Many non-Catholic Christian students, especially those whose backgrounds are Lutheran or evangelical, are not shy about making personal faith statements in my theology classes at Loyola University Chicago. Faith statements made in a classroom are pure gold for a teacher of theology, because they legitimize conversations that go beyond theology to the convictions in the hearts of the students.
Catholic students, on the other hand, are very slow to make faith statements or statements about a personal relationship with Christ, even though Pope John Paul II has insisted that a personal, even intimate relationship with Christ should be the aim of our programs of catechesis in the church. This has led me to ask an uncomfortable question: have Catholic students been catechized into what one might call Church-ianity, whereas many of our non-Catholic Christian students are in a religious condition of Christ-ianity?
Catholic students are quick to talk about their experience of church, both positive and negative. They are not shy in talking about their moral convictions—about social justice, for instance. They are somewhat aware of the complexity of Scripture, in particular how difficult it is to find the historical person of Jesus in the New Testament. Not a few are savvy about the complexity of church history and of the different and sometimes conflicting models of the church that are operating in their home parishes. They are even somewhat conversant with doctrinal developments within the church, especially since the Second Vatican Council. All this is to the good.
What is not to the good is that all this knowledge—theological, doctrinal, moral, scriptural, historical—can leave them somewhat knowledgeable but apparently uncatechized—at least according to Pope John Paul’s definition of that term—without even suspecting the difference between these two different religious conditions.
I am not presuming that Catholic students do not have a personal relationship with Jesus. But if they do, they tend to be unforthcoming about it. This could be ascribed to something cultural, or there might be something more problematic that warrants our attention. In an informal response to an address I gave on this topic, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago wondered whether Catholics experience Jesus differently than many of our Protestant brothers and sisters and whether the difference might be linked to the sacraments, as Catholics understand and receive them. This is a very astute question. Does our sacramental richness excuse or explain our virtual silence about this matter in comparison with many of our ecumenical counterparts?
My experience of Catholic students in the classroom is similar to my experience of Catholic theologians in formal dialogue with evangelicals and Pentecostals. I have been a member of two different Vatican-sponsored dialogues for 17 years—with evangelicals (for five years) and Pentecostals (for 12 years). The dialogue members who speak most easily about their experience of Christ have invariably been the non-Catholic Pentecostal and evangelical scholars, while the Catholic members of these commissions are much more comfortable speaking about texts. Still, these seasoned Catholic scholars could hardly be described as lacking a personal relationship with Christ. What is it about Catholicism that makes personal sharing about one’s relationship with Jesus less likely?
One obvious cut into the matter is orthodoxy. Our centuries-old Catholic faith has a rich history of concern about purity in doctrinal matters. One of the recent efforts of the official church to insure a greater degree of this is the mandatum that Catholic faculty members have been asked to “take” and comply with. Coupled with the issue of orthodoxy is the matter of orthopraxy, that is, right conduct or the accompanying practices that give evidence of orthodoxy. Is evangelization one of these? Neither claiming a personal relationship with Jesus nor evangelization has been associated with the mandatum. One can ask why.
Although faculty members at Catholic institutions of higher learning do not see their classes as an occasion for evangelization, nonetheless there is the question of what has been called preparatio evangelica. This entails bringing out in bold relief the work of God that has been going on in the students’ minds and hearts as well as weeding out growth from the other sower, “the enemy of our souls,” to use St. Ignatius of Loyola’s phrase. In the dialogical setting of a class, I find invaluable the unsolicited faith statements made by the kind of students I have described, because they answer my theologically posed questions from the ground of their faith convictions. This makes it much easier for me to do with the rest of the students the work of evangelical preparation that is appropriate for a theology class.
Today it is more acceptable in public life to profess Jesus’ lordship in one’s personal life. Many of our political leaders, including President George W. Bush, show an increasing facility in making such professions. None of us is so naïve as to think that a person who makes such declarations necessarily embodies the values implied in these professions of faith. Claiming to have a personal relationship with Jesus is no guarantee that there is Gospel knowledge or integrity about promoting the values that should accompany such a profession. As Jesus said, “Many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord.... Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?... I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you” (Mt 7:22-3).
Why are Catholics reticent about professing their faith? One reason might be that we harbor a cultural bias against “them,” people who have developed a facility about claiming Christ as their lord and savior. In our Catholic culture, such professions are much more suspect and less honored than they are in an evangelical culture. There is also some fear that the words may become a mere formula. Jesus himself reiterated Isaiah’s lament about people honoring God with their lips while their hearts are far from God (Mt 15:8).
Another reason could be that we make the church carry our responsibility about our personal relationship with God. “As long as I go to church, righteousness is mine” is the unconscious and unwarranted assumption. Mother Church is the source of my being right with God. The faith is mediated through authorized people, who are intellectually, sacramentally, institutionally empowered to do so. By contrast, there can be an immediacy between the soul and the Word of God as evident in evangelical churches—not always or everywhere, of course, but enough to ask ourselves as Catholics whether the mediated Word, rather than the personally appropriated Word, has become central to our praxis and the reason for our Church-ianity. Without deprecating our many-layered and rich Catholic intellectual tradition, it would be good to recognize that we have much to learn from the simpler, more personal tradition of evangelical Christianity that speaks of Jesus with familiarity.