Updated: Jul 1, 2022
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If you want to understand anything, go to its roots. Many explain the United States, for example, in its freedoms. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — specifically the Bill of Rights define them. Reading them, Americans understand how the United States began as a country dedicated to a whole new form of government and how it interacts with its citizens.
If we go to the roots of Catholicism, we discover Jesus Christ, twelve men and a group of disciples comprised of men and women who started a new movement in Judaism. Once Jesus died and rose and then ascended into Heaven, those twelve men working with the others and inspired by the Holy Spirit began spreading Jesus’ message to the world. Is that what we have now?
Today, many define Catholicism by a binary interpretation on how well believers obey the rules. I blame this on the Baltimore Catechism. For the uninitiated, this was a basic catechism of one or two sentence answers to almost 500 of the most basic questions of the faith. Today, I describe it as similar to doing Catholic education via Twitter. It may have worked for an elementary school student body to give children an understanding of the faith but it did not give the deeper truths that define Catholicism. The more profound teachings come to us from the two wings of our faith — scripture and tradition.
Tradition leads us back to the basics and, there, we see Catholicism began with relationship. The apostles and the other disciples did not have a catechism to work with, they did not have a question and answer system like the Baltimore Catechism. They did not even have the New Testament, so what did they have? Their memories of their friendship with Jesus, the guidance of the Holy Spirit and each other. This created the foundation of Catholicism.
When people today start spouting off rules of what it means to be a Catholic and ignore this central part of the foundation of our faith, they misrepresent her teachings.
I often quote to my parishioners the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2098 which teaches prayer is an essential element of living our Catholic faith. Prayer is a relationship with God in the Holy Trinity through the Son — the second of the three persons.
Drawing upon memories of Christ
Catholicism began through those who knew Jesus best and went out into the world and explained what He taught. They drew upon the deep well of their memories of their daily relationship with Him. Today, instead of this foundation we find in both Catholic and non-Catholic Christian circles a focus on following rules without any connection to a relationship with Jesus. The opposite is also true, others seek to live the faith without an understanding of the wisdom behind the rules. We need both the rules and the relationship but not in that order.
Going back to my US analogy. The foundation of the United States is where you find the Constitution (Rules) and the Declaration of Independence (Philosophy).
When people today start spouting off rules of what it means to be a Catholic and ignore this central part of the foundation of our faith, they misrepresent Catholicism.
Jesus taught the rules after his followers developed a relationship with him. He did not just teach rules. In fact, he taught a whole new way of understanding who we are (philosophy) and then explained how to live it through a deeper understanding of the commandments (Rules).
We can say, we cannot understand the rules if we do not understand the philosophy, just as we cannot understand the U.S. Constitution if we do not understand the philosophy behind it in the Declaration of Independence.
I am beginning to wonder whether the current attacks on the Catholic Church are inspired by the Holy Spirit not as a way to destroy our faith but as a way to correct it. I believe there was so much emphasis on the rules of Catholicism in the United States because of the basic structure of the Baltimore Catechism; we lost the relationship. Similarly, the American system needs the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence to understand the rules of the Constitution.
The Acts of the Apostles, which many describe as the pre-eminent document on evangelization, is about spreading the faith led by a dialogue of prayer. The Holy Spirit leads the Apostles of whom all but Paul had a personal friendship with Jesus. They go out to explain who Jesus is because they knew him.
In my fourth book, Encounter Christ in Your Humanity, I explain that when Tim Cook took over the reins at Apple everyone’s first question was not about his business acumen, how many iPhones he owned or if he even owned a Windows computer; it was how much he knew Steve Jobs and how much he was like him.
Who is this Jesus Christ?
Therefore, obviously, Catholicism begins answering the question: “Who is this Jesus Christ and how can we know him?” not “What must I do to be saved?” That is the second question. In fact, when Peter, guided by the Holy Spirit, answers that second question, his audience asks it after first learning who Jesus Christ is and seeing the power of God manifested through His Holy Spirit.
Our faith may appear to be falling apart because it got lost in bureaucracy and rules. People felt they could not live the rules and saw no reason to because they lost an understanding of Heaven and rejected the overemphasis on Hell. They did not understand the first question: Who is Jesus? Therefore, they could not ask the second: What must I do to be saved?
An example: In the Baltimore Catechism, in its scant section on prayer, which itself is problematic, one teaching is that those who pray while willfully distracted pray to no avail. This hardline teaching written in an atmosphere that led people to believe the vast majority of people were going to Hell anyway, shows one reason our faith fell out of favor. There is no relationship focus there and what is left is a focus on the rules leaning toward tyranny. Further, the statement is not fully true. In Catholicism, we pray through all five senses, therefore, the one who prays and gets distracted and willfully gives into that distraction still demonstrates a desire to pray by being there, so no it is not to no avail. It certainly is not as fruitful as undistracted prayer but it is not to no avail.
Jesus did not preach the rules until he established a relationship. The rules he preached he founded on relationships. Your love of God expresses itself in love of neighbor. If you claim to love God while you do not tend to your neighbor then you love neither. Love builds itself on relationship.
As we watch our faith go through troubled times, we need to look at why. Maybe it is because we lost the foundation — a prayer relationship with the Trinity through the Second Person Jesus Christ. We are lost in the rock-hard rules like dry bones which do not have the body of friendship. In the ocean of turmoil, dry bones sink like rocks.
Let us listen to Christ through his Holy Spirit and ask him to show us the way out of this turmoil in humble prayer founded in friendship with Christ.