January 17, 2022

Those Who Leave the Faith

How can we not push people away? How can we evangelize? Two common problems can contribute to our failure to be good witnesses.

Those Who Leave the Faith

For those concerned with the salvation of souls, listening to souls who are willing to be open and honest about why they have left the Faith is instructive.

One theme I see in Audrey’s sharing is relatively common today, which is what I’ve variously thought of as a fundamentalist and traditionalist (in the "rad trad" sense) approach to our Faith. It is a lens through which to see everything that doesn’t fit one’s understanding of the Faith as fearful. And that fear leads to loathing, anger, and contempt in how we treat those who espouse it. Audrey offers a great example of this in her interview:

I remember being in a church that morning, and the priest not only telling the congregation not to attend [the Women's March], but making fun of the women who were and mocking them as these kinds of "bra burning brazen women," saying that they weren't feminine. I remember how it felt. It felt terrible to hear. It felt petty, and small, and inhumane. And I felt mocked, even though I wasn't there, because I wished I could be there. I thought, if they knew what I was really like, I wouldn't be welcome here.

I think the fear that motivates words and actions like that is understandable, in the sense that it is a fearful thing to lose one’s Faith, and most often those who react in this way are not equipped well to honestly encounter and engage with those who think differently from them. And this way of thinking and acting is by no means limited to people of Faith—it is exceedingly common in politics as well. The dominant secular Leftism is rife with it, even though they wear a veneer of liberality and openness. If you challenge their deeply held ideas, they react with no less than fundamentalist vitriol.

But this way of seeing, feeling, and acting is not of Christ. It is bondage to the passions of fear and anger. It is proud, bearing a lack of humility with regards to one's own understanding. It is not charitable or kind or generous or good. The primary motivation behind it is not care and love for souls but a fear of losing one’s own through open and honest encounter with persons and ideas that challenge one’s thinking. It belies a lack of faith, a lack of trust in God—a faith that grounds us and gives us peace because we know that even through such encounters and challenges that He will not lose us.

If our faith is too much based in specific formulations and specific understandings of those formulations, then our faith is not in the living God but in our own ideas. And truly that is a fearful thing. Even our best dogmatic formulations—while objectively expressing meaningful and reliable truth—must for each individual inevitably pass through a subjective interpretive lens. Very often this personal lens distorts and warps, to varying degrees, the objectively true content. And the problem arises when we treat our subjective interpretation as the objective reality. This dynamic of conflating personal interpretation with objective truth lies at the core of our tendency towards factionalism, and it is the beating heart of obstinacy and rejection of correction. It reveals a lack of humility and a lack of empathy and generosity towards others.

If, however, our faith is in God—the living God—we need never fear ideas that challenge our understanding of Him, nor should we feel offended and outraged at ideas or behaviors that are contrary to the Faith. This kind of generous, patient, peaceful, and joyful faith comes from one's person-to-Persons encounters in the kind of prayer St. Paul urges us on to—constant, ceaseless. No idea. No human or group of humans. No power or principality, demon--nor Satan himself--can overcome or overwhelm that kind of faith.

One key way we fail people like Audrey is when we fail to nurture and witness to this kind of faith. We rely instead and put our hope in some fashion of control and societal influence. We spend so much energy worried about politics and whether or not laws align with our beliefs. We forget, it seems, that very very many Christians, including the Apostles themselves, lived saintly lives under pagan or atheistic regimes, and that the meaning of  "martyr" is literally witness. We forget that Christ Himself sacrificed Himself, rather than forced or argued others into submission. The original template and exemplar of Christian witness was pretty much the exact opposite of asserting our rights, attempting to enshrine our beliefs in law, or fighting anything like a "culture war."

We become obsessed with what "the bishops" say and do, and incessantly criticize "them" for their alleged failures. We imagine that if we just had some particular uniform type of worship, that it would make people think and act right. If only "Father" said just the right things in his homilies, then people would think and act right. If the pope just said the right things, then the Church would be made up of perfect saints. If the President said and did the right things, our country would be saved. If Congress were made up of folks who think like us, then we'd be well on our way to heaven on Earth.

We focus on everything and everyone but ourselves. And when we do think about ourselves, we prefer to focus on the good we do, the right things we think, how perfectly we participate in the mass and do all the right devotions. And if only all these other people just thought and acted like we do! But are we really so perfect? Are our lives really that great of a reflection of Christ? Has the way I pray and worship led to Christian perfection for me? Am I an embodiment of the fruits of the Spirit? Do I see evidence that my witness is leading others to Christ and Christian perfection? If not (and let's be honest), then maybe there's more to it than we currently know and do!

On the other side of this spectrum, the Devil is all too ready and eager to exploit our weaknesses as well. He has twisted the foundational truth that God Himself is unable to be contained by or limited by our particular understandings of Him, that He can and does work His inevitable plan despite and through our finitude. Satan has deceived many by stretching this truth to the error that there is no objective truth--everything's relative and subjective, which is the error at the opposite end of the spectrum. Both are error, though--both that we can encompass God in our personal particular understandings and that there is no value or reality in objective propositions about faith and morals.

We see this not only in outright espousal of relativism but also in a certain readiness to embrace every popular ideological trend. We see it when what Christians say sounds basically the same as what secular folks are constantly talking about--the current hot button topics in society. We see it when "the focus" of the Church is supposedly supposed to be the current social justice trends. We see it in the ready dismissal of long-held Christian doctrine (even dogma) in favor of what is now or is becoming or is being championed by secular media, celebrities, Left-wing politicians, and these days--under the tyranny of the social media mob--companies as well. We see it when folks get into all sorts of odd contortions to embrace the prevailing thinking. In brief, it is the sacrifice of truth at the altar of social acceptability. This happens at large (for example, in the widespread rejection of Church teaching on sexuality, marriage, and abortion) and individually, as folks who personally mostly live according to the Faith readily accept beliefs contrary to the faith--because that's what everybody else thinks, and "wouldn't I be a complete jerk if I thought or said something different" becomes the main criterion for holding to a belief or not.

The virtuous way lies in between these extremes. Each of us tends toward one or the other, and as we tend, we need to be wary of falling into the extreme to which we are attracted.

We who tend to see things in a more binary and traditional fashion need to cultivate a greater awareness of our own limitations and embrace a greater humility. We need to ponder and imbibe awareness of God's infinity and really, actually trust that He can and is working all things for His own good purposes. We need to trust that He can and does save, sanctify, and perfect others even who have a very imperfect grasp on the truth, even those who display what seems to us to be quite a resistance to the truth. Also, we need to trust that He can bring others--generally in the world and those near to us--to Himself, without and sometimes even in spite of our efforts to spread our own particular understanding of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. We need to probably work on practicing silence, holding our tongue, more, and to be more generous with others, remembering our own weaknesses.

We who tend towards a kind of anything goes subjectivity need to do the work to discipline our minds, to study Revelation--Scripture and Tradition, and to receive what has been handed on to us as really, objectively true. This, too, is a practice of humility--to avoid the thinking that each one of us can (much less should, much less have a right to) define what is true and good. In the same way, we need to avoid the temptation to give into the false ideology of Progress--the belief that we are so much wiser than everyone who came before, that we definitely know better now, that whatever we come up with now is gonna be better than our ancestors in the Faith. This is a very common error of our age, just as much is the reactionary entrenchment against it. One can be too open minded and indulgent. Sometimes it is appropriate and even a salutory duty to speak up for the truth and correct people.

All of this bears on how we perceive and, consequently, interact with those who do not share the way we see the world. For those who are still involved in, connected with, or somehow attached to the Church, we have a duty to avoid alienating them unnecessarily by our failures to practice humility and generosity in these ways. I recently heard from a person who said he felt that Catholics hate each other more than anybody--that he personally felt hated in his parish and thinks this mindset is endemic to the Church. How sad is that?

These things also bear heavily on how we evangelize and re-evangelize those who are falling away, those who have fallen away, those who consciously disavowed the Faith, and those who grew up without the Faith (either practically or actually). We need to be conscious of how our own reactions to and interactions with them witness to Christ, or do they witness to our own selfishness, fearfulness, thoughtlessness, or revilings.

This isn't about just being "friendly" and "welcoming." It's many steps beyond that. It's actively, intentionally being concerned for the souls of others--in and out of parish life, and being concerned in a way that we focus first on how we personally are drawing folks to or pushing them away from Christ. It is about authentically living and showing the fruits of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control (the virtue of temperance--not being subject to our passions but rather in control of them). Our first instinct should not be to worry about how others are not saying the right things or doing the right things but rather to be preoccupied with how well we manifest these fruits.

There is no silver bullet, one-size-fits-all technique for evangelization. Effective evangelization is always personal. Each and every single individual soul--that one lost sheep out of a hundred--has top priority. As such, that means truly thinking about and treating others as fully realized persons, not as static avatars of ideas, as we are often inclined to do, especially online. It means, therefore, actually listening to them.

This can and should be done on an individual level. This means not jumping to conclusions based on what we think we know about the person we are interacting with--no matter how they dress, comb their hair, and talk. It means, when we do know them, sometimes putting prior interactions in the past that prejudice us towards them, as a practice of not assuming we know what they think and need to hear, and thereby inclining us to better listen. In all cases, it means practicing patience, kindness, and generosity. Doing so invites us into authentic dialogue between persons--a communion of persons--and through that we have a chance, if we prayerfully listen for the Holy Spirit's guidance, to play a real part in assisting in their journey towards God.

This listening can, with more difficultly, be done at a larger, group level. This can be done through group listening activities--polls, surveys, etc. This is, interestingly enough, part of what is being done in the "synodal process" in the Church today.

While it can be easy to dismiss this as some kind of bureaucratic, corporate-like treatment of the Church, that would be too facile of a hot take. We can and often should make use of tools that science provides us. Tools developed at great expense and with proven effectiveness (within bounds) over many decades can be helpful to us. Polling, surveys/questionnaires, focus groups, and the like are reliable means to better understand trends and shared concerns and desires within populations of persons.

These are a form of listening at more than just an individual level. They can give us insights and help to direct our common, shared ministries and apostolates. They can highlight needs that persons feel are not being addressed, thereby telling us how we can help them in a way that is meaningful and would resonate with them. They can give insight into common ways of seeing and looking at things. And all of that is valuable for better equipping outreach and ministry that necessarily addresses more than one person at a time. For example, any blog, any article, any video published, any homily, etc.--these are all attempts to address more than one person at a time, and so the better informed they are about the real, voiced needs and concerns of others, the better they have a chance to reach individual persons, rather than just reflecting the personal concerns and biases of authors.

Believe me, I'm less of a fan of "programs" of evangelization and outreach than most are. But at the same time, there is real practical value that can be derived from pooling our efforts to address common needs and concerns, at all different levels in society and the Church. It's certainly better for these kinds of shared efforts to be informed by our best efforts at listening to the persons we are hoping to serve and to reach, than to make assumptions or simply, for example, model what we do off of what seems popular in some other context (like pop music in mass). If we are honest in our efforts to listen, and don't do it just for show or just as an opening to get our own concerns wedged into the dialogue, that can have dramatic effects on our ability to really help others.

But none of these activities, either directed at groups of persons or at individual persons, will bear fruit if we are not actively, intentionally, constantly seeking God in prayer, praying without ceasing for the guidance of the Spirit. Listen to others and listen to the Spirit. If there were a silver bullet for evangelization, that would be it. Prayer must ever be our number one priority and the wellspring from which all our efforts come. Without God, we can do nothing. With God, all things are possible.