amidst struggles, confusion and despair, I believe


Here is another column I wrote for the Prairie Messenger. It’s another reflection on my recent visit to Rome and St. Peter’s Basilica.

Amidst struggles, confusion and despair, I believe

the dark side of the quest for perfection

Eugene Kennedy has written a thought-provoking article called, Catholicism’s central teaching: how to be imperfect. An emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University, Chicago, Kennedy describes the pre-Vatican II Church’s obsession with perfection.

The demand for being perfect, based on Matthew 5:14, “Be ye therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” became the deranged and deranging discipline that was brought to an end by Vatican II’s healthier attitude toward spiritual growth.

Life in religious communities and seminaries revolved around an unhealthy focus on rules and regulations. “Keep the Rule and the Rule will keep you” was the battle cry. Spiritual perfection lay in following the rules, “most of them more like traffic regulations than spiritual insights”.

It wasn’t any easier for the laity. I was still a child in the transition years of the 1960’s. A very serious child, I had a fear of breaking rules, and the ensuing punishment. I realize now that I probably suffered from an overly scrupulous nature. I’m sure it wasn’t unusual at a time when so much about our religion was measured in both degrees of seriousness and in number.

Each sin had to be confessed – whether mortal or venial. We struggled to not only remember all our sins, but to remember how many times they were committed. The scales of justice were ever before our eyes. Missed Mass last Sunday? Then we had to trot off to the confessional to avoid the eternal punishment assigned to a mortal sin. No food or water could pass our lips before receiving Communion. Eating meat on Fridays was a sin. Worried about the purgatory time you were racking up? There were prayers, rosaries, and other holy actions that could earn you indulgences. So many prayers equaled so many days off purgatory. (I envied martyrs, because a martyr’s death guaranteed you a first class, non-stop ticket into heaven.)

Kennedy has hit the nail on the head. Religion at that time was focused on perfection; an unattainable, unreasonable, and inhuman perfection. It was the Pharisaical style of religion that Jesus spoke so angrily about; one that worried about clean dishes and hands more than a good and righteous heart.

Some say that the pendulum swung too far the other way, making us lose our sense of sin. Perhaps. We need to know what is right and what is wrong, and we need to teach our children the same. We need to listen to our conscience, for guilt can be a healthy indicator that we have screwed up and need to make things right. We need a moral compass to guide us. We need to regularly examine our consciences, ask for forgiveness and seek reconciliation with those we hurt. What we don’t need is to focus on our sinfulness to the point where we lose sight of the good in us, and the good in each other.

We are sinners and saints, just like the motley crew that Jesus gathered around himself. He loved them all, and called them to love themselves and each other. Kennedy sums it up beautifully.

The mystery of being human and certainly of being a Catholic lies in our embracing together the imperfect state known as the human condition. First and foremost, if we could ever be perfect or do things perfectly, we would eliminate mystery, an essential ingredient in the good life and the spiritual life…

There would be no need for love if perfection were possible. Love arises from our imperfection, from our being different and always in need of the forgiveness, encouragement and that missing half of ourselves that we are searching for, as the Greek myth tells us, in order to complete ourselves. In every mythic tale, it is where we stumble and fall that we discover the gold.

the year of faith

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the opening session of the Second Vatican Council. It is also the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In order to celebrate these two milestones, Pope Benedict XVI has declared this to be a Year of Faith; beginning today and ending on Christ the King Sunday in 2013. The purpose of the Year of Faith is to re-energize and revitalize the faith of all Catholics. But, how is this to be done?

Christopher Lamb, writing for the Tablet, suggests that the specific focus of diocesan efforts can reflect theological leanings. Some dioceses in England are focusing on the documents of Vatican II, while others are focusing on studying the Catechism. The former is considered more of a liberal approach, while the latter is more traditional or conservative.

It is true, that quoting from the Catechism as a black and white tool for apologetics removes the need for careful discernment of the many grey areas in our lives. Therefore, it becomes a favored means for debating right and wrong for fundamentalists. Apologetics, by nature, is a process of defending the faith. When doing so, official teachings and documents become weapons to debate with rather than resources to dialogue with.

Now, I can already hear my more conservative friends rising up to accuse me of being a cafeteria catholic, picking and choosing what I believe in. No. There are absolute truths of our faith that we are all called to give assent to. Top of the list in the hierarchy of truths is the existence of God, and our Trinitarian belief in three Persons in one God. Some of our other teachings have developed over time. Some are still in the stages of development. Who knows what new questions our world will produce in the next decade that the Church will be called upon to discern?

But, I digress. Many folks have an aversion to the Catechism because of the way it has been used – as a weapon of defense and judgment. But, if you actually read the Catechism you will see that it is filled with quotes and footnotes from scripture, saints, Church Fathers and ecclesial documents…including the documents of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, Vatican II documents have a pride of place in many sections of the Catechism.

So, it does not need to be an either-or issue. Both the Catechism and the Documents of Vatican II are valuable resources in faith formation. But, doctrinal formation is not enough.

Faith formation that focuses just on the head seldom leads to a true conversion of the heart. I have written previously about the need to find a balance between the two extreme catechetical paradigms of rote memorization with little or no understanding, and arts and crafts classes. We need to nourish and nurture both the head and the heart. We need to feel our faith, a faith of the heart, for then it impels us to action. But, we must also know what it is we believe in.

My hope is that this Year of Faith will be an opportunity to truly read the signs of the times, to discern the spiritual needs and yearnings of women and men of today. And, may we not be afraid to revisit the teachings and traditions of our two thousand year history, while seeking new methods for making it relevant and meaningful for modern times.

The news of the gospel is and always will be good. May we find ways worthy of proclaiming it so others may find the joy and passion that comes with the gift of faith.