the notional knowledge of God “theological” and real knowledge of God “religious”. For our spiritual life to grow and develop properly, we need a real, religious experience of God. Our Faith isn’t an abstract proposition, but a living relationship with Jesus Christ.
Jesus wanted this relationship of faith to be a communal rather than a purely individual matter. This is the purpose of the Church: to bring us together in union with Christ as the mystical body.
As with our knowledge of God, our knowledge of the Church should be a “real” knowledge. The Church isn’t an idea or a list of rules. Nor is it the building down the street. The Church is a community to which one gives one’s life. Though the Church is spread across the world, it is also local and particular. William T. Cavanaugh’s book Being Consumed contains the following beautiful reflection on the local nature of the Church:
This universalization of the body of Christ, however, is never detached from the local and the particular, for the eucharistic community is essentially local, gathered around the altar in a particular time and place. Furthermore, the particular is of supreme importance because the Eucharist is not a mere sign that points to Christ; this particular piece of bread is the body of Christ . . . The catholicity of the church is not sustained by a cosmopolitan detachment from the particular . . . “Catholic” means a gathering rather than a spreading out, a unification of the many through attachment to the local eucharistic community. One becomes more catholic, more universal, the more one is tied to a particular community of Christians gathered around the altar.
Sacrosanctum concilium outlines the same idea:
41. The bishop is to be considered as the high priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful is in some way derived and dependent.
Therefore all should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his cathedral church; they must be convinced that the pre-eminent manifestation of the Church consists in the full active participation of all God’s holy people in these liturgical celebrations, especially in the same eucharist, in a single prayer, at one altar, at which there presides the bishop surrounded by his college of priests and by his ministers.
42. But because it is impossible for the bishop always and everywhere to preside over the whole flock in his Church, he cannot do other than establish lesser groupings of the faithful. Among these the parishes, set up locally under a pastor who takes the place of the bishop, are the most important: for in some manner they represent the visible Church constituted throughout the world.
If we are connected to the Church through the local Eucharistic community, then in a certain sense it is almost impossible to fully join the Catholic Church in the USA. It is almost impossible to gain a real, experiential knowledge that would enable us to give a real, as opposed to a notional, assent to the Church’s claim on us.
It is perfectly possible to have a loving relationship with Christ—he can be encountered everywhere. It is perfectly possible to enter one of the many church buildings, and receive life giving sacraments. In a sense, however, the Church can only be joined if that building contains a true community gathered around those sacraments, a community to which one can give one’s life. All too often, our church buildings contain merely a disconnected collection of individuals showing up to a “Mass stop”. Even if we participate in extra-liturgical activities, we tend to go our separate ways, living and working apart from one another.
This perhaps explains why some individuals join the Church only to leave it again. They’ve heard about the Church; they give a notional assent; but not finding the concrete reality, nominal assent can never become real and vivifying. Discussing this problem, the priests who host the “Catholic Stuff You Should Know” podcast said ‘there is nothing to bring them (converts) into”!
Newman does point out that it is possible to come to real knowledge, and therefore real assent, without direct physical experience. He explains that if someone tells him there’s a fire in London, he can get a real knowledge of it, in part because he’s experienced fires and cities before. In our case, however, this indirect route to real knowledge is very difficult. The Church is a kind of community, and most of us have never experienced a real community. Our so-called communities tend to be more voluntary and accidental collections of individuals with a high turnover rate; perhaps it isn’t surprising that this experience shapes many Americans’ participation in the Church.
This means that for most of us, the Christian life is out of reach, since the Christian life is fundamentally about participation in the Church. We can live “as Christians”, since that can be done anywhere. One can live as a Christian even in a concentration camp or on a desert island. We’re each personally responsible for our response to God’s Grace. Yet the “Christian life” remains out of reach for the isolated individual.
The essential nature of community for joining the Church may also explain why Christianity declines in wealthy countries and thrives in poor ones. Wealth is largely a means for avoiding the necessity of community life, as I address in this blog post.
What can be done about this? We have to enrich our faith, moving from nominal to real knowledge. We have to find others to gather with: as Jesus said, where two or three are gathered in his name, there he is in their midst. Such gathering must eventually move on to commitment, formal or informal, or one has not truly “joined” anything. And further, such gatherings should not be separate from the parish structure. There are various nominally Catholic groups that capitalize on the desire for community, and build themselves up at the expense of the local church. Even if, at present, the parish is merely an uncomfortable and empty shell, it provides the structure that assures our local community is really an instantiation of Christ’s body, a branch on the vine, not a lopped branch doomed to wither.
By building local community, we can renew the Church by being the Church, by making it once again an “ekklesia” or assembly, instead of merely a building.
In this episode, I interview Sean Domencic, director of Tradistae, about his experience as founder of Holy Family House in Lancaster, PA.
Holy Family House
When Sean and his now-wife Monica were engaged, they came to realize how important Christian community was to living out the Faith. They started to discuss this idea with a few friends. One of them had a lot of experience with the Catholic Worker, a movement started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. The Catholic Worker movement is best known for providing personal hospitality to those in need in houses where the workers live with their guests. The Catholic Worker’s emphasis on social justice was very appealing to Sean.
Sean and Monica begin discerning opening a house of hospitality. They committed to the idea while attending a retreat for Catholic couples and families interested in community. After that, everything fell into place. They rented a house with two other friends, and named it the Holy Family Catholic Worker House. The local parish helped them to find people who needed assistance with housing, and they quickly filled the available space. They’ve just bought a second house to expand their ministry.
Community Life at Holy Family House
The members of Holy Family House have weekly community meals and round table discussions, and pray vespers together. They still have outside jobs, so they can’t do as much outreach to the wider community as they would like.
The Future of Holy Family House
Although Sean emphasized that those starting community shouldn’t expect too much right away, he also emphasized that they should be open to wider visions of what might be possible in the future. In addition to their houses of hospitality, he hopes that his community can eventually start a Catholic Worker farm. They are also interested in helping to turn their local parish into a real community, with members living near the Church and building up a vibrant local economy of mutual aid.
As well as talking about the development of Holy Family House, we discussed Christian community in general.
Expectations and Vision
Sean talked about how important it is to have everyone involved in a new community “on the same page”. People can easily come into a project with incompatible visions, which only crop up later. They can cause a lot of heartache and trouble down the road. A clear vision gives a community something to coalesce around.
Friendship and Intentionality
In earlier podcasts, we’ve discussed the importance of starting out organically, starting with friendship instead of a blueprint. Sean agreed with that, but pointed out that such a group of friends does need to move on to something more structured. The ability to commit to a shared project is a test of friendship, and can help to deepen it. Even once this happens, however, the community can’t stop valuing the friendships; the friendship and the vision are the two poles between which the community has to keep going back and forth.
Catholic Social Teaching
It is vital that Catholic Communities have an emphasis on Catholic Social Teaching and on service to the poor. As Peter Maurin said, such communities need to be clear about what the world currently is, what it should be, and how to get from here to there. Without this clarity, Christian community can easily deteriorate into a sort of Christian suburb. Sean also pointed out how important it is that a community embrace voluntary poverty. Sometimes those who desire community want to wait until they can do so from a position of economic strength, but this may compromise the community’s integrity.
Consumerism can easily seep into a Christian community that is focused on providing a “good life” for its members. This can sometimes happen due to the seemingly harmless desire of parents to provide a good education and cultural environment for their children. As Sean said, there’s nothing wrong with education and cultural enrichment; he hopes he can provide these things for his future children. More importantly, however, children need to see that their parents are trying to live out the Gospel. Without this, any cultural environment is likely to become hypocritical, and children are quick to pick up on this.
Avoid Division, Embrace Discussion!
Sean and I discussed the fact that we have various disagreements on ideological points, but that we still see one another as allies. We can see one another’s projects as valuable, due to our shared commitments to the Church and our shared interest in social justice. This is in line with the Catholic Worker tradition of the Round Table Discussion. We need to be committed to seeking the truth, but we need to do so in unity with others who may differ from us. As Tim Keller said in a past interview, there will be political and ideological differences in any community, but these differences can’t be allowed to tear the community apart. Without a commitment to unity, the quest for truth will falter as different perspectives are isolated in their own ghettos.
Sean’s Tradistae project attempts to present the tradition of the Church; in particular, it attempts to show that Catholic Social Teaching is a vital aspect of the Church’s tradition. Too often those interested in Catholic Tradition are only interested in relatively superficial aspects of it. The Tradistae project seeks to change this; it includes a podcast, easy essays, and social media outreach.
The Hard Sayings of the Gospel
What Gospel teachings won’t you hear about at a typical parish? Conservatives lament the lack of sermons addressing the worthy reception of the Eucharist and the evils of abortion. Progressives decry the lack of sermons on social justice and care for the poor.
I’ve heard sermons on abortion and on helping the poor, and I’ve heard plenty of “asking sermons” in which priests urge the faithful to support the parish with time, talent, and treasure. I’ve only heard one sermon, though, on the spiritual dangers of owning a lot of “treasure”. That sermon, I should add, was given by a visiting priest. He said that he could only speak on such a dangerous topic because he’d be gone by the morning!
The Gospels strongly emphasize voluntary poverty. The rich young ruler went away sad, because he would not give up his possessions. The rich man, unlike Lazarus, had his good things in this life and eternal fire in the afterlife. God called the man with his bulging barns a fool. The poor are blessed, according to Christ. The Pharisees, who loved money, sneered at God Incarnate.
The Misuse of a Teaching
In a wealthy and powerful country, the topic of Gospel poverty tends to be avoided. It might annoy the rich and cause them to leave the Church. Someone recently told me, however, that Gospel poverty is preached to the poor in the Global South. According to him, in poor countries poverty is preached to the poor and oppressed as a way to keep them subservient and to distract them from the injustice of their oppressors. I don’t know how common this misuse of the Gospel poverty concept is. What is certain is that it is a misuse.
Serving the Poor to the Point of Poverty
The path to heaven for the rich, the only way for them to fit through the needle, is to serve the poor. Such service has to go far beyond that asked by the time-talent-and-treasure sermons. In general, the rich are only too happy to give donations, so long as such giving doesn’t impede their lifestyles. They give of their surplus, not of their need, as Christ pointed out. Fr. Dubay, speaking of this, says:
“We may consider a concrete example. At Mass one Sunday morning in October a serious, deeply religious couple hear that the following week there is going to be a collection for the foreign missions. As they drive home Mrs. Jones is likely to say, “Bill, do you think we could afford something like $20 or $30 for this collection?” After some musing Mr. Jones may well respond that he, too, thinks they could afford that amount as their contribution. While most would indeed consider Mr. and Mrs. Jones a generous couple, we must note something significant. When both of them used the expression “we could afford”, they meant “without changing significantly our level of consumption.” They did not mean “we could afford $20 or $30 if we dine out less frequently or give up smoking or cocktails, or if we cancel our vacation trip, or sell one of our sports cars.”—Happy Are You Poor, pp. 84-85
While we might not consider ourselves “rich”, the average American is wealthy by world and historical standards. If we are able to spend money on unnecessary items, then we are wealthy by Gospel standards. St. Paul writes to Timothy “For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it. If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that.” (1 Timothy 6:7-8) The Church calls us to put the needs of those who lack food, clothing, and basic shelter ahead of our desires for recreation, amusement, and fashion.
If the “asking sermons” were really heeded, the rich would become poor. In the body, would the hand ornament itself while the foot bled to death? In the family, would a brother take an expensive vacation while his sister starved to death? This is the meaning of the parable of the unjust steward: the rich are to make friends for themselves with the mammon of iniquity. The rich are to give it to the poor, and it is the friendship of the poor that will get the rich into heaven.
Is this a Swap?
Wouldn’t such a giving away of wealth merely swap the conditions of the rich and poor? No, for two reasons. Practically, there are more poor than rich. Every wealthy individual who gives up a mansion could build many modest homes in the Third World, without making anybody wealthy. “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for anyone’s greed.”
Theoretically speaking, such a “swap” isn’t desirable. From a Gospel perspective, wealth is undesirable, but so is destitution. Destitution is the lack of necessary goods and is bad for the soul just as it is bad for the body. We’re composite creatures, and damage to one part of ourselves is likely to reflect onto the other. The Christian ideal is that of Acts, where we see the rich selling what they have to give to the poor, and where “none of them lacked anything”.
Lifting the Poor out of Destitution
This highlights the folly of preaching Gospel poverty to the destitute. The poor, hungry and persecuted are indeed blessed. Why is this so? Because Jesus identifies himself with them. He lived among the poor, had nowhere to lay his head, and died on a cross. This identification means that as we treat the poor, so we treat Christ.
By all means, the Church should preach the dignity of the oppressed and poor—and the Church must warn their oppressors that eternal ruin may befall them if they do not recognize that dignity and act upon it.
Pontius Pilate was famously indifferent to the truth, and he refused to sacrifice his personal safety and ambitions to protect Truth himself in the guise of a poor, suffering Man before him. If Pilate had seen the face of God in the marginalized, he would have been a transfigured man. As it is, barring a last-minute conversion, we can suppose that his second face-to-face encounter with Christ was not a pleasant one.
The Interconnected Gospel
As it turns out, the neglected or misused topic of Gospel poverty has a close connection to the other “hard sayings” mentioned earlier, to social justice and abortion and the worthy reception of the Eucharist. Social justice without an embrace of Gospel poverty is a farce. The wealthy, merely by reason of their wealth, are unjust and oppressive. From the teaching of Church Fathers such as Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, through Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastics, right up to the teachings of Pope Francis and the Catechism of St. John Paul II, the Church has taught the universal destination of human goods. The surplus wealth of the rich belongs to the poor, not due to charity, but due to justice. Those who keep what belongs to another are unjust and commit the sin of theft.
This injustice makes the wealthy guilty of murder; they are responsible for the deaths of those whom they should have helped, including the many children aborted because their parents face economic hardship.
Such callousness to the life of others turns the Eucharist from the sacrament of life into the potential for damnation. St. Paul warns that those who receive unworthily eat and drink damnation upon themselves. What is not so well known is that this warning was given to a community which was not honoring the poor among them. In First Corinthians, St. Paul explains that our reception of the Eucharist makes us into one body in Christ. As members of the same body, we must care for one another.
The Epistle of James on Gospel Poverty
This Christian stance on wealth can be clearly seen in the following quotations from the Epistle of James: he calls the poor blessed, calls on the Church to feed and clothe them, and warns of the coming condemnation of the rich who do not aid the poor.
1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world . . .
2:1-6 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?
2:14-16 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
5:1-5 Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
For more on Gospel Poverty, see our outline of Fr. Dubay’s Happy Are You Poor.
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Charles Moore and Rick Burke from the Bruderhof. They discuss their personal stories, the history of the Bruderhof, the connection of poverty and communal living to the Gospel, and the tension between culture and intentionality in the Christian life.
The Bruderhof (the name means “the place of brothers” in German) is a network of communities that originated in Germany in the 1920s. With the rise of Hitler the community fled, going first to England and then to Paraguay. Over time, the community grew, and now has over 3000 members in 29 different locations. They are dedicated to living out the Gospel as a group; among other things, this means that individuals in the group don’t own private property.
Love in Community
Rick pointed out that two Bible verses highlight the importance of living together as a community. In 1 John 4:20, we read “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” It is easy to fake love of God, but not so easy to fake loving care for brothers and sisters in Christ!
Similarly, Rick pointed out that 1 John 4:12 says “No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is truly in our hearts.” That “but” is significant. The world is supposed to see God in the way Christians love one another. How can they see this if Christians don’t live in community? Our message is not just a bunch of words, but a concrete reality: the Kingdom of God.
Why do the Bruderhof members hold everything in common? Why is communal living important? As Charles said, because it is important to God. The Bruderhof sees communal living as a way to live out Gospel poverty and to imitate Acts 2 and 4. Charles and Rick explained that if we see ourselves as one body in Christ, then we ought to hold our goods in common, just as a married couple do. Avoiding private property helps members to be detached and free to follow the Lord, and sharing material goods is a concrete expression of love. We discussed the importance of Christian unity, which can often be reduced to a philosophic or theological concept. In reality, unity should be demonstrated in daily life.
The communal economics of the Bruderhof community is also a protest against the corrupting influence of Mammon in the world, and the violence and inequality which this influence causes.
Following Jesus as the Sole Motivation
Charles stressed that he didn’t join the Bruderhof to gain community. (In fact, he pointed out that he isn’t communal by nature!) Nor did he join the Bruderhof to “live differently” or to “escape the world”. He lives in community because the Gospel tells Christians to do so. If we see community as goal in itself, or an escape from the world, or as a means toward the success of a cause, it will fail. Only the love of Christ can support us in the daily task of serving one another in a community.
Family is Sacred, but not Sufficient
In any community, there can be tension between family life and the life of the community. The Family is instituted by God, and so is sacred; a community which tries to override family life is heading for disaster. On the other hand, we see from the Gospel that family is not sufficient. Families need to be integrated into a greater whole. Charles and Rick explained that in their experience, children adapt well to community life . . . in some cases, more easily than adults!
Community Can’t Replace Commitment
Community can’t replace personal commitment, whether for children or for adults. One of the dangers of Christian community is that it can obscure the need for each individual to make a choice to follow Christ. We can’t depend on social pressure, custom, or tradition, nor can we assume that because we fit in well with a community we are following Christ fully.
Similarly, a child who grow up in the Bruderhof has to make a personal decision to remain with the community. Charles and Rick explained that parents in the Bruderhof can’t assume that their children will remain members; they may have a calling elsewhere.
A related danger is basing a community on merely human strength or virtue, or seeing community as a gathering of one’s tribe or type. This will produce a clique, not a true Christian community. We’re all flawed, but in a community we can help to strengthen and support one another.
Attachment Comes in Many Forms
The Bruderhof emphasis on a communally economic way of life helps to avoid a certain kind of attachment, but Charles and Rick pointed out that another form of attachment is a particular danger for those living in community. Members of a Christian community can become attached to their traditions and customary ways of life. Charles emphasized that he didn’t join the Bruderhof because of the Bruderhof; he joined it to follow Christ. Communities have to remain open to the workings of the Holy Spirit, always ready to drop aspects of their culture if they are no longer a help to living the Christian life.
More Information on the Bruderhof
You can find more information about the Bruderhof at their website.