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Personal and impersonal propagation of the faith

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Without doubt, the Catholic Church is strong in the impersonal and perhaps, except for the Eastern Churches, is alone in Christianity in showing stability over centuries in matters impersonal.


The Wall Street Journal's commentator for Catholic affairs, Francis X. Rocca, penned a disturbing essay last week entitled "Why the Catholic Church is Losing Latin America." Within a few months, he reports, Brazil will no longer be majority Catholic. And the trend is enduring and without exception.

It's not as though these Catholics are leaving to become snarky "brights" (atheists). Mainly, they are attracted to the "conservative Pentecostal" movement, which, according to Rocca, emphasizes such things as: a personal relationship with Christ, the primacy of saving one's soul (over saving the planet), the importance of a free economy, and God's pleasure in a Christian's striving to improve himself financially, through hard work and business success.

Viewed in retrospect, Rocca says, the flirtation of some Catholic congregations in the 80s with "Liberation Theology" was a huge failure, as captured in the famous quip, "The Church exercised a preferential option for the poor, and the poor exercised a preferential option for Christ" -- that is, away from a harsh and warmed-over Marxism (which is what the Liberation Theologians had to offer), towards a religion of vibrant worship and personal bonds. The poor wanted a religion that saved them as individuals not classes.

That mainstream Liberation Theology had little place for the Virgin Mary, or Our Lord's Real Presence in the Eucharist, surely also had something to do with its impotence -- it is hard to see how any Catholic who cultivated a heartfelt Eucharistic piety, and a child's love for the Mother of God, would easily leave for a congregation where these realities (essentially relationships to persons) are not simply absent but often even scorned.

"Sine dominico non possumus" -- "Without the Eucharist we simply cannot go on" -- the early Christians would say during persecutions. No one with such an attachment could leave the Church, although one can understand why, after the church closings of the COVID era, far fewer Catholics will have retained such a keen hunger.

Rocca's article and the buzz over synods in the Church led me to consider anew that, historically, there have been two means of spreading the faith: personal and impersonal. By "impersonal," I don't mean "not involving persons" but rather "not involving personal relationships essentially." An institution, for example, is impersonal, but if someone is recruited and mentored by someone in that institution, or if a new member is befriended by others who have a marked loyalty and passion for the institution's mission, then the institution becomes, to that extent, personal.

The impersonal is not bad, far from it. It includes, besides mere institutions, also: social media, websites, podcasts, videos, blogs, articles, books, art, architecture, and music. The "impersonal" in this sense the history of the Church, its traditions and rites, its very hierarchy and "magisterium" -- name days, pious practices, canon law, spiritualities, and every "thing" else. Notre Dame in Paris is impersonal. Rome is impersonal. The "Summa" is impersonal.

Without doubt, the Catholic Church is strong in the impersonal and perhaps, except for the Eastern Churches, is alone in Christianity in showing stability over centuries in matters impersonal.

Now, sometimes, someone converts from the Protestant faith to Catholicism because of the impersonal. But usually, only intellectuals do so, from some vision of the Church's stability, antiquity, or consistency (not unimportant in the long haul) -- in contrast to what seem to be the improvised practices of Protestants.

However, this is rare. Usually, one converts through personal relationships, maybe spurred on by the impersonal (a visit to St. Peter's, an encounter with the "Summa"). Less rare are indirect personal relationships, say, you meet a saint from her writings, are inspired by the Spirit to pray to her, and you sense that this saint, still alive, is guiding your entry into the Church. This happens also.

But generally, it is some living person who takes a personal interest and shows what St. John Henry Newman so often emphasized and referred to as "personal influence." (See his sermon, "Personal Influence, the Means of Propagating Truth.")

Now, I think it's clear that in Latin American, conservative Pentecostalism has advantages in "the personal," which more than compensate for the uniqueness of Catholicism in "the impersonal." To be sure, Catholicism has been hurt by the fraying of families and neighborhoods, its lifeblood in prior generations for transmitting the faith.

But here's the puzzle. It seems that only one personal relationship is necessary. One good friend, standing by her side, will be enough to dissuade a desperate woman from an abortion. Wilbur was enough for Orville, and Orville for Wilbur. Christ sent out his disciples two-by-two, not (say) five-by-five. Aristotle liked to cite Homer, "two going together can accomplish anything." One Dominican father discipled Newman. If so, then where are those singular, individual Catholics, who can befriend others?

You can see where this essay is leading, I think. It's all too easy to bemoan bad turns in current events and then maybe pat ourselves on the back for preserving our own faith, rather like that man in the parable who buried his talent in the field, to ensure that it would not be lost. "So you thought I was a harsh Master?" the God of history might easily say to us. But let's examine ourselves: put aside social media and "taking stances" and ask instead, which particular persons have we befriended and are we sharing the faith with? To how many am I that "one necessary friend"?

- Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book is "Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John" available from Amazon.

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