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Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Top Amchurch Catechists Subvert Church’s Doctrine and Discipline

by Paul Likoudis


In this article Paul Likoudis explains why the ideology represented by Roger Cardinal Mahony and the speakers at the recent annual Religious Education Congress is a dangerous one for catechists to adopt.

Larger Work

The Wanderer



Publisher & Date

Wanderer Printing Co., St. Paul, MN, April 12, 2001

Los Angeles -- One theme articulated over and over again at Roger Cardinal Mahony's recent annual Religious Education Congress is that the Catholic Church and its doctrines and discipline impede Church renewal and the enjoyment of a personal religious experience.

That was the message hammered into the heads of catechists and religious educators by speaker after speaker at the mid-February congress, and most effectively by two of the U.S. bishops' most highly regarded catechetical and renewal experts, Fr. Richard Rohr, O.F.M., and Bill Huebsch, a catechetical consultant to the bishops and Benziger Publishers.

But aside from the predictable Church-bashing from Mahony's stable of religious education experts, there is the sheer banality of Rohr's and Huebsch's ecclesiology and their low opinion of the catechetical enterprise -- even while financially benefiting from it.

Rohr, for example, spoke at length of the Church as a tyrannical and corrupt "dating service," while Huebsch told some 700 catechists that their most important text is The Joy of Cooking and their most crucial task is learning how to dine well.

"What you see here," one participant told The Wanderer, "is parasites, with their own agendas, feeding off the bloated, rotting carcass of Amchurch.

"It is an ironic, and tragic, spectacle to see speaker after speaker railing against the Church, all in the name of Jesus and the 'power of transforming love.' Were the Church not funding this charade, you could easily imagine the corporate sponsors urging their audiences to have a personal, emotional, virtual relationship with Michael Jackson or Madonna, Julia Roberts, or some other celebrity of the day.

"Why drag Jesus' Name through all of this?

"If Rohr and Huebsch had their way, or achieved any of their goals, the Church would simply vanish."

The banality of Mahonyism -- the ideology represented by the speakers Cardinal Mahony hosts year after year at the nation's largest gathering of religious educators, catechists, and Catholic teachers -- is exemplified by professional catechist Bill Huebsch, who contrasted the "messy love" taught by Jesus with the harsh doctrines taught by the Catholic Church.

"When God came, He didn't come as a catechism," he said. "God did not come as a moral code or a doctrinal system or theology school. He came as a person. God is love...

"This love is messy -- not an easy love. Following the law -- law has boundaries that are very clear. Who's in, who's out? Who's allowed to come to Communion, who's not? Who's a practicing Catholic, who's not? Love is not.... When you love someone, you don't ask, 'Are you a good Catholic?' Love transcends that. Theology is precise; love is not. Love is ragged around the edges. Doctrine can be collected in a book, love cannot. Love is beyond the boundaries of that. Love transcends it all. When we give a dinner party at our home, we don't ask, 'Are you in a valid marriage?' "

Huebsch went on to tell the story of a friend who died of AIDS, who was buried out of the Unitarian Church, and the lover/partner of the deceased gave an eloquent eulogy in which he explained that the most important thing he learned was: "Dust less and use the china more."

"How many of us are going to die with unchipped china?" Huebsch continued.

"We catechists have to learn to dine. We catechists have to learn to dine to experience the kingdom of God. Period. And this is not a minor thing. This is a big thing. This is a challenge for us as catechists. ...

"Sitting at the table, inviting people in -- neighbors, colleagues-- sitting around the table an amazing thing happens. The Risen Lord appears."

Huebsch's talk was titled, "The Spirituality of the Catechist."

Huebsch's 90-minute workshop for some 700 would-be catechists-- though much of the time was allotted to his telling barnyard jokes about the amorous cats and chickens on his hobby farm in northern Minnesota -- illustrates the determination of the professional catechetical establishment over the past 35 years to avoid or frustrate any transmission of the basic truths of Christianity, its dogmas, moral teachings, history, and Scripture.

In a word, none of the above shall be given to young people.

Indeed, when reviewing one article of the General Catechetical Directory, n. 235, Huebsch observed: "This book says not everything you need is in the book -- so put it down"--in other words, in Huebsch’s view, there’s nothing in the book of any practical use except for one line, which instructs catechists to "prepare to share their faith in Jesus."

Here's The Deal

At one point, he exclaimed: "You know, here's the deal. In catechist spirituality, to be a good catechist, the most important thing you need is not a degree in theology, it is to notice what is going on in your own life. And most of us go from day to day and we never notice what's going on in our lives. We just keep turning the days over and we just never pause and look back and say -- what happened to me? How was God's hand in that? That's the bedrock of a spirituality for catechists, my friends....

"And the bedrock of your catechesis is helping people stop and see what is happening in their lives and finding the hand of God in that.

"You could pour the doctrines of the Trinity into the heads of fifth graders -- if that's what you teach -- if they can't see the hand of God in their lives it makes no difference whatsoever. You cannot be saved by the doctrine of the Trinity. You can be saved by the love of the Trinity, and that love we experience in our lives when we stop and look for it."

Huebsch's apparent message to the catechists is that they, themselves, do not have to bother studying or knowing the doctrinal or moral teachings of the Church; all they have to do is have a feeling relationship with a culturally presented image of Jesus as a social justice activist who dined with sinners, and had no particular world-view.

A catechist with Huebsch's view is guaranteed to be ineffectual in handing on the faith to young people.

"Because we're so busy," Huebsch said of catechists, "we don't let the kids stop. We think the goal in the religious education hour is to get through the end of the lesson without causing a riot in the fifth grade.

"That is not the goal! The goal is to get the young people, or adults we work with, to identify the experiences of God in their lives. That’s the goal."

Huebsch introduced himself as a "Vatican II Catholic."

"I celebrate the Holy Spirit’s work at that council," he said. "It produced a reform, which was stunning."

The Renewer

Huebsch’s definition of himself as a "Vatican II Catholic" exemplifies a common mindset among many modernist Catholics who reject the whole history and reality of the first 1,930 years of the Church, and proselytize in favor of a Church they think was re-founded in 1965.

Few high-stature American priests exhibit this mistaken mindset more profoundly than Fr. Richard Rohr, who has had a "successful" career as a professional renewal consultant for countless parishes, dioceses, and religious orders around the globe over the past 31 years, as he told a full crowd in the arena of the Anaheim Convention Center.

Fr. Rohr was introduced as a man uniquely "in touch with a vision of the new millennium" and a "prophet for our times."

Rohr then began, "I can never promise you, obviously, that what I am saying is perfect, true or right, but I hope you join me in this quest." The title of his talk, "Religion as Membership vs. Religion as Transformation," he explained, "is a little bit abstract," and yet he encouraged his audience to listen carefully "to see if it all names our experiences."

To fully appreciate Rohr's address, as reported here, one must imagine his manner of speaking, its New Age pauses, emphases, the oohing and ahhing, the professorial hmmms, and the uncontrollable outbursts of laughter whenever he pronounces a distinctly "Catholic" word.

There is also a strong sense of sadness in his voice. Over and over again he acknowledges that he has been peddling a product -- Church renewal -- for more than 30 years that doesn't work, and yet, he has people, such as Cardinal Mahony, who keep paying him to peddle it.

Rohr's first acknowledgment of failure came early, when referring to the New Jerusalem community he founded in Cincinnati in 1971. The community's first members, he said, were all committed to changing their lives, and "changing the definitions of what life means." But now, 30 years later, "instead of changing lives, we're emphasizing different things." The community, he said, has become paralyzed by "group boundary issues," such as "are you in or are you out," "membership requirements," "questions like annulments," "rules for Communion/intercommunion," "questions of access to God."

"That's not what the Gospels are saying," he lamented, as he launched into his critique of what he calls "belonging systems."

"Belonging systems" -- such as the Catholic Church, which he subsequently compares to an incompetent but tyrannical dating service -- "do not lead to transformation, and in fact they often become an inoculation to transformation or even a substitute for it," he said.

"Just the fact that I am accepted and belong according to the Church rules, I can assume that I'm in love with God or know God or met God....

"We confuse the dating service with the date -- all right? [laughter] -- I just thought of this this morning -- everything about the dating service. Does the dating service like me? Do I pass the rules? Did I fill out the forms of the dating service correctly? And I think that's a fairly good analogy for the Church: a dating service. But we think because we passed the test of the dating service and they said, 'Well, you are compatible' we think we've really gone on the date. And I think a lot of our people haven't. I don't think they've gone on the date at all. I don't think they're in love yet. I don't think they've fallen into the hands of the living God. Hmmm. In other words, what it appears is that a lot of it is religion -- about being a good Catholic -- which I'm all for -- but not necessarily being transformed into the mystery of God....

"Belonging systems give us a false sense of having arrived -- no one is calling me a heretic or a sinner so I guess I've met God."

Smells And Bells

Rohr proceeded to talk about the tensions he has discerned between the Books of Leviticus and Numbers and the Book of Exodus, explaining:

"The Church of Leviticus and Numbers is all about candlesticks, I say. How many candlesticks? And some people are really into that -- smells and bells. In fact, there seems to be a whole return to it, you know. You think Jesus came to earth for smells and bells and dressing up -- uh?

"There's not much indication in Exodus that that's the issue at all. But, see when you're not on a journey anymore and you settle down in tents how many candlesticks you’ve got becomes really important. That’s all you’ve got to worry about, y’know. What the priest is wearing--and whether it’s the right color. You see how these things, the Mickey Mouse things--I guess this is the right place to say it--huh?--can become a substitute for the real thing--the only thing--the one thing necessary…

"The tent meeting far too often became in the Pentateuch the substitute for the wandering and dangerous journey...

"For us, our primary refuge place is, of course, Jesus. It's that relationship, that kiss, that date ... and everything else is a substitute for it. None of us -- would any of you, let a dating service independently decide or create the criteria for who you are in love with or how the relationship happens? I don't think so....

"Now it seems to me that what happens when you make this shift, is that the real issues you look at change. The moral requirements for membership in a group usually have to do with reward/punishment systems, very often reward/ punishment systems after death, which keeps all the power out of the new, all the power out of the present. Some have said, and not without too much exaggeration, that a lot of the history of the Church has been a funeral society -- much more preparing people for the next world than it is in teaching people how to meet God in this world...

"A religion of transformation is much more concerned about the now. The power is in the now. The saints called it the grace of the present moment or the practice of the presence of God. Brothers and sisters, how you do anything is actually how you do everything. Really. The key is to watch how you're doing right now. This is it! This is it! It's Heaven all the way to Heaven. It's Hell all the way to Hell -- ha, ha. And if you're fighting and contentious and argumentative and needing to win and needing to be right and needing to control and needing to fix and needing to change before you can be happy -- in fact, if you need to change anything before you can be happy, then you're not happy. It has nothing to do with changing anything because happiness is an inside job.

"That's transformed people who can talk that way," Rohr continued. "It's a different notion of religion. It happens now. That allows you to see everything belonging, everything connecting. That it’s all right here, right now. How I do anything is how I do everything.

"Now, only God can lead us to that new place. You can't do it by willpower. You can't do it by effort. You can't do it by reading seminary textbooks -- or passing courses. They don't get you there. It's a journey that God takes you on and God takes you through. It's a journey that includes more than one death -- the death to the things that we think we are.

"The more requirements for membership in a group have to do with following the rules of the group -- which, by the way -- don't hear me 'either/or' -- these are good rules -- all right -- we need them for social order; we need them to maintain the ideal; we need them to keep some sense of being together on a journey -- but don't ever make the jump that that of itself means accessibility to God. That that means availability to God because the great, great news is that, in fact, we come to God not by doing it right but ironically, shockingly, unbelievably, by doing it wrong."

Deal With That!

Rohr continued: "And if you're gonna call me a heretic, you better throw out the story of the Prodigal Son, better throw out the story of the Publican and the Pharisee, you better throw out the story of the Weeds and the Wheat. You'll always have one who does it right and gets it totally wrong and one who always does it wrong and gets it totally right.

"Deal with that!

"Why did Jesus tell stupid stories like that? Why? He was not a good founder of a religion…Where we want clear black and whites, clear reward and punishment systems about who's in and who's out. That's the nature of the group. That's what you have to have to create belonging systems. And it's not bad. But you can see why the rabbis and the scribes and chief priests were not too comfortable with Jesus. Because He didn't put the belonging system first. He put the transformation first. And then you have this gathering together of the transformed people, then you have a belonging system that is not self-serving, that is not self-maintaining, that is not always pointing to itself but like John the Baptist, always pointing beyond itself, fingers pointing to the moon. Pointing to the mystery."

The big mistake the Catholic Church has made, Rohr continued, is that it has placed too much emphasis on the "belonging system," and now its efforts have backfired, as statistics related to the high attrition rate of Catholic school-educated young people from the Church demonstrate.

He told of his recent experiences in Australia, where 95% of students educated through 12 years of Catholic schools dissociate from the Church, acknowledged that Protestants do a "better job" of getting people excited about Jesus, and then suggested that the Catholic Church does a better job of "sustaining people for the long haul."

"I really do [think that]," he said. "I think Catholicism is great at that. Catholicism is great about leading people deep, and holding them in there, but you have to ask are we holding them into life--hmmm--or are we holding them into death? Hmmm? What are we holding them into?

"If they haven’t been transformed, if the veil has never been parted, if there’s never been an ahhh-ahhh moment where the ahhh-ahhh--I’m loved--where I accept that I’m accepted, where I accept that it’s radically okay that God is God and God is in me and God is in you and this is God’s world--and all I can do is somehow surrender to it and then, like the Little Flower, we understand that all true religion is gratitude and confidence. That’s all.

"Where you don’t see confidence, you see all kinds of fear, all kinds of anxiety, you know they haven’t got it yet. When you don’t see gratitude--where I just wanna kneel and kiss the ground or kiss anything--everything becomes kissable because it’s good. It’s all okay at the core--at the foundation.

"If you don’t know that yet, brothers and sisters, you don’t know. Because that’s it. It’s all about that. Transformed people know that! And, and, and, and, I just give that as sort of a simple litmus test so that maybe, maybe you can see where you are on the journey."

Another statistic that makes Rohr unhappy is that there is very little connection between those Catholics who attend Mass daily and those who are in "active ministry."

"Figure that one out. I can’t… I can’t…I don’t get it. How did we get ourselves into that statistic?" he wondered.

Another statistic that disturbs him greatly is that lapsed Roman Catholics are now the second-largest "religious" denomination in the country. "They [the U.S. bishops] say, "What kind of shepherds have we been to get this statistic?'

"How can we do it better? ... The answer is transformation," Rohr suggested.

Transformed people, he continued, "are those who get it ahead of time. And you're more usable to God. It doesn't mean God doesn't love all God's people. But God needs some usable instruments who get it. So they can live lives of confidence and gratitude. I hope, brothers and sisters, that whatever I'm babbling about here will somehow make you more usable to God. That's all: more usable. He already loves you. You can't talk God out of it. There's no way you can climb up any ladder of spirituality or elitism or perfection. All you can do is collapse into the great mystery. It's not about going up. It's all about going down."

Rohr told how he has been active in Church renewal programs for 31 years, as a consultant to dioceses around the world, religious orders and communities, "and I'm convinced many ministries have legitimated the false self and even fortified it with religious armor. It's not necessarily in love with God; it's just real Catholic. Religious people are even harder to transform."

The strongest evidence of the failure of the Church's emphasis on a "belonging community" was the "evils that came over Christian Europe in this century. ... So many people have been churched, so many people who followed all the rules and jumped all the hoops, and when great evil came, they could not see it."

Finally, Rohr exhorted his listeners to see the "better way" that Jesus has offered us -- "not about belonging to a group, but belonging to a person….

"God came to you disguised as your life," he exclaimed. "That' the raw material. That's the data: what has happened to you. That's the experience. It's there -- or nowhere. Don't run away from it. Don't create some idealized, fabricated realities called religion avoid the great incarnation, avoid the great presence by which God is present to your life.

"This is the real presence, first of all. And if you are able to re cognize the real presence there, you will have no trouble with the bread. You will have no trouble with the real presence in the word. You will have no trouble with the real presence in history.

"But first we have to let this ordinary thing we call our lives be the meeting place for God. That is transformative religion."

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