"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Catholic update, indeed

When I was in parish ministry, I regularly passed out copies of Catholic Update to the RCIA candidates I was charged with instructing. That was because I found the periodical generally sound and topical as well as convenient. But that was a decade ago. It now appears that the editors are more concerned about keeping their stable intact than communicating the Faith.

What has happened to Fr. Kenneth J. Overberg, SJ, is a sad case in point. He is the author of the Advent 2006 issue of CU, as well as of many older ones. For a withering analysis and criticism of the current one, go here and follow the link to the "brilliant fisk." (The author of the latter blog doesn't provide permalinks; too bad, since he's pretty good.) It now seems that another fine Catholic academic has gone over to the other side. That's the real update; be forewarned. And it's symptomatic of something broader that we must name and face.

Although I'm encouraged by the steady stream of adult converts to the Church—in the U.S., the number averages over 150,000 per year—I am brought back to reality by two facts. One is that we face an internal apostasy that started during Vatican II and has hardened since then. The majority of baptized Catholics in this country do not both know and accept those teachings of the Church that would, if followed, require significant and often painful change in their lives. The very idea is outrageous to many of them. The same goes for some converts, many of whom make the move primarily to please a "Catholic" spouse. For the kind of people I'm thinking about, Catholicism is at best a badge of cultural identity—certainly not a means of real, and therefore costly, union with Christ. And the clergy rarely challenge them, in any meaningful way, to change that. The sex-abuse scandal is a symptom of why things got to that point.

That is why Dr. Philip Blosser's prophetic rant must be kept in mind, especially this:

. . . when you invite someone to become a Catholic, you're inviting him not only to board the Ark of Salvation. You're inviting him to come aboard a shipwreck. You're inviting him to join an association at the parish level whose collective acquaintance with Scripture is piecemeal, whose knowledge of Tradition is negligible, whose hymns are embarrassing, whose religious art has become ugly, whose churches look more like U.N. meditation chapels than sanctuaries, whose ethics are slipshod and often dissident, and whose aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities are so far from being sublime that they often look ridiculous.

Granted the worthy exceptions, that is the reality which largely explains the other sobering fact to be considered: at least as many baptized Catholics are leaving by the back door as are entering by the front. A shipwreck just is going to be abandoned by many on the ship, even if and often especially if they themselves had helped to run the ship aground. Many laity who leave can be readily forgiven, since those in charge of their formation communicated no particular reason to for them to stay. The bigger problem is people like Fr. Overberg and Sr. Chittister: clergy and/or religious who are fully Catholic formally, but only partially so materially if at all. They're the natural leaders, and too many have led the sheep astray.

As I used to say at Pontifications, the Vatican's response to that for the past several decades has been essentially demographic: wait for the hopeless older set to die off, while replacing them with a younger set by attracted by such integrity and beauty as can be routed around the corrupt middle management. Perhaps that's not as bad as the alternatives, which are to do nothing or to do a nasty housecleaning. But I am reminded of the orthodox young seminarian who complained to his spiritual director that the place was riddled with heresy: "Don't worry. In a few centuries that too shall pass." That leaves an awful lot of laity to lose in the meantime.
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