Thursday, August 09, 2007

Intentional Disciples: Mapping Transformation

The following post from Sherry W at Intentional Disciples is very good. I have placed in bold those section I think are of special interest to Orthodox Christians, my own comments are in red.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

There has been a goodly bit of discussion around St. Blog's about Robert George's passionate plea at First Things: Danger and Opportunity: A Plea to Catholics I'd like to use a few of his comments as a chance to pull out some realities that are not usually mentioned in a discussion of this sort:

Robert George:

What is in need of transformation is not the teaching of the Church but the human mind and heart to which these teachings are addressed. Christianity is a religion of transformation. No one is literally born into it; even infants at baptism are converted to it. There is not a Catholic on the planet or in the history of the Church who is not a convert.

Sherry's comments:

Thank God, someone is saying this loud and clear! Absolutely.

One huge evangelical gap for Catholics is our failure to give serious attention to the development stage when our children, who were baptized as infants, must become "converts", that is, they must enter intentionally into the process of conversion which is required of all (this is also the case for Orthodox CHristians; do we, for example, devote the attention to conversion that goes into folk dance practice?). We've tried to use Confirmation prep to do this in a half-hearted way but now that many dioceses are lowering the age of Confirmation, even this is being taken away from us.

Our catechetical practice is much more informative than transformative. We are much likely to offer concepts than Christ but it is the encounter with Christ that sets transformation in motion (yup!).

Robert George:
Conversion is effected, by God's grace, by transformative acts of the intellect and will.

Sherry's comments:

George is using a sort of Thomistic short-hand here because he presumes that his theologically literate First Things audience can fill in the blanks.

But our experience is that many, many Catholics who are literate in other areas of the faith can't fill in the blanks when it comes to understanding or describing how God's grace that flows from Christ's self-giving love and our personal faith and assent work together to produce personal transformation. They can't fill in the blanks because no one has ever described the process to them in a meaningful way and especially because they have not seen it lived out in a compelling way.

The phrase "transformative acts of the intellect and will" actually falls far short of conveying all that the Council of Trent taught about the process of coming to faith for those who have reached the age of reason. And in a post-modern era, in which almost all the theological underpinnings presumed by George are missing, talking about the process of salvation in this way can be profoundly misleading.

Post-modern Catholics can and will readily assume that we are describing a completely impersonal and mechanical process - a sort of salvation by the "triumph of the will". No wonder when Peter Kreeft asked his Catholic students at Boston College why they should go to heaven, nearly all of them responded that they were saved because they were basically good people who did good things and hardly any of them mentioned Jesus Christ at all.

In the Decree on Justification, the council taught that there was a progression of spiritual "movements" on the journey to salvific faith for adults and those children who have reached the age of reason. And we must remember that what the Church is describing below is non-negotiable pre-baptismal faith, not Christian maturity.

The adult ready for baptism is described in this way:

1) Moved to initial faith by hearing the kerygma (the basic summary of the saving purposes and work of Christ in which initial faith is placed)

2) Moves freely toward God as a result of #1

3) Believes all that God has revealed to humanity through the Church
a.Especially that we are justified by God's grace through the redemption in Jesus Christ

4) Knows themselves to be a sinner

5) Trusts in the mercy and love of God for Christ's sake

6) Repents of our sins

7) Resolves to receive baptism

8) Begins a new life by seeking to obey the commandments of God (the obedience of faith) (How frequently, I wonder, do we expects this of those who are becoming Orthodox? Yes, converts are convinced we are the true Church, but have they really heard and accepted the kerygma?)

If we mentally and verbally collapse this journey to "acts of the intellect and will", we effectively render points 1, 2, 3a, 4, 5, 6 invisible to ourselves and to those we seek to evangelize.

Robert George:
And the process of conversion is lifelong, whether one begins it a few days or weeks after birth or on one's eighty-fifth birthday. Christ is constantly calling us to conversion and making available to us the divine graces that are its fundamental resources. We falter and fail; he lifts us up and puts us back on track. We grow in him, so long as we are faithful in responding to his acts of love for us by our acts of love of God and neighbor.

Sherry's comments:

I would agree with George absolutely. With one caveat. The journey of lived conversion that George describes so clearly here begins when we say an intentional, personal "yes" to the Lord who bestowed upon us the baptismal and other sacramental graces that most of us received as infants. Our strong tendency is to presume that this intentional "yes" has been given because we were baptized even when the evidence of millions of lapsed Catholics tells us otherwise. (And likewise for Orthodox Christians, baptism AND repentance--the order of these two is, in a sense anyway, of secondary importance--but neither is really lifegiving apart from the other.)

Pope & Patriarch to Meet?

Reuters recently reported (August 7) that a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexii II looks likely in the not too distant future. In the article of Cardinal Roger Etchegary, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Vice-Dean of the College of Cardinals, is quoted as saying to the Russian news agencies that: “We [Roman Catholics and Russian Orthodox Christians] are moving towards” a meeting between Pope and Patriarch. Cardinal Etchegary points out however that though steps toward such a meeting “are speeding “no one can say “exactly when it will happen.” The article concludes by pointing out that according to a comment made this past June by “another [unnamed] high-ranking cardinal” the hoped for “meeting between the heads of the two churches would happen within a year.”

When I first became interested in Orthodoxy, I was told (and received with great enthusiasm) that the problems facing the Orthodox Church were of an administrative, but not dogmatic, nature. Recent events, and my own experiences, would suggest that our “administrative” difficulties are rather more severe then poor filing or uncompleted paper work. As I look at what is going on around me in the Orthodox world, I come to the conclusion that we need, as a Church, to take a rather hard, critical look at ourselves and our shortcoming. And I think our attention needs to be focused especially on issues of anthropology, as well as the catechetical and spiritual formation of the laity and the clergy. In a meeting after meeting, in one conversation after another, I have heard clergy and laity alike ask how can recent events happen and we not respond. We fail to respond, I think, because we fail to believe.

We have concluded, and Fr Schmemann pointed this out decades ago, that a formal adherence to the dogmatic and liturgical tradition of the Church is sufficient. Clearly it isn’t, and in the absence of any systematic catechetical and spiritual formation especially for the laity, such a purely formal adherence is not only insufficient, it serves to dull our spiritual senses to the difficulties that we face as a Church.

So, what has this to do with the report from Reuters?

God, and man, willing any future meeting between Rome and Moscow will at least bear fruit in a closer working relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches both in Russia, and across the globe. Over and above what is the will of God for His People, I think that even a partial, working, reconciliation that falls short of full Eucharistic communion is in the best interest of both Churches.

Especially for the Orthodox Church, such a closer working relationship offers us a need point of comparison for the health of our own Church. Granted not everything is as it ought to be in the Catholic Church, but still a conversation with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters might very well help us see with new eyes our own strengths and weaknesses. It might also offer us new practical insights that get out of the mess we’re in before we do ourselves, and those entrusted to our care, even more harm.

It is worth noting as we think about that the current crop of scandals and relatively low moral and spiritual level of the Orthodox Church here in America, that this is the social context out of which arose the “uniate” Churches over which the Orthodox make such an issue. It seems to me that we need to be careful and make sure that our own house is in order and that we have done away with those conditions that have in the past made the departure of some Orthodox for Rome an inviting option. Ironically it is spiritual apathy among the Orthodox that plays a central role in undermining the very relationship with Rome that the Orthodox call for.

Let us all pray for Pope Benedict and Patriarch Alexii, and for all Orthodox and Catholic bishops, clergy and laity, that we find away to do together what each of us seems incapable, or dare I say, unwilling, to do on our own.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory