"I Was Robbed!"
By Leila Miller
(For a list of other bloggers' faith stories, go here.)
By Leila Miller
A slightly edited version of this article can be found in Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church, edited by Donna Steichen (Ignatius Press, 1999).
I was robbed.
I am a "Generation X" Catholic, raised and catechized in the tumultuous aftermath of Vatican II. I was a victim of "renewal" and experimentation gone awry, and so were my peers. With great regret and without exaggeration, I contend that the results have been catastrophic for my generation. It is my firm belief that the overwhelming majority of young Catholics don't have even an elemental understanding of their Faith. As a direct result of that ignorance, young Catholics are leaving the Church in a steady stream (or, dare I say, tidal wave?).
It's not entirely accurate to say that I left the Catholic Church (though I considered it), but it's clear to me now that for most of my young adulthood, I was not in the Catholic Church. Let me give you an overview of my upbringing, which will sound familiar to countless young Catholics. I was born in the late 1960s into a believing and practicing Catholic family, and my sister and I were taught by our parents to love our Faith. Barring illness, we attended Sunday Mass and holy days of obligation without exception. We attended public schools, but we were enrolled in weekly CCD classes at our parish every year.
By the time I began religious education, memorizing the Baltimore Catechism was out, and feeling the "experience of Christ" was in. My parish priest, I believe, could not have known how the new, more "enlightened" philosophy of catechism would affect the moral development of those in his charge; at the time, he was simply caught up in the so-called "spirit of Vatican II," and was being obedient to what were considered Vatican II "mandates." Meanwhile, my parents, like the other parents, trusted that religious education classes would teach us the Faith. Sadly, that never happened.
In general, the volunteer CCD teachers were good-hearted parishioners who probably tried their best with the vacuous material they were given. Looking back, I can see that a couple of them must have been alarmed at the "new and improved" methods, and wanted to teach us the fundamentals of our Faith; for example, one year a teacher made us memorize the Ten Commandments; another year (9th or 10th grade, I believe) I heard the word transubstantiation for the first and last time. Aside from these rare moments, I assure you that precious little substantive information was imparted to us youngsters; the countless hours I spent in religious education were missed opportunities.
I can tell you in three phrases the content of a decade of catechesis: God is good, Jesus loves you, and love your neighbor. (All very good and true, don't get me wrong, but if you read your Bible you'll see that that's only half the Gospel. And sometimes half of the truth is more treacherous than an outright lie.) We were shown a lot of cartoon slide shows depicting Jesus and his parables, and I have nice images of multiplying loaves, the Good Samaritan, and Jesus' empty tomb. I don't remember anything particularly Catholic about the presentations, aside from a foray into the sacraments when it was time for First Communion or Confirmation. (But if you'd have asked me to explain what a sacrament was, I couldn't have told you.)
We weren't taught any Catholic prayers, although we all knew the Our Father from Mass attendance, and in my case from nightly prayers. I learned the Hail Mary along the way, but for many years I knew only the first half. We never discussed the lives of the saints, or even mentioned their names for that matter. (Sitting at Mass, I could never figure out who this "Paul" fellow was who wrote so many letters!)
I am thankful at least that I was born before the last vestiges of Catholic tradition could be stamped out, and in the 1970s some of the more pious and beautiful hymns were still often included in the Mass. Songs like The Church's One Foundation, Immaculate Mary, and At That First Eucharist were powerful to a child, and they have stuck with me to this day. The dramatic, colorful Bible story books I read at home also presented an unshakable image of a just and mighty God and his glorious and majestic Son. These haunting melodies and images, combined with my parents' faith and the common themes of my religious education did instill some important truths in my heart: I never wavered in my belief in God Almighty and in the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of His Son. Just who or what the Holy Spirit was or did was anybody's guess, although I did recognize that the Holy Spirit was one of the Persons of the Trinity -- whatever that meant. (I believe this particular bit of knowledge came from the repetition of another traditional hymn, which spoke of "God in three Persons, Blessed Trinity." Since traditional hymns are no longer sung on a regular basis, I can only surmise that young Catholics today are learning less than I did!)
I went through my school years believing I was a strong Catholic -- in fact, as I got older I would often identify myself as "devout" -- and after my high school graduation I chose to attend a Jesuit university, in part to increase my chances of meeting and marrying a nice Catholic man and raising children in a strong Catholic home. I made many Catholic friends during my years at Boston College, many of whom were products of Catholic elementary and high schools and most of whom were, like me, practicing Catholics. Just touching on this subject brings up many difficult emotions in me, but it is hard to overstate the tragedy occurring at most Catholic universities across the country -- namely, the betrayal of parents entrusting a child to a college that identifies itself as "Catholic" while it allows and even encourages fiercely anti-Catholic beliefs and practices to permeate the campus and poison impressionable minds. I do not know one Catholic who grew in his or her Faith at B.C. Indeed, many who entered Boston College as practicing Catholics graduated indifferent or hostile to Catholicism. I assure you that Satan is having a good time at B.C. and universities like it. Though modern sensibilities may scoff at this notion, I don't mean it metaphorically.
Anyway, to give you an idea what all of those years of religious training and formation amounted to, allow me to throw out a short list of terms that, for my first 28 years, had no meaning to me:
Act of Contrition
Four Marks of the Church
The "Glory Be"
Corporal/Spiritual Works of Mercy
Four Last Things
In my experience, most Catholics of my generation and under are unable to explain or even recognize the above. And to follow are some terms that may sound familiar to my post-Vatican II peers, but that they don't understand correctly and/or believe for a second:
Communion of Saints
Mortal and Venial Sin
The attitudes of my Catholic peers are no mystery. Confession? Sure, great sacrament -- I'll get there one of these years (wink, wink). No pre-marital sex? No artificial contraception? Yeah right, get real! Evangelize? Are you kidding? Why? After all, Buddhism, Islam, New Age, Christianity -- they're all equal paths to God. Who are Catholics to say they have the truth? A mature spirituality requires the understanding that everyone can be right!
In general, younger Catholics don't feel any obligation to live as the Church teaches, and I promise you that they do not fear the fires of Hell, nor do they believe in Purgatory. (But really, how could they? They've gone to Mass faithfully for decades and never heard such topics discussed, much less defended!)
The culture we live in is merciless when it comes into contact with a poorly catechized Catholic. American society today is designed to destroy one's faith, as objective truth and moral absolutes are rejected concepts. When modern, "enlightened" catechesis echoes the messages of the culture, and when those charged with informing the Catholic conscience and transmitting the Faith take an "experiential" rather than informative approach, what can you expect? You can expect exactly what was taught. You can expect Catholics who believe "conscience" means "opinion" and you can expect subjective feelings and personal experience to supplant objective truth. In fact, the prevailing philosophy of my peers is that there is no one "truth" -- truth is whatever we want it to be. You have your truth, I have mine. (Kind of puts the lie to Christ's definitive statement, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" doesn't it? It also doesn't sound like anything worth dying for -- those silly martyrs!)
We reap what we sow, and when pop-psychology all but replaces sound catechesis the results should not surprise anyone. The practices and beliefs of many of my old Catholic friends tell a sad story. Pre-marital sex? Yes, with a series of different partners. Contraception? Of course -- it's a virtue. Living together, a.k.a. living in sin? It's a non-issue. (One Catholic friend did go so far as to find a "compassionate" priest who consented to give her absolution before she moved in with a man!) Active homosexuality? A lifestyle choice. Abortion? Sad, and we don't like it, but it's a woman's private decision -- too bad her partner didn't use a condom.
Most of my Catholic friends from high school and college days attend Mass sporadically or not at all. Some get their spiritual guidance from gender feminism (which is a fiercely anti-Catholic movement) and/or New Age philosophies. Overall, the Catholic call to holiness is an unfamiliar concept to them, and I do not for a moment attempt to exempt myself from this scrutiny. Confession is a sacrament that was never emphasized (I made my first Confession at nine years of age while sitting on a priest's lap), and after my first couple of confessions during grade school, I never went back; I shudder when I think of how often I received Holy Communion unworthily.
So how is it that a Catholic who went to Mass every Sunday and went through all the proper catechism programs at her church could continue on unconcerned while carrying several serious sins on her soul? I do not offer this as an excuse for doing wrong, but you must understand my actions in the context of what I was taught. My generation of Catholics grew up with a keen understanding of God's infinite love for us. We knew that His mercy could not be exhausted, no matter how badly we behaved. But at the same time, we heard almost nothing about God's justice. That while God is perfectly merciful, He is also perfectly just. Somehow, that part was lost, or suppressed. I guess no one wanted to hurt our feelings with Church teaching; for example, that by persisting in serious, unrepented sins, we could damn ourselves to an eternity in Hell.
Jesus said, "Enter through the narrow gate. The gate that leads to damnation is wide, the road is clear, and many choose to travel it. But how narrow is the gate that leads to life, how rough the road, and how few there are who find it!" (Matt 7:13-14) Jesus mentions Hell over a dozen times in the Gospels, but our teachers and priests only presented us with the Jesus of the Beatitudes, or the Jesus who continuously forgave sinners. We were never reminded that Jesus forgave repentant sinners, those with contrite hearts and the intention to sin no more.
The God presented to American Catholics today is the Rodney Dangerfield of gods: He gets no respect. Today, God hardly needs to be worshipped, since He's our buddy, our pal, our equal. No need to fear Him or stand in awe, no difficult obligations on our part -- we need only feel the warm fuzzies He showers upon us, until we die and He takes us instantly to Heaven.
Such was the image that my generation got of God our Father. But what would we say of any other father who asks no obedience, forgives every sin unconditionally and automatically, with no requirement for an apology or recompense? We would call him a wimp, a pushover, a sap, a fool. Good and loving parents don't reward bad behavior and disobedience. They set down boundaries that a child, for his own good, must not cross. Should that child choose to persist in disobedience and wrong-doing, good parents don't expand the boundaries to encompass his bad behavior, they hold firm and hope for his repentance precisely because they desire his happiness and success. They do not cease to love him, even as they let him experience the consequences of his poor choices. Such it is with God and sinful man. He loves us infinitely, but He cannot force us to love and obey Him against our free will. None of this was explained to post-Vatican II Catholics.
Although many of my peers will leave the Church and Christianity altogether, many will do as I did. That is, I never once considered forsaking Christianity, nor did I question Christ's divinity (I felt strongly that to deny Christ would be blasphemous and a sacrilege). But I was guilty of presumption. I thought that because of my "deep faith" I could continue in one or another mortal sin and God would forgive me, or make an exception on my behalf. I just knew he would respect my "conscience!"
I never did disagree with the Church's stand on controversial issues such as abortion or homosexuality. I had even heard, almost by accident, some of the Church's arguments against artificial contraception, and they made sense to me. I thought the Church was probably right on this issue (how magnanimous of me!), but of course I could never be expected to actually go along with this teaching! I did plan to learn Natural Family Planning one day, sure, but certainly not now, in my young married years. After all, God understands.
Though I presumed on God's mercy, I still believed in moral absolutes, and I never went the way of moral relativism; in fact, another young mother and I spent a year and a half writing an editorial column for our state's largest newspaper in which we rejected moral relativism and defended the concept of objective truth. This friend, Kim, had spent six years as a gender feminist and New Ager, but motherhood combined with writing our column eventually led her back to Christianity and into a local Bible church. (Read Kim's story here)
Kim had been a lapsed Episcopalian and I was a waning Catholic, so we had never really had religious discussions until then; but because of my strong belief in an objective right and wrong, I was attracted to what she was telling me about the Bible church. These evangelicals stood firm on moral issues and were not afraid of offending anyone with Christian moral truths. I couldn't say as much for the Catholic parish I was sporadically attending, where moral courage was sadly lacking and politically correct sermons and liturgies were the norm. A Church that sought to blend in with the culture was not the kind of religious community I wanted. I was raising children in a scary society, and I needed support from others who believed as I did and who would be a refuge from the "pagan world." In my disgust with what American Catholicism had become, I flirted with the idea of leaving it for the Bible church.
Let me back up here and fill in some details. Shortly after I graduated college, I became engaged to Dean Miller, a nice agnostic Jewish boy (so much for my attempts to find a Catholic husband!). My identity as a Catholic was strong enough that I had come to this relationship with certain non-negotiables: I would never get married outside the Church, and any children of mine would be baptized and raised Catholic. Dean (who, ironically, attended a Catholic high school) respectfully and unselfishly agreed to my conditions, and we were married a year later in a Catholic church by my childhood priest.
Over the next four years, I gave birth to three beautiful babies. As you might imagine, this provided me with any number of excuses for not going to Mass on Sundays, and almost never on holy days. Of course, when one does not understand what takes place during the Mass, it is easy to become lax about attending. During those years, I lived in two major cities and had done a bit of "church-hopping," trying to find a parish I liked. I became disillusioned by the seemingly endless (and lame) attempts to make the Mass "hip" and entertaining. All of the hand-holding, applauding, trite songs and political correctness was a monumental turn-off for me. I felt no reverence, no awe; there was nothing in these Masses to snap me to attention, to take me out of myself and focus my mind and heart up to God in His Heaven. I wasn't "getting anything out of it." (Like so many others, I did not fully comprehend that one doesn't go to Mass to "get something out of it" -- one goes to worship God.) When I did get myself to church, I felt as if I were "putting in my time," mechanically fulfilling an obligation. I often ducked out right after Communion.
Because I was raised to never miss Mass, I felt guilty for skipping it so often (as well I should have, considering the gravity of the sin!). I half-teasingly blamed Dean for my not getting to church, but he wouldn't let me get away with such scapegoating. He and I knew I had no one but myself to blame. Though my actions were inexcusable, allow me once again to explain my state of mind during these years. I had grown up in a culture that had, with amazing rapidity and nonchalance, thrown all of the old value systems out the window. Nothing was sure and eternal anymore, and it had gradually become unacceptable to believe in a right and wrong. The idea of sin was deemed positively medieval, and "morality" became a dirty word. "Getting one's needs met" was the focus of each individual's personal growth, with the question being, "What's best for me, and what makes me comfortable?"
Of course, Christ's message to the world is exactly the opposite. We Christians must die to self, take up our crosses in suffering and sacrifice, and do the will of our Heavenly Father. The Catholic Church in America seemed to me to have forgotten this message, and was all too eager to fit right in with the culture. Instead of the Church going forth in courage to influence and change the world, the world was influencing the Church. Worshipping and glorifying God seemed to take a back seat to worshipping and glorifying ourselves. I knew enough about Christ's message to recognize that a serious gulf existed between what the Pope and the Bible were saying and what American Catholics were hearing. At some point, the American Church and the world became almost indistinguishable in my eyes.
Case in point: The only moral challenges given to the faithful from the pulpit were (and are) calls to help the poor, or admonitions against racism and sexism. But it was obvious to me that every good atheist, pagan or non-believer out there was saying the same thing. So why bother being a Christian? Why get out of bed on Sunday morning and go to Mass when I could turn on any news program or TV series and get the same message? Young Americans generally are sensitive to social justice issues, since we've been immersed in a culture that never ceases to speak out on such things. To this day, when I hear yet another social justice homily, I want to yell out: "We get it! We get it! But what we never hear about is the need for personal morality! For repentance! For conversion! For holiness! What we don't understand is our Faith! Teach us! Challenge us! Help us get to Heaven!" Have too many leaders of the Catholic Church in America forgotten that their mission is to save souls?
The abuses and trials one must endure at Mass today are legendary among the faithful, and it was just such instances which helped fuel my estrangement from the Church. For example, I have been at Masses where I have been driven to distraction as I read the words of Sacred Scripture in a missalette while the lector read a distorted "inclusive language" version of the same text. My intelligence has been insulted as I've witnessed the disappearance of words like "brothers" and "men" from both liturgy and song -- apparently the political correctness police have decided that I as a woman am either too stupid or too fragile to understand that such words include me, too. I have sat through an Easter Mass where the priest donned a bunny suit for a homily/skit, and balloons were tied to the pews. And I have sat with my mouth hanging open as I heard one priest use that morning's gospel reading to condone homosexuality. After a while, it didn't seem worth it anymore; I could no longer see the point to attending Mass. Looking back, it is clear that I had lost respect for the Catholic Church.
Which brings me back to my flirting with the idea of leaving for a Bible church. I had listened to my friend Kim tell me about the powerful and courageous sermons she heard week after week at her non-denominational church. The pastor spoke out against the immorality that surrounded Christians today. He spoke of right and wrong, and he used Sacred Scripture to show his flock the proper way a Christian should conduct himself. The evangelicals at this church did not pretend to blend into the culture, they were fighting against it, in a loving, Christ-centered way. They kept their eyes on God. And the faithful were actually instructed in Christianity! Kim was attending Sunday services, weekly Bible study, a doctrine class and a Christian parenting class. She loved it because her soul was being fed, and for the first time she understood what it meant to be a Christian! What a contrast to what I was experiencing in my Catholic parish. No wonder a good portion of her church's congregation consisted of ex-Catholics -- young ex-Catholics like me, who were raising families.
Maybe this is a good place to debunk a myth that desperately needs debunking. One of the classic lines from liberal, dissenting Catholics is this: "The Church needs to change its outdated teachings and must ordain women, replace the patriarchal language in the liturgy, allow divorce and remarriage, sanction birth control, masturbation, homosexuality, abortion [and so on, ad nauseum]. Young people are leaving the Church in droves because of its refusal to conform to the times!"
I tell you, this is rubbish. It is a smokescreen. I do not dispute that there are many young, "enlightened" Catholics who have left the Church with these reasons on their lips. But they are using these reasons as excuses to mask the real problem: They have either lost their faith or they never really had it. The need in this case is not for accommodation, but for conversion. These young Catholics have never been taught that Christianity is not about self-fulfillment, it's about self-denial; it's not about worldly power, it's about humility; it's not about control, it's about obedience; and it's not about some misguided, gender feminist idea of equality, it's about Truth.
But for all of the young Catholics who leave the Church because it is not politically correct enough for them, there are equal numbers (mainly those who have begun families) who are leaving for opposite reasons; namely, they feel the Church has become too liberal, too morally lax, too reflective of the secular culture. These Catholics are filling the pews of fundamentalist and evangelical churches, whose leaders hold fast to Christian morality, and where the Ten Commandments are still understood to be commands, not suggestions. These young adults are searching for an anchor in a world gone mad. They are searching for Christ and a high standard of Christian morality, and they don't believe they can find either in the Catholic Church. (Ironically, by leaving the Catholic Church, they are actually walking away from the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and leaving the faith that holds the highest and most difficult moral code of them all!)
I leaned toward a Bible church because of the moral courage I knew I would find there, because of the pride in Christ Jesus that so permeated the place, and because I would receive instruction in my faith, not an apology for it. Yet if you ask a liberal, dissenting Catholic why Catholics are leaving the Church, they'll tell you it's because we haven't gone far enough in liberalizing the Faith! It's as if they're saying, "Let's neutralize Christianity completely, ignore our heritage and traditions, throw out the sacraments, deny the existence of Original Sin, disclaim the divinity of Christ, drain the Faith of any truth or meaning, and then the churches will be bursting at the seams!" It makes you wonder if the people so hell-bent on liberalizing the Catholic Church are acting out of love for the Faith or acting out of a desire to destroy it.
Nevertheless, by February of 1995, I just wanted out. I was ready to send out a trial balloon to my mom, to see how she would react to my inclination to leave the Church. I specifically did not approach my dad first, as I knew he would be heartbroken at the thought; but because my mother was raised a Protestant (she came into the Catholic Church when I was three), I thought she would be easier to talk to. Mom is a very rational and stoic person, and she is known for giving sound advice. After I popped the question: "How would you feel if I left the Church for a Bible church?" she gave me the answer that would change not only my life, but the lives of many others as well. She said, "Before you leave, you should find out what it is that you're leaving."
She then proceeded to give me some of the reasons she had left Protestantism. For instance, she said it never made sense to her that Protestants place all their belief in the Bible alone. The question for her became, which Bible? There were so many different translations, and everyone had a different view on which version was authoritative. She was also wary of non-denominational churches in general, and she talked about "the cult of the personality," or the tendency in such churches for the congregation to rally around a well-liked, dynamic pastor who usually had a new and "brilliant" interpretation of Scripture. He would be the reason that they came, and if that particular pastor left, the congregation would leave with him.
Everything she said made sense to me, and that evening my thoughts of leaving Catholicism were at least neutralized. The big blow came a couple of weeks later when my mom, in her matter-of-fact way, presented me with a book. It was the kind of book I had never seen before. The kind of book I never knew existed. It was a book of Catholic apologetics. It was Karl Keating's Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on "Romanism" by "Bible Christians".
Some may roll their eyes in disbelief when I say that I never knew such a book existed. I don't blame them -- even I cannot believe that it never occurred to me that someone out there might find it necessary, useful, even noble to defend the Faith! It seems so silly to me now. How could I have been ready to jump ship to a Bible church without even investigating the doctrinal issues involved? Why did it never even cross my mind that a Church of 2,000 years might be able to present an argument on her behalf? Maybe it's because in my lifetime as a Catholic, I had never heard anyone defend the Faith. No one had ever given me any reasons why Catholics were right, why we had the fullest truth. The only thing approaching an apologetics argument was my parents' statements that ours was the oldest Christian church. That we Catholics were here first! During my childhood and adolescence, I remember being quite proud of that fact. Too bad no one ever elaborated on that point.
But once that glorious book was placed in my hands, it was all over. I was excited, amazed, impressed that someone had taken the time to spell out the differences between Protestants and Catholics, not mechanically and neutrally, but passionately and full of love for the Catholic Faith! And Mr. Keating used the Bible itself to illustrate the truth of Catholic doctrine! It only took reading a few pages of this wonderful book to not only keep me Catholic, but to set me on a path of knowledge that has led my soul to burn for the Faith. Sound dramatic? It is! Thanks to two years of study and the grace of God, I have found treasures that I never dreamed possible in this world, and yet I have come to understand that I have only dipped my little toe into the vast and glorious ocean that is Catholicism.
Over the next several months, my friend Kim and I engaged in a series of friendly, but extremely intense, theological debates. We went back and forth about issues such as Papal authority, the Real Presence, Mary, sanctification of the soul, and the implications of the Inquisition. We gave special attention to the two doctrines that separate Protestants and Catholics: sola scriptura (the Reformers' belief that the Bible is a Christian's only authority) and sola fide (the Reformers' belief that we are saved by our faith alone). At times it was like the blind leading the blind, but I used the best arguments for Catholicism I knew at the time, and Kim got a hold of the best apologetics that Protestantism had to offer.
The phone calls were intense, and they would leave us physically and emotionally drained. A couple of our conversations lasted seven hours! After about six months of this mini replay of the Reformation, we hit what we call "the brick wall" and we agreed it was time to stop talking about theology for awhile, as we were frustrated and getting nowhere.
Meanwhile, my husband Dean was being sucked into all this "God talk" whether he wanted to or not (I was so excited about what I was learning that I discussed it with him when he let me). Together, Kim and I had "discovered" the Old Testament prophesies which so clearly vindicate Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, and I excitedly pointed out these passages to my dear Jewish husband. I'll never forget the almost panicked look in Dean's eyes when he reluctantly admitted one night that it appeared Jesus might actually be the Son of God.
In their own journeys to faith, both Dean and Kim had one overriding principle: They were searching for objective truth. They didn't make their faith decisions based on their own opinions or what "felt right." They weren't looking for what was comfortable, they were looking for what was true. And of course that's what God asks of each of us. Just as the Savior took up His Cross, we are each expected to take up our own, following in the footsteps of Truth Himself, even if it costs us our comfort, our security, even our very lives.
In Kim's quest for Truth at all costs, she kept praying and studying, even after we hit our "brick wall." She gave the Catholics one last chance to prove themselves by reading Patrick Madrid's now legendary book, Surprised by Truth: 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic.
In three nights (she calls them the darkest nights of her life), she was shown the Biblical and historical truth of Catholicism. Six months later, at great personal cost but with great joy, Kim did what was previously inconceivable to her: She received the Sacraments of the Church, and is now a devout Catholic. Within a year, and after an initial reluctance, her husband announced his own intention to convert. And with great rejoicing and all gratitude to God, I can report my husband Dean's profound conversion as well. (Yep, I got a Catholic husband after all, and a devout one at that!)
Some other fruits of my "conversion"? I returned to confession after more than fifteen years, and I now reap the graces of that wonderful, previously unknown sacrament. Mass, which I once avoided, is now the greatest source of peace in my life. Contraception? Gone, with great benefit to my marriage. I continue to uncover the treasures of Christ's Church, and Kim and I both have spent years teaching the Faith to others. I guess you could say that in Catholicism I've found the secret of the universe, and nothing can compare to its majesty.
Which brings me back to a sadness. How easily I could have lost it all! How easily my friends and contemporaries have lost or could lose a Faith they never really understood. Feel-good, inoffensive, nebulous psycho-babble catechesis doesn't provide an even minimal foundation of faith, and a faith built on such a weak and erroneous foundation could not withstand even the smallest challenge. For proof of this, note that fundamentalist Christians have successfully pulled millions of Catholics out of the Church just by quoting a few Bible verses out of their proper context. And at the other end of the spectrum, feminists and New Agers lure young Catholics out of Catholicism simply by loudly and repeatedly applying snide labels to the Church, such as "patriarchal," "oppressive," "reactionary," "judgmental," "irrelevant," etc. A poorly catechized Catholic is virtually helpless against these tactics.
So, just what did I learn on my own that I never learned in religious ed.? Almost everything, but here are some of the biggies that shocked me: I learned that after Christ's ascension into Heaven, He did not leave us floating out here alone on Earth with just a book to try to interpret individually until He comes again (and since the vast majority of humanity was and is illiterate, why would He?). I learned that the Catholic Church is the one Church explicitly founded by Jesus Christ on the rock of Peter, the first pope, and that the Bible is a product of the Catholic Church (and thus subject to her interpretation). I learned that as Christ promised, the Holy Spirit has been protecting and guiding the successors to Peter and the Apostles for all these 20 centuries. I learned that, because of this promised guidance, the teaching authority of the Church cannot err when speaking on issues of faith and morals; the Church does not, has not and will not change such teachings because she cannot! The deposit of faith has remained pure and intact since public revelation ended with the death of St. John, the last Apostle. I learned that the Church has always rightly claimed to be the protector of Christ's Truth, with the authority to proclaim, explain and apply that revealed Truth to the world. I learned that submission to Church teaching is submission to Christ.
I learned that the crown jewel of Christianity, the Eucharist, is clearly evident in the New Testament, and that it was brilliantly prefigured in the Old Testament by many different writers, thousands of years prior to Christ's institution of that sacrament. It's no wonder, then, that the earliest Christians and all of the Church Fathers were staunch believers in the Real Presence, and were thoroughly Catholic in the rest of their doctrine. The writings of the Fathers would stun any Protestant, and most Catholics as well! I learned that the seven sacraments of the Church were explicitly instituted by Christ and are the direct channels of God's grace into our souls, the surest links between Heaven and Earth. I learned that God did not make it difficult for man to find the Truth, provided that man seek the Truth.
The thing that shocked me most of all? Everything I mentioned above can be proven biblically, historically, and through an exercise of reason. Catholicism is not a religion of blind faith. Kim and I played devil's advocate for every controversial claim or issue regarding the Church, and the Church won every time -- in fact, the Church's case gets stronger and more exquisitely beautiful every time it's tested! Yet generations of Catholics were never told any of this.
As I said at the beginning: I was robbed and my peers were robbed. The loss is incalculable, as how do you count the cost of even a single lost soul? As for blame, well, there's enough blame to go around, and I am fully aware of my own culpability in all of this. I could have asked more questions, and I could have sought to do God's will as best I understood it, but in many cases I did not. I have had long discussions with my parents, and they have willingly accepted their share of the blame as well. But if I were giving a prize for biggest subverters of the Faith, it would have to go to liberal, dissenting Catholics, especially those in positions of power within the Church, be they theologians, bishops or catechetical directors. They have witnessed an entire generation raised up in complete ignorance of the Faith as a result of catechetical failure, they see wide-scale rebellion and disdain for Church teaching and authority, and yet they still push to further liberalize the Church, pushing more and more people out of the Light and into darkness.
When I hear of dissident movements such as Call To Action and We Are Church, and when certain bishops, priests and sisters support and even lead these causes, I am indignant. While these so-called "progressive" Catholics work to undermine the Faith and fall all over themselves apologizing for the teachings of Holy Mother Church, I just wonder when any of them is going to apologize to me? Or to my contemporaries? When will they apologize for putting a generation of souls in jeopardy?
Maybe they should be reminded of the Second Epistle of St. John, verses 9-11: "Anyone who is so 'progressive' that he does not remain rooted in the teaching of Christ does not possess God, while anyone who remains rooted in the teaching possesses both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you who does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house; do not even greet him, for whoever greets him shares in the evil he does."
Or how about St. Paul writing to the Galatians (1:8-9): "For even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel not in accord with the one we delivered to you, let a curse be upon him! I repeat what I have just said: If anyone preaches a gospel to you other than the one you received, let a curse be upon him!"
Here are Jesus' words on the subject: "Whosoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea" (Matt. 18:6)
Catholics -- be they priests, bishops, religious, theologians or laymen -- who do not profess loyalty to the Holy Father and the Magisterium should have the integrity to identify themselves as Protestants, for that is what they are, i.e. they exist in a state of protest against the Roman Catholic Church. And those influential Catholics who have so obviously lost their faith have no business teaching or influencing the next generation.
I am not so naive or despairing to believe that even wide-scale apostasy among American Catholics at every level will destroy the Church. We know from Christ Himself that the gates of Hell shall never prevail against His Bride. So even though we needn't be concerned with the Church's survival, we should all concern ourselves with the Church's primary mission on earth: the salvation of souls. Too many souls have been allowed to slip out of the Church due to catechetical neglect, and it's time to stem the tide.
Perhaps the first step in reversing this trend is to throw ourselves at the mercy of God, begging forgiveness for the mess we've made in His Church and His world. Second, we must pray for the conversion of those within our Church who seek to undermine the very Faith they claim to profess. Third, each Catholic must take it upon himself to learn the Faith, and then commit himself to a life of living the Faith in humility and proclaiming the Truth to others -- this is the "new evangelization" by the laity advocated by Saint John Paul II.
Finally, I humbly propose a Catholics' Bill of Rights, to be handed out to every new Christian along with his baptismal candle. Maybe it could go something like this:
You have a right to your Catholic heritage. You have the right to hear the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth. You have the right to have the Faith of the Apostles transmitted to you unfiltered and undefiled. You have the right to be catechized by an instructor who must first be required to profess his loyalty and obedience to the Magisterium, and who humbly submits to all the teachings of Christ through His Church. Anything less is not only nonsensical but scandalous, and might lead you away from the truth of the Church. You have the right to expect Catholic orthodoxy in all Catholic classrooms and institutions, and you have the right never to hear radical feminism or pantheism taught as if it had anything remotely to do with Catholicism. You have the right to remain Catholic. If you give up that right, it will be your free will choice and not the result of poor or scandalous catechesis. (In other words, you have the right to know what you're leaving before you leave it.)
Praise God, my joy at having found the Faith is greater than my righteous anger at those who had a hand in keeping it from me for so long. I know that I cherish my faith so dearly precisely because I almost lost it. I know that God's ways are not man's ways, and I am forever grateful that He chose this way to lead me back home. I only pray that He might somehow lead my contemporaries back home as well.