In the opening chapter of her widely read book, Forming Intentional Disciples, author Sherry Weddell paints a troubling – at least for concerned Catholics – statistical picture of trends in the Church’s membership. Simply put, in the United States and other Western countries, the Catholic Church is bleeding members and has been for quite some time.
The reasons for Catholic defections are as complex as the people involved; still, I believe Weddell is on target when she points to insufficient evangelization and catechesis as key factors. Particularly telling is her anecdotal evidence from active Catholics she encountered during her research. Even among those serving in leadership positions within their parishes, many do not self-identify as disciples of Jesus.
The hard truth is that faith-formation for adult Catholics, at least in the West, is seriously deficient; and, that problem has enormous implications for the Church and her remaining members.
In recent weeks, there has been a media firestorm raging around the Synod on the Family, convened by Pope Francis. One of the more controversial issues addressed by the Synod fathers was a proposal by Cardinal Kasper to make the Eucharist, which Catholics believe to be the “Real Presence” of Jesus, more readily available to divorced Catholics who have remarried (via a civil service) without having their prior marriage officially annulled by the Church.
Some of the Cardinal’s brother bishops were quite outspoken against his proposal, their rationale being that Jesus specifically proclaimed marriage to be indissoluble. While I have great respect for those bishops and their office in the Church, I wonder if their position is pastorally insensitive and, more importantly, inconsistent with the example set by Jesus himself.
When the Nicene Creed is recited during a Catholic Mass, all present are instructed to bow their heads as these words are spoken of Jesus: “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” This gesture of reverence honors one of the most sublime teachings of the Church, the Incarnation – namely, that the second Person of the Holy Trinity actually became human and, in the words of John’s Gospel, “pitched His tent among us” (John 1:14), i.e., became intimately and permanently connected to humankind.
In the person of Jesus, the perfect God, incapable of suffering, as an act of gratuitous love, willingly entered into our dysfunctional, unjust, and often brutal world, embraced our pain and struggles, and drew the broken human experience into the very heart of God.
In his ministry, Jesus loved people, even – or, perhaps, especially – messy and/or misguided and/or hurting people; and, his uncompromising charity inevitably got him into trouble with those preoccupied with legal observance.
In the Gospels, we often find Jesus transgressing established religious and cultural conventions to personally encounter people in need. I am reminded, for example, of the occasion when Jesus healed a man with a withered hand and, in doing so, raised the ire of religious leaders because he had done prohibited work on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14). On another occasion, when his hungry disciples plucked ears of grain on the Sabbath, again the religious leaders protested, leading Jesus to say, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). And, then there’s John 4:1-42, where we find the famous encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan “woman at the well.” Much could be said about this story, which has inspired prayerful reflection for centuries; but, I will limit my observations to a few pertinent details.
This woman’s marital status was far from a model of holiness. She’d had five different husbands and, at the time she met Jesus, was living with a man who was not her husband. Yet, Jesus – the original “Real Presence” – went and met her in her chaotic moral circumstances; and, that encounter transformed her life. In fact, as a result, she became an evangelist among her people.
This timeless story is a marvelous example of pastoral need trumping religious conventions. After all, according to accepted practice among Jews of his time, Jesus should never have conversed with the (enemy) Samaritan woman at all. Even his disciples were reportedly shocked that he did so.
I can’t help wondering…
Why did Jesus’ disciples try to keep the little children away from him when Jesus just wanted to love and bless them? (Luke 18:15-17)
Why did people try to silence and exclude the blind Bartimaeus as he cried out for Jesus’ help from the side of the road? (Mark 10:46-52)
Why did John and the other disciples forbid a man from casting out demons in Jesus’ name because he was not a part of their company, while Jesus would have permitted him to do so? (Luke 9:49)
Why are Jesus’ disciples, both then and now, tempted to push back against what is so obviously happening in the Incarnation?
The Gospels reveal a “Real Presence” who delights in reaching out to, and healing, those who are marginalized. Jesus said it best:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12b-13)
Mercy was at the heart of Cardinal Kasper’s proposal.
As some Synod fathers indicated, Jesus’ own words on the closely related topics of divorce and adultery do seem uncompromising (see Matthew 5:31-32). When reading such strong words, however, we must resist adopting a strictly literalist interpretation. In evidence, I offer the verses immediately preceding, wherein Jesus says:
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.** 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
I apologize in advance for being so blunt; but, if a Synod father is struggling with a habit of viewing pornography and/or with masturbation, must he take the Lord’s words literally and maim himself? Of course not.
The words of Jesus must be seen and interpreted within the entirety of His ministry, i.e., in light of just such encounters as He had with the woman at the well.
If, as Sherry Weddell convincingly argues, many adult Catholics are inadequately formed in their faith, several vital questions concerning marriage logically follow. For example: Do the average Catholic bride and groom truly understand the Sacramental character of marriage? Do both parties self-identify as disciples of Jesus? If not, what foundation exists upon which to build a Sacramental marriage? Are both parties active members of a parish? And, if so, does their parish offer ongoing support to enrich and strengthen marriages? Are both parties emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually prepared to enter into a Sacramental marriage? And, was the marriage preparation program in their parish sufficient to meet their needs in these important areas?
Surely it is worth our consideration that a vocation to priesthood or religious life is very carefully discerned over a period of years by both the person seeking the vocation and by those charged with his/her formation. Marriage is also a life-long vocation, yet nothing remotely approaching that level of formation and discernment is offered by the Church for her members. This seems to me a serious injustice.
Recently, Pope Francis, in comments made during an audience with the Schoenstatt Apostolic Movement, anguished over the current state of marriage, opining that the Sacrament has been devalued and “made a social event.”
Assuming the Pope’s assessment is accurate, one just might find a root of marriage’s devaluation in the Baltimore Catechism’s cartoon-based vocational ranking system. Therein, one cartoon depicting a newly married couple is juxtaposed to another depicting someone in religious life. The first image carries the label “This is good” while the second is captioned “This is better.”
I’ve often wondered how deeply ingrained that mentality – and its sister, clericalism – is in the Church that I love.
The Holy Father went on to call for couples to engage in “profound” preparation for Sacramental marriage – a call that would seem to place an onus for formation squarely on the Church’s shoulders.
I favor Cardinal Kasper’s position because I believe it to be just, merciful, and true to the example given us by Jesus. And, I will go a step further.
My hope is that the final product of next year’s Synod will be a document within which the Church publicly repents of her negligence of marriage, opens the doors widely to the faithful scarred by divorce, and details a clear path toward strengthening the Sacramental marriages of her children.