Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's released a letter on April 11th. It came out of a Vatican meeting in February to discuss the recent scandals. Benedict retraces patterns that led to the issue. I have highlighted four here that I think pertinent for every American Catholic, especially as he. Each point is supported by a quotation and followed by some of my own commentary. The full text of his letter is found at the bottom.
1) Bring back the Theological Category of "Martyrdom"
"There are values which must never be abandoned for a greater value and even surpass the preservation of physical life. There is martyrdom. God is (about) more than mere physical survival. A life that would be bought by the denial of God, a life that is based on a final lie, is a non-life." Ask a Catholic, or any Christian, what would you do if a Nazi came to the door in WWII, you were harboring Jews in your basement, and you were asked, "Do you have any Jews here?" They will try to suggest lying, fighting, silence, taking the Nazi gun, just about everything you can imagine, but one. Now, Push the conversation to the point of saying they have the upper arm on you, guns pointed at you, you are outmanned, outnumbered, and their questions are on point, forcing a true response out of you. 9 out of 10 times people will say, "Well then I'd lie." Ask them "why?" And you'll get the response, "Because they would kill me otherwise. I'm not stupid" Notice martyrdom, the cross, is not part of our ethical imagination.
Now, the Eighth Commandment of the Decalogue is "Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness," which has been interpreted by The Church since time immemorial to mean 'You can't lie, for any reason, ever, period, not even a white lie about how your aunt looks great in her new, gaudy dress.' If you bring this to people's attention they will mostly scoff at the idea of dying rather than lying. They will return to "what if I grab the gun?" Given the constraints of lying or death, most pick lying.
Why is it death is not an option for us? Why is death considered the worst thing that could happen and yet the one thing we don't talk about? Why is it that we think dying is a punishment but breaking God's commandments has no punishment? Why do we fear the death of the soul more than becoming unjust? Could it be Christians in our society don't think like Christians at all? But more like pagans? And like bad pagans, for many good pagans have argued you ought never lie.
The Cross is always an option, Lying is not on the buffet, for the disciple of Christ anyway. We somehow have tried to separate Christ's Cross from Martyrdom, to have the former without the latter. "Take up my cross and follow me," and again, "those who do not take up their cross cannot be my disciples." Could we be engaged in a large project of self-deception? What does it mean to stare at a crucifix at Mass and to eat the body of the Godman who gave up for his life for us without sin, if we say we'd rather sin and not give up our lives?
2) Return to the Philosophy of Natural Law for Moral Theology
"Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moral theology was largely founded on natural law, while Sacred Scripture was only cited for background or substantiation. In the Council’s struggle for a new understanding of Revelation, the natural law option was largely abandoned, and a moral theology based entirely on the Bible was demanded."
A Bible alone morality is called "Protestantism." Luther ushered in Prima Scriptura (Bible first), even above The Tradition. The Baptists following Luther's schema then figured out by putting The Bible first they could read it in a way to suggest no tradition was needed. So Prima Scriptura turned into Solo Scriptura. Then the Evangelicals a century later figured out The Bible talks about experiencing a personal relationship with Jesus. So Solo Scriptura became Solo Experientia or 'Experience Alone.' From here Protestant denominations exploded into thousands of denominations, mostly all born right here in The States. Everytime someone disagrees with someone's experience or reading of the Bible, you just start another church. And since The Church is the body of Christ, I guess there are (A) are thousands of bodies Jesus took on in Mary's womb or (B) Jesus actually doesn't have a body, but is a ghostly man (see: Gnosticism, Cartesianism) and The Church is simply the spirit of "all believers." The end of this game is one form of Christianity per believer, or secular humanists rightly looking to this mess of Protestantism and saying, "You Christians are crazy, I'm out." This is how a whole population of "Nones," no religion, not against, not for, just never grew up around it was born -- because their parents saw how mad this was. Now, as Catholics, do we want to start a "Bible Alone" morality? Not no, but hell no. We don't need to chase that sinking fleet.
The second issue is that American Catholics tend to say that adults and kids alike can't understand theology and philosophy. As a high school teacher who teaches both - that's not true. The truth is it makes people uncomfortable to realize we can logically come to conclusions about ethical decisions. It's uncomfortable to see Relativism, Emotivism, and Pragmatism, all major American ethical theories, explode before your eyes in a debate. And kids are smart, they get a lot once all the mental blocks are gone. And what's more, plenty of them want to know more philosophy and theology. Why? Because it is man's nature to desire to know.
As Americans we want to say "to each his own" or "faith is a matter of the heart [passions]" or "my faith is a private matter" but these simply aren't true for Catholics. In response to each we say, "Am I brother's keeper? Yes." And "Faith is a gift of truth to the intelligence by God in Baptism; Jesus says it is the heart from whence cometh all sin." And lastly, "If we're baptized then we are members of Christ and one of another, things can be personal, but not private."
3) United States Catholics need to reclaim The Catholic Tradition
"Indeed, in many parts of the Church, conciliar attitudes were understood to mean having a critical or negative attitude towards the hitherto existing tradition, which was now to be replaced by a new, radically open relationship with the world...There were — not only in the United States of America — individual bishops who rejected the Catholic Tradition as a whole and sought to bring about a kind of new, modern “Catholicity” in their dioceses. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that in not a few seminaries, students caught reading my books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood."
Remember, Pope Bendict XVI's letter is written to the entire world. Why is it then that the United States of America, my very beloved home, has a shout out for rejecting The Catholic Tradition? And the way he says it is, 'not only in the US' is as if it's a big "duh, we all knew that."
There seems to be two big camps of American Catholics that have created a false dichotomy. People feel as if they either have to be a part of a new, modern Catholicism in which The Church has rejected everything prior to Vatican II -- or we have to reject Vatican II and go back to all the old traditions. Notice in both situations The Church has been rent in half. One side says the true Tradition existed prior to 1965 but not after, the other says it existed after 1965 but not before. Both tear Christ in half, because if The Tradition is torn in half, and that's a constitutive element of The Church, then The Church is rent in half. Now remember "The Church [is] the body of Christ" (Eph 1, Col 1). The funny thing about tearing bodies in half is, that kills them. This means that if you choose either of these radical positions, you are implicitly saying that we killed Christ again, this time in the 20th c.
On the contra, during Eastertide we sing, "Christ dieth no more." The way to get out of this false dichotomy is to reject the American notion we are autonomous individuals whose his private judgment on matters of Catholicism matter. They matter about as much as my private judgment about whether or 2 + 2 = 4. Christ's Church was and continues to be because Christ continues to be until the end of time. My theory on the matter is irrelevant, even when using Church documents to put forth an idea, because I am not the authority on the matter. The Church didn't ask me think about it, I'm not the Magisterium, and I definitely ain't the Pope. Docility is what she asks for, not judgment. In a strange way, our private judgments on The Second Vatican Council and all the argument going on are about the most Protestant thing we could do. Recall, The Protestant Reformation didn't reject The Pope, they just said every man is their own Pope on matters of Faith and Morals. So why do we find ourselves as Catholics acting this way? Could it be we've let too much Protestant thinking invade our minds? Let's get back to Catholic basics. Let's obey and get on with Christ's mission.
A second problem is when we begin to think The Catholic Church's reasons for telling us to do things are just made up beliefs, separate from fact or reason. Presenting Catholic Doctrine as if it was unreasonable, or a random set of propisitions we just happen to believe will make secularists listen to it, and easily dismiss it. At the same time it will lead our generations to come to think that Catholic Doctrine is arbitrary. In effect, we create a list of things we say yes to and no to, and present it to believed or not. This is not unlike the "Confessional" Protestant communities, who during the Reformation, claimed the Catholic Church reduced the power of God to propositions. So what did they do? They presented theology as separate from reason. Luther called logic the whore of the devil, and did so by trying to use logic to construct his argument. A Theology without reason is blind faith, the heresy of Fideism, aka Protestantism. We don't want to present Catholicism as if it were Lutheranism, that has never worked in the history of Missions.
A third problem here is that since we separate theology from philosophy, when it comes to Catholics dialoguing in the "public square," they have no grounds, categories, or language for doing so. Since dialogue has to be on common ground, theology is out. What's left is Catholics trying to debate abortion, immigration, gun law, capital punishment, and just war on the world's terms. In effect, we start thinking in purely secular terms. What this means is we reduce faith to a matter of the heart [passions], which contradicts Catholic Doctrine being a matter of the intellect, a great gift of The First Truth that God pours down into our intellect at Baptism. Likewise we reduce ethical claims to how we feel about the matter, rather than what is just judgment on an issue. We call this Emotivism. And lastly we follow the strands of Pragmatic philosophy that says the end justifies the means, and we call that being "practical." If we fall into this trap, then all attempts to do missions to the world just becomes Catholics making the world more worldly, and themselves while they're at it. This is Benedict XVI's point -- it's back to basic catechesis for us and giving a defense against worldly philosophy.
To see this problem, I think we must ask ourselves an experimental question : What's the difference between a Catholic American and an American Catholic? (HINT: How do adjectives and nouns work in language?)
4) Catechetical Communities
"the catechumenate was created as a habitat against an increasingly demoralized culture, in which the distinctive and fresh aspects of the Christian way of life were practiced and at the same time protected from the common way of life. I think that even today something like catechumenal communities are necessary so that Christian life can assert itself in its own way."
Being in but not of the world has been largely contested in the States over the past 150 years. Early American Catholics were mostly immigrants and thought to be too loyal to The Pope to every be true, patriotic Americans. A focus on buildling Catholic Churches prevailed over doing any sort of theology. We were jokingly called 'the builders.' As a result there has always been a tension in being an American Catholic. Some err on the side of saying "to be in but not of" just means to become a secular humanist who happens to be Catholic, only talking about social issues that The Church and your party agree on, while ignoring others. This captures the "to be in" part but misses the "not of" part. On the flip side there are people who say "being in but not of" means making compounds or bubble communities away from the world where one can shield themselves and families from the world. This captures the "not of" part, but misses the "be in" part.
As a former Episcopalian I'll say there were thoughts running around of thinking of a new model, rather than the parish. Perhaps the Camp could be the kid's church? Or a restaurant or civic center could serve adults or coffeehouses for the youth? "What is The Church anyway" goes the rhetoric, "but the people?" Well, as a Catholic, it is the body of Christ. And so the assembly or gathering is a place where the head and body unite via the priest and his people to form the whole Christ who descends to us at The Mass under the species of bread and wine. Now, why not do it in a country club or coffeehouse? Because that captures the "in" part, but not the "not of," part. Case in point is how people start treating The Mass in those contexts. No holy space, no holy participants. On the flip side, you had some who were held up in fortresses. They'd run about doing "missions" and "evangelizing" people but rather it was just gathering likeminded people in different locales. It was the busiest, most "get out there and do something" way of being held up in a fortress. This camp saw "Mass" and praying to be a waste of time. Catechesis was little more than finding people who already agreed with your political opinions that were thinly guised behind the rhetoric of "Jesus is Love so..." without ever defining "Love." Here we see most denominationalism is really caught up in the game of "If you vote red and like Jesus go to this denomination, if you vote blue and like Jesus go to that denomination." What do they both have in common? The conflation of politics with theology. Did Christ come to bless the world or to save it? Did he come to say we have it all figured out or because we helped cause The Fall of the entire Cosmos? "Have you not heard that friendship with The World is enmity with God?" Hm, what do we do with that saying?
The Parish is the solution, if done well. The Parish is the extension of Christ growing across the world. It is in some sense like a bubble, but fully open to anyone, it is in public, which is why poor people and visitors can just walk in, and understand it's acceptable to do so. The Parish thus forms a home base, a church, which allows a culture to grow within and to extend outward. It's walls protect all from the world, allow a rejuvenation and growth for its members, and is the main organism that sends out tentacles to do missions. It is is Christ in that town spreading his arms out. Bringing people to Mass, to The Prayers, the Stations in Lent, the feasts in Easter, introducing them to your Catholic homes, your good friends, showing others how to give hospitality, talk to the poor, how to live in a town but be not of it. These are simple yet difficult things we can do if we think as persons and stop thinking about how a program is going to do it all for our newest catechumen.
We need an orthodox, Catholic Personalism that has people catechizing from wisdom, and not from box curriculum. The same goes for Catholic education. We shall need families and people ask not, "How will I make it to the Christmas Vigil since I'm eating dinner at X:00 PM?" -- but instead -- "What time will we eat dinner given we will be at the Christmas Vigil?" Our spiritual priorities must rise up above the physical, we must not be person who cares more about the body than the soul. We must care for both, in the right order. Such catechesis seeks to cultivate a healthy trunk which restores a solid core. Recall Jesus doesn't waste time running to the world or the 5,000, he spends most of his time working on 12 people. It turns out he does this for the sake of the 5,000, and he feeds the 5,000 for the sake of the world. When we tend to the world first or the 5,000 first through massive programs, the whole thing comes down and then we're stuck doing missions do our own people. Cue: Mass attendance among Catholics in 1955 was 79%, in 2017 it was 39%.
I believe Benedict is saying we wants Catholicism to be a way of life again, an adventure, something fun and daring, with much at stake, requiring much, even our lives, but one which comes with great glory.
The full text of Benedict's Letter can be found here.