Beyond Tribal Faith

Recently, Newsweek ran a piece by Kathleen Deveny in which she lamented the fact that she didn’t know how to talk to her daughter about God. Several things struck me about the piece.

First, and most arresting, was her opening remark: “Sometimes I think it is easier to talk to my daughter about sex than about God.”

So much of the impoverishment of our culture is summarized in that sentence. We now have a society in which chatting up seven year olds on the dull pelvic issues that so obsess their parents is “enlightened”, but an elementary ability to answer a child’s deepest questions about the universe is tangled in embarrassed hemming and hawing once reserved for explaining the pile of girly mags under your bed to Mom. Bratz, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera are role models for a huge cadre of young girls. St. Therese, facing death with courage at 24? Not so much.

And yet we do indeed live in a world where death still needs to be faced. Deveny writes of a conversation with her seven-year-old:

We were talking about Heath Ledger, and how sad it was that he died so young. Then she asked if someone came to “rip his soul out.” After making a mental note to pay more attention to the materials she brought home from her weekly religion classes, I explained that no one “rips” anything out of you. It’s something far more natural and peaceful, I said. Like a burp.

Frankly, I’ll take the daughter’s insightful intuition about the ugliness of death over Mom’s pathetic drivel any day. Death is not a burp. The loss of this promising young man was not “natural and peaceful” but a tragedy. Jesus did not weep in anger at the grave of Lazarus because death is a beautiful part of the Circle of Life. He saw, as all seven-year-olds and healthy people do, that death is an unnatural obscenity. He saw, as all sane people do, that death is wrong and evil and not the way things are supposed to be. That, indeed, is what the Good News of Easter is all about: that the scourge of death has been destroyed by the power of Christ’s Resurrection. The risen Christ is the answer to that young girl’s deepest hopes and fears.

But, alas, such is the poverty of Catholic Lite catechesis that Deveny could only answer her daughter’s deepest questions with the spiritual equivalent of a dose of Novocain. Then again, what else could she do? Having nothing to give, she gave what she had.

The problem is that far too many Catholics are sacramentalized, but not evangelized. Deveny herself describes it all too well:

What was I doing during all those years of weekly CCD classes? I learned that Jesus loves me and I listened to a lot of bad guitar-playing at mass when I was growing up in the 1960s. But I didn’t memorize the Baltimore Catechism and I couldn’t name the seven deadly sins if my life depended on it. I could come up with only eight of the Ten Commandments!

Now being sacramentalized is not a bad thing. Indeed, for many Catholics, participation in the liturgy is the only glue that holds them to the Church, and we should be glad of that glue–especially since so many are unevangelized through little fault of their own.

But by the same token, the Catholic response to the unevangelized pew-sitter is not, “Stay as ignorant of your faith as you like, just so long as you turn up at Mass now and then.” Indeed, our response must often still involve the unsettling demand from the lips of Jesus: “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

Deveny needs, for her daughter’s sake if not for her own, to realize that the Faith is neither a mere tribal affiliation, nor a mere abstract body of doctrines she is free to pick and choose. Rather, it is a relationship with the living God who has revealed himself to us through his Son’s body, the Church. Deveny boasts, “As a ‘cafeteria Catholic,’ I don’t accept all the tenets of my religion….[S]omeday I will encourage her to think critically, not doctrinally, about issues like artificial birth control, stem-cell research and abortion.”

This brings us to the heart of the trouble. For, being translated, it means “I am ignorant and proud of it. I will teach my daughter to uncritically reject what the Church says before ever finding out what that is.” It is not the ignorance, but the pride, that is deadly. The pride can only be cured by repentance and the grace of the Holy Spirit. Curing ignorance and teaching our children we will discuss next week.


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