Instruct the Ignorant

Back in 1971, when experiments in educational theory from pointy-headed intellectuals with no children were just starting to become all the rage, my fellow seventh graders and I were pulled out of what used to be called a “junior high” and packed off to a newly built experiment in education called Eisenhower Middle School. It was the latest thing: a school without walls where education would miraculously unfold, as the natural instinct for learning that swells in the breast of every child was to be watered and nourished by a whole panoply of audio-visual materials, media resources, and the free exchange of ideas between the different aged children who studied together in a great wheel-shaped building that had no partitions between the various “learning areas.” The idea was that, left to ourselves, we young skulls full of mush naturally ached to unlock the mysteries of the Stamp Act, the Hanseatic League, pre-algebra, and sentence diagramming.

It turned out we didn’t even want to learn about Lord of the Flies, which our nifty new experiment in learning soon came to resemble. We ate weary teachers alive. We found the verdant wood surrounding the school grounds an excellent hideout for skipping class and learning to smoke. I strongly suspect we brought on the early death (from sheer exhaustion and frustration) of at least one of our aging math teachers. We wasted lots of time making “video productions” that basically consisted of filming each other making faces. Sure, there were undoubtedly some students way out at the end of the bell curve who, like Lisa Simpson, wanted to slake their burning thirst for knowledge. But for most of us, given the choice between actual education and what the young folk today call “hanging out with our friends,” there was no choice at all: An hour spent cracking jokes with your buddies about how stupid everybody (especially your teacher) is turns out to be highly preferable to a week spent learning things we don’t know anything about. Ignorance truly was bliss.


This experience more or less sums up the problem that faces anyone who attempts to live out the first of the spiritual works of mercy — to instruct the ignorant. For it turns out that ignorance and arrogance seem virtually always to be twins. The less you know, the more likely you are to be cocky about it. And so C. S. Lewis remarks somewhere that the main task facing anybody attempting the project of education is not that they must cut down jungles, but that they must irrigate deserts. The educated person who really knows what he is talking about, who has seen quite a bit of the world and who knows (either by personal experience or by a deep and appreciative reading of the experience of others) something of the beauties (and horrors) the world has to offer, can find himself stymied by the sheer bullish indifference of the ignoramus — especially the ignoramus brimming with the insolence of youth — who cannot be coaxed out of his tiny world to feel the slightest spark of interest in the immense and heart-breaking vision of Pickett’s troops marching straight into a Union fusillade at Gettysburg, or the fascination with the structure of reality that motivated Einstein to play with water fountains and study the way the droplets behaved when he waved his fingers through them, or the brilliant sonic architecture of Bach, or the incredible and compact economy of Dante, or the bottomless genius of Shakespeare — or the densely layered and limitless revelations poured out in the Scriptures.

The more ignorant somebody is of such things, the more proud they often are of their ignorance; and the more certain such people tend to be (in our age dominated by the myths of progress and evolutionism) that because we can hit the “on” switch on a computer, we are therefore more “advanced” than the people who built the immense edifice of civilization the ignoramus sits upon with his fat butt, blathering nonsense about how we are 5,000 years smarter and more evolved than those who report or believe in religious experiences, revelations, and so forth (which is to say, 99.99 percent of the human race throughout history).

 

This correlation between ignorance and self-satisfied arrogance is not, of course, something seen merely with the rise of that spectacularly arrogant form of ignorance called modern atheism. The precept to instruct the ignorant predates this by centuries, and no culture or religious tradition (including ours) is immune from it. It was into a deeply religious world that Christianity was born, and it was this world that Christ instructed. He did not (humanly speaking) inaugurate the practice of instructing the ignorant (though, of course, His Holy Spirit has been behind the whole project from the start). Again and again, the Hebrew Scriptures call Israel to, as we moderns say, “get a clue.” Moses appeals to the fact that the law of God is not rocket science as he promises good things if they obey the terms of the covenant with God and bad things if they don’t:

 
For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you this day, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them. (Dt 30:11-20)
 

This habit of the Hebraic tradition to append very clear threats and promises to the terms of the covenant irritates sophisticated moderns (including Catholics who proudly announce that they “don’t get much from the Old Testament” and don’t think we need such downer stuff), much as it irritates sophisticated teenagers. But it’s not really such a riddle. As Flannery O’Connor pointed out, “When people are deaf, you shout.” So the prophets continually shout to Israel (and to us) that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prv 9:10), because Old Testament Israel is (as her history attests) deaf with the deafness of the mule-headed — the most profound kind of deafness. So Isaiah must open his great book with the cry of frustration:

 
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: “Sons have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand.” (Is 1:2-3)
 

(This cry, by the way, is echoed in the tradition of Christian iconography. That’s why there is always an ox and an ass pictured in the stable: because the “welcome” given to Christ upon his arrival on earth is foreshadowed in this passage — and still lived out today in our failure to welcome the poor.)

Isaiah’s pedagogy of the ignorant is, emphatically, directed at a people who are not ignorant because of lack of information, but because of a willed and deliberate choice to be ignorant:

 
To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? The idol! a workman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold, and casts for it silver chains. He who is impoverished chooses for an offering wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an image that will not move. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? (Is 40:18-21)
 

Indeed, one of the marks of the prophets is that there is a curious note of gentleness to the Gentiles who, while often unbelievably brutal and blind, are also cut more slack than Israel, because their ignorance is due precisely to the fact that they have not enjoyed Israel’s privileges. As Paul notes:

 
First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.” Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Rom 10:19-21)
 

Some people are inclined to read this as though Paul was sucking up to the Gentiles and kicking Israel down the stairs. On the contrary: For Paul, Israel is the custodian of the “oracles of God” (Rom 3:2) while the Gentile pagans live in stygian darkness. For Paul, the truth is that, in Christ, each depends on all. So while Israel is instructed and provoked to faith in Christ by the conversion of the Gentiles, the Gentiles receive their instruction for their salvation from the oracles of Israel as fulfilled in Christ. As Isaiah says:

 

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Is 60:1-3)
 

For Paul, the notion that Jew or Gentile get to claim the position of Top Dog in the pedagogy of salvation is sort of like the idea of the denizens of a cancer ward squabbling about who is the least terminal. Our position, under God, is that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). But that’s the problem when it comes to instructing the ignorant. For just as the ignorant can be proud of their ignorance, so the educated can be even more proud of their education. Indeed, that was the problem that had come to poison Israel’s relationship with the Gentiles. As Paul put it:

 
But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth — you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Rom 2:17-24)
 
 

In short, the problem that faces us in implementing the command to instruct the ignorant is not the Virtuous Bringer of Light versus the Arrogant Ignoramus. It is the Arrogant Teacher versus the Arrogant Ignoramus. And the Teacher’s arrogance can be even more deeply sinful, because he ought to know better. That’s why Jesus has more words of rebuke for the pride of the scribes and teachers of the law than He has for the Gentiles who worship rocks or stars. Indeed, so strongly does Jesus warn against the temptation to imagine one is the Superior Teacher to the Nations that he actually goes so far as to say:

 
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Mt 23:2-12)
 

These words are not meant to be read literalistically any more than the command to “call no man your father on earth” means that sending your Dad a Father’s Day card is a sin. We call people “teacher” every day, and rightly so. Jesus’ point is that we are not to imagine that our knowledge of some particular field — and, above all, our knowledge of the revelation entrusted to the Church — is our personal property. We are emphatically not to see our knowledge as a sign of our spiritual superiority to those whom we may be called to instruct. As Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1). Jesus’ point is not to erect some weird taboo against calling people “teacher” — and we can know this because Paul specifically tells us that God’s “gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12).

Knowledge in the service of love rather than pride is, then, the goal of the Christian who seeks to do the spiritual work of mercy that is instruction of the ignorant. And it is, in a certain sense, a work that must be (and is) done by all of us, sooner or later. Every parent, for instance, is a teacher, willy nilly, to his child. The world groans with the need for those with competence in an area of knowledge to impart that knowledge to those who lack it. That’s because humans are not ponies and dogs. Beyond the swallow reflex, virtually every human activity is taught us by somebody, and we are therefore all raised as debtors to a civilization we shall never be able to repay. Each of us has had a thousand teachers — not merely at school, but from myriad other sources. Each of us can point to a person or persons who “taught us everything we know” or “had a huge impact” or “showed us the ropes” about our jobs, our passions, our relationships — and about God.

The interesting thing is that, when it comes to the office of teacher (and, in particular, that teacher who is given to us by Christ Himself, our bishop), Christ chose to distinguish that office from those whom we call “saints.” Indeed, He seems to have gone out of His way to do so. As G. K. Chesterton remarked concerning the establishment of the office which, above all others, is the supreme teaching office in the Church:

 
When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward — in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing — the historic Christian Church — was founded upon a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.
 

Over the past several years, we have heard a massive amount of nonsense spoken about how the pope or the bishops have “lost their moral authority to teach” when it turns out that they are schleps, dunderheads, slimeballs, or weenies. The choice of Simon Peter for first pope makes it screamingly clear that no pope or bishop was ever appointed to teach because of their “moral authority.” All — and I mean all — a bishop does insofar as he teaches is hand down a body of doctrine that he did not invent, that he cannot subtract from, and that he cannot add to — and that does not depend one iota on his “moral authority.”

A saint teaches by moral authority. His essential teaching when it comes to sanctity is this: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” We are attracted to his personal charisma and the way in which he embodies the message of Christ. And so, when by happy chance a bishop is also a saint, his sanctity certainly sweetens the message that he brings. But a bishop’s teaching office does not depend on his personal sanctity. All he has to do is pass on the message. The truth of that message no more depends on his personal charisma than the truth of your lover’s love letters depends on the “moral authority” of your mailman. Likewise, as Peter makes clear by his rash promise, his cowardly betrayal, his vacillating wimpiness, and his general thick-headedness, the truth of his message no more depends on his personal qualities than the truth 2+2=4 depends on the personal holiness of your second grade math teacher.

 

This essential unity of truth and holiness is paradoxically why the Church has always insisted in the unity of the truth and holiness she proclaims, and likewise has always warned against predicating our faith in the gospel on the quality (or lack thereof) of the episcopal messenger who proclaims it. To be sure, a bishop or priest or lay evangelist should be holy. But if they are not, this does not affect the truth of what they say one bit. The danger of ignoring this paradoxical warning is quickly seen whenever the factional fanboy arrives on the scene to shout “I am of Paul! I am of Apollos!” or (in a modern vein) something like:

It’s clear. The Bishops and their bureaucrats are uncomfortable. They see lay people demanding and requesting orthodoxy, consistency in teaching the WHOLE truth. It’s sad that we must look to lay Catholics for apologetics, firming up of the soul and for courage.
 

Different factions in the Church tend to anoint different celebrities as the real teachers of the Faith due to a perception that Their Hero(es) are more competent to teach (and a damn sight holier) than “the bishops” (the vague plural is essential to such rhetoric). It might be the Fave Rave Apologist (common with the apologetics subculture). It might be Speaking-Truth-to-Power Peace ‘n Justice Guy. It might be Utterly Pure and Perfect Liturgy Guy. It may be Theology of the Body Guy. It might be Angry Nun with a Conscience that Trumps the Teaching of the Church. It might be the celebrity popular with half a dozen other little subcultures in the Church. But the fact remains, the primary teachers of the Faith are (and always will be) the bishops. Hive off after your favorite Hero and elevate him or her above the full-orbed teaching of the Church, and you will, it is absolutely guaranteed, wind up with a mere fragment of the Faith instead of the full meal deal Jesus intended. In short, you will wind up ignorant, not fully Catholic.

Instructing the ignorant (particularly with respect to the Faith) is, like all things pertaining to the faith, risky business. Knowledge puffs up, and knowledge of holy things puffs way up. The gratifying thought, “I am instructing the ignorant. Look at me!” can steal in very subtly and insidiously. The exasperation with those who are proud of their ignorance can be a fine catalyst for pride in one’s knowledge, puny though it must always be when it comes to God.

But the thing, nonetheless, must be done and can be done with the help of Christ. For the layperson to whom the task of teaching falls, what must always be held in mind is that we are, at best, merely helpers of the bishops and never their replacements. For the ordained, the grace to teach, sanctify, and govern places them, as our Lord said, in the position of the servant and not the Master. And for all of us, the fundamental reality remains that we are — every last one of us — the Ignorant whom the Divine Instructor is patiently teaching till the School Bell rings on That Day and we enter into the Greatest Summer Vacation of all Time.

Mark P. Shea

By

Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

  • Austin

    So then, the laity must “pay, pray and obey,” no matter what? That the Bishops are always, always, always right? Even if they are perverts and liars? You have fallen into an absolutism that is common and perhaps understandable, but is not totally correct. For example, when the Archbishop of Salzburg, expelled all the Protestants from “his” city, were Catholics obligated to obey him in this action? When Cardinal Law moved around and protected John Geoghan and Paul Shanley, was he correct?

    I understand the point that you are trying to make, but you have gone too far and become an Episcopal toady, irrespective of the barbs thrown at them, as “Schleps, dunderheads, slimeballs and weenies.” {by the way, Schlep is a verb, not a noun, meaning to carry]. You preach a medieval Catholocism, of an aristocratic clergy, a serf laity, and a complete subservience of the laity to the clergy, no matter what. You pretend to be modern and relevent by being slightly irreverent and on occasion witty [to a limited degree], but remain a medieval toady synchoplant to the Bishops.

    Until the hierarchy makes its peace with the modern laity, there will be conflict, bank on it. We are not serfs and we will not simply “pay, pray and obey,” Until we have a voice, there will be problems, and Episcopal synchophants will not be respected by anyone, especially the Bishops.

  • John

    Excellent article. It really gets to the nitty gritty of the Faith. As a teacher of RCIA I always begin by pointing out that Jesus chose Peter and then explain as Mark has so eloquently pointed out that Peter was not the brightest bulb in the lamp. It is a great mystery of the Church that Christ did chose those who were the ordinary and common over those who were the self described intellects. At a conference on the bible the priest speaker said that when he was a student he was always told that in a theological dispute one should side with the Church and not the theologian and I think Mark’s article gives us the reason.

  • Hmyer

    “All — and I mean all — a bishop does insofar as he teaches is hand down a body of doctrine that he did not invent, that he cannot subtract from, and that he cannot add to — and that does not depend one iota on his “moral authority.” “

    This statement is nothing short of absurd. If a bishop is without moral authority ( morally corrupt), what guarantee is there that the faith is being accurately handed down?
    Like it or not, the authenticity of the message will to some extent, be judged by the authenticity of the messenger.

  • Alex

    Can a tradtionalist, a conservative, a revivalist, or whatever it is they are calling themselves these days — wait, here it is — a GOOD CHRISTIAN — write a single article without resorting to unnecessarily angry and meaningless epithets like “pointy-headed intellectuals”? And without unnecessary cheap shots at the 1970s?

    I spent the winter of 1975-1976 in Rome. Yes, it was a confused and politically charged place, with demonstrations, riots, and other such unpleasantries. And yet, there seemed to be more Christian love and human charity in the air, and the faith seemed more secure and less defensive of enemies external and internal, than what is happening in the New World today.

    Too many of us are eating each other from within.

  • Jean

    I am in agreement with many points of your article. However, I have a problem with some of the Bishop’s as teachers in the following respect:

    The teaching/learning process is inescapably dyadic. In the dyad the learner grants to the teacher the authority to BE his or her teacher. If the learner withholds this grant of authority, the teacher cannot teach. He or she can continue to try, but where there is no one willing to be the learner no teaching can take place.

    Under certain conditions it is appropriate and legitimate for the learner to deliberately not to grant a teacher authority to teach.

    And under certain circumstances the learner may WANT to give the authority but may find him or herself no longer able to do so. It is in this latter position I find myself.

    I am comfortable with a hierachical Church. I am grateful to have the differences in roles and in authority. I want to grant the Bishops, all of them, by virtue of their role in the Church, the authority to teach me how to live more virtuously. That is, in a way more pleasing to God because it is more consistent with the teaching of His Son. But when some of the Bishop’s own proven evil deeds are shouting so loudly, I find it very hard to hear their words.

  • Mark P. Shea

    So then, the laity must “pay, pray and obey,” no matter what? That the Bishops are always, always, always right?

    No and no.

  • Rebecca Balmes

    What happens when the bishop(s) abdicate their own teaching authority by not teaching the Faith? I would agree with Mr. Shea completely, if I hadn’t observed so many bishops refusing to teach the fullness of the Faith, whether out of dissent or cowardice. Fortunately, we’ve had saints as popes for a very long time, so we at least have their teachings to refer to.

    Too many dioceses have bishops who are stuck in the role of the fearful apostles in the Upper Room before Pentacost. They know the Truth, but are too afraid to brave the crowds and pronounce it. A New Pentacost would be a welcome blessing from the Holy Spirit.

  • Jim B

    Here were the first three results:

    1. Catholic Democrats Release Statement of Principals

    “In all these issues, we seek the Church’s guidance and assistance but believe also in the PRIMACY OF CONSCIENCE (emphasis mine). In recognizing the Church’s role in providing moral leadership, we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes with being in disagreement with the Church in some areas. Yet we believe we can speak to the fundamental issues that unite us as Catholics and lend our voices to changing the political debate — a debate that often fails to reflect and encompass the depth and complexity of these issues.”

    http://tinyurl.com/yzf4e24

    2. Pelosi – Birth Control Will Stimulate the Economy

    http://tinyurl.com/ar2tqq

    3. Pelosi to Bishops – You Can Talk Now

    http://tinyurl.com/2bs589l

    here’s another twist on “the Bishops”

    “No episcopal conference, as such, has a teaching mission; its documents have no weight of their own save that of the consent given to them by the INDIVIDUAL bishops.” (emphasis mine) – The “Ratzinger Report” – page 60

  • Mark P. Shea

    This statement is nothing short of absurd. If a bishop is without moral authority ( morally corrupt), what guarantee is there that the faith is being accurately handed down?

    It’s quite true that individual bishops (including the Pope) can err. But the guarantee is that the Church will be guided by the Holy Spirit when her bishops articulate the tradition in council and in union with Peter. It’s really rather seldom that a bishop will teach something contrary to the tradition, though it happens. It’s even rarer that a Pope will. The problem, much more frequently, is that the bishops will articulate something out of the deposit of Faith and people won’t want to hear it. Hence the spectacle of an Andrew Sullivan complaining that the Church is in bed with “Christianists” even as comboxers at NCR are complaining that the bishops are all a bunch of wussy Democrats who won’t bow to the theory that the one and only issue in social justice is abortion.

    What is important to keep in mind here is that I am speaking *solely* to the role of the bishop as teacher, not governor or sanctifier. What I said was that *as teacher* all a bishop does is hand on a tradition he did not invent. That’s why the Faith remains just as true under and Alexander VI as it does under St. Leo the Great. A Pope may well end up in a hole in Dante’s hell, but so long as he articulates the Church’s teaching, he tells the truth, even if he doesn’t live it. It’s the Jesus being preached, not the man who preaches him, in which we believe.

  • Ann

    >>Sure, there were undoubtedly some students way out at the end of the bell curve who, like Lisa Simpson, wanted to slake their burning thirst for knowledge. But for most of us, given the choice between actual education and what the young folk today call “hanging out with our friends,” there was no choice at all:< < Mr. Shea, what you are describing appears to be what we home schoolers call “unschooling.” You are right, it doesn’t work for all children, but for some it is a truly wonderful way to learn — a joyful voyage of discovery, as opposed to the excruciating process of sitting in a classroom all day being fed one iota of information approximately every 20 minutes. My daughter has, since toddlerhood, been interested in geology, biology, astronomy, and meteorology. My job has been to provide books, DVD courses, trips to the library, and science magazines and then to get out of the way. She took, and aced, a college-level meteorology course at the age of 11. Very quickly, her knowledge in this area went so far beyond mine that I simply couldn’t teach her anything. Just when I thought I had a future oceanographer on my hands, she became interested, through reading some fiction she found at the library, in mythology. She read everything she could get her hands on, and then asked if I could get her some books on Latin and Greek. I obliged. She whipped through Wheelock’s Latin and Basic Greek in 30 minutes a day in a few weeks. She comments regularly about the association of English with Greek and Latin words. A child like this would be stifled in a regular classroom. Structure would slow her down and kill off that beautiful drive to learn. It may be that the “pointy-headed intellectuals” you mention were once children who themselves would have learned best from unschooling. Perhaps this is a problem with our American exceptionalism. We continually appeal to the most unusual, but ignore the vast majority of the population.

  • Ender

    Like the rest of us the bishops have their faults and it does appear that they have for the most part backed away from the fullness of the Church’s teachings, at least those parts that involve doing something unpleasant … which more and more means doing something politically inconvenient. The bigger problem, however, and the one that causes the most problems, comes from speaking out on political issues as this blurs the line distinguishing Church teaching from personal opinion.

    It is certainly true that a bishop’s sanctity has nothing to do with the truth of his message – when the message he is passing on originated with the Church – and to that message we owe obedience. What most people don’t seem to recognize is that when a bishop offers his perspective on solutions to health care or immigration he is not speaking for the Church and not passing on the deposit of the faith … and as far as I am concerned his opinions carry no moral weight whatever.

    The bishops are our teachers on matters of faith and morals but not on the solutions to national problems. If they wish to be heeded more and ignored less they should spend more time tilling their own fields and less time pontificating about how we should till ours.

  • Mark P. Shea

    What happens when the bishop(s) abdicate their own teaching authority by not teaching the Faith?

    What actual evidence do we have that “the bishops” en masse have done anything like this? We live in an era that is completely *deluged* with easily accessible, clear, and abundant access to Church teaching. I don’t see how any mildly literate person writing on June 22, 2010 AD can say that “the bishops are not teaching the faith”. One or two click on a given link from this very site will land you on websites where you can drink from a veritable firehose of sound, accurate Church teaching such as the Catechism, the writings of the Popes over the centuries, the instructions of the American bishops concerning the particular issues of our time, the social doctrine of the Church, and boatloads more. The notion that we are somehow disadvantaged over previous generations in discovering what the Church teaches is nonsensical to me.

    Nearly always, what people seem to really mean when they say “the bishops are not teaching the faith” is either, “I can’t be bothered to investigate the Church’s teaching much beyond reacting to headlines about a bishop being insufficiently harsh to a politician I dislike” or else “I tend to confuse the way a bishop governs with the content of his teaching” or “I don’t like a bishop personality, aesthetics, private theological enthusiasms, politics or liturgical preferences, so that means ‘the bishops’ aren’t teaching.” By this last method, for instance, Chaput and Burke (who do gobs of teaching) are somehow arraigned as “not teaching” because Mahony is such a lousy bishop in so many ways. But “the bishops” are not all Mahony. And even Mahony, terrible as he is in so many ways, is not, in his teaching office, wildly heterodox. Oh sure, he permit loopy Masses and sucks up to the Angry Nun crowd, but compare him with, say, your average Episcopalian bishop or the lunatics running St. Joan of Arc parish in Minneapolis/St. Paul and he is practically a Gibraltar of orthodoxy.

    But here’s the thing: even if the pastor of St. Joan of Arc parish were to be made a bishop (as, for instance, a crazy man like Emmanuel Milingo actually was) it’s just not the case that a) “the bishops” are not teaching or that b) we are helpless to discover the Church’s teaching. The bishops are teaching and their teaching has never been more accessible. So are an army of gifted ordained and lay teachers, who make the deposit of faith easily understandable. If we can’t find out what the Church teaches, I simply can’t believe the problem is on the supply side of the transaction. The problem tends to be either with lack of skill and knowledge in how to access the information, with lack of skill and knowledge in knowing how to organize the information (Jeff Cavins has famously described the graduate of CCD as emerging from his Catholic education with a “pile of Catholicism” full of bits and pieces of Moses, the rosary, something about Mary, the Eucharist, “social justice”, birth control, the Pope and the three secrets of Fatima. It’s all there… somewhere… but the kid emerging from Catholic “education” often has not idea how it all fits together or what it has to do with “the real world”. Some stick with it and eventually assemble it together into an order whole. Some stick with it and leave the “religion” stuff partitioned from the “real world” stuff. Some give up on reconciling it with reality and then force themselves to choose one or the other. All this is a failure of pedagogy in Catholic education (and is therefore ultimately the responsibility of the bishops). But it’s not a failure of the bishop’s willingness to teach, it seems to me. It’s a failure of the bishop’s willingness to govern those who teach in their names. The key, then, is to get the *content* of the Church’s teaching into hands prepared to receive it and minds enabled with the tools to assemble it into a coherent whole. That’s where Catholic education has often failed egregiously, it seems to me.

  • Rebecca Balmes

    Mr Shea,

    Throughout my entire comment, I made pains to make clear that I was not speaking about “the bishops” but about specific individuals. I did not name names, but I don’t think I have to to make the point that, while I agreed with you in theory (and still do), I see an error in the argument that bishops (individually and at set points in time, not in the aggregate or cumulatively) are correct teachers of the Faith by virtue of their office. I do believe that, cumulatively and in the aggregate, the Church has withstood the forces arrayed against Her and is the inerrant Body of Christ, and that the bishops as apostolic heirs have guided and protected Her aright through history. However, I would argue that while the Holy Spirit imparts gifts upon the heirs of the apostles, they are still human and may still err in their use of those gifts (or deny them outright). Because of this fallen nature, as individuals the bishops must be held accountable by the rest of the Body of Christ to exercise their teaching authority by adequately imparting the Truths of the Faith.

    I understand your frustration with the common thread of complaints against “the bishops” being political and/or ignorant, but I don’t believe that was the thrust of my argument. I regret if I came across that way.

    As for your statements on Catholic education, I completely agree and am choosing not to feel insulted that you would target my comment with an impassioned plea for better catechism. 😉

    I have Archbishop Chaput’s book Render Unto Caesar on my coffeetable as we speak, as I’m reading it during the baby’s naptimes this week. I actively seek to expand my own education on Church teachings, history, traditions, and culture. As an adult convert, I realize that I have a long road to travel before I can get an instinctive a grasp on these things, but I also realize that not everyone does this type of reading or seeking. I’m more concerned with adult faith formation – the stuff children are given to study just ticks me off, and we’re home-catechizing our children from the Baltimore Catechism – and it seems to me that a diocesan bishop ought to be a primary source of proper education for adults through his public statements, and that a major aspect of proper education for adults is taking opportunities when they arise in political discourse or current events to reiterate the Truth. I don’t know about yours, but my archbishop does not frequently do this, and more often than I’m comfortable with, individual bishops tend to make political statements where they ought to be making teaching statements.

    I’m going to quit now, before I confuse my point any further. Combox statements of position aren’t my strongest rhetorical style. 🙂

  • Ryan Haber

    Austin,

    I think you went a bit overboard on this one. Correcting Mark Shea’s use of the word “schlep” was snarky; your post itself contained two pretty glaring misspellings. Let’s not descend into a morass of pettiness just because we don’t like what someone else wrote – we could all use more thorough editting in our writing, but that’s not really the point.

    Mark never argued, even for a minute, that we should “pay, pray, and obey.”

    I will, though.

    It is a precept of the Church that we are to contribute to her material needs. It’s not a negotiable and it’s not contingent upon our bishops’ being good shepherds; though the way in which we materially support the Church is – as far as I can tell – at our own discretion. The Temple that was corrupt enough to be cleansed of its cheats by our Lord’s own hand was still the repository of the widow’s charity – her whole livelihood – and our Lord commended her example (Lk 21:2). Enough said.

    Our Lord taught us to keep steadfast in prayer (Lk 18:1) “pray without ceasing,” as does St. Paul (1 Ths 5:17) both in word and by example. Enough said.

    And we are to obey our teachers. Jesus himself told them:

    The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.

    Again, enough said.

    So there you have it, Austin, we are to pray, pay, and obey, whatever liberated folks may think of the concept. Our Lord said it, and I can’t see the insult in it. I for one am not insulted that my role in the Church includes prayer, material contribution, and obedience. For that matter, neither are the priests I know, who are also under obedience, obliged by solemn promises to pray the divine office, and by Christian conscience to provide for the poor and for the upkeep of the Church.

    I am also deeply moved that my personal vocation within the Church and apostolate to the outside world are founded on me doing my duty within it. That is to say, my opportunity to do glorious and individual things (whether public or hidden) is founded on my willingness to do the mundane and communal things. There is something really humbling about that, Austin, isn’t there? But it is only the humble who are low enough to be amazed even by the little things, and so it is only the humble who can truly enjoy glory – either their own or others.

    Those who want a “voice” are usually too loud to hear, to busy chattering to see, any glory but that which they covet. The laity having a “voice” (whatever, in concrete terms, that would mean) will hardly solve the Church’s woes, friend. In case you hadn’t noticed, we laity have hardly got our house in order either. It’s about as mature as a seven year old to blame that on our bishops. I don’t need my bishop to tell me that lying and stealing are wrong, and if he does, I expect – unless I be more thoroughly converted – I will keep on doing them as long as I darn well please. Humanae Vitae and contraception should be an object lesson in that.

    No, Austin, I am perfectly happy to have a small burden on my shoulders. I don’t want responsibility for the Church. It’s too big a boat for shoulders as small as mine to tow. It’s enough of a burden for me to figure out how to get holy and help my family do likewise. It’s hard enough to figure out how to speak out civilly against injustice – in the world or in the Church – without having to worry about steering things too.

    All such talk puts things backwards anyway. The Church and her pilots – inept as they be – are our only hope of salvation. Not the other way around, wise as we think ourselves.

  • Ryan Haber

    I have Archbishop Chaput’s book Render Unto Caesar on my coffeetable as we speak, as I’m reading it during the baby’s naptimes this week. I actively seek to expand my own education on Church teachings, history, traditions, and culture. As an adult convert, I realize that I have a long road to travel before I can get an instinctive a grasp on these things, but I also realize that not everyone does this type of reading or seeking. I’m more concerned with adult faith formation – the stuff children are given to study just ticks me off, and we’re home-catechizing our children from the Baltimore Catechism – and it seems to me that a diocesan bishop ought to be a primary source of proper education for adults through his public statements, and that a major aspect of proper education for adults is taking opportunities when they arise in political discourse or current events to reiterate the Truth. I don’t know about yours, but my archbishop does not frequently do this, and more often than I’m comfortable with, individual bishops tend to make political statements where they ought to be making teaching statements.

    Rebecca, you are absolutely right. It is a primary role of the bishop to teach his flock, and time and again the Church (especially this and the previous two or three pontiffs) has encouraged them to do so using all the modern means of communication available. Some have succeded spectacularly whereas others seem hardly to have budged from the stone ages when it comes to reaching their flocks.

    This happens in individual families too, or something like it does, at least. And the analogy can be pressed further. Ever notice how in some families, the parents are so constituted so as to be able to have 3-8 kids, all tidy and orderly, and take them for outings, help them with their homework, get them dressed and out the door on time to pray for ten minutes before Mass every Sunday? Other families, with similar or different circumstances, have a hard enough time getting the checkbook balanced, can barely keep the kitchen habitable, and are at a loss about how to keep two kids from staying in bed at night?

    I think it’s the same with dioceses. Some bishops and their staff just have it together. They seem to be doing everything, well, and make it look easy. Other dioceses are struggling just to stay solvent or get the Lenten Pastoral stuffed into the bulletins before Holy Thursday.

    I’m not gonna go out and say it has to do with their level of faith or orthodoxy or yadda yadda. I think different people – and thus, different families – just have different leadership and organizational capacities.

    Happily, just as a human walks with one foot leading, so does the Church – and the rest eventually follows if the footing is sound.

    —-

    Second point: about political statements. Sometimes ecclesiastical figures way overstep their bounds. No doubt. They are to stick to the theological and moral. But also, we have to examine what we mean by “political.” Very often, we do not mean “something without moral implications,” but rather, “something that doesn’t seem religious to us.” It is part of the Christian faith, though, that it is totalizing. It is meant to connect the whole of life and society together in Christ – nothing (or very little) left out. It is an innovation of the Jews that we Christians have built upon that the moral IS the religious. “What you did for the least of my little ones…” A great many things – anything that affects other humans, really – have moral implications and are thus within the purview of the Church.

    We do not want the Church to play partisan politics, and we must set a good example for our brethren in the Church by refraining from doing so. Party spirit, Paul tells us, is not of the Holy Spirit, but is a work of the flesh (Gal 5:20). That is, we must not tie our lot in with one party or another, with one agenda or “ism” or another. We must belong to Christ (1 Cor 1:12).

    A bishop, by virtue of being our moral teachers, should not think he has some expertise they do not have – such as in finance or law – unless he happens to have such expertise. But still, as bishop, he is duty-bound before God to admonish the Church and the broader world, “You must not do X,” or “Such-and-such a situation is intolerable,” or “X must be undertaken or accomplished by some means.”

    Very often, we get irritated by bishops “getting political” only when they disagree with us. If we want to grow in holiness we should let that should serve primarily as a gauge of our humility and obedience – and not of their overstepping their bounds.

  • Mark P. Shea

    I didn’t intend to insult you or hurt your feelings. And I’m delighted to see your desire to learn from and serve Our Lord. Partly I was thinking aloud in my reply, because I get frustrated by (some) of our hierarchy as well. But when I look at things in the cold light of day, I conclude that the principal failure of our bishops has been in the area of governance, not teaching. That’s mostly what I was getting at.

  • Rebecca Balmes

    Thanks, Mark. You didn’t hurt my feelings… 😉 It would take a lot more than a debate to do that!

    I think I got your point, and have been thinking about the balance required of bishops all day. smilies/smiley.gif I need to re-read Pope John Paul II’s beautiful book for bishops, and Render Unto Caesar is bringing some clarity to my mind on the topic of bishops’ voices in the political arena. Any other suggestions, anyone?

  • Austin

    A very nice heartfelt post. Snarky? Yes, of course. When someone tries to pontificate and makes errors, they are fair game. Insofar, as “pay, pray and obey” you are welcome to do so. Good for you. Don’t count me in however. Are you a convert? I am a cradle Catholic and have seen the clergy in alll their glory: bullying, thuggish nuns, arrogant, petty tyrant priests, the whole schlmeile. I am not leaving however, as this is my Church too, and in spite of all its faults, it’s still the best deal in town. One final note: the Church belongs to all of us, not just some “Rad-Trads” who want everyone who disagrees with them excommunicated. Let’s try to get along.

    You have some nice, sincere posts. Much nicer than a snarky, cynical fellow like myself. Keep up the good work and:
    Pax Dominae Sid Semper Vobiscum.

  • Ender

    I have been quite hard on the bishops for getting too involved in political issues so it would probably be useful for me to define what I mean by that. A political issue is also a moral issue only if it involves choices directly counter to an explicit Church teaching, otherwise it is only a prudential problem, so controversies like abortion and euthanasia are moral issues but health care and immigration are not.

    Generally the Church specifies only the ends toward which we are to work – feed the hungry, heal the sick – while the determination of the means that would best achieve those ends are properly left to the laity to determine. We may be obligated to work to heal the sick but the Church is silent on whether we are to support or oppose (e.g.) Obamacare. I support the bishops when they oppose Obamacare because of its provisions for abortion but I oppose them when they otherwise signal their acceptance. That crosses the line.

    I am happy for them to vocalize the problems caused by illegal immigration and to remind us that immigrants – illegal or not – are to be treated fairly and with compassion. That concern, however, does not justify calls for amnesty or opposition to the Arizona law. Those are perhaps valid positions but I have no moral obligation to accept them and it is wrong of them to imply otherwise, and there is surely that implication when they speak out on prudential issues.

  • Joe Hargrave

    “Very often, we get irritated by bishops “getting political” only when they disagree with us.”

    Hmm. Well, when “we” agree fully with the traditional teaching of the Church on political matters, and we disagree with “them” when they are clearly deviating from it, who is in the right?

    There’s something about the Catholic Church that makes it similar to the American republic. John Adams once wrote that a republican form of government is a government of “laws, not men” – meaning, ultimately, our Constitution and not the whims of individual politicians should be the final arbiter of political legitimacy.

    In the Church, we have a 2000 year-old tradition. We might even say it is a Church of tradition(s), and not men. Even popes can become anti-popes, and history has known many heretic bishops.

    When Roger Mahony characterized Arizona’s SB 1070 as “Nazi and Communist tactics”, when he invented a hysterical tale of people being required to “turn each other in” to the authorities, when he assumed that race-hatred was behind the law, when he made all of these grand proclamations without a single reference to what the Church actually teaches about immigration and the rights of nations – not to mention the reasonable arguments put forward by sincere supporters of the bill – he completely failed in his duty as a bishop.

    This is what Pope Leo XIII said in Immortale Dei:

    But in matters merely political, as, for instance, the best form of government, and this or that system of administration, a difference of opinion is lawful. Those, therefore, whose piety is in other respects known, and whose minds are ready to accept in all obedience the decrees of the apostolic see, cannot in justice be accounted as bad men because they disagree as to subjects We have mentioned; and still graver wrong will be done them, if

  • Jean

    Wonderful article and good com box posts! Thank you. I am learning from each of you.
    But I still have a question I don’t feel has been addressed.

    Can the DEEDS of the Bishop who proposes to teach us how to make moral choices in our daily experiences make his WORDS empty of effect?

    Some of the Bishops have DONE things that cry out to God as evil deeds. Should we ignore that fact and still look to these persons to teach us how to make moral choices?

    Someone may quote Jesus admonishment regarding the religious teachers of his day recommending how some of them should be regarded: they sit in the seat of Moses therefore do what they teach but do not do what they do.

    That’s what I’ve been trying to do. But I find it very hard not to be distracted from the benefit of what some of the Bishops say and write intended to teach me to make good but costly moral choices in my own life by the examples of bad moral choices they have made.

    A teacher of morality need not be above ALL reproach but certainly he or she needs be free of egregious, or to use the old fashioned word, scandalous behavior to have any credibility. Unless they want to specifically prefix their teaching with the caveat “Do as I say but not as I do”.

    Is anyone else struggling with this aspect of the Bishop’s “instructing the ignorant”?

  • Jason Negri

    Jean, I think what you’ve articulate is precisely the struggle so many of us face. It’s natural to associate the messenger with the message. I suspect that’s a strong reason for why Christ’s admonishment was made – because we all tend to link them.

    And really, it requires a heroic effort not to. If our teachers show by their example that they don’t believe much of what they are teaching, why on earth should anyone else? If it weren’t for that specific admonishment from Christ, I’d be ignoring the bishops more often than I actually do.

    But another way of looking at it is that, as others have pointed out here, Church teaching can be found by anyone who cares to look around the Internet or buy some books. Those of us who are educated must critically sift what comes out of our bishops’ mouths and probably reject much of it as not actual teaching, but merely ill-informed opinion. So when a bishop says something that is in conformity with Church teaching as easily corroborated by a little reading & study, we heed him, however difficult the teaching is or however much it flies in the face of what we think is right. But when they’re opining on matters that are only loosely connected with their areas of competence, I reject the notion that we are obliged to assent.

  • Eric Bohn

    Ann wrote: “Mr. Shea, what you are describing appears to be what we home schoolers call “unschooling.” You are right, it doesn’t work for all children, but for some it is a truly wonderful way to learn — a joyful voyage of discovery, as opposed to the excruciating process of sitting in a classroom all day being fed one iota of information approximately every 20 minutes.”

    Ann, you seem to be extolling Mark’s process of ‘unschooling’ as somehow being virtuous. The problem I see with this is that those who do as Mark has are subject to succumbing to the gang mentality and also run the risk of adopting divisive personilty traits that could could have been prevented by proper schooling and a good upbringing.

  • Donna

    Um, Eric… I believe Mr. Shea was not the one who implemented ‘unschooling’ – he was one of the students who was ‘supposed’ to benefit from it – and who instead ended up learning little or nothing in that time.
    Ann was remarking that what was, in his case, done poorly, could be done well in other cases, as in that of her daughter. With a very bright student who is self-motivated and has a solid parental upbringing, (or perhaps, a select few such students), it seems that ‘unschooling’ can be wonderful. With many average kids, particularly in large groups, it’s a formula for disaster.

  • Eric Bohn

    I don’t believe Mark fully understands the importance of the office of the Bishop and what it requires. While I agree that the Spirit can correct mistakes, church isn’t entirely a gathering of the faithful.

    I personally heard my local bishop (and several priests) say things about biblical figures and scriptural readings that completely confuse the basic facts. For example, I listened to a bishop say in his homily that the reason Christ condemned the Pharisees when he told them “Get away from me you EVILDOERS” was because they had not done enough good works. A priest in the same dioceese said in his homily that Paul (Saul) was a deliberate evildoer prior to becoming an apostle. I’m not expecting all ordained ministers to be perfect in the sense that they will not make mistakes, but these are examples of people planting seeds that lead to false understandings of the way in which God works.

    Recall that Paul also said that not all should be teachers as they will be judged more harshly. The tongue (and pen) are powerfull instruments. Read through James 3 to note just how important it is for a teacher to be both morally beyond reproach and spiritually connected to God. If you know what the apostolic tradition of the laying on of hands is meant to be symbolic of, and the importance of testing candidates, then you know what I’m talking about. It is not by “happy chance” that Bishops are also Saints. Paul also was not timid about warning the flock with regards to false teachers posing as church officials.

    GKC quote FTA: “When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward…”

    Peter actually was none of those things; if he were, he would not have been chosen to lead the church. In fact it’s likely that if Peter didn’t possess the strong personilty traits he did, he wouldn’t have been looked up to by the rest of the Apostles. Peter may have been prone to doing sinful things, but he was chosen because he was able to honestly evaluate his thoughts and actions and correct himself accordingly, because of God, without regard to what others thought about him — that’s a rare and valuable characteristic in a leader. If you can’t attend to your own behavior, how can you expect to be of help to others?

    Quote FTA: “All — and I mean all — a bishop does insofar as he teaches is hand down a body of doctrine that he did not invent, that he cannot subtract from, and that he cannot add to — and that does not depend one iota on his “moral authority.”

    Actually, they can and sometimes do “add to” or “subtract from” the scriptures, perhaps not intentionally, but they do. The foundational duty of every Christian is to overcome sin within themselves. This why we journey through the desert with Christ (as Paul also did) before engaging in any type of Church ministry. For example, Mark quoted the following:

    “On the contrary: For Paul, Israel is the custodian of the “oracles of God” (Rom 3:2)…”

    Now the term “oracle” is not a Christian reference, and it is not what the Scripture refers to. This fact can be realized by the following comment Mark made in relation to this quote:

    “…the Gentiles receive their instruction for their salvation from the oracles of Israel as fulfilled in Christ.”

    Substitute the term “prohesy” for “oracle” and you get an accurate picture of what Rom 3:2 says. Christ came to fullfill the law and prophets. “Oracle” is traditionally pagan terminology and its use carries with it different connotations. Get rid of the sin and be clothed by the Son.

  • Jean

    To Jason Negri:
    Thank you for your truly helpful response to my question.

    Your point is well taken. With regard to the Bishop’s teaching I was making the mistake of confusing the “message with the medium”. The behavior of the particular Bishop is not the basis of validation of his teaching. The Church’s accumulated wisdom is.

    You have appropriately reminded me of what responsibility I have to, in your words, “critically sift” the spoken and written teaching of the Bishops, comparing it with available Church teaching on the subject.

  • Ryan Haber

    A very nice heartfelt post… Insofar, as “pay, pray and obey” you are welcome to do so. Good for you. Don’t count me in however. Are you a convert? I am a cradle Catholic and have seen the clergy in alll their glory… I am not leaving however, as this is my Church too, and in spite of all its faults, it’s still the best deal in town. One final note: the Church belongs to all of us, not just some “Rad-Trads” who want everyone who disagrees with them excommunicated. Let’s try to get along…

    Thanks, Austin. You also have a number of great insights. Nope – no convert here – except, I hope, in the day to day way. Baptized at two weeks, I’ve only acted like a heathen consistently since then, without actually being one.

    I’ve had dopey pastors, a pedophile priest at my parish who trained the (other) class of altar servers (I got the nice deacon), power hungry feminun school principals, arbitrary caprice and wreckless stupidity. My parish was laden with millions of dollars of debt when we needed a new school and the contractor went way over what was promised and the pastor wanted to be nice and didn’t go after the con artists, who, coincidentally turn out to have a track record in the area. I’ve had adoration cancelled and prayer groups shunted aside. I’ve worked for a priest who openly promoted homosexual lifestyles and who denied the Eucharist. I’ve experienced coparishioners pushing the boundaries of “hideously unkind.” I’ve seen it all, too.

    I do like Latin, Austin, for the record. It’s my first intellectual love. But I’ve been to a Trad Mass probably 15 times ever, and typically 6 months to a year apart. I really just don’t care about language in the liturgy. I think there’s way to much talk about excommunication, and in the wake of the oil spill, I can say it gives me the same sensation as the dolt who suggested putting an atomic bomb down the well. When traddies get going about their pet topics, I *always* roll my mind’s eyes. I was born in 1977, so my experience – like a convert’s – is by and large unshaped by the Tridentine Mass, and I am cool with that. My experience has been mostly shaped by JPII and the tone he has set – flies caught with honey rather than vinegar. That’s rough for me, because I am kinda nasty and cranky, but I’m trying.

    My experience hasn’t been shaped, either, by silly slogans thought up to change the Church: “pray, pay, and obey,” or “with their backs to the people,” and so on just don’t resonate with me.

    My little set of quotations wasn’t meant to be some kind of apologetic for disengagement. On the contrary, I was trying to say that investment in the life of the Church – which I am sure you have – has to be the first thing. If I do *not* pray, pay, and obey, what kind of claim can I possibly make? Having a stake in the Church, it is only left for me to figure out what my role is, what I can realistically accomplish to build Her up, to do it, and to go on with my life trusting that our all-powerful Father will do far more for her than the likes of me ever can. That is a very consoling thought, isn’t it?

    In any event, like you, I don’t love the Church (and I do) because She is perfect (She ain’t) but because She is what God has given me, and I am what God has given Her. To leave the one would be to leave the other. Thick or thin, we’re all in this together. Even more so, really, in the balance, the Church has been an amazing and gracious mother to me all my life. It would take a lot, I think, even to incline me to leave Her. As it is, I am not.

  • Ryan Haber

    Jean,

    I struggle too. Particularly in the realm of money, I’ve lost confidence in the ability of a number of bishops to handle it. As someone committed to personal fiscal responsibility and to sharing generously, it concerns me to read of wasted money, money run off with, and monies given to illegitimate organizations whose missions are at odds with the Church’s.

    As for morals and politics – the Bishops usually don’t say anything morally sketchy. Usually, if I think there’s a problem, it’s with having misapplied a real moral principle. Then, I try to see the moral principle they are articulating, and articulate to myself where exactly they went wrong. Since I don’t know much about world affairs – since most of us get only soundbites even about things like Arizona and the Oil Spill That Never Ends – I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    We need to pray so hard, Jean. So hard.

  • georgie-ann

    great descriptions of ignorance!

    “For it turns out that ignorance and arrogance seem virtually always to be twins. The less you know, the more likely you are to be cocky about it.”–Mark P. Shea

    i remember the day–it was around the time i turned 50 or 55–that it suddenly dawned on me very very ominously and clearly that:

    all the time and work and efforts that i, (and the fellow parents and teachers of my generation), had been idealistically devoting to intensively pouring out of all of our collective wisdom (and best advice and information and moral guidelines) into our own progeny–just as much as we possibly could–to “build a better future” of course, was all just a mere “drop in the bucket” as far as eternity was concerned,…and most especially with regard to the very near future, which was just beginning to reveal itself over the horizon,…as i realized that NEW GENERATIONS OF MANIFEST IGNORANCE WERE BEING BORN EVERY SECOND ALL AROUND THE WORLD, AS WELL AS RIGHT HERE UNDER OUR WELL-INTENTIONED NOSES,…and the outlook for the “guiding lights” of these arriving “newbies” was definitely NOT very encouraging at that time,…and, i would say that it hasn’t improved particularly even to this day,…

    i was literally overcome for a moment in a dark and anguished swoon of foreboding,…but when something is that much “too big” to handle, it must be thrown back on God’s wisdom and shoulders,…i hope that He is implanting a sufficient amount of Himself within them to carry them through a rather strange, dry and turbulent time,…that changes that hold potential for Good will become fruitful,…most of all, call us close to Yourself, dear Lord,…give us strength and help us to pray,…there’s only just “so much” that a person can do!,…

    Amen,…

  • Jean

    To Ryan Haber:
    Thank you for responding to my questions. Your your guidance sound and your words are wise. But more than that they are encouraging and steadying. I’m grateful for them.

    I can’t speak for other converts but I am finding the present circumstances in the Church especially trying. The Church is not my like my native tribe, neither is it like my family. My sense of belonging to it was not conferred. It was acquired. And that only after a struggle to overcome the influence of loved and significant persons who during my childhood taught me to regard the Catholic Church as arbitrary, authoritarian, and stifling of the Spirit.

    As an adult my own independent study and investigation brought me to the doors Catholic Church. There I found the wisdom I was seeking, and the sacramental life that I hungered for. In the years that followed I have been blessed by the presence in my life of spriritual directors who affirmed and encouraged my efforts to more deeply and fully develop indentification with, and committment to, the Catholic Faith. But recently I am finding that much harder to do. So much of the liturgical/devotional practice that nourished and sustained my Catholic indentification and committment has been discarded. What replaced it has for me the character of “deja vu”, an unwelcome revisit to my happily abandoned Protestant past.

    Sometimes now I feel, as the Simon and Garfunkel lyric says, that I am “slip sliding away…the closer to your destination, the more you are slip sliding away…”…away from Catholic identity. But I’m not going to let that happen if prayer for God’s mercy, and active reaching out for guidance and suppport from my brother and sister Catholics can prevent it.

    So thanks again, for taking my questions seriously and responding to them with kindness and thoughtfulness.

  • georgie-ann

    the one thing that the Catholic Church has that you can find nowhere else is the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist,…therefore He is in our Communion and resides in our tabernacles,…

    when i was new to the Church as a convert, and not particularly bonded in fellowship with “the regulars,” i took advantage of my somewhat quiet and introverted nature, to “not worry” about “the others,” and to put my whole focus on the Presence of the Lord, to really “get to know Him” in prayer and quiet meditation,…

    i would come early and stay late, long after most people would have hurriedly left for their dinners or whatever,…there was so much that i could just sit there and absorb, and what a great benefit this has been to me,…

    to this day, i do not worry much about the “others,”…i serve them as best as i can, but i feel a lot like Mary, who chose the best part,…and it has not been taken away from me,…Jesus Christ is surely my very best friend,…

  • Jean

    To georgie-ann:
    Thank you for the sincerity conveyed by your response to my questions.

    The Dalai Lama once in responding to a question asking him to explain his religion replied, “Kindness is my religion”.

    I’m sure his interrogator, who expected an “in depth” answer, was not satisfied. But I found what the Dalai Lama said both profound and truly helpful in this sense: whatever else a “religion” is it is false and empty if it does not prompt its followers to be kind to each other.

    All of your com box posts that I have read convey that spirit of same gentle kindness.

  • Ryan Haber

    Jean,

    Again, you’re not alone on this count either. All of us go through periods of dryness or dissatisfaction – it’s the nature of having a fallen nature.

    It is God’s plan for us. As with a job, or child-rearing, or anything very serious and profound, the only way that we can know that we are not doing the thing for the emotion lifts it gives us is that when it stops giving us emotional lifts, we keep going on with it. This persistence is the flip side of faith, the side that we normally call fidelity.

    The dryness or dissatisfaction can come from any number of sources. Especially lack of “anything happening” in prayer can be a manifestation of dryness in prayer. Becoming bored with the mysteries of the Mass can be a manifestation. Frustration can come in from liturgical nonsense without alternative venues.

    In all these things, we are EXACTLY where God wants us at that moment, for the same purpose that He wills everything – for our sanctification. In each situation, if we pray and seek guidance (as you have), we will find a way to turn it to our sanctification.

    That is a very consoling thought, isn’t it?

    Thank you for what you wrote, Jean, and for your first comment. Your honest helps the rest of us to be more ourselves with each other – that’s the beginning of solid friendship, I think.

  • Eric Bohn

    Donna said: “Um, Eric… I believe Mr. Shea was not the one who implemented ‘unschooling’ – he was one of the students who was ‘supposed’ to benefit from it – and who instead ended up learning little or nothing in that time.”

    Mark’s problem is that he was never “schooled” to begin with, and by Mark’s admission, it wasn’t due to any fault of the school’s. Mark confessed his own ignorance, and used himself as an example to point out how difficult it is to instruct such people. Most people who do home schooling do it because there is something wrong with the school, or because the school doesn’t teach at a level appropriate to the child’s ability to learn.

    Donna also said: “Ann was remarking that what was, in his case, done poorly, could be done well in other cases, as in that of her daughter. With a very bright student who is self-motivated and has a solid parental upbringing, (or perhaps, a select few such students), it seems that ‘unschooling’ can be wonderful. With many average kids, particularly in large groups, it’s a formula for disaster.”

    What you’re pointing out, and the situation that Mark got himself into, that Ann was referencing, are two different situations. Mark didn’t go through any sort of “unschooling”: Mark didn’t perform in a regular school, and he goofed off in the experimental school environment. I realize that home schooling might be prefferable to public schooling under certain circumstances (and appreciate both you and Ann’s contributions to that effect), but that fact is irrelevant to the activities Mark went through which Ann referenced. What Mark did, or what his parents did to correct the problem, wouldn’t work for anyone, since the problem is with Mark himself.

  • georgie-ann

    just touching down quickly,…thank you, Jean,…i call what Ryan referred to in his last comment (not an original term with me): walking in “naked faith,”…i had to do a lot more of that when, as an unbaptized “protestant,” i didn’t have the Real Presence of Christ to console me,…& anytime i get my focus too diverted from this most primary relationship onto “the people,” it becomes an almost automatically “watered down” experience, and i have to go running back to God to recharge my batteries,…

    we are not really meant to live deriving our spiritual strength in a secondary manner via others,…first of all, they are not our Source,…certainly they can be helpful and encouraging, but on a second’s notice, they can become the direct opposite, as well,…i think we all have noticed this,…

    being/becoming “Catholic” does not turn a human “light bulb” into a generator,…we are essentially all light bulbs needing “our Connection,”…how strongly and directly we are “connected” will probably influence how much “power” we may “shine” with,…

    there is a great temptation for people to look to others to “tap into” their noticeable “good energy” without really doing their own prayer work (and Scripture reading/study!),…with some (many) this is a chronic condition, due to a lack of understanding or laziness,…i’ve, unfortunately, had to discourage some “friendships” because this was a much too pronounced characteristic of the relationship,…

    we need to emphasize more the importance of not living our “Catholic lives” in a spiritually superficial manner–like a bunch of pent-up kids let loose on a playground at recess, running around and aimlessly crashing into one another, not unlike a bunch of billiard balls rolling around on a pool table–thinking that our perpetual minimal contribution is simply ok, and that “someone else” is responsible for taking care of the “deep and important” things,…at some point, that “someone else” needs to become us,…

    growing up is always painful in some ways,…but necessary and “worth the effort (and discipline),”…it happens when i no longer am content to be derivative and dependent on others (as nice as they may be, or as disappointing and unreliable!), and “go out into the wilderness (bravely, or full of intimidation!)” to seek “my God,”…

    believe me,…He’s there “waiting for you,”…calling to you, “Come away with me!”,…

    btw,…i like Mark P. Shea & what he writes,…we’ve all had “mis-spent aspects of our youth,”…now, we’re busy about “redeeming the time,”…

    blessings,…(-:

  • Laurie

    As a “come and go” visitor to this site, I have to say this is one of the most wonderful group of posts I have ever read. Laced with humility, spirituality, and eagerness to grow closer to God, has been conveyed by most of the comments.
    Thank you all for presenting your opinions, and your disagreements in such an eloquent and spiritual way. There is no doubt the Holy Spirit is present among all of you.
    God Bless

  • Vivian

    This article is nothing short of confusing. We are bound to instruct the ignorant, which first I find offensive. The church if I am not mistaken in the documents of Vatican II has now changed her stance and now, in complete contradiction to scripture belives and now teaches that those that deny Jesus Christ can indeed be saved, unless of course they are not enlightened or whatever the loophole the church in its effort to be loved by the modern world now teaches. The church also has stopped all evangelization basically, even handing out Korans along with blankets to moslems duing the tsunami. Then we have pedophile Bishops who cover up for their sinful priests

    Since the French Revolution when church land was confiscated and never given back to this day by those “enlightened” (to this day we are taught in school how great the French Revolution was), then the unification of Italy in 1870 to Mussolini emasculating the papacy in 1923, all of this culminating in Vatican II, the attempt by the church to be loved by the world, then in its attempt to get a liberal priesthood, the entry of abusive priests, the church has been on a downward spiral. It was kicked around by the so called intellectuals for 2 centuries, tried to appease them by calling a misguided council, and instead of sticking to its beliefs and teachings, tried to compromise and lost 2 generations of Catholics

    Back to the basics, the teachings and authority that made her great, so great men gave up their belongings and went off to die in foreign lands for her, for Jesus. Today, men wont even allow their sons to be alter boys, the so called minor leagues and possibly a path for future clergy for fear of them being abused, and annulments given out like candy making a mockery of one of the church’s most holy sacrament.

    But to call those who refuse to accept this continued confused and contradictory teachings ignorant is absurd

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