Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Living a Year of Grace: why do we have to hate being catholics?

One of the things I find most distressing in the Australian Church today is the continued insistence of diocesan bureaucrats and others that we shouldn't be proud to be catholics, and that the way things 'used to be' was all bad until wonderful Vatican II came along to save the day.

In my view, it results in meaningless twaddle that undermines, rather than promotes the faith.  Maybe its a paradigm that plays well with the brainwashed members of the older generation (though I doubt it), but it just makes me cringe and want to run away. 

'Living a Year of Grace'

A classic example of this seems to be the new Lenten Resource produced by the Archdiocese of Canberra and authored by its Coordinator of Spirituality & Faith Formation, Shawn Dwyer.

Living a Year of Grace  is apparently intended to be a warm up to the Australian Year of Grace, but if this is a sample of what is yet to come, then I'm going into hibernation until the Year of Faith, which sounds like it might actually be about Catholicism, starts!

I haven't read the whole thing, just sampled the free download sent out to promote the resource.

But just those few pages are more than enough!

Promoting false ecumenism

The first alarm bells have to ring when the email advertising the leaflet declares that it "is suitable for use by any Christian faith tradition".

Any? Anyone at all that even vaguely claims to be Christian? 

So you know it is going to be utterly content free, surely a difficult thing to achieve when we are talking about a series focused on the theologically dense Sunday Gospel readings for Lent!

But then you get to the text. 

Right in the first few pages there is a little discussion dissing converts, with the clear subtext being that conversion from some other form of Christianity to Catholicism is a bad thing (I guess this is meant as a sop to those ecumenical readers, but really, putting yourselves down is embarrassing, not appealing), about mere 'belonging' rather than actual conversion to the truth:

"We have all heard Catholics who either describe themselves, or are described by others, as ‘converts’. Get them to talk about what they mean by this and invariably it will come down to ‘he or she used to belong to another church (or to none at all) and now he or she is one of us’.[That is they have rejected error and found truth.  Because the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic.]

Belonging is very important to human beings so it is not so surprising that we automatically focus on this consequence of the conversion experience...[Odd to see a liberal catholic rejecting the importance of the catholic community! Odder still to imply that conversion to the Catholic fiath is a merely human response, rather than a result of grace!   But in any case, surely joining a genuine community, formed of those to whom the tradition has been entrusted and handed down to, rather than some group that has either rejected part of the tradition or entirely made up its own largely human 'faith tradition' is actually a good thing!].   In fact, we are going to find throughout this program that conversion is at the very heart of our relationship with God. We do not convert in order to belong – we belong because we are constantly responding to the grace of conversion." [True, but neither can we be Christians apart from the Church!  This all sounds a bit like that protestant youtube video that has gone viral, you know the one - 'Why I hate religion but love Jesus'.]

Rejecting eschatology

There is, though, a second, not quite so ecumenical moment in these first few pages of the sample text, when the author describes a discussion with some Jehovah's Witnesses.  Apparently they don't constitute a 'Christian faith tradition' for the purpose of this resource, which is fair enough.  Good to know that there is a line being drawn somewhere!

Except that the point of departure between Catholics and the Witnesses for the author appears to be the idea that there will in fact be a Second Coming, that there is a final judgment, and that fear of God might be a good starting place for us in thinking about conversion in the here and now!

Now I know from my own encounters that the Jehovah's Witnesses are more than a little over the top on this issue and have some fairly weird ideas around what is going to happen, but that really doesn't mean we have to go to the opposite extreme!

I suppose it is fairly standard liberal avoidance stuff that I've talked about recently at length.  One can perfectly understand why liberals want to water down the meaning of John the Baptist's call to repentance, but still, disappointing to see regurgitated in this context.  The message is all focus on the now, and carry out 'random acts of kindness' .  The sub-text is, let's try and forget about death, judgment, heaven and hell. 

Schmaltz rather than the patrimony

The whole resource appear to promote the fallacy that lectio divina doesn't actually require any contextual knowledge of Scripture, that rather, if we just read a passage through and pray over it long enough it will miraculously become meaningful. 

The sheer arrogance of this anti-intellectual approach seems to me to run counter to the approach to Scripture set out in the Catechism, and drawn out in Pope Benedict XVI in Verbum Domini that suggests starting from the literal meaning of the text, as the basis for the other senses of Scripture.  It rejects the idea of looking at what the Tradition has to say about the meaning of the text in favour of 'sharing a word or phrase' that seems meaningful.  And it bears no resemblance whatsoever to lectio divina as it was actually practised in the monastic tradition.

As the nineteenth century Benedictine Solesmes foundress Cecile Bruyere observed in her book on the Spiritual life:

"The knowledge of doctrinal truth is the root of prayer, hence its great importance; it is likewise the safeguard against many illusions of the imagination, the corrective of pious dreaming and of false mysticism.  It is absolute presumption to expect to obtain, by immediate light from God, that knowledge which we can and ought to acquire for ourselves as part of our work in this world." 

Then there is the accompanying CD, which apparently features the music of Stephen Kirk.  It is the kind of muzak that goes well with a content free approach I guess.

The nature of Grace

I have to say, though, the thing I find most upsetting of all is the straw man approach to 'what used to be taught' as Catholic spirituality, such as this paragraph from Archbishop Coleridge's introduction to the booklet:

"Grace is a concept with which we may have become unfamiliar. Grace is not a thing. Too easily we fall into the trap of thinking of it (if we think of it at all) as something we wait for from a God who may or may not dispense it. The thought that God doles out grace only in response to the correct approach from us is one that once dominated Catholic spirituality. [Really?  Where?  Why even say this - why not just present the positive picture of what grace is, and quote the Catechism for example, and/or use St Augustine's famous restless hearts quote?] Unfortunately, our rejection of this miserable interpretation of grace has found many of us backing away from the concept all together – to the detriment of our understanding of what it is that God is bringing about in our lives."

Maybe I'm just too young (though I'm over the half century mark now!), but these kind of  characterisations of 'what used to be' invariably seem to me to be utterly unrecognizable.  They bear little or no resemblance to anything I've ever heard or seen taught, or what I've read in any pre-Vatican II texts or Catechism.  Indeed, the only place I see these kinds of misrepresentations of what catholics 'used to believe' is in places like the acatholica forum or on the rabid comments on anti-cath news.

And even if some nun somewhere or other did once upon a time distort the faith in order to convey some truth's overly simply, the 'it used to be terrible/but now we've fixed it' paradigm just seems inappropriate many years on!.  Not to mention somewhat at odds with the concept of the hermeneutic of continuity!

Bring on the Year of Faith.


A Canberra Observer said...

how old is Coleridge? I started school in 1969 and I have distinct memories of the 'V2 saved us all from the dark past' mantra from about grade 2 or 3. I would guess that these guys imbibed it either at school or at least in the seminary, and afterwards. It has just become hard-wired. Already in their sociological/arts seminary studies they were probably not using any method of what do the authorative sources say.

And the V2 mantra is so embedded in the Australian Catholic psyche I expect bishops and priests believe they just have to keep sprouting this stuff.

The pontificate of JPII has much to answer for in my less than humble opinion, Yet the liberals still viewed him as an arch-reactionary.

Of course the other option, which fits my beloved dictum "always choose cockup before conspiracy" is that sometimes bishops just open their mouths [or pens] and 'stuff' comes out.

Another alternative is that, like politicians, they don't actually write their own stuff and that these atrocious platitudes are the work of their staffers.

Kate said...

He is 63, and ordained in 1974, so probably was at seminary in the worst possible time to be there propaganda wise.

But we are after all, constantly urged to read the signs of the times, which mean now, now the times as they were in the early 70s or 60s or 50s!

And yes, it probably was mostly drafted by Mr Dwyer or someone else, but if it goes out in your name, you are acountable for it!

That said, you are probably right in suggesting that I was overreacting to the introduction, as opposed to the actual main content of this resource, but its the same paradigm that appears in the recent new schools resource on the Eucharist and keeps popping up elsewhere as well.

A Canberra Observer said...

I say we should teach the Canons of the Council of Trent.

When first I read these, I thought 'wow'.

In fact maybe that could be woven into a hermeneutic of continuity program - sort if "well what did this other council say" program.

I suspect at least some school kids would like the precision and clarity of the canons as opposed to the fluff they currently get.

PM said...

I think you're being a little hard on Archbishop Coleridge. He had 16 years as a child and youth, and from my slightly shorter pre-conciliar youth I could agree that in popular Catholicism there was indeed an unspoken and probably unconscious semi-pelagianism - the assumption that we were out to win God over by piling up pious devotions and good works.

The reverse is of course the case - acts of devotion are the fruit of grace, and the forgiveness we receive in the sacrament of Confession is not a reward for convincingly performing a penitent act: sorrow for sin is a sign of the grace of forgiveness already at work in us.

I suspect there was at work a certain recoil from 'protestant' thinking - remember the controversy over grace in which the Jesuits called the Dominicans crypto Lutherans and Calvinists. Herbert McCabe, that brilliant if controversial intepreter of the Angelic Doctor, said the same about growing up in the Hibernian diaspora in the north of England in the 1930s and 40s - he was astounded to learn as a Dominican student not only that Aquinas put forward teaching on predestination, but that the Council of Trent had adopted it as its own.

Coleridge, to give him his due, has been one of the few bishops brave enough to acknowledge the pelagian tendencies of the now-discarded 1970s ICEL Mass translation (to do so, of course, means owning up to the scale of the mistake bishops and Roman dicasteries made in approving it!). Those tendencies, I submit, didn't emerge from nowhere.

Kate said...

PM - Let's accept all that for the sake of argument. It is still a sales pitch that is only going to be meaningful to those of the older generation.

Why does everything have to be presented negatively, and pitched to a greying audience? No wonder younger people exit the pews and even the reasonably commmitted struggle!

And should the diocese really be implicitly endorsing the idea that conversion to catholicism is somehow not graced by merely human action?

Should the diocese really be selling these new age/content free approaches to Scripture?

I looked at this resource because I was thinking of responding to a call in the parish I've been attending for people willing to run Lenten groups. But this stuff just makes me wonder all over again if I even belong to the same church.

Mal said...

I wonder on what grounds did the Association scream 'discrimination'?
Woud this associations let Christian groups use their premises?

PM said...


I wasn't disagreeing with the rest of what you said and apologise if I gave that impression - writing in a hurry late at night is hazardous.

I do think, though, that +Coleridge deserves credit for having the courage to bell the (semi-)pelagian cat in public, and I take this as the basis of his comment.

The tragedy is that,thanks to the 'We Are Church' tendency, the problem got worse than better after VII and was nurtured by a faulty liturgical translation.

Kate said...

Fair point PM.

And I guess I'm totally unrepresentative of potential users of the resource, who are, given the demographics of Canberra pewsitters, likely to be at least the AB's age or more likely much older!

Still, I wish these things would be looked at with an eye to mission....