Mediocre Catholics and Poor Formation of Conscience

Mediocre Catholics and Poor Formation of Conscience August 14, 2007

Are you a mediocre Catholic? If you quote Ratzinger’s “private” document to the U.S. bishops called Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion to defend your views on the Iraq war and death penalty, then yes, you are a mediocre Catholic. Of course, you know I’m saying this for effect. Now you are thinking that I am one of those self-righteous Catholics who tell others what to do, like those who feel entitled to criticize the “performance” of the U.S. bishops as if they would be elected public officials. Not really. I don’t quote Ratzinger’s private document, but I know all about mediocre Catholicism: in fact I live it every day of my life. I do an examination of conscience every night before praying the Compline and I just realize how incredibly mediocre I am as a Christian! My point with this post is not to single out as “mediocre Catholics” those Catholics who quote this document quite often to justify their positions, but rather use it as an example of poor formation of conscience with respect to issues of public policy. That being said, this is not a single instance in which we poorly form our consciences, but just one example that I wish to touch upon on this post. Later on, I will write on voluntary poverty and frugality, which follows a similar thought process.

Dictionaries define the word “mediocre” as something “neither good or bad” or “barely adequate” or “rather poor or inferior.” For this post, I deem suitable the “barely adequate” definition for a mediocre Catholic. We behave as “barely adequate” Catholics when we attend Mass, when we pray our usual devotions, when we wear our crucifixes around our neck, and so on. These behaviors are not bad, of course, but they can be mediocre or “barely adequate” if they do not extend beyond ourselves: if they are not an outward expression of our faith that affects every single person we meet or if they do not constantly make us question our decisions in our daily life. In other words, we are mediocre Christians when we are in our comfort zone–when we ignore “the other” or stop questioning our deepest feelings, desires and actions towards others.

I do not pretend here to go into detail as to how to interpret Ratzinger’s “private” document, but rather to point out its inadequate usage by a certain group of Catholics who may have unintentionally fallen into legalistic literalism. First and foremost, we are not fundamentalists, so we do not interpret texts without analyzing their targeted audience and the circumstances that brought them about. Secondly, as Catholics who acknowledge the importance of tradition, we do not isolate certain texts from their greater historical context, but rather we read them in light of a wealth of traditions that span for two thousand years.

That being said, let us examine these two points for Ratzinger’s Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. This document was meant to be a private communication from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to the U.S. Bishops. Therefore, we can safely (and logically) conclude that the document was written in such a fashion that would serve the needs of the U.S. bishops at the time. In fact, if you search on the Web for the document, you will only find Sandro Magister, Jimmy Akin, and a few Catholic News agencies referring to the document. You will not find it on the USCCB website.

The presidential elections brought about the document, which sought to clarify situations in which a Catholic should and should not receive communion. The document is rather specific in that it does not cover all the wide spectrum of mortal sins that prevents a Catholic from receiving communion. Rather, it touches upon issues of public policy and how a Catholic’s extent of support or participation on any of the intrinsically evil acts mentioned such as abortion and euthanasia and how it can affect whether a person can receive communion or not.

As a result, we can conclude that because 1) the U.S. bishops are the targeted audience, 2) the nature of the communication is a private one, and 3) the U.S. presidential elections brought about the communication, the document presupposes quite a lot in regards to one’s worthiness to receive communion. In other words, the document cannot be isolated from Magisterial teaching found in Ecumenical Council documents, papal encyclicals, synods, and pronouncements proceeding from the Roman Curia and regional episcopal conferences. In sum, we need to be careful when reading this document, because there is so much presupposed in it with regards to communion and the formation of one’s conscience. One only needs to pick up a few books by the same then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on communion, conscience, and the life of a Christian to understand the complexity of the issues at hand that go much beyond a short private communication to bishops.

In other words, it is not enough for a responsible Catholic to quote a few lines of this document to claim that it is absolutely acceptable to disagree with the Church on matters such as war, immigration, or death penalty (I do note immigration, because this document has been quoted several times when discussing the issue in comboxes). Especially, when the Magisterium has clearly expressed the Church’s position on issues such as death penalty, preemptive war and modern warfare. Interestingly enough, when we write on issues about the Iraq war or the death penalty, these Catholics feel that it is absolutely necessary to defend the fact that they can still receive communion even after disagreeing with the Magisterium. First of all, nobody has questioned the fact that they should keep receiving communion, which leaves me wondering why the need to justify that they are still in communion with the Church. And this is exactly why I refer to this response as “mediocre,” because to be in communion with the Church is the “bare minimum” or the “barely adequate” position. Many, many, many Catholics are in communion with the Church. To be in communion with Rome is not a synonymous of holiness, but rather “barely adequate.” To be in communion with Rome and to live out one’s faith every day is rather the ideal.

To put it in more simple terms, think about a student who only conforms himself with making a C in all his tests. He doesn’t study more even though he has the time. He just makes C’s. He does the “bare minimum.” This is what I think of Catholics who only use this document as their “justification” to disagree with our shepherds. They don’t pledge ignorance, because they are honestly admitting they disagree, but it is almost a “I’m off the hook” approach when citing this document. This is a very legalistic approach rather than one triggered by faith. Don’t get me wrong, as I said, I’m not just picking on these group of Catholics. The vast majority of my friends disagree with me on political and socio-economic principles and I don’t doubt their good will and their good faith. As an example, we are also mediocre when it comes to interpreting the Gospel in terms of poverty and accumulation of goods. How many of us point to James 2:15-17 and justify how we give everything we have to the poor? The saints do, not us, but that is for another post.

It is not about our decisions and judgments allowing us to remain “in communion,” but about being a true Christian. And a true Christian allows his encounter with the Risen One to shine outward and manifest through his thoughts, words, and actions. A true Christian forms his conscience based on love for “the other,” which in turn moves him beyond himself. How many of us are ready to stop doing what is “barely adequate” and live as true Christians?

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