National Catholic Register


A Reader Asks about Catholic Failure to Catechize

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 10/20/13 at 10:59 PM


He writes:

Thank you for the great work you are doing in explaining and defending the Catholic faith.

I have a question for you concerning some remarks by Fr Raniero Cantalamessa back in 2005 (3rd Advent sermon to the papal household). These remarks have been discussed on Catholic discussion boards and forums. However, I am still trying to understand some of the pastoral and theological implications of these remarks.

The relevant section of the homily is the following:

"I was saying in the first meditation that there currently exists a need for kerygmatic preaching, suitable to incite faith where it has never existed, or where it has died. Gratuitous justification by faith in Christ is the heart of this type of preaching, and it is a shame that this is, in turn, practically absent from ordinary preaching in the Church."

He also commented that most Catholics have lived "entire lives" without hearing a "direct announcement" of gratuitous justification by faith without too many conditions attached.

Do these remarks by Cantalamessa imply that the Church has failed to teach Catholics that our God is a merciful God? And that Catholics were traditionally not taught that salvation is a free gift from God?

Yes and no.  The Church has always taught that justification is a free gift from God and that God is merciful.  The documents of Trent's sixth session (on Justification), for instance. hammer this home with great force:

CANON I.-If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.

CANON II.-If any one saith, that the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, is given only for this, that man may be able more easily to live justly, and to merit eternal life, as if, by free will without grace, he were able to do both, though hardly indeed and with difficulty; let him be anathema.

CANON III.-If any one saith, that without the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without his help, man can believe, hope, love, or be penitent as he ought, so as that the grace of Justification may be bestowed upon him; let him be anathema.

All this is a Renaissance-era way of saying we are saved by grace--the free gift of God--and we do not earn justification.  Indeed, as Canon III makes clear, even our ability to desire the help and mercy of God is itself a gift from God.

That's the teaching of the Church.  Always has been and always will be.

What Cantalamessa is getting at is not the Church's doctrine, but our frequently lousy delivery of that doctrine. The reason our delivery is lousy is due to various factors.  Partly it's that we don't know what the kerygma is.  Indeed, most Catholics are unfamiliar with the word itself.  It refers to the core proclamation of the gospel: namely that in Jesus Christ, God became man, bore the sins of the world on the cross, died for us, was raised to life for our justification, ascended to heaven, and now shares divine life with us through the sacramental life of the Church which he will one day return to bring to glory in the new Heaven and the New Earth.  It is faith in him--him personally and not some theory about him--that is at the heart of the kerygma and the hub around which all the spokes of our lives as Catholics are supposed to center.

But frequently we live our lives as though something else, often anything else, is at the core of the faith: squabbles about liturgy, politics, economics, prolife issues, quarrels about personalities, ecclesial power struggles, fights about who gets the money, power, pleasure or honor, obsessions with favorite private revelations whether approved or unapproved.  These often replace the kerygma as the center of the faith.

Also, we tend (due to a Catholic instinct to avoid passing judgment on others that is usually admirable) to assume much more spiritual progress has been made by a potential convert than is sometimes warranted.  If somebody so much as expresses mild curiosity about, say, what the Rosary is about, we speak as though they have completely internalized the Catholic faith and become a dedicated disciple of Christ.  Sometimes, this can lead to tragedy, as for instance when some famous person "converts" and their scalp is held aloft by people eager to "claim them for the Church"--but then they collide with some aspect of Catholic teaching they don't like (often the Pelvic Issues) and bail again.  What becomes obvious is that the "conversion" was not so much to faith in Jesus Christ as to something about Catholic culture they found pleasing: the art, music, intellectual heft, philosophical heritage or whatnot.  These things are all good.  But they are not the kerygma.  And if we seek them first, we will lose even them if we do not put Jesus at the center.  That's why Jesus says to seek first the kingdom of God and all the other things we need will be added as well and it is why he warns, "For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away." (Mark 4:25).

And, by the way, we should be careful of sitting in too harsh a judgment of those who bail since, very often, what happens is not that they encounter the kerygma and reject it, but rather that they they encounter Catholics who adore a different set idols than they do.  Such Catholics then tell the badly formed convert that they can't be "real Catholics" if they do not sign off on their private social, political, cultural, liturgical, or economic dogma.  Result: the convert leaves the Church never really having encountered Jesus Christ, but only a caricature of him.  If that happens, it's as much our fault as his that he leaves.  The measure we use will be measured to us.

In short, while the teaching of the Church is complete, our delivery of it is often woefully incomplete.  Jesus calls us to be (and to help form) people who are intentional disciples.  He desires people whose whole lives are ordered toward him and who see him at the center of their existence.  He wants disciples who order every aspect of their lives in light of him and whose sacramental, ecclesial, and liturgical lives are not lived in isolation from their daily lives, but are rather the channels of grace by which daily life is lived.  What our formation tends to produce, at present, is people who are sacramentalized, but not evangelized. People who perform religious behaviors, but who do not know how to connect those behaviors with a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ.

For the best discussion, not only of this problem but, far more importantly, of how to draw from the wells of the Church's own tradition to heal this disconnect between our call to discipleship and our sacramental and ecclesial life, I cannot recommend highly enough Sherry Weddell's crucially vital book Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following JesusIt is, I believe, one of the most important books of the decade.