How It All Comes How It All Comes Down to What Catholics Can’t Do or Won’t Do

Deal W. Hudson

(A speech for the “Witness to a Divided Country” Ave Maria Radio Conference, Ypsilanti, MI January 12, 2012)

This morning I’m going to ask you three questions. These are questions I don’t intend to answer for you. You must answer them for yourselves. The greatest teacher of all, Socrates, understood the first principle of learning, that the efficient cause of knowledge came from the student not the teacher.
Socrates had that in common with Jesus, by the way, which is why Jesus so often taught using parables and extended similes (you know, those imaginative comparisons using “like” or “as.”)
Parables, like a Socratic dialogue, make the learner do the work of learning, nothing is spoon-fed. And as we work to obtain, we remember, and it becomes part of us rather than something we have tried on, like a borrowed coat. (Ah, those similes again!)
Both Socrates and Jesus died for their teaching….which should give us pause as we go down this path together. I’m asking you these three questions not merely as an exercise in pedagogy, but for a very serious purpose — to address the question posed by the title of this conference: How to be a Catholic witness, a witness for the Church, in a nation divided — divided politically, religiously, culturally, economically, and ethnically.

No one is pretending these divisions are new; they have been growing wider for a long time, in fact, during the whole of my lifetime. What this past election made people realize is the dimension of the divide, its intransigence, and that the Catholic Church no longer has the clout it once had in shaping the culture of our nation.

Given the ideologies that guide our leading cultural institutions, such as education, there is no calvary just over the hill ready to charge in and save the day. What took generations to weave will take generations to render.
I should admit that before posing these questions to you, I have posed them to myself, as well as several bishops I spoke to in preparation for this lecture. So I am not exempt from this, call it, exercise in self-examination.

Because at this moment in time in the history of our nation and our Church, self-examination not finger-pointing should be our first priority, our first step towards becoming effective Catholic witnesses at home, among our friends and acquaintances, and even to the strangers that we meet, as well as those who merely observe our walk through life.
My first question is a simple one, but I want you to think about it for a moment before jumping to any firm conclusion.
Do you consider yourself a “better Catholic” than most other Catholics?

Now in thinking about this question, I want to you focus on the word “better” and what that implies. In this context, the implication is that, according to the fundamental standards of the Catholic faith, your life more closely conforms to those standards than most other Catholics, at least those you know.

Notice I did not specify merely your opinions, your stated beliefs, your positions on social issues, or the liturgy, or any other “hot button” matter debated among Catholics.
I asked about your “whole” life, not just what you think and what you say, but how you live, how you act, the intentions of your heart, what goes unsaid, what goes unexpressed, what is done when no one is looking.
Did I just make it harder for you to answer the question? Of course, I did! But after all, being a Catholic Christian goes beyond having the right opinions, saying the right things, even showing up at Mass every week.

We are taught that the moral life is a matter of forming virtues rather than vices, and having good moral habits so that our action will spring from deep-seated dispositions toward what is good, true, just, and, yes, beautiful.

It might have crossed your mind as you mulled over this question that the Pharisees, as you may recall, considered themselves better Jews than others, and Jesus was pretty hard on them. Would you want to be called a “whited sepulchre?” Ouch!
Matthew 23:27: Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you are like to whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones, and of all filthiness.

It’s my observation that most Catholic activists, regardless of their place on the political or theological spectrum, consider themselves “better Catholics” than others (I include myself here). That’s why activists on the right and left spend so much time beating each other up; they are operating from the same assumption.

More importantly, however, I have also observed — when we are perceived in this way by others it diminishes rather than strengthens our witness as Catholics. Notice the distinction I made, for it is crucial: What I said is that others observe not that we are better Catholics but that we consider ourselves to be better Catholics — a big, big difference.

To have a Catholic witness in a divided nation should mean, first of all, that we don’t add to that division, that we don’t divide it further by arrogance, self-righteousness, condemnation, pomposity, or self-importance.
Are you attracted to these qualities in others, especially those who represent viewpoints on how to live, what to believe, and the very meaning of life?
I doubt it. I’ve asked you this first question so that you might look at yourselves, just as I have been looking in the mirror, asking, “What kind of witness have I have been? How am I being perceived? How am I being heard? Is there charity in the sound of my voice, the look on my face, the attitude I project? Am I a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal?”
I Cor 13.1: If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

If your train of thinking follows mine, about now you are thinking: But it’s my duty to “speak the truth,” and if “speaking the truth” about life, marriage, and religious liberty gets me labeled a bigot, a hate-monger, an extremist, an ultra-conservative, then “so be it!”
My job as a Catholic witness is to speak the truth and let the chips fall where they may.
Is it? Really? It seems to me what the folks at Ave Maria Radio are challenging us to do with this conference is to examine that assumption, and if it’s true think more deeply about just what “speaking the truth” really means.

The nation is divided. Perhaps our witness can be called effective if it furthers that division, distinguishes the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.
After all, didn’t our Holy Father, Benedict XVI predict the Church itself would become small and have to start over again? Are these our marching orders? Are we being encouraged to separate the chaff and let it blow away so that only the “better Catholics” are left?

Here is your next question:

2. Should your Catholic witness be measured by how clearly it draws between the “better Catholics” and the rest? (Making the Church smaller, so to speak, by eliminating those who don’t meet the standards in some respect?)

As I said, Benedict XVI is often quoted for saying, “The Church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.” This is taken from a book he wrote long before he became the Pope. Faith and the Future was written in 1969, but not published in English until 2009. Since its publication, it has been the subject of much commentary, some of it, I think, rather misleading.

If you read the text itself in context, Ratzinger was certainly not encouraging us to be agents of downsizing the Church, but rather to accept the present as a time of trial and transformation, becoming beacons of light to an impoverished world. Let me read you a larger chunk of what the then Father Ratzinger, professor at the University of Regensburg, wrote:

“The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . It will be hard-going for the Church…It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely…they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.”

Ratzinger here is describing what has long been known as the spiritual principle of “loss and gain.” He calls upon Catholics not to bemoan the loss of the Church’s prestige, its worldly status, its loss of cultural domination, the number of practicing adherents, because invisibly and mystically the Church is in the process of regaining its power.

“It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.”

In other words, we are not to hasten this process, to employ our witness to create or encourage further division, our witness should be grounded in, and infused by, a humble acceptance — Ratzinger calls it meekness — that, in the eyes of the world, we belong to an institution in decline, in the process of becoming smaller.
Thus, we come to the last question:

3. How does this change anything we do or say, as witnesses to the truth of the Catholic faith?

I would venture it changes nothing, but it changes everything — it forces us as Catholics to do what can’t do or won’t do — to be evangelical witnesses! Indeed, evangelism is what explains is what I meant when I said, ‘everything stays the same and everything changes.’

Let me offer an illustration:
A few weeks after the election, I was invited to meet with a group of national faith leaders to discuss “what went wrong?” As I listened to the various speakers, I agreed with most of what was said but got progressively turned off by how it was said, the attitude it evinced. I thought to myself, “If I am turned off, and I’m in agreement, then much of America must be turned off as well.”

The next day, I met a young man from Texas for breakfast, a new friend who had also been at the meeting. He asked me what I thought, and I found myself saying something that surprised me:

“You know why people become Christians, it’s not because of condemnation, it’s because of the Gospel, the Gospel of God’s love. People are burdened with guilt, with their sins and failures. They need and want forgiveness, redemption from the past, hope for the future, they want a happier life and to be with God in eternity.”
Then I quoted what is for me, a favorite Scripture, “Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavily laden and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28)

My young friend not only agreed but also had been waiting to hear someone well-established in “Christian politics” say it. I had not planned to say it — it just popped out of my mouth, a product of my own frustration with the way Christians had been presenting themselves and their moral issues to the nation during the campaign.

I don’t intend to dismiss, or defame, the political effort over the past 50 years — to articulate and defend the Christian vision that permeates the American Founding and natural and revealed laws that show us the way to the common good.
But too much politics can lead us away from the Gospel, making it sound like a direct mail version of the Good News — you know, you have to send me $25 today or the world will end and the nation will crumble!

There is an inherent tension, almost a conflict, between what must be done in a political campaign and what Christians do in evangelization. In politics we focus on the law, standards of conduct, and action; as evangelists who witness to the Gospel, we reach out to those whose failure to keep those standards have left them cut off from God and feeling alienated from the Church and its teachings.

In politics we make laws and insist that people respect and abide by them, but as evangelists of the Gospel we call these same people to “come home” even if they have not been living by them, even if they have broken God’s laws and commandments.

I know what I am saying is subject to caricature as a kind of “faith without works” attitude, but, of course, given more time I would tell, as they say, “the whole story.” We enter the Church broken, and over time through its teaching and the grace of the sacraments we learn and we grow; the “works” will follow.

This, too, is subject to caricature as if I am saying that “sin” is gradually erased from our lives, and, of course, that is not the case. Our sin is a constant reminder of why we gave ourselves to God in the first place, why we need His grace and the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The humility that is pressed upon us by the constant repetition of sin and forgiveness has no place in our “religious outreach” to voters.

But it is at the heart of being an effective witness, to be evangelical in the authentic sense. Remember, Benedict XVI predicted in 1969 that the time was coming when history itself would provide a time of scouring for the Church, with the need for humility and compassion pressed upon us.

I’m not suggesting religious leaders should stand at political rallies and qualify every declaration of support for life, marriage, and religious liberty with, “And, by the way, I am a sinner who needs to ask for God’s forgiveness every day of my life.” That turns a political event into a religious one, or at least creates a confusing amalgam of both.

Everything remains the same and everything changes: What we believe, what we say, the Creed itself, does not change; how we say it, how we present ourselves to the world undergoes a transformation.
We begin to pay close attention to our tone and our visage, what used to be called comportment: What are we communicating by how we talk and by how we present ourselves to the world? Would anyone of good will who disagrees with us see or hear that we are attempting to share a gift or would they say we are “puffed up” with pride?

If you are feeling a bit confused by this well-known, tough guy, ultra-conservative Catholic counseling self-examination, I can clarify myself by mentioning a single name, Father Benedict Groeschel.

You know as well I do, he would be embarrassed by my bringing up his name in this context. He would wave his arm at me and shout in his Jersey City brogue, “Deal, stop it! I’m just a priest who hangs out with the poor because they are happy!”

It’s the life of Father Groeschel that answers question #3: How does this — our embrace of the Church in an age of decline — change anything we do or say, as witnesses to the truth of the Catholic faith?

I was just with Fr. Groeschel a few weeks ago where he now lives at St. Joseph’s Home for the Elderly, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, Totowa, NJ. I had been on retreat with him every year for many years but had missed a year and wanted to catch up with him.

On every occasion I have spent time with Father Groeschel since I first met him in 1996, I have felt the love of Christ, the love of the Father, and have seen the beauty of the Church, as well as the beauty of its Truth.

Here’s a man with a world-class intellect, a doctorate from Columbia University in psychology, deeply conversant in philosophy, theology, literature, spirituality, liturgy, politics, and history.

Fr. Groeschel has spent his entire career as a priest not only ministering to the poorest of the poor, but to clergy whose sins have driven them to despair — yet, no man I know laughs more easily, more heartily, and yet can address the hardest teachings of the Catholic Church without turning people away, or turning people off.

Father Groeschel is beloved across all the divides, and his voice has been heard, making the Church more accessible, a place, as Benedict put it, which is the “answer for which [men and women] have always been searching in secret.”

I’m not suggesting we become clones of Father Benedict, or that there is a formula for evangelization that can be distilled from his essence — there is no one-size-fits-all approach to being an effective Catholic Witness to a Divided Nation. But there is, as I have suggested, a starting point, which changes nothing but changes everything.

If we, as Catholics, learn the lessons being taught by the decline of our Church, it will transform our “comportment” because we will have been changed — the source of our words, our actions, our very presence will have been renewed by the spirit of charity. Then our witness will become truly evangelical — not in the manner of evangelical preachers, who have their virtues, but of Father Benedict Groeschel who, as a Franciscan friar, embodied the evangelical spirit of the saint from Assisi who famously said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

Our kindness, patience, and good humor in the midst of the present rancor will be the witness of a faithful heart, a witness to the heart of the Church, with a voice that will eventually, in return, win hearts.

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