I recently read a piece by Bishop Robert Barron https://churchpop.com/2015/06/13/two-deadly-errors-of-liberal-catholicism/which is over two years old, yet strikes a chord as loudly as ever. The more I thought about this piece, the more I came to realize that the errors it describes are consistent with an increasingly prevalent weakness in our current grasp of this wonderful treasure entrusted to us by Christ.
Bishop Barron’s Insight
In the piece noted above, Bishop Barron describes two fundamental errors in modern liberal Catholicism as embodied in a book entitled Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning by Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, a 2008 effort which made it to the bestseller list. Bishop Barron observes that consistent themes in the book were first, pitting personal faith or “spirituality” against the institutional church and secondly, the reduction of the Catholic faith to simply works of social justice. He notes how destructive and distorted these two perspectives can be to the Catholic faith.
Catholicism is not Our Personal Party
In 1963, American singer Lesly Gore recorded a number one song entitled “It’s My Party,” describing a teenage girl’s dismay at losing her boyfriend during her birthday party. The song’s lyrics typified the stereotypical teenage obsession with self and embodied the “take my toys and go home” immaturity of those who simply leave when things do not go their way. Kennedy proudly recalls how her mom would lead her children out of church if she did not like the tone or direction of a given homily. Many of the celebrities interviewed for the book likewise describe their disillusion and departure from a faith whose direction they did not agree with.
The history of the Catholicism is littered with those who left, taking their toys with them, or saw our faith as some adjustable personal buffet, but as Bishop Barron reminds us, that is not what Catholicism is all about. Rather, our faith is very much about respecting the hierarchy and teaching of the church as wholly interwoven. Barron describes Catholicism, not as a philosophical or political debate party but, rather, as a mystical body whose truth emanates from a very human, imperfect, yet validly ordained clergy. He thankfully reminds us that the inherent truth and integrity of our faith is not dependent upon having a perfect clergy but, rather, upon Christ who works through them. Ultimately, those who see our majestic faith as some toy designed to suit one’s personal taste miss a great part of what makes Catholicism so transcendent to our human distortions.
Bread Lines over Lines in the Sand
The second theme of Kennedy’s book which Bishop Barron took issue with is the notion that Catholicism is, at its core, all about having a passion for helping the poor and marginalized. While these virtues should not be ignored, Barron reminds us that the Church’s social teaching is rooted in and subordinate to the Church’s doctrinal convictions. We do not feed the poor simply to help out but, rather, because we are connected as Children of God. Bishop Barron notes that something is wrong when anyone who claims to have ever been Catholic describes social service in a way which cannot be distinguished from secular humanism–or simply being a nice person. Ultimately, I see that Bishop Barron’s two insights regarding Kennedy’s book can be coalesced into one central theme, as described below.
Me, Me, Me, and Me Again
At the end of the day, the Catholicism espoused by many of the contributors to Kennedy’s book is one centered on self: I have a right to expect my Catholicism to serve my needs and views of what is and is not important. I deserve a faith that caters to my notions of what is right and wrong. I can pretend to defend the marginalized, as long as those marginalized are wanted and convenient. It does not matter why I feed the hungry or clothe the naked, as long as it makes me feel good about myself to do it. My faith is my personal radio allowing me to switch stations when I do not like the music or, better yet, shut off when nothing suits my taste. My devotion is my business and I am certainly not going to listen to some imperfect priest bore me with things I am not in the mood to hear.
How convenient and self-obsessed is such a distorted view of the majestic and beautiful treasure that is our Faith.
The other day, I was trying to get my Echo device to play a favorite song, and things were not going well. For some reason, the device kept playing songs with similar titles but not the song I wanted to hear, so I just told it to shut up. I began to ponder both the convenience and the ironic drawbacks of modern technology and thinking. We are becoming increasingly accustomed to custom-made living, where we can adjust everything to precisely suit our personal tastes. I know many people who play board games by their own rules, leading to many arguments and lots of solitaire. Christ came to show us that it is not about us, but about God and others. Our Faith is rooted in putting God first, others second, and myself third. Ultimately, Christians do not go home when things do not go their way because they know that the only way that matters is the way to God.
2017 Gabriel Garnica
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