Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Parable of the Sower is the Parable of the Soil

The blogopshere is brimming with the issue upon which I last posted.

Since Mark Shea recently published a comment by Sherry Weddell of the St. Catherine of Sienna Institute lamenting the death of the Catholic Church in America (as far as statistics are concerned), bloggers everywhere have jumped on the bandwagon. From Fr. Z to Fr. Longenecker to everywhere in between, the discussion has heated up – as well it should, for this is the elephant in the living room – or more accurately, the corpse in the corner, the zombie among us, a dead faith in our midst.

The issue, the posts and the comments are fascinating. Everyone agrees there is a problem and is arguing about what the solution might be, and while all sorts of things are being said, the gist of the debate has taken a definable form.

Which is this. Sherry argues that the solution to the problem is to go out and make disciples, for, as she points out, hitting an admirable and inspired rhetorical pitch, “Our deepest, most fundamental problem is that the vast majority of those baptized as Catholics, whether they are practicing or not, are not yet disciples. Disciples pray. Disciples worship. Disciples study. Disciples give. Disciples serve. Disciples discern vocation. Disciples obey. Disciples repent. Disciples are transformed. Disciples are increasingly filled with faith, hope and love.”

She couldn’t be more right here; what we are seeing in our midst cannot be called Christian Discipleship. For we shall know them by their fruits, and how many nominal Catholics bear these fruits? Most of us and our fruits are lukewarm at best, anti-Christian at worst. As Fr. Longenecker points out, “… the Apostles knew their targets [for conversion] were pagans and the pagans knew they weren't Christians. We're dealing with a huge population of Americans (Catholics and Protestants alike) who are pagan but who think they're 'good Christians.' It is very difficult to evangelize people who already think they're fine just as they are.”

Indeed, Erin Manning chimes in via a combox to say that, from the conversations she’s had on her blog with Catholics who dissent from Church teaching on contraception, these heretics think that they’re just fine, thank you, and can be excellent Christians and solid Catholics while doing exactly what-they-want-how-they-want-when-they-want. I had a so-called Christian actress who, at a social event with an Evangelical, started to sing the praises of abortion. When he told her she could not support abortion and be a good Christian, she said, “How dare you say I’m not a good Christian! How dare you judge me!”

Well, of course, we cannot “judge” the way Christ will judge; we know that the tares will be mixed in with the wheat until the end of time. But we can discern; we must discern; and when we see the Church in America on the verge of collapse – meaning the only Church, the Catholic Church and its Protestant members who are not in full communion with it – we must be bold enough to point out what it does and does not mean to be a Christian – or as Sherry would say, a Disciple. Supporting abortion means you are not only a bad Christian, you are probably not a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word – though technically your baptism may have brought you into the Church. Therefore, when Sherry makes a distinction between “Christians” or “Catholics” and “Disciples”, she seems to mean that one’s identity is a mixture of both passive and active elements. One may be baptized as an infant – saved by grace in the most passive way possible; one may passively receive this new identity, and yet as an adult, or even as an adolescent, have actively refused any participation in this identity. This is why Confirmation developed in the Church. There was a recognition, from the earliest centuries, that salvation combines both passive and active elements; that Baptism (subjectively speaking the passive aspect of salvation) must be affirmed and accepted in Confirmation (subjectively speaking the active aspect of salvation).

This is a version of the old Faith versus Works controversy. Works without Faith are meaningless; Faith without Works is dead. St. James tells us that we demonstrate our Faith by our Works. Thus, when we look around us and see a Church whose Works are empty, we know its Faith is dead – and these empty Works include bad homilies, gay music, offensive art and architecture, anti-Christian catechesis.

Therefore, those in this discussion who focus on improving catechesis or reforming the liturgy or reviving Catholic Culture, Sherry would claim, are focusing on Works. Instead, she would argue, we must focus on Faith, on spreading the Faith, and on planting the seed of Faith, which will eventually produce the harvest of Works.

Obviously this is true, as far as it goes. And it answers the self-congratulatory and hollow cant of “Catholic Schools Week”. Teachers, principals, parents, shut up. You can’t pass on a Faith you do not have.

At least not any more.

At one point, “Catholic Identity” and “Catholic Culture” did a lot of the work for us. When the Body of Christ existed as a general atmosphere of belief and when Christ was present in the very soil of the culture cultivated by the cult (fidei cultoribus – as the Mass puts it – “of the faith of those who practice and deliberately cultivate the belief”), then our Catholic Identity was infused by the culture at large and was, from our point of view, more passive and more easily received.

These days, however, as Sherry Weddell points out, it has become a rite of passage for young people deliberately to reject the faith formation of their childhood (if they had any) and to strike out on their own in search of something.

And yet this is not new. When Bl. Dominic Barberi was called to evangelize England in 1841, he expected his challenge would be defending Catholic doctrine to Protestants, arguing the intricacies of theology. What he found, instead, was that he spent his time trying to convince people that there was a God. And fifty years before that, Louis XVI objected to an Episcopal appointment, saying, “Surely the archbishop of Paris must at least believe in God” – which the bishop appointed to that post did not. And of course, long before modern times, the whole world once groaned to find itself Arian.

So Sherry is right in as much as Faith precedes Works, and personal Faith must be actively asserted and lived, while the faith one receives from culture or social identity is more passive and is more easily ignored.

But of course both are important. As many of the commenters in this debate point out, it does little good to make a Disciple if that Disciple will wither and die in a shopping mall parish that won’t nurture his Discipleship.

For the main point of Our Lord’s Parable of the Sower is that it takes Good Soil to nurture the seed, which is the Word of God. And here’s the kicker – Good Soil is not simply an individual affair. Good Soil is cultivated, it is worked and hoed by others; and the growth of the seed of God is watered and nurtured by others.

Yes, individual Discipleship is key, Sherry is right. No, individual Discipleship is not a matter of the individual alone, and Sherry is not right enough in acknowledging this. We must spread the Seed; we must cultivate the soil to receive that seed, we must nurture the seed once it has sprouted. If we look toward Discipleship alone, we err on the Protestant side of Rugged Individualism; if we look for Catholic Culture to do the trick alone, we err by being blind to the fact that Catholic Culture is now dead.

Only Discipleship will bring it back; and only Catholic Culture can nurture and nourish Discipleship.


Kevin O'Brien said...

Richard Alemen sends me this comment: "I've been saying this for years and brought it up in my talk at the ACS conference. We cannot evangelize from the comfort of our own home - Catholic organizations take future apologists on cruises and then compare themselves to the Evidence Guild. But Royal Caribbean and Speaker's Corner are miles apart, and like it or not, apologists and evangelists have become the same thing. So long as we fail to hit the street corners, Catholicism in America will never be serious."

Kevin O'Brien said...

Oh, and the Scripture that begs to be quoted here - "I planted, Apollos watered, and God gave the increase" - 1 Cor. 3:6.

Joey G. said...

Thanks, Kevin, for the round-up.

This debate, as I've been following it, seems to be running concurrent with a theme mirrored in the liturgical cycle of readings the past couple Sundays. It seems to me that Saint Paul is speaking about a very similar state of affairs as our bloggers are witnessing in his first epistle to the Church at Corinth.

The line that keeps jumping out at me is 1 Cor. 1:17: "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power" (RSV).

This verse is a remarkable one, the cornerstone really (in my opinion) of the entire letter.

Here you have that two-fold requirement of Faith and Works: preaching, the apostolic work par excellence, shapes and forms the believer in a necessary way, but relies utterly upon and takes as its object the essential matter of Faith. The power of the Cross of Christ is this Faith, which, as Paul points out, turns the world upside down and confounds all human intelligence. This Faith is, furthermore, something which is bound up with preaching but larger than that. Paul is, in a sense, trying to "diminish" himself in the picture (a la John the Baptist) in order that the Power of Baptism itself - which is to give the gift of Faith as an actual grace - can be seen more emphatically. Thus, he says later that Christ was "made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption."

I think this is where the current debate enters in. Obviously the question is not, "should be preach" but "how"? I think it is a question of strategy. Our mission of preaching is augmentative (albeit important). I know this is not your meaning above, Kevin, when you say that we cannot give a Faith we don't have, but I want to emphatically assert that we cannot give faith nohow. This is how the Cross of Christ is robbed of its power, and I think this is partially what Sherry is getting at. Part of our call to trust the work that the Lord is doing, which alone prospers and gives fruit to our own efforts. Our job in preaching, the strategy which Paul seems to outline for us here, is to point to the power already at work in His much greater designs, especially the Sacraments. As tempting as it may be to despair over the waffling and apostasy which surround us in our brothers and sisters, we must remember how remarkable the gift of Baptism truly is, that these folks are Baptized in the present and ongoing tense of the verb. Our job is really very simple, like Paul's: to remind them of this. And we do this, yes, by good liturgy, by good art, by all the sundry ways of directing eyes and hearts and minds to God. What is most crucial, though, is that they know what is the substance, the real matter of what we preach, and that it is already given them.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Yes, Joe, and even though Sherry says we must "make disciples", we can not "make disciples". God grants the grace of Faith, not man, and people either respond to God's grace or resist it. And yet He does not typically operate without us and our cooperation. He gives to our brothers the grace of Faith - and He gives it through us, mere sinners. This is why, contrary to what you said, we can indeed pass on the Faith if we have it; we are stewards of it and the Lord has given us the obligation to pass it along, even though it is not "ours".

This is why there is a hint of Jansenism about this issue. If we focus too much on the Christian litmus test as becoming super-Christians, we lose sight of the whole business being something Paul tells us we are not to boast of.

My intention here in this post was to focus on the false dichotomy between Individual Discipleship and Common Culture. One feeds the other, and the two can not be separate.

In the same way, Sacraments are effective with or without our input - thus we are not to boast. And yet without our receptivity to them and our cooperation with their grace, the work (Christ's work) can not be done.