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Pope to American Bishops: Moral Formation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 18, 2008

The first formal ecclesiastical event in Pope Benedict’s pastoral visit to the United States was his meeting with the entire body of U.S. bishops on Wednesday at the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, DC. Here he laid out his program for the episcopate in reviving Catholic life in America. It goes without saying that the goal is to make all things new, to enable the faith to permeate every aspect of life. But the primary means to this goal, according to Benedict, is formation in the faith, particularly Christian moral formation.

Three American Obstacles

To demonstrate why this is so, the Pope began by identifying three problems which dilute what would otherwise be a vibrant American religious spirit. The first is secularism, which colors our view of the faith and prevents it from properly influencing our behavior. Thus many Catholics feel perfectly comfortable professing their faith on Sunday while engaging in business practices and medical procedures which contradict the faith, and while ignoring or exploiting the poor, promoting immoral sexual behavior, and denying the right to life. As Benedict put it, “Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted.” The Pope clearly sees that secularization privatizes religion precisely by divorcing belief and behavior.

The second problem is materialism, which “can all too easily focus the attention on the hundredfold, which God promises now in this time, at the expense of eternal life which he promises in the age to come” (the reference is to Mark 10:30). Benedict noted how easy it is to be entranced by the triumphs of science and technology, how easy it is to believe we can fulfill our deepest needs through our own efforts. “This is an illusion,” said the Pope. “Without God, who alone bestows upon us what we by ourselves cannot attain, our lives are ultimately empty.” But it is an illusion which transforms our behavior, stealing it from the city of God and placing it at the service of the city of man.

The third problem is individualism. The American preoccupation with personal freedom and autonomy causes us to lose sight of both our dependence on, and our responsibilities toward, others. He sees this preoccupation as harming even the Church, “giving rise to a form of piety which sometimes emphasizes our private relationship with God at the expense of our calling to be members of a redeemed community.” Once again, this has the effect of dividing belief from action, so that we fail to reflect the faith in our common (or community) life. The key to addressing all of these problems is moral formation.

Christian Formation

I do not mean to say that Benedict proposes that a short course in ethics will set things right. He is talking not about information but about formation, which has a profound moral dimension. What he is calling the bishops to emphasize is whatever will help the faithful to make the right connections between belief and behavior, so that the Catholic community will begin once again vigorously to live its faith. Thus he raised the question: “How, in the twenty-first century, can a bishop best fulfill the call to ‘make all things new in Christ, our hope’?” And he began his answer with this statement: “In an age that is saturated with information, the importance of providing sound formation in the faith cannot be overstated.” He then proceeded to identify six specific areas critical to this task.

Health Care: Benedict noted that advances in medical care, while giving hope to many, have also given rise to “previously unimagined ethical challenges.” This makes it essential that the Church provide “thorough formation in the Church’s moral teaching to Catholics engaged in health care.” The bishops must provide “wise guidance…to promote the integral good of the human person.”

Public Life: The Pope affirmed the pre-eminent importance of “opening the minds and hearts of the wider community to moral truth” and he called attention to the “crucial” role of the laity as leaven in society. But he has no illusions: “It cannot be assumed that all Catholic citizens think in harmony with the Church’s teachings on today’s key ethical questions.” And so, again, it falls to the bishops to “ensure that the moral formation provided at every level of ecclesial life reflects the authentic teaching of the Gospel of life.”

Marriage and the Family: The Pope also expressed deep concern about the state of the family. He said that in the family we experience the fundamental elements of peace, including justice and love, the role of authority, concern for the weak, mutual help, readiness to accept and forgive. The family is also the “primary place for evangelization”. For these and other reasons, the rise of divorce and infidelity—and indeed the abandonment of formal marriage altogether by many—must be countered by the bishops: “It is your task to proclaim boldly the arguments from faith and reason in favor of the institution of marriage, understood as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, open to the transmission of life.”

Sexual Mores: While commending the bishops for the efforts they have made to curtail sexually abusive behavior (at the same time acknowledging with Cardinal George that this was “sometimes very badly handled” in the past), Benedict insisted that if episcopal efforts are to achieve their full purpose, “the policies and programs you have adopted need to be placed in a wider context.” That context is the right of children to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality, which is impossible in homes that are awash in pornographic and violent media (and often related behavior). The bishops must “address the sin of abuse within the wider context of sexual mores.”

Priests: Benedict observed that, in the aftermath of the abuse crisis, many priests feel they have lost trust and esteem. This seems to be a comment not only on their relationships with the laity but with their bishops, which is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the way many bishops have distanced themselves from their priests in order to escape blame. In any case, the Pope insisted that each bishop must strengthen his relationship with his priests. With respect to his priests, each bishop must live “configured to Christ, the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for his sheep”—just as each priest must be so configured with respect to the laity. Once again the Pope insisted on something more than mere talk.

Prayer: The Holy Father concluded his address to the bishops by emphasizing the importance of prayer amid all the challenges and distractions of episcopal ministry. He stressed adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, contemplation of the mysteries of the Rosary, and fidelity to the Liturgy of the Hours. “This radical configuration to Christ, the Good Shepherd, lies at the heart of our pastoral ministry, and if we open ourselves through prayer to the power of the Spirit, He will give us the gifts we need to carry out our daunting task, so that we need never ‘be anxious how to speak or what to say’ ” (Mt 10:19).

Questions Answered

After his address, the Pope took three questions, all of which related in different ways to his concern about the common divorce between faith and life among American Catholics. He was asked how best to respond to: (1) Increasing secularism in public life and relativism in intellectual life; (2) The “quiet attrition” of Catholics abandoning the practice of the faith, gradually falling away from their identification with the Church; and (3) The decline in vocations and the hope offered by an increasing thirst in holiness among those who do come forward.

In his responses, Benedict continued to develop his theme. American secularism, he said, poses a peculiar problem in that it allows for belief in God and the role of churches while subtly reducing “religious belief to the lowest common denominator.” Thus “faith becomes a passive acceptance that certain things ‘out there’ are true, but without practical relevance for everyday life.” People may believe that God exists, but they slip into living as if He doesn’t. The Holy Father suggested that this is “aggravated by an individualistic and eclectic approach to faith and religion”. The complete passage is worth quoting:

Far from a Catholic approach to “thinking with the Church”, each person believes he or she has a right to pick and choose, maintaining external social bonds but without an integral, interior conversion to the law of Christ. Consequently, rather than being transformed and renewed in mind, Christians are easily tempted to conform themselves to the spirit of this age [cf. Rom 12:3]. We have seen this emerge in an acute way in the scandal given by Catholics who promote an alleged right to abortion.

Benedict further argued that faith cannot survive unless it is nourished, unless it is “formed by charity” (cf. Gal 5:6): “Do people today find it difficult to encounter God in our Churches? Has our preaching lost its salt? Might it be that many people have forgotten, or never really learned, how to pray in and with the Church?” He also spoke movingly about the need for prayer for vocations: “Strange to say, I often think that prayer—the unum necessarium—is the one aspect of vocations work which we tend to forget or to undervalue!” What followed is worth another extended quotation:

Nor am I speaking only of prayer for vocations. Prayer itself, born in Catholic families, nurtured by programs of Christian formation, strengthened by the grace of the sacraments, is the first means by which we come to know the Lord’s will for our lives. To the extent that we teach young people to pray, and to pray well, we will be cooperating with God’s call. Programs, plans and projects have their place; but the discernment of a vocation is above all the fruit of an intimate dialogue between the Lord and his disciples. Young people, if they know how to pray, can be trusted to know what to do with God’s call.

The Central Message

Throughout his address and the following questions, Pope Benedict made one central point again and again. Its strongest formulation was this: “To the extent that religion becomes a purely private affair, it loses its very soul.” In response to this peculiarly American temptation, the bishops must launch an apologetics which will affirm the truth of Revelation, the harmony of faith and reason, and a sound understanding of freedom—freedom from the limitations of sin and for an authentic life. He emphasized to the bishops that “the Gospel has to be preached and taught as an integral way of life, offering an attractive and true answer, intellectually and practically, to real human problems.” In other words, the Pope insisted that true formation is the key. The bishops must make it their highest priority to foster an integral connection between doctrine and morals, belief and action, faith and life.

[For the Holy Father’s complete address and answers to questions, see The People of This Country Are Known for Their Great Vitality and Creativity.]

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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