Catholic Spirituality is Family Spirituality

Scott Hahn’s essay in Christian Spirituality, a presentation of four views (Orthodox, Catholic, Liberal Prot and evangelical), is a tour de force — it captures it all through the lens of family, that is through covenant as establishing “kinship,” and that all means that Catholic spirituality is through and through ecclesial.

Before we go on the big question: How do you sum up Catholic spirituality? What do you think of? Who do you think of?

And here’s the rub:

Evangelical spirituality is not through and through ecclesial. It is through and through personal and individual, so this chp by Scott Hahn is an important signpost for evangelical Christians to read: here the evangelical will say “What about personal Bible reading? What about private prayer? What about personal devotion?” and Scott Hahn will not answer your questions except in subordinate clauses. The chp, in my view, needs more attention to the Catholic spiritual disciplines, which have become so influential among so many today, and to private spirituality, even if it reminds us of the ecclesial shape of Catholic spirituality. So, where’s the Fransciscan tradition or the Benedictine? St John of the Cross? St Teresa of Avila? St Catherine? I could go on.

In essence, Catholic spirituality is about sonship, or about learning to call God Father (and here Scott Hahn seems to be using a slightly outmoded approach to Jesus’ use of the term Father, but his approach probably still stands as the central theme of Jesus’ use of Father and of his contribution to the ongoing unfolding of God in the Bible). But the essence is about God making us part of his family, of our adoption in Christ (who is the Son). We become children in his sonship. In other words, it’s a life of grace.

If it is about sonship, it is also about the life of the Trinity in which the Catholic shares. Scott Hahn is steeped in Scripture so it is a welcome sight to most evangelical to see so much attention to the establishment of his points through Scripture. But this Trinity is a family and that family relation of Father-Son-Spirit is that life in which the Christian participate.

The Church is home and family. Communion of saints is as a family of God. Mary is the mother of all Christians since she shared her life with her son, etc. Suffering and death are part of the redemptive process.

In essence, Catholic spirituality is a sacramental worldview, in sacramentals — all of creation in some ways — but esp in the seven sacraments. But, especially then also in Baptism and Eucharist. (He avoids ramping up the discussion with real presence and transsubstantiation.)

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  • mike h

    I am a protestant who embraces many of the Roman spiritual practices. One thing that relates to this post is the way in which the Daily Office refers to the Church as the embodiment of God and the means of God’s grace in the world. This idea has made me think about protestant ecclesiology, at least the 21st century model. I think that we miss a lot in our Western, individualistic approach to ‘Church.’ There is a sense of relationship, both present and historic, that the Roman and Eastern churches have that we do not. On the other hand, there is also the danger of being subsumed by the magesterium and becoming complacent that protestants may be better equipped to avoid.

  • RJS

    This is a thought-provoking post. More than issues of authority and apostolic succession this ecclesiology of church as the family of God would draw me toward Hahn’s view of Catholicism.

    I think that this piece – church as Family of God – is one of the things we are losing in 21st century evangelicalism.

  • Jason Lee

    Thanks for these looks at Catholicism. Thought provoking.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    I am Catholic in heart, I am Eastern Orthodox in much of my theology, I am mystical to the core and love both the eastern and western saints, and I am pentecostal and charismatic in many of my experiences with God. Because of my catholocity, my whole heart cries out for ecumenical reconciliation for the church to be and practice being “the family of God.”

  • CGC

    PS – I almost forgot, I am Evangelical in tradition 🙂 I suspect there is alot of cross-pollination going across many theological traditions . . .

  • DRT

    My view of Catholicism is outdated and grounded in a specific place. I was RC for the first 20 years of my life, and it was in Pittsburgh PA, where there were many strong ethnic communities and the RCC was very dominant. There were a few people that were Lutheran, never met a Baptist, lot’s of Jews too, but it seemed that you were either RC or did not go to church. Never used the term atheist, some just did not go to church.

    So to say the church was family is an understatement. It was the structure that bound all of the families together.

    I still have a difficult time with the protestant/evangelical view of holy being something that they fear. There does not seem to be an equivalent concept in evangelicalism for the holy that I know as a Catholic. Holy to me is certainly something that demands respect, but it demands respect do to the perfection of its love and purity. We had things and places and times of people’s lives that were holy. Holy water. The monstrance. The sacraments. You wanted to be close to holy for adoration.

    The holy family (Jesus Mary and Joseph) were our family. They are our model family. We pray to them, ask them for help, thank them.

    My experiences in protestant circles seem like the church is a country club and there is a hired person there that manages and teaches. That is a far cry from the deeply entrenched nature of Catholicism.

    Even all the way down to the fact that as a Catholic I would kneel before statues of Mary and the holy family and before the cross. And when you enter such a place you make the sign of the cross on yourself, indicating this entry into a closer intended space and relationship. All those things make it so much more tangible…..I am missing it…..

  • Robin

    After reading this post I think it captured in some sense, my experience in the Catholic Church. I attended mass every single Sunday for the first 20 years of my life (might have missed one or two, but that was about it). I was an altarboy, a lector, I took up the offering, my mother served (still does) communion.

    I know there are some other trends in the church now, but from 1979 to 1999 I can say, confidently, that all Catholic Spirituality in my experience was ecclesial. Being spiritual meant that you went to mass, took communion, confessed regularly, etc. Our homilies were short, and even shorter if UK was playing basketball, and there was no spirituality outside of the church. Besides the table blessing (“Bless us oh Lord, for these thy gifts…”) that we said at each meal, I could probably count on one hand the times prayer was encouraged outside the walls of the church, and I can definitely count on one hand the number of times I read scripture in 20 years outside of the church.

    Catholic spirituality simply meant going to mass and partaking of the sacraments, it was completely Ecclesial.

  • Scott Gay

    The rub is to look at the family over time(put it in terms of your grandchildren and great-grandchildren).
    Look at “Beliefs about God across Time and Country” Tom W. Smith NORC/Univ of Chicago 4/18/12. In table 8 C. the “% agree God is personally concerned”- Catholic cultures like Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, even Chile are losing it the younger you look, and this extrapolates across time. The hierarchy realizes it, and so have a plan with youth rallies and advertising.
    If I’m given the opportunity to affect the life of one of my grandchildren, it won’t be over culture. It is most important for everyone to seek and experience new birth. It has to be brought up. All of the other aspects of church revolve around it. I’m sensitive to the heterogeneity of this. It is as different as there are differences in people and cultures. But it is real and is the key to keeping Jesus as center and a spiritually healthy family.

  • Rick

    “But the essence is about God making us part of his family, of our adoption in Christ (who is the Son). We become children in his sonship. In other words, it’s a life of grace.”

    JI Packer has been saying the same thing for years, and is a major point in his classic, Knowing God.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I have been rather eclectic in my spirituality. I grew up in an remain in the Reformed Church. I married a good anabaptist (Church of the Brethren) girl. I have used Celtic prayer books and now use Shane Claiborne’s “Prayer for Ordinary Radicals.” I have long dabbled in the Franciscan tradition through my Reformed roots.

    Could you expand on the Franciscan, Benedictine and other traditions of the church that you mention in your post?

    Randy Gabrielse

  • Robin

    I also think some clarification would be in order regarding the orders that were mentioned. We grew up with diocesan priests, and all we knew about the Benedictine, Franciscan, Jesuit spiritual traditions/practices was that those were things monks did somewhere else. There was no discussion of that type of spirituality for ordinary parishioners.

    This was in rural Western Kentucky. Are there places within the country where these orders have significant enough sway that normal parishioners are encouraged to engage in these type of disciplines in their everyday lives? That type of thinking was completely alien to churches staffed by the diocese.

  • DRT

    Robin, where I am from people would openly discuss which kids would potentially go with which orders. And the nuns each had their own characteristics. It was in the fabric of society.

    But then again, I largely stopped going right when you started.

  • Great post, Scot. Hahn is at his best when he does not seek to convert, but to teach and explain and behold.