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Seeking an Aspirational Catholicism

Jeffrey Bruno

Daniel McInerny - published on 01/22/14

How can the Church encourage people to aspire to live by her challenging teachings? Only one thing can inspire such commitment.

I have had occasion to praise in one or two recent columns Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s Soul of the Apostolate, a book that is essential reading for anyone seeking to put into action the program Pope Francis sets forth in Evangelii Gaudium. If you will permit me yet another reference to the book, I’d like to draw your attention to a story Dom Chautard tells in it about Pope Saint Pius X. At a meeting with several Cardinals, Pope Pius is reported to have asked them: “What is the thing we most need, today, to save society?” One of the Cardinals said, “Build Catholic schools.” Another: “More churches.” A third suggested speeding up the recruitment of priests. But from all these answers the pope demurred. “The most necessary thing of all,” he said, “is for every parish to possess a group of laymen who will be at the same time virtuous, enlightened, resolute, and truly apostolic.”

In a recent blog post, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a Catholic, discussed the challenge the Church currently faces of making its teachings attractive to a society increasingly distanced from them. The Church’s problem, writes Douthat, is first that of making its “hardest rules seem like aspirations rather than just judgments,” and, second, that of dealing with “the many fine personal gradations that can exist between orthodoxy and apostasy, fidelity and dissent.”

As a means of encouraging an aspirational Catholicism, Douthat extols the value of a certain kind of “cognitive dissonance,” one between the Church’s “hardest rules” and the actual practice of Catholics. The Church’s teaching on contraception, for example, is one that is flaunted, or badly misunderstood, by more than a few U.S. Catholics. For many, a “space,” not to say a yawning cataract, exists between the rule and action. How can this be a good thing? Douthat’s argument is that such tension has often been “a spur toward spiritual growth and more serious practice.” As a witness to this claim he turns to Jewish writer Daniel Gordi’s recent piece in the Jewish Review of Books explaining how Orthodox Judaism gained ground on Conservative Judaism precisely by allowing for such tension between rule and practice. “Conservative Judaism,” writes Gordi, was never “sufficiently aspirational.” When in the 1970s Conservative rabbis dispensed with the prohibition against driving automobiles on Shabbat, the practice of walking to shul for worship simply died out. Orthodox rabbis, meanwhile, consistently condemned the practice, even though many people in their congregation drove to synagogue, secretly parking their cars around the corner. Gordi remarks that few Orthodox Jews today drive to synagogue, thanks in large part to rabbis who held the line. Yet “cognitive dissonance” persists, he observes, in other areas of Orthodox life, such as in eating dairy or fish from non-kosher restaurants. Yet the inconsistency is productive, he maintains. Those who break the kosher restrictions “live with the tension between what they do and what they know that Jewish law, and their rabbinic leaders, demand of them. The ensuing tension means that Judaism—like their marriages, their roles as parents, their professions—demands that they grow.”

So the narrative Douthat is interested in is not the “familiar religious-conservative argument” that the congregation that holds to traditional teachings flourishes, but the subtler point that such dissonance between rule and practice can be “a spur toward spiritual growth and more serious practice.” Douthat suspects there are many so-called “liberal” Catholics “who want something like what [Goldi is] describing in Modern Orthodoxy from their church. That is, they want room to dissent from a teaching or fail to live up to it in practice, but they don’t necessarily want the church to change that teaching so that the dissonance or tension they feel simply goes away.” Some gap, he concludes, “between what individual Catholics believe and what they want the papacy to teach, might not be the worst sign for the future of church.”

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