We Don't Know the Truth
by Michael Campbell
As conversation drifted around the breakfast table, the epidemic that is raging within the Catholic Church revealed its presence. One man blamed Vatican II for undermining devotion to the Blessed Virgin. A lady spoke of the importance of ecumenism and how this meant that the Church should compromise some doctrines in an effort to build bridges with other denominations. Down at the end of the table two women discussed whether the Church's teaching on birth control had to be obeyed or was only to be understood as friendly advice. A young man asked if it was true that the Church no longer gave much attention to saints and angels, having come to realize that these were prescientific concepts.
This was the beginning of a retreat, not an extraordinary one, but much like the dozens that have occurred at the renewal center my wife and I opened seven years ago. Catholics are confused. They do not know how to identify authentic Church teaching from the thousands of impostors. So many do not know even the basic tenets of their faith.
In an age when Church instruction is being rejected and replaced by secular values, it is not hard to understand why. It is easy to ignore what you do not know. It is also easy to discard what is misunderstood. If you do not know your faith, how do you live it?
A few months ago my oldest son was confirmed. Following the time-honored tradition, the bishop asked the candidates a series of questions. What are the seven sacraments? What did Christ leave with us to be our companion and guide? What does the bread and wine become during the Eucharist prayer?
At the reception that followed, several parents joked about how glad they were that the bishop did not ask them any questions, because they could not have answered those directed to their children. In these simple comments we see the greatest threat to the Catholic Church and to Christianity … ignorance. We cannot live our faith, we cannot defend it, because we do not know it.
Ignorance is one of the greatest enemies of the Church in this age. It may be one of Satan's most potent weapons. All too often he is victorious in creating division among Christians, between Catholics, between those striving to live their faith in a secular world, because we are but spiritual children in a sometimes cruel, very adult world.
The Importance of Truth
Few of us believe that we can become successful at any task or profession without study and work. But we believe we can be good Catholics without knowing what that means. We find the results of ignorance everywhere.
The religion teachers in our schools are often passing on error to our children because they are poorly prepared. My youngest son was recently taught that Jesus often sinned. Are we fast becoming a generation of spiritual idiots?
Prayer groups are declining in size and number everywhere. Is one of the reasons because many did not help their members to grow into a deeper knowledge of the truth?
In my experience, parishes are not being renewed if they do not become beacons of truth and knowledge.
I do not believe the Church can effectively confront its present challenges until we become knowledgeable supporters of its teaching. I doubt that Christians can withstand the challenges to their faith, which are constantly made by the media at work, or by their neighbors without knowledge. We must be armed with the truth if we are to persevere against a disbelieving world. As Christ taught us--the truth will set you free.
Cooperating with the Spirit
Our new Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that the moral life of Christians is strengthened and sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Through listening to and co-operating with the Holy Spirit in our lives, we find the path of Christ. In Romans we read: The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ... (Rom 8:16-17).
Recognition of the Spirit of God as our guide is central to a life in Christ. In the Catechism we read: Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment...For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God...His conscience is man's secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (no. 1776).
However, this does not relieve us of the responsibility to study and learn. Frequently, we hear of those who dismiss the need to study and learn because it is thought to be unnecessary. God is with me...His Spirit will be my guide, is a common statement. While correct, this claim is incomplete; the rest of the theology of conscience must be recognized. Our conscience must be informed and our judgement continually enlightened. As the Catechism also states: The education of the conscience is a lifelong task...Prudent education teaches virtue, it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride....The education or the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart (no. 1784).
Catholic teaching calls us to grow in knowledge of God, for it is then that we can truly identify the work of the Holy Spirit from that which has error. This requires that we seek the truth, interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy spirit and his gifts (Catholic Catechism, no. 1788).
In a world that bombards us with messages which contradict the teaching of Christ, we must work hard to grab hold only to the truth, ensuring that our conscience does not remain in ignorance.
Pursuing the Truth
I invite you to do what it takes to combat spiritual illiteracy. It seems to me that four steps are necessary as we cooperate with the Spirit in the pursuit of truth.
First, make a commitment to learning. Understanding our faith and the teachings of our Church requires effort and investment. However, in the business of our lives, we put off learning more about God. Our work, our hobbies and our social time usually take precedence over our faith, and our knowledge of God deteriorates over time, rarely growing and becoming stronger. When monies are to be spent, the retreat, video or new Catholic book is often less important that the new golf clubs or spring outfit.
We will not come to know God without making the effort--the commitment to search for the truth.
Second, overcome the fear of the truth. Doctrine that is seen to be in opposition to the ways of the world is sometimes watered down or ignored. Answers are structured to never confront or challenge. Only the good news is expressed, not the lessons that may require significant change in our lives.
All too often, the truth is not spoken and our ignorance continues. Priests, teachers and prayer-group leaders at times explain with little substance, and real learning does not occur. We appoint as teachers people who are not yet ready and do not have a strong foundation of knowledge. Our Church is rich in wisdom, which we must discover and then have the courage to reveal, however unpopular it may sound.
Third, seek out the opportunities to learn. While there are many ways to explore our faith, we must make the effort to find them. Retreats, conferences, courses, books, videos and tapes exist in abundance, but we must go in search of them. In a world of commercial promotion, the voice of the Church is often difficult to hear. But we must make the effort to find a path of learning and growth which will ensure that our faith is strong and deep.
Fourth, leaders come forward. The struggle against ignorance of our faith requires strong leadership, just as the fight against illiteracy requires it. We must sound the call against the loss of that knowledge that will allow us to be strong Christians. We must fight against the ignorance that allows the arguments of a secular world to overrun the values and doctrines of our Church. Leadership is desperately required to build a people of God with the knowledge to stand against false values and teaching.
The Challenge for the Church and its People
It is time to launch a campaign against illiteracy--spiritual illiteracy. We must be people armed with the truth of Christ and His Church so that we can take a stand against a world that has lost its understanding of God.
Paul tells us: Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect (Rom 12:2). How do we transform our minds if not through knowledge of Christ and His Church? The change that Paul calls for cannot come without learning and effort. We must seek to know God and His ways.
Let us fight to eradicate the ignorance--the illiteracy--that allows the enemy to block our knowledge of the Father and the path leading toward the kingdom to which He calls us.
Michael Campbell is co-director of the Maranatha Renewal Centre and director of the Institute for Ethics and Leadership.
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