We hear many people today describing themselves as “spiritual, but not religious”: They welcome experiences of the ethereal but reject the demands of religion. In my opinion, this reduces God to a source of our pleasure, not a personal being. Real relationships make demands: When we read the pages of the Gospels, we find Christ insisting that a disciple’s relationship with Him must hold first place, and every other tie of family, custom or country must be understood in the light of that primary understanding of discipleship. If we do not give first place to God, religion becomes a hobby and the church becomes a club. Our relationship with Christ, lived out in the community of his Body, the Church, must hold our first allegiance. This means that we must nourish our faith. If we don’t intentionally and regularly pray, worship, study the faith and learn to serve others as Catholics should, the secular environment which surrounds us will have a corrosive effect.
There are many inactive Catholics today, some in our families and among our friends. Most of them have not intentionally left the church, they have just drifted away. Other concerns and interests engaged their attention, and gradually the whole Catholic vision of life became something foreign to them. But if we try to participate as much as possible in the liturgical life of the Church, maintain a regimen of daily prayer, and involve ourselves in the charitable works of the Church, and read/study the Scriptures and be inspired by the lives of the saints, we can open our hearts to the rich patrimony of Catholic writers, past and present, who have wrestled with many of the questions that the modern repeatedly raises.
We have been blessed in our time with two popes who have brought keen philosophical and theological minds to their service to the Church. The writings of St. John Paul II and Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI provide a rich source of information and understanding of our Catholic belief and draw upon the treasures of two millennia of Catholic wisdom, articulating it in a way that responds to contemporary issues and modes of thought. A very helpful resource to foster this integration is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The catechism brings together the essential doctrines of our Faith; but more than that, by its organization it invites us to not only know what we believe, but to live what we believe. The Catechism follows a traditional four-part structure: 1) what we believe; 2) how we worship; 3) how we live; 4) how we pray. These four parts of the Catechism are mutually related: what we believe shapes our worship, and the grace of the sacraments strengthens us to live the mystery we celebrate, nurturing our spiritual life. The more we deepen our relationship with Christ and live that relationship in his body, the Church, the more effectively we can share the riches of our faith with those around us. Contemporary society seems to be polarized between the exaltation of the individual at the expense of the common good, and the demand that the individual be sacrificed for the benefit of the collective. The individual has value only insofar as he or she can consume and, especially, produce. Our Catholic faith offers a vision of human society founded on the mystery of the Holy Trinity, wherein each individual finds his or her identity precisely in relationship to God. Along with the polarization between the individual and the community, the contemporary world often creates false dichotomies: religion vs. science and objective truth vs. human experience. The Catholic Faith proclaims the great “and,” viz., revelation & reason, objective truth & personal experience.
If we allow our most basic self-understanding to be our relationship to Christ, we can welcome what nourishes that relationship in the modern worldview and reject what weakens it. We can find common ground with the modern world by recognizing the importance of reason, and by showing how faith does not contradict reason, but imparts truth beyond what human reason can attain. Acknowledging that every statement of truth has something of a provisional element to it, so long as we are on earth, we always have something new to learn. But we can also assert that, while legitimate statements of truth can be complementary, they cannot be contradictory: Truth is one. The exercise of reason and the assent to revealed truth don’t negate personal experience; they purify it.
While it’s good to share our Faith by discussion, and even engage in a healthy dialogue and debate, argumentation to gain points or crush an opponent doesn’t further the Gospel. As the great speaker and evangelist, Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, used to say, “Win an argument, lose a soul.” Our best argument, by far, is our example. The great Church Father, St. Ignatius of Antioch, wrote while traveling to Rome for execution: “Our task is not one of producing persuasive propaganda: Christianity shows its greatness when it is hated by the world.” So, maybe we can be like Ignatius, witnesses to the truth that what was Good News in the ancient world, and in the middle ages, is, in our modern world, still good news.