A few weeks ago I was privileged to attend the confirmation of a young lawyer entering the Catholic Church. The ceremony took place at an early-morning weekday Mass. The new convert was happy—as was his wife, who is already Catholic.
The good news is that there is a steady stream of converts these days. And converts make great Catholics. They take the faith seriously and want to spread it. It is no accident that the cutting-edge of Catholic evangelization right now is the work of fervent converts, many of them former evangelicals.
There is, however, some bad news. There could be even more converts, except that some who want to enter the Church run into serious roadblocks when they check into their local RCIA program.
Take my lawyer friend. His entrance into the Catholic faith was actually delayed a few years because of a RCIA program. He joined the program thinking that he would learn about Catholicism. Instead of doctrine, however, he got something else: non-directive group psychotherapy.
During the several weeks that he attended the sessions, he learned a lot about getting in touch with his “feelings” and precious little about the Catholic faith. Abusy and intelligent corporate lawyer, he had neither the time nor the inclination to sit through endless evenings devoted to dredging up everyone's private emotions.
On the few occasions when a Catholic dogma was actually mentioned, the tone was hesitant and provisional. “Doctrine,” my friend told me, “seemed to be an after-thought.” The message was that the truths of the faith are not so important as everyone's feelings about them.
After a few weeks of this nonsense, my friend concluded that he was not meant to be Catholic and quit the program. It was only a fortuitous meeting with a Catholic who takes the faith seriously that got him into the Church a year or so later.
Don't get me wrong. Feelings are important, and it may be that adult catechism in the pre-Vatican II days was exceedingly rote and mechanical. A good RCIA program should address the whole person, and feelings are part of our animal make-up. Faith should never be reduced to a memory drill.
Many RCIA programs have ricocheted to the other extreme, however. The “therapeutic” has triumphed to the point of obliterating doctrine. The locus of infallibility has shifted from the Magisterium to the catechumen's private whims and emotions.
This is not what Christ had in mind when he told the Apostles to go out and evangelize. Christ founded a teaching Church, not a California-style human potential movement. And the truths he entrusted to the Apostles have to be clearly stated to anyone entering the Church.
Some RCIA directors give the impression that they would have counseled Christ against all those hard sayings in the sixth chapter of John's Gospel. After all, the doctrine of the Real Presence hurt the feelings of many disciples, who ceased to follow him. The Christ of the eucharistic discourse is definitely not the model for what passes for RCIA in many parishes.
The role model instead seems to be Carl Rogers. Rogers was the psychologist who turned “self-esteem” into a national religion. Having endured a harsh Protestant upbringing, Rogers came to the conclusion that the three enemies of personal development are religion, tradition, and authority.
In the Rogerian universe, truth is held hostage to feelings. If a truth makes you feel bad, then too bad for that truth. In Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong, psychologist William Kilpatrick documents the disastrous effect of school programs based on Rogers's theories. But these theories remain the paradigm. It seems that in American education—and many RCIA programs—nothing succeeds like failure.
People like my lawyer friend are looking for something more important than self-esteem. They are looking for the truth. (The two actually go together.) Yes, their feelings are important and ought to be addressed. But feelings are not the final court of appeal. We are creatures endowed with a will and intellect. A strong person, whether Catholic or not, thinks and does many things which he knows are right, regardless of what his “feelings” may tell him.
RCIA programs are not the only casualty of the therapeutic culture's invasion of the Catholic Church. Whole orders of religious have been decimated. A spotlight ought to be turned on this problem.
George Sim Johnston is a Catholic writer based in New York.