Sometimes others express my opinions better than I do. This repost from the Gospel Coalition presents a cautionary tale for Protestant Christians:
“It all comes down to catechesis.” Monsignor Irvine was known for memorable quips. A little leprechaun of a man, he was full of good-natured humor and wit (it was he who also told me, “Chris, if you go into the ministry, be sure to take God seriously and not yourself”). You can imagine, therefore, how my ears perked up when I recently spoke with Francis Cardinal George and heard him say nearly the same thing. “It’s all about catechesis.”
I don’t usually have dinner with the Cardinal (just for the record), but on this occasion I happened to be sitting beside him for an hour discussing the interface of Catholic theology and current affairs. The context of his comment was the Department of Health and Human Services mandate. With an admirable measure of candor, the Cardinal not only articulated his concern for the threat to our nation’s religious freedom, he also lamented the paucity of Christian thinking on the issue. However, far from a negative bemoaning of the problem, he was strikingly enthusiastic about the current “discipleship opportunity.”
Fortnight for Freedom
Starting June 21, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) launched a Fortnight for Freedom, intended to expose the government’s violations of religious liberty. In an interview with CNN, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, explained that leading up to July 4, there will be prayer vigils, religious rallies, and homilies at Mass to build awareness among the faithful. In his words, it is about “prayer, education, and action.”
It is interesting to observe this movement through the lens of “catechesis.” Once again, quoting Cardinal Wuerl who spoke on Sunday before a rally at George Washington University, “We’re here to educate about freedom. We started this campaign to say religious liberty is eroding.” To understand precisely what part of liberty the Cardinal understands to be eroding, you’ll want to read the recent USCCB statement titled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” Here is one of several places in the document where the theme of catechesis emerges:
Catechesis on religious liberty is not the work of priests alone. The Catholic Church in America is blessed with an immense number of writers, producers, artists, publishers, filmmakers, and bloggers employing all the means of communications—both old and new media—to expound and teach the faith. They too have a critical role in this great struggle for religious liberty. We call upon them to use their skills and talents in defense of our first freedom.
One such writer is Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, whose new ebook,True Freedom: On Protecting Human Dignity and Religious Liberty (Image Books), was released June 19. Over and against the government’s secular creed, which supports abortion providers with tax dollars, imposes the HHS mandates, and threatens to redefine marriage, the Cardinal envisions a “culture of life” in which men and women, made in God’s image, are free to live out their faith. Quoting Pope Leo XIII, Cardinal Dolan begins: “True freedom . . . is that freedom which most truly safeguards the dignity of the human person. It is stronger than any violence or injustice. Such is the freedom which has always been desired by the Church, and which she holds most dear.” The Bishops’ message might be unpopular, but it is eminently clear.
The Challenge of Communication
As every pastor knows, catechesis involves two distinct challenges: content and delivery. You labor to craft a message from God, and when your exegesis is done, you’re only half-finished. Along this line, the Catholic Bishops are now facing a communication challenge. According to sociologist William D’Antonio and his team at Catholic University, whose recent study Catholics in America: Persistence and Change in the Catholic Landscape wasfeatured in USA Today, these challenges include the following:
- 86 percent of Catholics say “you can disagree with aspects of church teachings and still remain loyal to the church.” Only about 30 percent support the “teaching authority claimed by the Vatican.”
- 40 percent say you can be a good Catholic without believing that in Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ—a core doctrine of Catholicism.
- When asked why they don’t go to Mass more often, 40 percent say they are simply not very religious.
- 88 percent say “how a person lives is more important than whether he or she is Catholic.”
While the antichristian bias of government and media is a formidable challenge to U.S. Catholic Bishops, the more immediate predicament may actually be the lukewarm theology of men and women who identify themselves as Catholic. To be sure, there is no room for triumphalism here. We Protestants see enough nominal faith in our own ranks. But it may raise a point worth considering.
The enterprise of catechesis can only succeed when one’s public identity is manifestly defined and critiqued by the objective truth of divine revelation. Any bifurcation between public and private life pulls the carpet out from beneath the whole project. Evangelism, discipleship, and the fulfillment of Christian vocation are all predicated on this conviction; otherwise, there is a smattering of religious opinions and nothing more.
Men and women will only listen to their pastors and take action when they believe that they are hearing the voice of God. How do churches arrive at this place? This, too, underscores the point of my favorite Irish Monsignor: “It all comes down to catechesis.”
Chris Castaldo serves as director of the Ministry of Gospel Renewal for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. He is the author of Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic and a main contributor to Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Anglicanism. He blogs atwww.chriscastaldo.com.