A Catholic Difference

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The task of the laity is to renew culture through distinctive and authentic Christian witness.

by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson

Carl A. Anderson

Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from an address delivered by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson at the Nov. 15 meeting of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, which observed the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici (On the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World).

It was once popular to speak of the Christian evangelization of culture — indeed, even of the transformation of culture. Yet, over time we have experienced a contrary development. We might say instead that a sort of truce has been reached. In some areas, a new optimism has emerged about the benefits of secularism; in others there has developed a gradual accommodation.

I am not speaking about the recognized and proper autonomy of the secular order and its institutions, but about something entirely different.

In the United States, the popularity of Harvey Cox’s 1965 book, The Secular City, promoted the idea that secularization was part of a divine plan, which Christians should embrace. Cox viewed “secularization as the liberation of man from religious and metaphysical tutelage, the turning of his attention away from other worlds and towards this one.”

He argued that secularization is “emancipation” and that it “is the legitimate consequence of the impact of biblical faith on history.” Moreover, he maintained, “We must learn…to speak of God in a secular fashion and find a nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts.”


A Surrender to the 'Secular'

In the more than 40 years that have passed since the publication of The Secular City, we have found that regardless of any positive effects, secularization has drained meaning from Christian life. Secularizing the way Christians think affects the values by which they live. From a cultural standpoint, we have indeed learned “to speak of God in a secular fashion” and increasingly found “a nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts.” Such tendencies have increasingly diminished the distinctiveness of Christian life.

Christifideles Laici puts the issue more simply and more starkly: Secularism as a cultural force “sustains a life lived as if God did not exist” (34). In the public life of society, secularism goes even further: It is not content simply to regard religion with indifference, but it increasingly regards religious faith as an obstacle to “emancipation” and “liberation.”

Since the Second Vatican Council, the lay faithful have come to a greater realization of their responsibility to work for the renewal of society. The demands of social justice make an urgent appeal upon conscience. In an effort to realize the demands of justice, the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain once observed that Christians had advanced their journey toward a more just and humane society through what he termed the “evangelization” of the secular conscience.

Yet today, the effect of a pervasive secularization may be said to have accomplished the reverse — the secularization of the Christian conscience. Or perhaps more precisely, secularism has prevented the adequate formation of the Christian conscience.

Although Harvey Cox was writing as a Protestant professor at Harvard Divinity School, the fundamental disposition that he represented has also permeated the Catholic community. It has done so in three areas that critically affect the formation of the lay faithful and their ability to carry out their mission.

First, certain sacramental and homiletic practices have undermined the power of the sacraments in the formation of the Christian conscience. One might say that we have learned too well to “speak of God in a secular fashion.”

Second, Catholic education has experienced the increasing influence of Enlightenment assumptions regarding the purpose of the university, posing challenges to an adequate understanding of the harmonious relationship between faith and reason, and of the essential unity of the education experience.

Third, the Catholic family, which for generations was universally recognized for its shining witness to the inherent bond between the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage, has in many ways become indistinguishable from the lifestyle of the larger secular culture.

These three developments pose considerable obstacles to the formation of laypersons, who are otherwise capable of fulfilling their mission for the renewal of society.

Christ and Culture

The solution, I believe, must be found in an approach that takes as its basis a view articulated by Father Romano Guardini. In a letter to Pope Paul VI in 1965, Father Guardini wrote: “At the time of my first theological studies something became clear to me that, since then, has determined my entire theological work: what can convince modern people is not a historical or a psychological or a continually ever modernizing Christianity but only the unrestricted and uninterrupted message of Revelation.”

A year earlier, then-Father Joseph Ratzinger put forward the issue in a slightly different way. Speaking to university students at Munster Cathedral, Father Ratzinger said, “It has been asserted that our century is characterized by an entirely new phenomenon: the appearance of people incapable of relating to God.” He then continued, “I believe the real temptation for someone who is a Christian…does not just consist in the theoretical question of whether God exists…. What really torments us today, what bothers us much more is the inefficacy of Christianity.... What is all this array of dogma and worship and Church, if at the end of it all we are still thrown back onto our own poor resources? That in turn brings us back again, in the end, to the question about the Gospel of the Lord: What did he actually proclaim and bring among men?”

These words, written four decades before his election to the papacy, provide one of the clearest summaries of the mission of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate, and also of the lay faithful today. I think that is why Pope Benedict presented such beautiful meditations in his encyclicals Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salvi on the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. These virtues are the foundations of Christian moral life, which in order to be authentic, must combine a vocation to love and a vocation to truth.

Both encyclicals represent the recovery of a fundamentally Christian way of thinking as a prerequisite to a Christian way of living. The re-evangelization of what we might call a Christian consciousness must continue and include concepts such as “right reason,” “natural law,” and even the “common good.” It is doubtful whether the laity can effectively influence culture in an enduring way without such a recovery.

The Holy Father has repeatedly reminded us that Christianity is not an ethical system — or any other system for that matter — but rather an event, an encounter with a person. Since this is an encounter that occurs in the personal history of every believer, it is at the same time ever new. It is the fundamental responsibility of the lay faithful to bring the reality of this event — this encounter with Jesus Christ — into every aspect of history, and therefore into every aspect of culture. The reality of this event must be made present within the family, as well as within the public and governmental life of society.

We have often heard repeated the words of John Paul II: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ.” These words are repeated in Christifideles Laici. At the very least, this means that for an authentic renewal of society to occur, Christ cannot be regarded as an abstraction separate from the concrete, lived experience that we call culture. To the contrary, Christ must be invited into our culture — to permeate it and to transform it as only he can.

Catholic Identity

Thus, a primary responsibility of the lay faithful must be a new engagement in the renewal of parish life, especially the role of parish as a eucharistic community.

It makes little sense to ask the lay faithful to work for the transformation of secular culture without, at the same time, urging them to renew the sacramental life of the parish community. In this regard, the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist in 2005 and the recent Synod on the Word of God provide a rich blueprint for such an undertaking.

In his April address to Catholic educators at The Catholic University of America, Pope Benedict stated that an institution of Catholic education is a place to encounter God’s “transforming love and truth,” a place to form an authentically Christian conscience and to live a distinctively Christian way of life.

Later that same day, Pope Benedict said to the bishops of the United States, “One of the great challenges facing the Church…is that of cultivating a Catholic identity which is based not so much on externals as on a way of thinking and acting grounded in the Gospel and enriched by the Church’s living tradition.”

This work of renewal is fundamental to the mission of the laity in our time, and our responsibility is irreplaceable. The laity has a specific mission, one that must be accomplished always in solidarity with our priests and bishops, and always “hinged” to the heart and mind of the Church. Only in this way will the lay faithful be capable of first understanding and then accomplishing this mission.

It may well require that we put away half-measures. We cannot hope to renew society if society cannot detect a difference in the way Catholics marry, raise their families, conduct their businesses or serve in government. In other words, we can never hope to renew society unless we ourselves are committed to renewal in our own lives. And we can never hope to renew society as long as we find ways to accommodate social values that are fundamentally opposed to the values of the Gospel.

This is not just a question of getting more Catholics to accept specific aspects of the Church’s social doctrine. Instead, it is a matter of the formation of a Catholic conscience that is disposed toward conforming one’s life to the imitation of Christ.

Historically, this task of formation was accomplished by a combination of institutions, such as Catholic schools and universities, parishes and the family. It is obvious that these traditional institutions are no longer adequately carrying out this mission.

In the long term, considerably more will have to be done, as John Paul II said, to “remake the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community itself” through consideration of new initiatives to further the formation of the lay faithful.

Families should be encouraged to assume their responsibility as the first and primary educators of their children through the development of family prayer, catechesis and the reading of sacred Scripture. Catholic schools and universities should be asked to review their mission in light of how their activities advance the formation of the Catholic conscience of their students.

The Knights of Columbus today stands in a unique and privileged place to assist in the great effort of renewal of Church and society — especially through our witness to charity and unity. In the days ahead it is necessary that we increase this witness especially within our Catholic schools and parishes.

In all this, our task is nothing less than to realize the promise of the prayer that concludes Deus Caritas Est: “Show us Jesus. Lead us to him. Teach us to know and love him, so that we too can become capable of true love and be fountains of living water in the midst of a thirsting world.”

Vivat Jesus!