She’s right, of course

She’s right, of course October 25, 2012

Sherry Weddell on the relationship between the assumption of universalism that infects Catholic culture and the phenomenon of the “baptized unbeliever” with no sense of a need of lived discipleship to Jesus Christ:

I asked the vocation director (who had a copy of the book with him) what his men were taught or knew about the critical relationship of personal faith and sacramental grace.  He said that they had heard the language of disposition but as a purely abstract category.  The foundational, real life, personal and communal implications of lack of discipleship were not covered in their formation.  (And they are sent to several different seminaries as is typically done by dioceses today.)

LIke the rest of us, seminarians who never hear anyone talk clearly, explicitly about the real life consequences of the failure to make disciples, will probably never think about it.

It is realities like this that support and fuel the practical culture of universalism that permeates the hearts and minds of 98% of all the Catholics I’ve ever worked with.

The Vatican is now using the language of “baptized unbelievers” but we still aren’t much concerned about the possibility of eternal loss.  Because we really, really believe deep down that salvation just isn’t a question and that, in some mysterious way, the sacraments are a kind of magic.

Grace is not magic.  Salvation is not automatic.  Jesus is Lord.  Heaven–and hell–are real and  our choices concerning them don’t make themselves, we make them.

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  • Patrick

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding it here, but “baptized unbeliever” seems one of the most arrogant, false, and condescending claims I’ve heard in a while. I say this because it seems to mean “someone who worships in a way I dislike”: you couldn’t possibly comment as to whether someone’s faith is true (which you would have to to conclude someone is an “unbeliever”).

    Help me out here, anyone. Unless the person declares themselves to be without faith in Christ, then calling them an “unbeliever” is not just false but makes it sound like someone thinks they’re justified by their good deeds.

    • Patrick

      By the way: what is “the practical culture of universalism”?

      • Ted Seeber

        The tendency, since Vatican II, to deny the need of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the need for Evangelization, I think.

        Also, a profound misinterpretation of Nostra Aetate and Lumen Gentium, and thus the rise of a false ecumenicism that does not end in conversion.

    • Mark Shea

      No. It means “someone who receives the sacraments while in total ignorance and even denial of elementary Catholic teachings”. If you do not believe elementary Catholic teaching, you are an unbeliever.

      • Patrick

        No: an “unbeliever” is someone without faith in Christ. A “heretic” is someone who denies an elementary Catholic teaching.

        • Mark Shea

          You’ll need to take it up with the Vatican.

          • Patrick

            Haha. That would be pretty futile if they just change the plain meaning of words, wouldn’t it?

            “Dear Vatican: you wouldn’t call a Protestant or a Greek Orthodox an “unbeliever” for rejection Church teaching, right? ‘Heretic’ or ‘schismatic’, yes, but certainly not ‘unbeliever’?”

            “Dear Patrick: Octopus banana machete bourbon hockey sticks. Signed, Pope.”

            I think I’ve got my answer, though: “baptized unbeliever” is probably some ham-handed phrase rather than something purposefully formulated.

            • Mark Shea

              Oddly, most other speakers of English don’t find the meaning all *that* mysterious. Why might that be?

      • But how would one know if another does not believe elementary Catholic teachings? I realize someone could flat-out state he does not believe, or demonstrate with words or actions that he does not believe or is in genuine ignorance, but I would feel uncomfortable using the phrase unless it was super-duper obvious.

        Months ago I read the comment of a very devout Catholic complaining about the facial expressions of his fellow communicants, because he just knew that they were not receiving the Eucharist reverently and that their faith was lacking. And all I could think was how arrogant and uncharitable of him, to assume he knew the faith of total strangers based on the way their faces looked. That’s my concern with the phrase “baptized unbeliever,” that it will be another cudgel to beat those of us who are not deemed Catholic enough.

        • Mark Shea

          There is that danger. But the term is, I gather, being used by the Vatican in the context of discussions surrounding how teachers of the Faith do (or fail to do) their jobs, not as a license for combox Inquisitors to squint at neighbors with too much mascara and adjudicate the state of their soul. I think it’s a useful idea for getting at the problem of formation programs that are all about getting people processed through the sacramental mill without any serious attendance to forming people to be disciples.

          • Fair enough. I am often appalled at how little some Catholics know about their faith, and some of the wackadoodle things they were taught by priests and nuns who should have known better.

        • Ted Seeber

          “But how would one know if another does not believe elementary Catholic teachings? I realize someone could flat-out state he does not believe, or demonstrate with words or actions that he does not believe or is in genuine ignorance, but I would feel uncomfortable using the phrase unless it was super-duper obvious.”

          I agree. Having said that, there are many people at my parish who actively dissent from Church teaching, and are rather loud and obnoxious about it.

          Many of them left with the last change of Priests after learning our new priest was a canon lawyer.

    • vickie

      We fell into this growing up. My brother and I baptised but living the hedonistic life. My brother married a nonpracticing Catholic. The priest that did the ore-canna and marriage them called him a “baptized pagan”. My brother was very proud of that label.

    • Steven Cornett

      No, it isn’t, as I can attest as a “baptized heathen” who is now a Catholic, having been received into the Church in 2006.
      That’s not a judgement, but a real statement of fact and the default position of many who, like in France before the Revolution, have no real sense of the Virtue of Religion. It isn’t a living thing to them, as it wasn’t to me.

  • Keith Strohm


    I don’t see the phrase “baptized unbeliever” as condescending or arrogant, just descriptive. I think it would apply, for example, to the millions of Catholic men and women who were baptized at birth but whose families never attended Church or offered them any faith formation, and who currently have no commitment to Christ or His Church.

    While also a personal experience, discipleship is never a wholly private affair; it actually looks like “something” in the world. While the individual journey of discipleship will be colored by the uniqueness of each disciple, there are some basic common “contours” to that journey. The Church’s Mission is to make disciples, and part of doing that is recognizing where people are in their spiritual journey and leading them more deeply into an encounter with Christ that produces lasting fruit in their lives.

    And I think that by “practical culture of universalism” Sherry is referring to the tendency among Catholics, particularly at the parish level, to act as if everyone will somehow make it in to heaven–that the salvation of every person is somehow assured just by virtue of their existence. That sort of assumption has consequences as to what we choose to focus on as parish communities.

    • Patrick

      Thanks for the definition of “practical culture of universalism”.

      • Keith Strohm

        You’re welcome! I hope it helps.

  • Nate

    What? I thought everyone went to heaven. Besides Hitler, of course.

    Curiously, I’m trying to think about the number of times I’ve heard talk of hell or perdition in a Catholic Mass. Or God’s wrath. Or eternal damnation.



    Stil thinking…give a second here…um….

    • Interesting thing about Judaism…

      I admit I was shocked to hear a well respected Orthodox Rabbi once say that while Hitler might get the ultimate time possible in perdition, he would eventually be reconciled to Abraham’s Bosom just like all other people.

  • Kirt Higdon

    I don’t see much evidence of this practical culture of universalism. It’s more a case of people assuming that everyone they know will get to heaven (even exceptionally rotten acquaintances are assumed to make it after a long sentence in purgatory), but those they don’t know personally but have been instructed to hate are headed straight for hell or already there. Examples of the in hell or headed there category would be Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and Teddy Kennedy among the dead and Pelosi, Obama, Biden and practically every Moslem among the living.

    • Ted Seeber

      I’ve never heard it preached that ANY of the above will be in Hell. In fact, at Teddy Kennedy’s funeral, the basic assumption seemed to be that he had already made it to Heaven and should be granted sainthood ad populum.

      • Kirt Higdon

        Of course not preached. Any even half-way educated Catholic priest would know better than to assert in a homily that a given person is in hell. I’m referring to what is popular opinion among practicing lay Catholics, including ones who are well educated and active in their parishes.

  • Personally, I’m rather hesitant to use such terms in general, because it’s too easy to assume that ‘those people’ are the ones they apply to. On an individual level, it’s also not for me to say. There are cases, of course, where people openly call down the Church for its teachings and boldly celebrate their disdain of this or that doctrine. I suppose it might apply there, but then we don’t know the back story either. Who knows what baggage someone brings along their pilgrimage? So while kudos for the emphasis on discipleship – always a good thing – I might be a little hesitant about tossing too many labels around.

  • Sherry Weddell

    Just to be clear, the term “baptized unbelievers” is a term used by the Vatican to describe large numbers of especially European Catholics, whose only link to the Church is that they were baptized as children or married in the Church. It is meant to describe a large cultural phenomenon, not particular individuals as such.

    • kenneth

      This is a phenomenon entirely of the Church’s own making, and not because of lax evangelizing. “Universalism” in one sense refers to the Church’s ancient instinct to make everyone Catholic. From the time Constantine went over, the game plan was to make the whole world, the Western World, at least, Catholic, by hook or by crook. The strategy made Catholicism inseparable from nation’s cultures and even political institutions. At the individual level, infant baptism and confirmation of children made people Catholic before they could make a truly reasoned choice about it. Get them in the pews young, reinforce their fear and guilt responses, plant them in societies that demand outward observance, and the machine will run itself forever. They strived for a world in which Catholicism was as basic to a person’s identity as, say, their Irishness or Italian, Polish, Spanish ethnicity. After 15 centuries or so of hard work, they got their wish. It’s only in the last 40 odd years that the Church has begun to learn the hard truth that followers are not the same thing as believers. The forces of cultural inertia which kept people in line – ethnic enclaves in major cities, vast networks of Catholic schools etc., simply are not there anymore. Fear of Hell certainly isn’t going to sway people today. If the Church wants believers, stop making followers. Make sure people understand why they want to be Catholic (well informed AND adult), and go from there.

      • Ted Seeber

        I normally disagree with you Kenneth- but you’re absolutely right in this case. Except- I’d call that last The New Evangelization- and the lack of it in historically Catholic cultures is absolutely shocking.

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    “baptized unbelievers” is a term used by the Vatican to describe . . . a large cultural phenomenon, not particular individuals as such.”

    Right. A condition within the Church, that some of our members have received one or more of the sacraments of initiation, without ever having been evangelized.

    Not people to point the finger at, but people to identify as spiritually underserved and maybe at some peril unless we help them with our prayers, our friendship, our example, our counsel, our patience, perhaps even our evangelizing.

    • Ted Seeber

      I am struck in your post by how close the words “underserved” and “undeserved” are. Kind of like the Untied States of America, only much more serious.

  • “I don’t see much evidence of this practical culture of universalism.”

    I don’t see why you’re politicizing this post.

    What’s the over/under on the number of Catholic parishes in the United States that show any evidence they take seriously the commission Jesus has given to His Church to go into the world and make disciples, or His crystal clear teaching about what will happen to those who aren’t His disciples when they die? Three out of a hundred?

    • You’re too charitable to be keeping book. You’d go broke quick I think.

    • Kirt Higdon

      I’ve never personally been in a single parish which did not take the commission to make disciples seriously, but maybe the parishes I’ve belonged to (two in my childhood, five in my adult life) are not representative. They do represent four different diocese in three widely separated states. Maybe I have just been fortunate and of course there is always room for improvement.

      • You’ve lived in seven parishes with active evangelization programs, going out into the world to bring the Gospel to those who have not heard it?

        I’d be very interested in the sorts of programs your parishes have had, and how they recruited parishioners to work on them.

        • See, Mark, Tom K can make his point without reference to bovine scatology!!!

        • Kirt Higdon

          Tom, I think most parishes have active RCIA programs. Now some are better than others and I have heard of some which are very bad indeed, including one or two cited in Sherry’s book. But the ones I am familiar with and have been involved in, including the one I’m involved in now, are really trying to do a good job. When I was a kid, that was pre-Vatican II and pre-RCIA. A lot of evangelization work was done by the K of C and the Christophers back in those days. As to how parishioners are recruited, the parishes are always making general appeals for volunteers for various ministries and there is also a lot of one on one recruiting.

          • Okay, but RCIA as such is a catechetical program, not an evangelical program. What does your RCIA program do for the non-Catholics in your parish who *don’t* sign up for RCIA classes?

            To put my point histrionically: If it were a crime to demonstrate concern that people might go to hell, Catholics would be underrepresented among those convicted.

            • Marion (Mael Muire)

              I had always assumed that all Catholics were taught from babyhood to say their bedtime prayers, to make the Sign of the Cross, to love the Blessed Mother and the saints, to talk to “Dear Jesus”, devotion to their Guardian Angel . . . all from their mothers, fathers, grannies, aunties, older sibs. And as they got older, that religion and theology and Catholic moral teaching would be discussed in some depth with their parents, and that they themselves would read spiritual books and attend missions and retreats, and as they matured, their faith would develop into a mature, adult faith, but which would always remain intimately associated with those inarticulate but heady memories one always carries of mother and father and home and infancy.

              One tends to assume that others have had and know, what they have had and known. God help me! Until recently, my belief was that Catholics who had grown up in Catholic homes, but didn’t seem to know their faith, did have all that – or most of it – in their background, too, but had somehow turned from it.

              Why they were (assumedly) doing so has always mystified me. I attributed it, somewhat doubtfully, to the Post-Vac II maelstroms.

              I’m beginning to realize that my belief may not correspond with the reality of the situation.

            • Kirt Higdon

              Our RCIA and other RCIA programs I am aware of personally include an outreach or evangelization component. We don’t just wait for people to come to us and then catechise them. This is mostly one on one, but includes such broad efforts as going door-to-door, public prayer rallies, and (at the diocesan level) running TV commercials. It also includes promoting Catholic themed movies like For Greater Glory and Restless Heart. This is done at both parish and diocesan level.

          • Ted Seeber

            RCIA is the CONCLUSION of evangelization. The start is knocking on doors.

            I know of only one parish in my entire Archdiocese that has such a program.

  • J. H. M. Ortiz

    Admittedly salvation in Catholic tradition is not at all automatic; a person is understood to be saved or lost by that person’s utterly free acceptance or rejection of divine grace. At the same time, the Church’s Magisterium holds out the POSSIBILITY of salvation for all humans. For instance, Vatican II’s Constitution Gaudium et Spes states in section 22 that “since Christ died for all [humans] (Cum … pro omnibus mortuus est Christus), and since man’s ultimate vocation is in very reality … divine (cumque vocatio hominis ultima revera … sit … divina), we ought to hold that the Holy Spirit offers to ALL [humans] the possibility (tenere debemus Spiritum Sanctum CUNCTIS possibilitatem offerre) that, by a manner known to God, they be associated with this paschal mystery (ut, modo Deo cognito, huic paschali mysterio consocientur).” (My emphasis and literal translation; this material is readily available at the Vatican’s website.)

    • Much like universal suffrage is the practise of extending to all the possibility of voting.

      To extrapolate 100% voter participation from that is mistaken.

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    Many (or all) will be admitted to the field of glory and will be given a number and a place, but not all will run well or even finish.

    Jesus spoke of wise and foolish virgins, the latter running out of oil and not being admitted to the feast. (Matt 25) They had the lamps, but ran out of oil. You need both to be admitted to the Kingdom.

    Saint Paul wrote of working out his salvation wth fear and trembling. (Phil 2:12) “Working” at something is not something that is handed us without some effort or requirment on our part. Ditto the “fear and trembling.” Not a paralyzing fear – the terror of despair, but the fear that causes us to pay careful attention and not relent in our efforts.

  • Irenist

    We are afraid to talk about Hell because we fear offending. If we could see people striding toward a cliff overlooking the fiery Pit, even the laxest of us would presumably try to stop them. But because we can’t see it with our eyes, it seems less real to us than the fear that we might be ostracized or criticized, which we can picture all too well. And that’s just those of us who do really believe in Hell.

    For the vast majority of First Worlders, the idea that the sorts of foibles (as we would indulgently call them) described in, say, the ghosts in The Great Divorce who cannot bear Heaven might be sins worthy of Hell is plainly preposterous and literally (I use the term advisedly) unbelievable. The priest preparing a homily about the Four Last Things (can you even imagine such a homily in some little suburban parish of today?) will understandably (because correctly!) fear that the reaction of his parishioners, (Democrats and Republicans before they are Catholics, almost all of them) will not be to imagine that the sorts of sins nice, normal suburban folk like them commit could be justly condemned to Hell and repent, but rather that any God who would condemn such nice, normal, upstanding Americans as they are to Hell is a Bronze Age despot unworthy of the great boon of their deigning to continue to come to Mass every Sunday and favor Him with all the sincerity and authenticity their presence brings to His uncool little liturgy. To remind a modern that he is a sinner is not to make him rebuke himself, but to make him rebuke you and your God.

    I don’t know what the answer is to this, but I can hardly think of a more important, or more harrowing, question.

    • ivan_the_mad

      I’m not sure of the answer either, but one helpful thing might be tempus fugit, memento mori. To tie into your scenario of a priest preparing a homily, an observation a pastor of mine once made is that Americans cannot stand being rebuked or corrected. He hypothesized that it was a combination of individualism, egalitarianism, and the new culture of Nice. Thankfully, I endured a rebuke from him, and was steered away from the rad trads. I pray for him often, the courage and strength of character it takes to live up to the obligations of a pastor are weighty indeed.

  • Mark R

    We don’t dare to use that “baptised unbeliever” language about Evangelicals, do we, even though many of them have a “do as you please” behaviour?

    • rakowskidp

      Why not? I’ve known many such evangelicals. But that’s somewhat irrelevant to the fact that Catholics and their parishes have done a generally poor job of reaching out with the Gospel. Only one Catholic in the first 26 years of my life bothered to share the Gospel with me. And no others personally invited me to hear it from then ’til the time I was received into the Church 8 years later. We should be more concerned about that than we are about nominal evangelicals.

  • Billy Bean

    I had taken the term “baptized unbeliever” to be descriptive of an “in-house” problem in the Catholic Church, and not at all reflective of what God might or might not be doing with those beyond her purview. I think it refers to the problem of many who have been sacramentalized but never evangelized. It seems to me that this failure is primarily that of the Catholic home, which is to be a “church in miniature,” and only secondarily a failure of the local parish or wider diocese. These have their stewardships, to be sure, but parents and godparents are to teach their children the Catholic Christian faith. Unfortunately, what has been happening in many American Catholic families is not much different from what has been happening in the wider secular culture. The salt has lost its sav(i)or.

    • rakowskidp

      “I think it refers to the problem of many who have been sacramentalized but never evangelized.”

      YES! Unfortunately, this has also been my experience. Outside of my parish, I know of very few Catholics who’ve been discipled in any discernable way. Our kind, elderly neighbors were the type who didn’t like to talk about religion. The husband (may he rest in peace) was Italian, and his bride Irish, both from Catholic families. Their children have fallen away, and I have very little doubt that this situation resulted from their refusal to evangelize their own children.

  • Monica

    Can someone explain to me in a very simple way how this seemingly paradoxical thinking works? The context: a state where no one knows for sure which way the election is going to go. A) One person’s vote is only approximately one six millionth of the state vote, therefore an individual’s vote is practically meaningless vs B) The votes as a group have a practical meaning. Why doesn’t the practical meaning of the group of votes confer any meaning on an individual’s vote if the group of vote is made up of individuals? Put another way: How do you get a meaningful whole out of a giant collection of meaningless things?