In the World but Not of the World

A lone Carthusian Celebrates Mass

I’ll tell you what I had in my fundamentalist Evangelical upbringing which the American Catholic church could use a hefty dose:

It was the underlying mentality that we were “in the world, but not of the world”. We went to a little Evangelical fellowship. The families were close. We shared the same world view. We shared the same religion, and that religion taught us that we were a “royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart.” We were committed followers of Jesus Christ and the other people out there were, well, “worldly”. In our fellowship it was expected that you tithed ten percent of your income. You lived modestly. You looked forward to the second coming of the Lord. In the meantime it was your duty to share the gospel–to give your life in service to the Lord. Our heroes were the full time missionaries. Men and women from our own congregation who trained for a few years and then went off to the most inhospitable areas of the world to evangelize lost souls.

The down side of this type of Christian culture is a certain self righteous sectarianism. It could be Puritanical and legalistic. It could be exclusive and harsh to those who stepped outside the narrow world of that little church. But what it wasn’t was “worldly” they didn’t compromise with the world and they lived a life of devotion and fervor and genuine love for God and for his people.

This is what the American Catholic Church needs right now, and because we don’t have it 50% of Catholic voted openly for the most pro-abortion, anti-Catholic, anti-family president ever offered to the American electorate. It’s obvious that 50% of Catholics have simply sucked up the American propaganda un critically. They’ve gone with the flow–as only dead fish can do. The 50% I’m talking about see no distinction between being Catholic and being mainstream, un-critical, materialistic and self centered American. In the terms of the good Bible Christian folk I was brought up with–they’re worldly. They’re not only in the world, they’re OF the world. Their world view, their self understanding, their relationships, their morality is determined not by the Sacred Scriptures or the teaching of the Catholic Church, but by the American culture.

What happened? How did we end up here? I have a theory. I think Catholics in American did once have that “us and them” mentality. I think they did once have a clear identity as Catholics and that they saw themselves as a beleaguered sub group within the larger group of Protestant America. The problem was that it was linked with their ethnicity. “Us? We’re the fighting Irish!” They were an ethnic sub group that just happened to be Catholic too, and they defended their Catholicism alongside their ethnicity, but when their ethnicity faded and they became Irish American (or Polish American or Ukranian American or Italian American etc.) and then they became just American. When their ethnicity was absorbed into being American they lost their distinctive identity and so also lost any sense that their Catholicism was distinctive.

That’s over. Cultural Catholicism is dead. It’s time for committed Catholicism. It’s time for Catholics to get a dose of the mentality of my little Bible church in Pennsylvania. It is time to see ourselves as we really are and always have been–a pilgrim people–sons and daughters of the wandering Aramean–a chosen people–a people set apart–a people who are in the world but not of the world.

The sooner we see ourselves in this way the sooner the winnowing can begin. What’s winnowing? That’s what they did when they harvested the wheat: the wheat was cut and thrown on to the threshing floor where it was beaten with a flail. The beating process broke the grain off the stalk and the husk off the grain. Then the whole lot was thrown into the air with a winnowing fan–a big rake type tool. The breeze carried off the chaff–the light weight husks and stalks while the grain to be ground into flour fell back to the floor.

I sense some harvest about to happen.


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  • priest’s wife (@byzcathwife)

    another awesome post, Father!

  • Thomas (@IdentifiedCath)

    As a former Evangelical myself, I completely agree Father. We need to promote putting our Catholic Identity first, as the very core of our identity. On my blog I’m promoting a “Catholic Identity Project” called “Advent Meatless Fridays” I’d love if you’d check it out and let me know what you think of the idea. Priestly input highly welcomed!

  • Brennan

    It would seem that the key factor that gave Catholics their identity was not so much their ethnicity, but simply the way we did things (which flowed from having a unique theology and ecclesiology). So the liturgy, music, architecture, and art in our churches set us apart as unique and distinctive. And in an inviting way (as beauty is inviting).

    When we ditched almost all of our distinctives in these areas and more after Vatican II it’s no wonder so many Catholics lost their identities as Catholics and simply “blended in” with the dominant Protestant/American culture. I also hope our distinctiveness is restored, and along with that, practices that actually manifest that distinctness.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Good observations. I think this is another factor as well as the ethnicity.

  • Arnold

    I agree with you Father about the need for Catholics in this country to become committed and evangelical. One quibble I do have is with the statement about the 50% who voted for Obama. Actually, among Catholics of European descent (the ones used as an example in your comments) Obama lost by a significant margin. It was the lopsided pro Obama margin among Hispanic Catholics and the smaller African American contingent that tilted the overall percentage upward to the 50% range. Filipino Catholics also vote strongly Democrat. I believe that Obama’s percentage was only 39% among church going white Catholics.

  • Reluctant Liberal

    So your advocating for increased tribalism now? How exactly is that supposed to work with the New Evangelization that’s supposed to be going on?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    with increased commitment comes increased evangelical fervor

  • Reluctant Liberal

    But what good is evangelical fervor if it is increasingly isolated from the rest of society? Having your own rituals and values is nice, but it makes it increasingly difficult for the rest of the world to understand you and you to understand them.

  • Sally Wilkins

    I would agree that we need to reclaim (or better, reforge) our Catholic identity, not only in the US but in western Europe. We desperately need better catechesis. We need to stop watering-down the faith and start proclaiming it. And I would love to see more religious in habits and other visual statements of faith in the public square.

    But I would disagree with the underlying premise that voting for the President means someone is not a faithful Catholic. Despite the assertions of the U.S. Bishops, this was not a clear-cut, obvious pro-life vs pro-choice vote. The fact is that the number of abortions dropped during Obama’s first term, and that there was no evidence to suggest that a Romney presidency would have resulted in any change to abortion rates in the US. The fact is that all the statistical evidence is that the best way to prevent abortions is to provide reliable support – health care, food and housing – for mothers and children, and that some of us think “conception to natural death” means we have to be pro-life after birth as well as before. The fact is that the Ryan budget was condemned by the Bishops and embraced by the Republican platform and standard-bearer. The fact is that the “most-anti-catholic” label on the President is baseless calumny (and readily disproved by the historical record) and reflects the influence of the neo-con talking heads who have gleefully co-opted the support of Catholic and Evangelical faithful to push a political agenda that has nothing to do with Christian values. The fact is that Mark Shea was right – if you are determined not to vote for someone who doesn’t uphold the essentials of Catholic teaching, your only option this year was to not vote for President.

    I, too, grew up in a small, tight-knit, loving and supportive “us-against-the-world” evangelical church. I recognize the nostalgia for that clear sense of purpose and identity, and I do think we Catholics could learn a great deal from them (I wrote a long series on that subject for OSV about 20 years ago). But all too often those communions are exclusive, neither of the world nor in the world. At the Ascension Our Lord did NOT command us to circle the wagons, withdraw within our walls, and invite the world to join us on the inside.

    Holy Mother Church is catholic – not republican, not democratic. The fact is that both Paul Ryan and Joe Biden are Catholics, even though neither of them is promoting a truly catholic world view. I’m not perfect either – but I am Catholic, and not “in name only.”

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    The Catholic way is for the faithful to gather for worship, and then to serve the world through loving self sacrifice, and it is through this service and witness that others see their transformed lives and wish to follow Christ with them. Example: Mother Teresa spent an hour every morning with her nuns in Eucharistic adoration and Mass. She didn’t invite the world to that experience of worship, but from that experience of worship she went out to work in the world.

  • Deacon Tom

    Sally: I feel very sorry for individuals like you who try to justify voting for Obama based on the circuitous reasoning of “help the poor, lower abortions.” The teaching of the Catholic Church has never been either/or but has always been both/and. We must oppose abortion at all times because it is an intrinsic evil–always. This has been the unfailing teaching of the Church, including the Holy Father and Bishops (your “necons” I assume) You quibble with Father Dwight’s characterization of the President as the “most anti-Catholic,” but when you consider the President’s attempt to unnecessarily drive the HHS mandate down the throat of the Catholic Church, his denial of grants to the Bishops Conference to take care of immigrants because they won’t refer women for abortions, his worldwide policy and agenda to advance homosexuality and abortion as a “human right,” I can think of not other President who has more directly challenged the teaching of the Catholic Church and its ability to carry out its social justice work consistent with its teaching. Catholic teaching allows for prudential judgment with how best to meet the obligation to the poor, but it does not recognize such prudential judgments when talking about abortion. Thus to compare Ryan’s economic views and their possible weaknesses with Biden’s “acceptance of Church views on abortion” w/o the integrity to apply those views in his public life is a non sequitur—the comparison can’t be done consistent with Catholic teaching. You and others can continue to fool yourself into rationalizing your Obama vote. I have not seen anyway rationally possible to justify voting for Obama consistent with Catholic teaching. Only those “Catholics” that ignore Catholic teaching (many) or who are ignorant of Catholic teaching (most) can justify voting for Obama. There were 2 arguable options for faithful Catholics–vote for Romney as the lesser of 2 evils, or, consistent with Mark Shea’s analysis of the ethical question for Catholics, don’t vote for President at all. A true “Catholic” vote for Obama was not possible.

  • Sus

    It’s going to be a long 4 years.

  • Sus

    Thank you Sally. You are not alone with your feelings and beliefs.

  • Paul Rodden

    This is a very useful piece in helping me think through some current issues I’m dealing with in our parish. Thanks.

  • Obpoet

    It does seem that there is some common ground Protestants and Catholics might find. Sadly, they did not unite in sufficient numbers to oppose the evil that confronts us now.

  • James

    Thank you Deacon Tom for setting it right. How anyone can claim a vote for Obama was not a vote against the Catholic Church is beyond me. Unfortunately even Catholic women (and men) have bought into the feminist, pro-abortion, pro-contraception line that directly contradicts Catholic teaching.

    Is this country lost to the radicals? I’m thinking yes.

  • Sam Ferraro

    Post WWII affluence caused many Catholics to begin compromising their faith. Money and suburbia had a negative effect on many people.

  • FW Ken

    Sally Wilkins, Sus, and like-thinkers:

    About what other form of murder would you make the arguments you make about abortion? Shall we rescind all homocide laws and engage a public campaign to reduce the number of murders.

  • StanB

    In a small town close by for over 80 years there were two Catholic Churches. The towns population of about 700 supported two buildings and two schools. One was Polish and the other Bohemian. A person did not marry someone from the “other” church. So for some there never was a unity of the Church even when they shared the same priest.

  • callis

    I’m not American – not voting, and perhaps not sufficiently informed. But it does strike me that the entire Catholic election talk is about abortion and contraception. I do agree these are important (very important), but a President’s agenda must have other parts as well: what about war? poverty? education? health care at large? social security? Why do Catholics never discuss any of the other issues? I honestly do not know how the candidates would measure up on these – no one seems to get beyond the obvious, i.e., no abortion. But one can and does kill also in other ways :(.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Not true. The Bishop’s advice to American framed seven vital issues. You can read about them here.

  • Will

    I belong to the National Wildlife Federation and they said Governor Romney did not reply when they sent a questionnaire.

  • Sus

    I’m not making any argument for or against abortion. I simply voted for the candidate that I thought would be best for our country at this time.
    If I were voting only on the issue of abortion, I would have abstained my vote for president as both aren’t going to do anything about the abortion issue.

  • callis

    Thanks for the link to this deep and balanced account. I would really like to see all seven issues discussed.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    If you follow the Bishop’s teaching work you will see that they do address all seven. Unfortunately, to often the press only like to report on the issues related to sexuality.

  • Glenn Juday

    The focus of some of these comments is completely off target. The Catholic Church has a duty to teach its members and explicitly point out that voting for candidates who favor intrinsic evils and who even elevate evils to the status of claimed “rights,” is to cooperate in evil in a culpable way. The reason she has this responsibility is NOT to pump up the vote total for Republicans. The principal reason is NOT to block the plans for increased government take of the wealth and earnings of the citizenry by the Democrats. The reason the Church has this responsibility is that she is obligated to teach the truth (unjust taking of innocent human life is evil), and to be a means of delivering her members from a life of futility and moral squalor, no matter how popular it may be among segments of society that think highly of themselves.

    Those who promote intrinsic evil are bringing condemnation on themselves, even or perhaps especially if they win elections. The Church is in the business of being a witness to all mankind that this is morally unacceptable, and to deliver her members from getting ensnared in this viciousness and self-degradation. If, in their weakness her members fall prey to this evil, the Church is a channel Christ’s Divine forgiveness if they repent with a firm intention to change. The Church’s motivation is not to be an adjunct of a political party, or a permanent enemy of a political party.

    The Church can use various tools at various points based on the circumstances prevailing – patient teaching, mercy, or clear unequivocal moral condemnation and unbending and seemingly suicidal opposition if needed. It is one thing to oppress the most innocent among us and write them out of the human community, and we can only wonder at how God will deal with such people. But to go one step further and to presume to corrupt God’s holy Church and insert perverted human desire for God’s clearly stated plan for humanity is bold beyond imagining. Such boldness demands a response by God, because he promised that he would not leave his faithful ones orphans.

    Those whose hearts are hardened to that degree can hardly be expected to hesitate to unleash oppression on the Church and those who choose to stand with her in the emerging crisis. In their arrogance they apparently feel more confident than ever. The simple fact is they will loose and will be frustrated, utterly. We will withstand whatever they can do, and we will prevail, imperfect as we are and always will be in this life. Our attitude must be that we do not care that they hate us, we will overcome it all with love and fidelity, however hesitant and incomplete. Fear is useless, what is needed is faith. In the end, we win and they are currently wasting their lives.

  • Ann

    Thanks Fr. for sharing your insights. I also grew up in a fundamentalist baptist church and we did the same thing, however as I was on the journey into the Catholic Church I sometimes wondered about the teaching of “in the world but not of the world” and what it meant in the day to year bustle of life. I can’t tell you how immensely grateful I am to the magisterium for laying out faith and morals so clearly, at least Catholic Christians who pay attention to and live according to church teaching, can truly be “in the world, but not of the world”. Today as I look in to the fundamentalist world I used to live in, I shake my head when I see on fire Christians who see nothing wrong with contraception, nothing wrong with sterilization, nothing wrong with tubal ligation, nothing wrong with women priests or pastors, nothing wrong with so called gay marriage, and believe themselves to be not of this world. I totally concur ……. they live on another planet, sadly enough I see many Catholics of the same mentality. I am the only Catholic in my family (in the above mentioned denomination of my extended family), and yesterday at the dinner table when the conversation steered toward the election, the abortion and religious freedom issues came up, one of my aunts made glowing comments on how ArchBishop Dolan spoke out strongly on these issues, and prayed at both the Rep and Dem conventions, yet how 1/2 the Catholics voted for Obama.