Keeping God Central in Our Lives
Called to Prison
issue carries an
imprimatur from the
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
by Avery Dulles, S.J.
the challenge of secularism," Pope John Paul II urges, should be a
special commitment in preparing for the Third Millennium. Our modern
western society, he notes, tends "to forget God or keep him at a distance"
(On the Coming Third Millennium, #52). The pope summons us
to serious reflection. How does secularism touch our lives as Catholics,
especially in regard to what we believe? What do we need to do to
meet the challenge?
attempting answers to these questions, it may be helpful to make a
distinction between two types of secularization—political and cultural.
In the political sense it means recognition of the state as a purely
secular entity. The separation of Church and state in the American
system involves obvious problems, but on the whole it has worked out
well both for religion and for secular society. To have a lively religious
community it is important that the members belong by free choice and
for religious motives, not because of any kind of social constraint
or legal penalties. Churches thrive better in the United States than
in countries where some form of Christianity is the official religion
of the state.
that its free exercise is safeguarded, religion can survive and prosper
in a secularized state. But the kind of religion that will prosper
depends to a large degree on the impact of cultural secularization.
secularization goes hand in hand with what sociologists describe as
modernization. This becomes clearer by contrasting traditional cultures
and those that are characteristically modern.
societies the religion, occupation and customs of individuals are
determined not by personal choice but by the family and neighborhood
in which they were born and raised. Modern society, by contrast, is
highly mobile. People change their residence and occupation very freely.
This individual choice often carries over into the sphere of religion.
The Church becomes for all practical purposes a voluntary association.
Religion is considered a private matter in which people can make their
own choices. Many opt out of the church and the religion in which
they were raised. Sometimes they come back to it, sometimes they join
another religious body. This situation is not wholly bad because,
in the words of Vatican II, it demands from individual persons "a
more personal and explicit adherence to faith" (Gaudium et Spes,
societies also tend to divide life into separate spheres. Religion
is seen as having a certain limited competence. It governs people’s
relationship to God, their prayer life and their weekly worship. But
most believers do not want religion to interfere with the autonomy
of their other activities.
situation religion tends to get marginalized, some would say trivialized.
It has a very hard time maintaining itself in the public square or
the marketplace. Any effort by a Church to say what is morally permitted,
required or prohibited by the law of God in the spheres of politics,
medicine, business or family life is resented as an intrusion. "Don’t
impose your religious standards on my conduct," is a widespread attitude.
Thus religion is progressively excluded from areas in which it formerly
played a decisive role. Even in family life religion plays a diminished
modern society, people are reluctant to commit themselves to a whole
"package" of doctrines and moral standards handed to them by tradition
or by the official teachers. The role of authority is greatly diminished.
Even Christians who belong to a particular Church want to scrutinize
the rules coming from its office-bearers. Top-down management arouses
anger and irritation. Church members feel that they have a right to
be consulted and that they may choose for themselves which doctrines
they will accept.
The challenge of orthodoxy
in Christian terms, means adherence to a definite body of truth certified
by the Church as being in accord with revelation. Christian orthodoxy
is based on the supposition that God has made a definite revelation
that can, at least in part, be expressed in words and concepts. Our
creeds and dogmas can communicate particular aspects or implications
of divine revelation. Religious language, of course, is historically
and culturally conditioned, and may have to be adapted for different
times and places, but the truths expressed by it, inasmuch as they
are warranted by God, transcend those changing circumstances.
of God in Christ, according to our Christian faith, is permanently
and universally true. This revelation is addressed to all men and
women and to all future generations. The Church has an obligation
to preserve and transmit the deposit of faith. The magisterium—the
pope and the bishops who are in communion with him—has the responsibility
of overseeing the whole process and enjoys the divine assistance needed
to perform this indispensable function. The magisterium functions
most authoritatively in the teachings of ecumenical councils in which
the pope and the world’s bishops act in unison.
be evident from the preceding paragraphs that to be orthodox in our
society it is necessary to be somewhat countercultural, at least in
the sphere of religion. In the cultural situation that has developed
in the United States and in great parts of the Western world, any
kind of orthodoxy, and perhaps especially Catholic orthodoxy, is under
enormous pressure. To show how secularism touches our lives as Catholics,
we discuss briefly five aspects of the contemporary mentality:
maintains that truth is relative to the person who holds it: What
is true for me may not be true for you. According to Christian belief,
on the contrary, the contents of revelation, as given to the Church,
are truths to be proclaimed and taught to all the world.
simply means relativism in time. It holds that what is regarded as
true and certain in one period of time may be seen as false or doubtful
by a later age in light of further discoveries. Historicism undermines
the view of orthodox Christianity that the revelation given in Christ,
and the articles of Christian faith, are permanently valid.
holds that there is no objective standard or rule for determining
religious truth. Many in our culture would advise us to accept only
those aspects of religion in which we find emotional satisfaction
and growth experiences. By failing to acknowledge the objective truth-value
of the creed and dogmatic statements, subjectivism opposes itself
denies that we can make any institution or Church responsible
for what we believe. Faith becomes the choice of each particular believer.
Individualism minimizes the duty to adhere to some divinely established
way of salvation and to conform one’s beliefs, as orthodoxy requires,
to the teaching of a "true Church."
as applied to Christianity, seeks to refashion the Church in the image
of democratic society. Those who govern in the Church, it maintains,
should be accountable only to the membership at large and operate
according to the rule of consensus, adjusting their teaching and precepts
in light of public opinion polls or the results of a democratic vote.
Democratization thus tends to be at odds with the teaching authority
of the hierarchy.
Two Christian mentalities
trend of modernization erodes the foundations of orthodoxy. Many people,
in fact, accept religion only on the terms set by the secular culture,
and keep God at a distance. For merely cultural Christians the Church
is a voluntary society, comparable to the Masons or the Elks. It provides
a way of marking certain occasions in secular life, such as births,
weddings and death. Even though some secularized Christians attend
church on Sundays and holidays such as Christmas, they do not regard
the Church as an unquestioned authority governing their ideas or conduct.
of the deep hungers of the human spirit and the high claims of Catholic
Christianity, there will continue to be countercultural Catholics.
For them religion is not simply one department of life. It has an
impact on everything they think, say and do. They are not against
culture as such, but they refuse to let their religion be defined
by the culture in which they find themselves. They firmly believe
that faith rests on the truths God has revealed and has a definite
content that does not change to suit the culture or the times. Faith
provides a basis for criticizing and even reforming the culture.
to orthodoxy, therefore, we have, and will continue to have, two major
camps. Cultural Christians tend to take anti-dogmatic stances. Only
the countercultural Catholic can wholeheartedly embrace orthodoxy.
Meeting the challenge of secularism
secularized society such as our own, consistently orthodox Catholics
will constitute a minority, not only in the society at large but even,
I would say, within their religious community. The majority are carried
along by the tide of public opinion, which they receive daily in large
doses through the media.
present time, four strategies occur to me as holding promise for the
future of orthodoxy:
for hierarchy. The hierarchical structures of the Church must
be maintained and even strengthened so as to protect the teaching
body from being unduly pressured by public opinion. Only this form
of government gives the official leadership the apostolic freedom
that it needs to make decisions in light of the gospel and tradition.
firmness. Jesus confronted his hearers with a stark choice between
serving God and mammon, between accepting his "hard sayings" and withdrawing
from his company. Without unnecessarily alienating people of good
will, the Church must clearly reject unorthodox teaching. The magisterium
was never intended to seek popularity. It would forfeit all credibility
if it taught only what people wanted to hear.
In the secularized society of our day it is imperative for the Church
to mount vigorous programs to nourish its members in their faith.
Such an educational effort will require an active and forceful clergy
assisted by a large body of well-trained and committed lay associates.
In addition to academic endeavors, groups of laity should be encouraged
to make days of recollection and retreats so that they can capture
the full vision of the gospel.
Although it must stand for definite principles, the Church is not
intended to become a pious remnant of faithful souls. It is called
to be Catholic and inclusive. The gospel is intended for all, whatever
their race, language, nationality or social status. Every parish must
become a vibrant center of communication, and every believer should
feel the impulse to spread the amazing good news of God’s redemptive
the challenge of secularism, it is not really important to know what
the future holds. It is enough to know what we are called to do and
what the Church is called to become. There will of course be struggles
and setbacks as there have been in every generation. But the assistance
of the Holy Spirit will be given until the day when the Lord returns
Avery Dulles is Fordham University’s McGinley Professor of Religion
and Society. This article is condensed with the permission of Father
Dulles and America Press, Inc., 106 West 56th Street, New York, NY
10019. It was originally published in America (June 20-27,
her Cuban-born father and her Irish-American mother, Helen Alvaré
got as solid a grounding in Catholicism as any of her friends
in the suburban Philadelphia neighborhood in which she grew
up. But it wasn’t until she reached early adulthood that she
came to know a personal, loving God.
at age 39, Ms. Alvaré turns again and again throughout her busy
days to that personal, loving God. Now a wife, mother, attorney
and spokesperson for the U.S. bishops on pro-life issues, she
is aware of the many areas of her life where, she notes with
characteristic candor, "I absolutely require God’s direction
and intervention." But it was the diagnosis of manic depression
in her early 20's that really brought home the message. "I realized
I was grappling with a chronic disease. I told myself, ‘It’s
in your genes and it’s out of your hands.’ I needed God...to
help me live."
God "run the show" isn’t the issue it once was for Ms. Alvaré,
soon to give birth to her third child. What’s hard is finding
the time to carve out enough time in her long day for quiet
prayer, "time to listen, not just talk at God." Fortunately,
a prayer group she and her husband Brian have formed keeps her
on track. So does her job with the National Conference of Catholic
Bishops, where she and co-workers easily talk about God, attend
daily Mass and exchange spiritual reading as readily as others
might share recipes. Even in her many public appearances around
the country where she delivers the pro-life message, her faith
is on stage.
supports the whole range of pro-life issues. But she is most
often called upon to explain and articulate the Church’s stance
on the taking of innocent life through abortion. It is in this
arena that her faith comes under attack, at times, from pro-choice
proponents who resent what they see as Church intrusion into
a private matter. In fact, Ms. Alvaré believes, it is they who
have helped turn the taking of human life into the distorted
status of a freedom. Although abortion supporters tend to be
educated, wealthy and articulate, she sees the pro-life movement
gaining strength. "The truth about the value of human life can’t
be hidden. We stand for the proposition: Don’t kill, but care
for persons in distress, the marginalized."
message is one that many people in the culture dismiss. But
her ever-deepening relationship with God gives her the strength
to continue and to embrace the "hard sayings" of Jesus, including
"Be not afraid" and "Love your enemies."*
by Judy Ball
Called to Prison
John Paul II is asking every bishop in the world to go to prison
on July 9, 2000. The occasion is a special Jubilee Day for prisoners
during the Holy Year, which calls for repentance, forgiveness
and conversion. The Holy Father is planning to celebrate Mass
either in Rome’s Regina Coeli prison or in Rebibbia prison located
on the outskirts of the city.
estimated 8 million men and women are housed in prisons throughout
the world, many without benefit of trial. Msgr. Giorgio Caniato,
chief of chaplains in the Italian justice system as well as
coordinator for the one-day event, sees it as an occasion that
should touch not only those who are incarcerated, but also judges,
prison guards and ordinary citizens. "All Christians must make
acts of conversion during the Holy Year," he says, and Catholics
in particular must examine their consciences about their attitudes
toward prison conditions, prisoners and the causes of crime.
Caniato hopes that Catholic laypersons will join their local
bishops in visiting prisons as a sign "that we recognize Christian
prisoners are...part of the Church." He also expressed the hope
that Pope John Paul will extend even beyond 2000 the appeal
he has already made for a moratorium on the use of the death