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Spiritual Self-Reliance: The Enemy Within

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Aug 11, 2006

I inadvertently switched parishes when I moved into my last home, but I didn’t know it. When I found out, my kids were already in the old parish school, and the pastor of the new parish was less than orthodox. Wanting both the reduced tuition and the better preaching, I obtained official permission to remain where I was. In other words, I got what I wanted. What’s at stake here?

Church and Sacrament

As Catholics, we have to beware of the congregational impulse. Protestants believe their relationship with God is formed primarily through direct, Scripture-centered inspiration by the Holy Spirit. In consequence, they form congregations only secondarily. They choose them based largely on personal preference, according to the preaching and pastoring styles they find most congenial or most helpful. There is nothing in Protestant principles to argue against such congregational patterns. Given Protestant beliefs, they are perfectly natural.

But Catholics understand their relationship with God to be mediated through the sacraments and guided by the authority of the Church, which speaks for Christ. In consequence, properly formed Catholics regard private interpretation and individual preferences as secondary and even dangerous. According to Catholic principles, we ought to welcome and revere the Church wherever we find her, and accept her ministry through the ordinary structures she herself has put in place to spiritually nourish Christ’s flock.

Picking and Choosing

An excessive emphasis on one’s own ideas and preferences is a characteristic of heresy, which comes from a Greek word meaning “to choose”. In matters of Faith, worship and ministry, excessive reliance on one’s own opinions is unacceptable. Unfortunately, since the 1960’s a decline in the quality of priestly formation in the West has led many priests to rely excessively on their own opinions, which has in turn created tremendous pressure on the Catholic faithful to fall into the same trap.

The pressure is of two types. First, those who are lukewarm or ill-informed tend to follow their pastors into error whenever they echo the opinions of the world rather than the teachings of the Church. This has created a generation of Catholics who fail to understand or even value the cohesive unity of Catholic doctrine and worship. Second, those who are more committed and better-formed have felt a need to second-guess their pastors, relying on their own understanding—inevitably, their own opinions—far more than is spiritually healthy.

Habitual Self-Reliance

The result is that most of us, even those of us who are self-consciously committed to the “Catholic thing”, have gotten into the habit of spiritually “shopping around”. Not only do we feel justified in rejecting the ministry of heretical priests (whose wayward ideas can be measured fairly clearly against the teachings of higher Catholic authority), but we have actually gotten into the habit of preferring our own ideas on nearly everything. This is reflected in the complaints we make, the arguments we raise, the parishes we choose, even the expressions on our faces. In some cases, the deeply committed have become as negatively self-attached as the uncommitted.

One cannot be both fully-Catholic and habitually self-reliant in spiritual matters at the same time. As I said at the outset, part of being Catholic is accepting that our relationship with God is mediated through Church and sacrament. Excessive reliance on our own ideas and preferences inevitably weakens our ties with the Church, which is our preeminent source of grace. We begin to do things our way instead of the Church’s way or, to say the same thing another way, we open ourselves to the ministry of the Church only when it suits ourselves.

Spiritual Pettiness

Am I saying that there can be no good reason to lodge a protest or even to switch parishes? No. Am I presuming to set down hard and fast rules? Not at all. But I am suggesting that we must balance our perception of the dangers around us with a healthy perception of the danger we pose to ourselves. The Church militant, being populated exclusively by the fallen, will always exhibit various degrees of weakness in her ministers and in her parishes. This is neither new nor necessarily worse in our own time. If we think that our extraordinary circumstances justify an unusual or extreme self-reliance in matters Catholic, we are almost certainly wrong.

A healthy perception of the dangers we pose to ourselves can prevent this self-reliance from getting out of hand. In addition to weakening our bonds of unity with the Church, we take a less obvious risk when we make ourselves into the supreme standards of spiritual judgment. Claiming that we do so only with the clearest understanding of past Church teaching or of “what the Pope really wants” generally staves off disaster only briefly. For the habit of spiritual self-reliance almost always leads to spiritual pettiness, as all of us are pretty small when compared with God. Here pride and pettiness invariably kiss, and the lion lies down only where he finds it comfortable.

Suspect Yourself

What, then, is the solution? I believe it is extreme caution born of humility and charity. We need to accept spiritual direction and learn to obey legitimate authority whenever possible without sin. We need to look for opportunities to embrace things that are not to our liking, supporting those who are trying to do good even when we dislike their “style”. We need to avoid attaching ourselves to favorite priests and avoid alienating ourselves from the others. We need to be quick to praise, slow to criticize, reluctant to choose what we prefer, and extremely reluctant to make any sort of break. In a word, we need to learn to be suspicious, not primarily of everyone else, but of ourselves.

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