Letter from Rome

Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

We here in Rome are preparing ourselves for the arrival of 200 or so bishops from around the world for the 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that will take place October 7-28.  Perhaps I’ve been living in this city and been around Vatican events for too long, but I normally don’t get too revved up for these things.  What can bishops who have just a few minutes to speak tell each other that they don’t already know?  Very few things, I’m tempted to say, and it’s pretty likely that the most interesting conversations will take place outside the formal meetings, at lunches, dinners and over coffee anyway.

This year’s theme, “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,” has my full attention, however.   If there’s one area where the Church really needs to call in some reinforcements, it’s this one.  There are so many Catholics who know so little about their faith and are therefore easy fodder for aggressive secularists, evangelical Protestants who can quote chapter and verse from Scripture with remarkable ease, serious Muslims with a rigorous prayer life, Orthodox with a richer liturgy, etc.  Just as each of these groups is known for some predominant aspect of their religious practice (yes, I’m including secularists among these), Catholics ought to be known for their intellectual coherence and readiness to make rational arguments for their faith.  It should be no surprise that “proselytism” has become a dirty word in many Catholic circles, because how can one even begin to spread the Good News of Christ if one can’t explain it to oneself?  Religious illiteracy is the biggest problem facing the lay Catholic in today’s world because it leaves him or her defenseless against the proselytizing forces of secularism and other, perhaps more strident and confident faiths.

Teaching sound doctrine is the first duty of a Catholic bishop, and if there’s widespread ignorance of the faith, many bishops around the world are clearly failing in their vocation.  This is and ought to be very disconcerting to us all.  If the Synod does nothing else but remind bishops just how much religious illiteracy there is in the Church and how seriously they need to address the problem, it will be a worthwhile endeavor.  The good news for the bishops is that they do not need to come up with any news doctrine by themselves and they have the Holy Spirit on their side in getting the laity to re-discover the riches of their faith.  The bad news is that many ill-formed Catholics have already decided to ignore or disobey what their bishop has to say, especially if it makes their lives more complicated by requiring them to re-think some of their most fundamental beliefs about personal autonomy.  Among lax or lapsed Catholics, the teaching authority of the bishops is virtually non-existent, and it will be a tremendous challenge to bring such Catholics back into the fold relying solely on the moral power of the mitre.

If the New Evangelization is going to succeed, then, it will not only require bishops who are willing, or better, who insist on teaching Catholic doctrine, even when it is unpopular; it will also require the Catholic laity who are fortunate enough to have received solid, basic formation to take their games to the next level by increasing their knowledge of the faith, intensifying their devotional practices, and continually strengthening their interior lives in order to become better apostles of Christ.  None of us is where we need to be.  So it is very opportune for the Pope to launch the “Year of Faith” this month while the Church commemorates the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, because in the documents of Vatican II and the Catechism, the Catholic laity have the basic information they need readily at hand in this age of the internet and electronic books and readers.

At many of the conferences I attend in various parts of Europe and North America, whether I’m speaking about free-market economics or the Catholic Church, I’m almost always asked about what ordinary people can do to get others to see the connections between freedom and moral responsibility in the economic and religious aspects of life.  I’m often surprised how few of those who ask the questions actually do things like invite their family and friends to attend Mass or pray with them, or find other ways they can bring others closer to God.  These efforts will not always meet with success, and I think the fear of being told “no,” even in a polite way, or of making others feel uncomfortable, as if they are being judged as deficient in their relationship with God, is often enough to get them to stop asking others to join them.  I know from personal experience it’s much easier to just go about your normal routine without bothering anyone else.

But this is simply not good enough, not for us, not for our neighbor and not for God.  Marxists who were always told to bring a friend to their gatherings understood the importance of winning converts better than we defenders of religion and liberty do.  Perhaps we have a mistaken view of the proper boundaries of individual freedom.  Perhaps we are too comfortable in our beliefs, or think that Divine Providence will take care of everything for us without asking us to cooperate in return.   By not doing little things every day to practice what we preach, we end up alternating between the extremes of fanaticism and despair, and leave no room for solid, reasonable action and hope. 

I was reminded of the spiritual and practical difficulties we face when I attended a Tea Party Italia event last weekend in Florence.  As you can imagine, it was a lightly-attended event, as the Tea Party may seem to be too much of an American import, but there were a few energetic types who wanted to trash the Italian constitution or get rid of the modern pension system.  One thing I wanted to impress upon my Italian friends is the importance of intellectual and practical coherence in what we say and do.  Even among Tea Party and conservative activists in the US, who is really willing to give up their government benefits instead of demanding that others do so?  Who really takes steps to reduce the size of government rather than simply taking about it?

I tried to convince the Tea Partiers that we need to resist the efforts of the modern state to treat us all as radically autonomous individuals who have no serious attachments to anything other than the state itself.  At its most radical and therefore most honest, the state wants to be our father and our god, so proponents of limited government better find ways of rehabilitating real fathers and the real God if they want to “starve the beast” of Big Government.  This means not simply arguing about taxes and spending, as important as that is, but also making the moral argument against Big Government, that it is bad for people to become wards of the state, whether they are upper-, middle- or lower-class.

I’m holding out hope that the bishops coming to Rome, as well as more than a few politicians in Europe and America start making these arguments more forcefully and more skillfully in the next month.  In the meantime, the laity among us, the non-clerics and the non-politicians, will have to do all we can to make the ground more fertile, one person at a time if we have to, so that we’re ready when the time comes.  The US elections on November 6 may be one of those times for some of us.

Kishore Jayabalan