Catholic clichés are vapid. They exhibit a lackadaisical attitude toward the faith, and consequently, the way it is taught.
Anna Mitchell, a good friend of mine and Catholic radio personality, recently took up the topic of limiting preaching to action in her December article, “Use Words When Necessary”. I would like to toss in another classic cop-out: the problem of emptiness that results from limiting Catholic Identity (specifically in our schools, but expanded to attitudes about Catholicism in general) to solely what are called “Gospel values”.
As a product of Catholic schools, and someone who works with many students in Catholic schools, I am forced to wonder if there is any real substance behind these “Gospel values”.
From my experience, Gospel values stem from notions of a social gospel proclaimed by Christ. These include the need to value charity, compassion, justice, service, and so forth. The result is an almost complete gutting of Catholic Christianity – cutting it off from the dynamism of a relationship with Christ. “Gospel values” are no different from other ethical or philosophical traditions. While good, do they set apart Catholic Identity from other humanistic approaches of goodwill? Pope Benedict emphasizes this point early in Deus Caritas Est, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
While values are important, they can remain airy unless they are coupled with an authentic and dynamic relationship with Christ. Values may move a person to be a good human externally, but Christ transforms from the inside out – this is metanoia (conversion). And, this metanoia is what is lasting precisely because it is rooted an encounter with Christ who died and rose for you, and for me, and who is calling us into relationship with him. We are called to be disciples, crucified in Christ and no longer ourselves (Gal. 2:20).
Values tend to lack a real recognition of the gratuitous and somewhat uncomfortable redemption God offers his people throughout salvation history, up to the culmination of the cross. God redeems, then demands a response. Love demands a response. This is relationship.
Planting “Gospel values” only, could be likened to planting seeds, I suppose – seeds planted in dry, highly-secularized soil, and never given any water or sunlight. This sort of Catholicism devoid of encounter with Christ has resulted in generations of poorly-formed adults, and the pandemic abandonment of faith by young Catholics during the college years.
The Catechism actually spends very little energy explaining what values are, perhaps because they lack both a certain push and pull. A “values-only” approach to Catholic Identity lacks the push that comes from the context of a relationship. Any relationship of love pushes the individuals involved to self-sacrifice and gift. Values often lack a pull, in that they fail to pull the human to anything greater than an emotive response to external situations.
Jesus says, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10). We have abundance of life only by entering into relationship with Christ – for he is the way, truth and life (Jn. 14:6). Relationship with Christ, who has redeemed us, demands change – or we risk being cast out (Jn. 15:6). Christ sends forth his disciples with the fire of the Holy Spirit not that they might preach about a nice, neat philosophy or ethical values. They preach Christ, crucified (1 Cor. 1:23). Dynamic Catholicism requires a personal response right now that unites the Church as one living Body. This is Catholic identity – it is nothing other than conversion through the living Christ. It is authentic discipleship. Catholicism is radical, as Christ radically transformed lives, and continues to do so.
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