March 13, 2009

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

After all, isn’t this what makes us Catholic?

Cynthia DewesEvery so often, we hear discussions between Catholics that sound more like arguments.

One side is conservative, sticking up for practices or judgments that pre-date Vatican II, while the other is fearful that the Church is reverting to certain skewed ideas of that time.

Of course, both are loyal to Christ and to what they believe his Church to be. One is afraid we are losing traditional truths because of so-called reforms, while the other is afraid we are more involved in details that have little to do with Christ’s message than we are with faith in that message.

It’s the old “follow the rules or follow your instinct” conflict. Naturally, there is a need for rules, but the extremes of rigid adherence to them can become distortions, such as anti-Semitism or Mariolatry. The corollary to the need for rules is that they must follow Christ’s teachings.

This was also true when Christ was criticized for not performing the ritual washing of hands before eating or for healing people on the Sabbath. These were commands under the Old Covenant that the critics felt trumped serving human needs in what later became the New Covenant. But even earlier, Isaiah said of such rules, “Empty is the reverence they do me [God] because they teach as dogmas mere human precepts” (Is 29:13).

On the other hand, following our hearts can indeed lead us away from faith when human selfishness is rationalized as human need, and Church rules are interpreted as unnecessary roadblocks to human desires. At the far end of this spectrum, we get into I-am-God fantasy.

A priest friend of mine summed up this conflict between conservative and liberal rather well, I thought, when he said, “Isn’t this what makes us Catholic?” In other words, this difference of opinion may not be a bad thing, but rather can open a dialogue leading to more mature faith on both sides.

So, what to do? Where’s the happy medium between sticking religiously (small joke here) to the rules or making up our own? When are we truly faithful to Christ and the Church?

First of all, I believe we must follow our conscience. This can be a sticky thing too, because we need an “informed” conscience. One man’s informed conscience may be another’s rationalization. But I also believe that through close examination of Church teachings, spiritual direction and, most of all, prayer that we can depend upon our conscience.

Then, we need to be open to the Holy Spirit. I once heard Father John Catoir describing this very idea at a conference. Dressed in lay clothing, he had attended a conference event which included dinner and dancing. He kindly asked a lonely-looking girl to dance and soon sensed that the girl was becoming romantically interested in him. Father Catoir is a handsome man.

When he tactfully indicated that he is a priest, the girl suddenly teared up and began to tell him about the emptiness of her life and her estrangement from the Church. She was, in effect, confessing her sins and, before the conversation was over, she asked to return to the Church. Father Catoir said that enjoying an evening of human fun had led to a shower of God’s grace.

That kind of openness to joy, the appreciation of being human, seems to me another vital ingredient in being truly faithful. God’s great gift of free will allows us to control ourselves without letting rules control us. Catholic, indeed.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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