What Cradle Catholics Take for Granted

Deal W. Hudson

Our Holy Father, John Paul II, has called us to participate in the new evangelization of the Catholic Church. These very personal remarks are offered in the spirit of that evangelism. Perhaps hearing from someone who discovered the Church for the first time as an adult will be helpful to those who have lost heart in their faith or who have given up. Surely there are untapped resources still available in our shared faith to help them turn toward home.

It’s only human nature for us to take things for granted, such as family, country, and religion. But there’s a special problem among Catholics about taking their faith for granted. I didn’t know this when I entered the Church more than a decade ago. I found out about it in the course of answering the many questions that came my way about my conversion.

I was constantly asked, for example, how would a Southern Baptist minister from Fort Worth, Texas, make his way to Rome? As I would share my story, enthusiastically as any ex-Baptist must, I found that enthusiasm doesn’t get you very far among Catholics. I was met with blank stares.

I started classifying those blank stares. The first classification was, “What is he talking about? Aquinas, Natural Law, Maritain. I’ve never heard of that!” The other set of blank stares I classified as, “I thought we’d done away with this kind of Catholicism.”

Discovery of Catholic Tradition

So as I moved through the first decade of my life as a Catholic, I began to realize that some Catholics did, in fact, take their Church and its great legacy for granted, specifically: Catholic wisdom, Catholic doctrine, and the Mass.

I used to look forward to questions on my conversion until I started meeting incredulity and hostility. I loved to tell the story about my discovery of Catholic wisdom at Princeton Theological Seminary, one of the great Protestant seminaries in this country, through the work of St. Augustine, On the Trinity. As I read this treatise, I encountered something I had never seen in any of the Protestant theologians I had read—the perfect cooperation of natural and supernatural intelligence. In St. Augustine I met a command of history. A command of classical learning. The invention of the psychological method.

This encounter with St. Augustine led me to more years of reading than I care to admit. I’m embarrassed it took me so long after that to enter the Church. I should have known better. I read Aquinas. I read the Church Fathers. I read the great Reformation and post-Reformation debates. I read the great Catholic novelists, whom I still recommend to you. I read the great Catholic poets. I listened to your music. I tried to learn your language. Have you tried to learn your language?

This culminated in a reading of the two volumes of the documents of Vatican II. I devoured those documents because a book by James Hitchcock called Decline and Fall: Catholicism and Modernity made me worry that the Church I wanted to enter was becoming Protestant. When I finished the documents of Vatican II, I realized very clearly that the Church I had first glimpsed in the life and work of St. Monica’s son still existed. It hadn’t changed.

When I went to my first Mass and tried to get a grip on all of that moving around, all of that unexpected motion, all of those unconsecutive page numbers, it was a lot harder and it took a lot longer to assimilate. But, finally, it dawned on me that just as there is tremendous power in your wisdom and in your doctrine, the greatest power of all is in the Eucharist. Catholic worship culminates an encounter with the objective presence of Christ on the altar.

I know that enthusiastic stories of converts are met with a little bit of suspicion. Ronald Knox, bless his soul, wrote a great book called Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion. I sometimes wish it had never been written. Every time I mention to my Catholic friends, one exception being Mother Angelica, who agrees with me on this, that we need a little more enthusiasm in the Catholic Church, I hear, “Oh, Ronald Knox, Ronald Knox.” I don’t think he meant to expunge all of the energy out of our faith. I think we know the kind of dangers he was warning us against.

Most Catholics, I think, are baffled why anyone would choose to carry the baggage of this old, outdated faith. I’m living proof that this is not a religion acquired only by birth. In fact, if you think back through Church history, isn’t it true that large families alone didn’t make the Catholic Church great? Large families alone didn’t make the Catholic Church endure. It was evangelization that made the Catholic Church great. Evangelization made it the universal Church universal—global in its scope.

The Church grew because missionaries shared the faith, told its stories. We can’t just rely on having large families to keep the Catholic Church great. Large families are wonderful. They’re a blessing. But what will keep the Catholic Church great is a commitment to telling its stories, to evangelization, to witnessing. When is the last time you did it? When is the last time you were able to articulate to your alienated Catholic friends why you remain a Catholic?

We all take things for granted. We take our families for granted. We take our country for granted. We take our religion for granted. But in this case of family and country, I’ve noticed there’s kind of an automatic correction that goes on. You get older, you have children, and you think, “My mother and father, how great they were. How grateful I am to them. Why didn’t I realize it until now?” It happens almost automatically, at least it did for me. The significance of last Veterans Day hit me very hard. On that day I thought about thousands of people who have died or risked their lives, including my own father, so that I could be free, so that I could raise my daughter in a free country. I’m sure as I grow older, this love of country will just get stronger.

The Mind of Christ

But there’s a special problem with the Catholic Church. There’s no evidence that cradle Catholics who fall away, who lose heart, there is no evidence they return. When I ask them why they haven’t returned, they sound inarticulate. They don’t really know why. They use phrases about the irrelevancy of an authoritarian masculine church, about the lack of women priests, about nuns who were mean to them in the third grade. But in all of this they’ve not taken on the mind of Christ. They’ve taken on the mind of the media. The mind of Christ was never imparted to them.

We have to take this indifference seriously, because the fate of our children is at stake. We now live in an era we call “modernity.” Modernity is defined by options—an almost unlimited range of options for young people. Our young people are not automatically going to choose the faith of their parents. Protestant evangelicals are wooing them. The culture at large is wooing them—the secular culture—and they have very powerful tools on their side. They have the movies on their side. They have films on their side.

Why would your children, when they come to an age of decision—and of course ages of decision arise all through life—why would they want to return to a lukewarm, lethargic, inarticulate Church? Why, when there’s so much passionate commitment elsewhere? Don’t tell me the Catholic Church should be a place where enthusiasm is excluded. That’s nonsense. We should be just as excited about the gifts we have in our Church as about any other gifts, any other pleasures.

Another sign of a special problem in the Catholic Church is what I call the “post office phenomenon.” People who can’t explain what they are doing hide behind a posture. People who think they alone deliver the spiritual mail but can’t explain why, will make you stand in line until they’re ready to serve you—but don’t ask any questions in the meantime! How can the Church expect people to remain faithful, devoted, and grateful when they’re being treated like that?

Catholic faith is old, yes. It is venerable, yes. But it still needs to be explained to each new generation, your children and their children. May I remind you that the older generation needs a refresher course from time to time? That’s why you’re reading Crisis magazine and other Catholic publications.

Wisdom, doctrine, and worship—the very reasons I became a Catholic—are being taken for granted.

Catholic Liberation

What did it mean for me to discover the Catholic Church? First, it was totally liberating for a Baptist to realize that Christian intelligence is not limited merely to citing texts from Scripture to support arguments, but rather that Christian intelligence takes in the whole of the natural order and that God speaks through the natural order to the prudent eye. This was nothing less than the recovery of my intellect, the intellect that God gave me to use in making man in his image and likeness.

Second, it was liberating to realize that the biblical revelation, the revelation through the prophets, through Christ, had been contained, reflected, and commented upon throughout the history of the Church, which is the body of Christ. That a weighing and sifting had gone on for all of these centuries gave me the confidence that I didn’t have to jump back nearly two thousand years every time I wanted to know what Christ calls me to do. This, for me, was nothing less than a recovery of human history.

For a Baptist to come into the Catholic Mass, to realize that the culmination of worship does not come in response to a man’s voice, however melodious, however articulate, but comes in response to the objective actual presence of Christ, was nothing less than a recovery of the full meaning of the Incarnation.

I maintain that all human beings hunger for this kind of liberation—for the recovery of the whole person and all of human history. Notice there’s nothing extraneous about these issues. These are not intellectual issues. These are not academic issues. These are the very issues that distinguish us as Catholics, not Protestants; Catholics, not Jews; Catholics, not secularists. It’s what makes us Catholic.

These are the very issues—wisdom, doctrine, and worship—that give us our advantage in the public square. Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition has welcomed Catholics to the public square. It should be obvious that we have much more ammunition to bring than anybody else. Pope John Paul II’s speech on human rights at the United Nations is a paradigm to which we should all aspire.

The Catholic Advantage

For the last ten years, I pursued a research project on the meaning of human happiness. It was a project inspired by my entry into the Catholic Church. This is an example of what I mean by the Catholic advantage in the public square—in politics, in the arts, in the humanities, in the social sciences. If we look at the way the meaning of human happiness has been misrepresented and made superficial in the twentieth century—the way it has affected our political life, our moral life, our family life, and our education—we realize that the corrective is to go back to the Tradition. Back to Catholic wisdom. Back to the Bible. Back to Augustine and Aquinas. To Jacques Maritain and Christopher Dawson, Martin D’Arcy, and G. K. Chesterton. We must go back. What we will find there is a way to correct our problem. There is a wisdom there. There are ideas there that can have consequences for us. We can change things not just by adjusting public policy but by fixing ideas that we live by.

How can you take for granted a legacy that has everything we need to know about telling the story of the good life? Not just the good life in private, at home, but the good life lived publicly. The good life in the world of work. The good life in the world of the arts. The good life in the academic world. It is not a story to be divided between public and private. It is a story to be brought to bear on the whole of civilization. It has been brought to bear on the whole of civilization. The books in my library are rows deep. They’re all there: Dawson, Maritain, Chesterton, Guardini, Neuhaus, Novak, Weigel. I’m perplexed by Catholics who know nothing about the amazing influence, the formative benefit of the Catholic Church on world civilization.

Certainly you know about the role of the Catholic Church in the formation of hospitals, universities, libraries, social services of all kinds, the growth of economics, the development of democracy, the emergence of freedom. The next time someone trying to intimidate you brings up the Inquisition, don’t resort to some sort of misplaced notion of charity or tolerance and apologize for your Church. Say, “Sure we’ve made mistakes, but what about universities, hospitals, and democratic institutions, the notion of the human person itself, which arose right out of the heart of the Church—nowhere else?”

Wisdom

When the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. talks about the self-correcting aspects of Western civilization, he could have well said that Catholic wisdom had a great deal to do with that self-correcting dimension of Western civilization.

Catholic wisdom particularly protects the family. Catholic wisdom, which draws upon both divine revelation and reflection on the world of nature, testifies to the ordinate union of man and women in marriage, not random arrangements. These ordinate unions are the ones that should be protected and nurtured by law.

Consider the situation now in the state of Hawaii. What we need to realize—those of us committed to public Catholicism—is that the problem there is not just same-sex marriage. The problem there, which is growing among Catholics in Hawaii, is that many issues are coalescing into one horrible stew that is about to boil over. Same-sex marriage, allied with the gay rights movement, with multiculturalism, with national sovereignty, with new-age liturgy and spirituality, is making it very difficult for our brothers and sisters in Hawaii.

Public Catholicism of the type the Catholic Campaign for America is espousing requires us to be well armed with wisdom and doctrine. We must start with the writings of our pope. We must read his books, his encyclicals, his speeches.

Converts go through a kind of Catholic retooling process. That’s why some of us have a fairly explicit, if not always entirely accurate, grasp of its principles. I once asked my wife, who is also a Baptist convert from the South, if her meeting me had anything to do with her becoming Catholic. She said, “Yes, meeting you and your circle of friends in Atlanta. . . . The one thing that kept coming through as I listened to your discussions is the fundamental notion that life is good: life is good regardless of the pain of that life, regardless of the suffering, regardless of the obstacles to be overcome, regardless of what is missing materially from that life, regardless of the fact that a life may not be loved by some human being that should love it.”

That life is good is one of the first principles of Catholic wisdom. It is the principle we invoke to save our unborn children. It is the principle we invoke when we explain our position on birth control to skeptics. It’s the position we invoke when we discuss euthanasia. Life is good.

Doctrine

You might be thinking now, “I can’t accuse my friends of taking things for granted that they never knew about.” In that case, it’s partially the responsibility of those people who formed you in your faith that they didn’t pass it on. We all know there’s been a great confusion about Catholic doctrine in the last forty years, but what do we have now that we didn’t have two years ago? We have the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The amateur experts in your parish and your Catholic schools can’t invent theology on the spot anymore because you can look in the Catechism yourself. You read the section on the sacraments. They are not psychologized; sacraments don’t exist to make you feel good. In fact, they exist to make you feel bad sometimes. That can be good for you, that can lead you to happiness, that can be part of your happiness. The sacraments in the Catechism aren’t politicized or communalized. The sacraments are the power of God sustaining us from conception to eternity—not to death—through death to eternity. They are the participation in the life of God that can be lost only by outright rejection—not by sin, not by failings, not by death.

In my journey to the Church, one of my most important moments was a passage that I read in a book by Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Heart of the World. It read something like this: “Because of Christ and His sacraments, none of us can fall so low that we don’t fall into the arms of God.” It was a very powerful message for me then, and it still is.

Worship

This brings me to my last point. Worship. What can be done to revitalize it so it can’t be taken for granted? It’s a more difficult question because we just can’t hand people a book like the Catechism; we can’t just ask people to read John Paul II’s Documents on Liturgy and Worship, because worship is something that is done in a particular place, at a particular time, among particular people. Books aren’t enough. Something else has to happen.

I have a hunch what that is. I don’t have any survey data to support me on this, but I’ve noticed that whenever there is vital worship, there are people who pray. The common denominator that I have seen between a vital worship, something that works, something that draws me in, is that people are at prayer. It is the power of prayer at work through the celebrant, the power of prayer at work through the people that is transformative. It’s a transformation that is immediately intuited by everyone present.

This reminded me of a great lesson I was taught by Jacques and Raïssa Maritain. In one of the first books they ever wrote—they wrote it together in the 1920s, Prayer and Intelligence—they argue, indeed they celebrate, that prayer, intelligence, and worship reach toward the same source. That each act is bathed in the same iridescent and illuminating light—a divine light.

I hope by now you realize that I’m not saying that cradle Catholics are at a disadvantage. After all, my wife and I have made a long journey to have an opportunity to lay a Catholic in our cradle. It’s not easy to enter this Church. You don’t make it easy. And you shouldn’t. I thank God that our seven-year-old daughter, Hannah Clare Hudson, is a cradle Catholic. I make you these promises, these promises in gratitude for your Church that has received us, the Church of your forebears. I promise you that I will share with her, my daughter, all the wisdom I’ve learned. I promise you that I will do my best, with the help of our wonderful parish school, to make sure she understands the glories of Catholic teaching. I promise you I will pray with her each and every day and at Mass. And most of all I promise that I will pray to God that neither Hannah Clare nor her parents will ever take the gift of his Church for granted.

Reprinted with permission from Public Catholicism: The Challenge of Living the Faith in a Secular American Culture, edited by Thomas Patrick Melady, 1996, © by Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., Huntington, Indiana 46750 (text is slightly revised).

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