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What's so good about Catholicism?

Almost all practicing Catholics have been challenged on why they belong to such a flawed institution, but says Father Richard Rohr, O.F.M., "it's the forgiving nature of the church that a lot of people can't understand. They're insisting on perfection ... That's impossible."

Rohr is the author of numerous tapes and the book Near Occasions of Grace (Orbis, 1993) and frequently lectures to church leaders around the world on scripute and spirituality. He is also a founder and animator of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

"I believe that Catholicism is probably as good a benchmark of the maturity with which humanity is meeting God at this point in history as anything," says Rohr. "We're still selfish. We're still in denial. But the maturity of the church is probably where we're at as an evolved humanity."

Is there a Catholic identity?

Yes, Catholics tend to emphasize the similarity between God and the world as opposed to the difference between God and creation, which is what Fathers David Tracy and Andrew Greeley mean when they talk about the analogical imagination of Catholics. Everything is a metaphor--it's just that different minds look at things differently. And Catholics tend to take the view Saint Bonaventure had that "everything shows the vestigia Dei"--the fingerprints and footprints of God. There is no absolute distinction between the sacred and the profane. There is not natural and supernatural. There's only one world, and it's the supernatural. The analogical imagination gives one a sense of belonging to the universe.

Now most people wouldn't articulate it in this way, nor do they need to. But you'll see this worldview in the simplest Italian peasant--let's romanticize now--who can feel that his having a bottle of wine and making love to his wife and taking care of his fields is pleasing to God. He believes that this is God's world and God has created him as part of it, and this is good.

So this peasant appreciates life and loves God. How does that lead him to

loving his neighbor?

It leads him to loving his neighbor because there is one world, and it's God's world. Catholicism takes the Incarnation of God to its logical conclusion. When you take the Incarnation seriously--that God really became flesh in this world and thus flesh is no longer abhorrent--then the political, economic, and mundane are really no longer secular. Even if it's on an unconscious level, the Incarnational mind-set leads to immediate connections with the political, the social, the practical. What you have in Catholicism, despite all of the preoccupations with orthodoxy, the pope, and doctrine, is a tremendous appreciation for the poor, for redemptive suffering, and for the essentially tragic nature of human life.

Do you think most Catholics appreciate this identity?

I'm very much a Vatican II priest, but I do think more people appreciated these things in the old church than they do now. More of us got the Catholicidentity and the visual and symbolic imagination of the world through literature and ritual and studying the lives of saints. There's almost been a danger that the post-Vatican II theology has been too sleek and spiritual, too clean and right. The old church pulled you into the struggle--into the mystery of things--and then confronted you with the cross in a way that refused to be scandalized by it. That, I believe, is a very healing and transformative way to live in the world.

Great Catholicism is a human trinity of embodiment, soul, and spirit. When it is doing well, all three parts respect and defer to one another: spirit calls us to transcendence, universal meaning, and God; soul allows us to take the now, the human, the exception, and the flaw as part of the plan; and both come together in concrete, sensate incarnations. Full, rich church is always a repetition of Transcendent Truth ("Father"), Specific Encounter ("Jesus"), and Amorphous Mystery ("Holy Spirit"). As the Holy Spirit was the "lost person of the Blessed Trinity," so soul has been the lost part of the human trinity. Body was not lost as much as feared and rejected. We tried, rather unsuccessfully, to be "pure spirit." It doesn't work. What the Catholic Church used to do so well was tell us that we didn't have to abhor the intellectual life or the secular, physical world. That's Catholicism at its best--people who have put together the whole by drawing from philosophy, psychology, theology, literature, and poetry and lived the mystery of redemptive suffering and the presence of Christ in the world.

Is there a Catholic lifestyle?

There's something in Catholicism that understands that there are numerous creative ways to connect on this earth. It is interesting that the Catholic Church is now against alternative lifestyles when we've been the main ones pushing for them all along. We've always felt the need for more options than just the husband-wife-children option. Catholicism has always created religious communities in every century. That's unique. Catholicism is such a mass of contradiction. I remember in the early 1960s when my Franciscan novice master told us, "You're communists now." Although he was right, it was sort of unbelievable that the very thing that we had been raised to think was horrible, was, in fact, what we were. But, of course, we were living a "communist" lifestyle for Saint Francis and Jesus, and that made it all okay.

How do you respond to the common criticism that the Catholic Church is

obsessed with sex?

It is certainly part of the politically correct Western press to see us as only interested in sexual ethics. The papal visit in 1992 illustrated that. In his talk the pope must have outlined three times the elements of the "seamless garment" on the value of human life. But sure enough, on prime-time news that night, they said, "Pope condemns birth control and abortion." That is not what he said. He clearly talked about the poor, the homeless, the prisoners, the handicapped--the most defenseless in our society. But when he said the "most defenseless," everybody just heard abortion. He didn't even use the word abortion. So Catholics don't always get a fair assessment.

But there are some Catholics who are obsessed with sexual morality, particularly a lot of priests and bishops who are obsessed with birth control and abortion, as if they're the only gospel issues, neither of which Jesus ever directly talked about. It seems to me a lot of the problem for people is not so much the dictates about sex as who they're coming from, namely, celibate males.

That's why we've lost credibility. Because some of the Catholic direction is really good teaching that is keeping us honest, but we can't hear anymore from a group of people who haven't soulfully walked that journey. Particularly on the birth-control issue, married people just knew, "Fathers, it's not that simple." And they trusted their gut instinct to the point where many people rejected the leadership authority of the church on that issue.

People who do not go to the mystical, spiritual, contemplative level of religion have a need to be rigid, a need to be absolute--whether they're on the left or right side of an issue. It makes them feel adamant and committed. It gives their egos a sense of focus and direction and purpose.

So, people will often find one issue that they can wrap their righteousness around, and sexual acts lend themselves to that more than anything else because we hold shame in the body. And, then, if there is any validation of that shame from our parents, or teachers, or priests, we feel it. There is a predisposition for us to be sexually preoccupied.

But what you'll find in great Catholicism is a real lavish readiness with forgiveness. Now again, outsiders wouldn't think that, but we set up all kinds of ways to experience forgiveness, despite all the doctrinal, moral obsessions.

When you talk about the overall Catholic vision--great Catholicism--how

does the institutional church work in that vision?

There's a creative tension between the church and the People of God--between folk Catholics, as Greeley calls them, and the institution. When Catholicism has been at its best, the two have bowed to one another. If an institution is healthy, it can hold such a universe together.

We entered a 400-year deep freeze after the Council of Trent, in which the church became almost all institutional, although it did hold together a lot of soulful stuff. So when the cosmic egg broke in the '60s, we overreacted and entered a subjective period. Everything became focused on the individual. There was a disdain for intellectual tradition and church authority.

This was not good because if you don't have a sense of the big picture and ask the hard questions, then you get caught up in cultural trendiness and lose the global vision of Catholicism. What takes over is the strongest personality, the most aggressive personality. We saw this in prayer groups in the '70s. They were the new charismatic, free church, but in three years' time, instead of being dominated by the pope in Rome, they were dominated by Bill's neurosis or Mary's aggressiveness. There was no one with the confidence or the authority to hold toxic or controlling people accountable. We often forget that good institutions have a covering and protecting function for the isolated individual. Institutions are both resource and problem--and humanly necessary.

The other side, of course, is no good, either. If the top takes over, you have too much of what I call pure spirit, which is the need for control and absolutes. If the bottom takes over, you have too much eccentricity and subjectivity--what I call soul. When they can remain in creative tension--charismatic church and institutional holder to the tradition--then we have the healthiest periods of history.

Some people wonder how Catholics can belong to such an imperfect

institution.

What you're getting back to is the forgiving nature of the church that a lot of people can't understand. it's a mystery you enter into, and once you enter into it, it's the acceptance of an imperfect world. There's a bit of arrogance in the kind of attitude you're describing. It was reflected in the Protestant Reformation, in which people really thought they could form a perfect church. Of course, the church was broken and imperfect--it still is. But that's the forgiving nature of the Catholic.

People in the name of being liberal and open and broad-minded or whatever they might be, in fact, are being very self-righteous. They're insisting on perfection--"I will only belong to a perfect institution." That's impossible. All it can move you toward is individualism, and a belief that only you can get it right.

I believe that Catholicism is probably as good a benchmark of the maturity with which humanity is meeting God at this point in history as anything. We're still selfish. We're still in denial. But the maturity of the church is probably where we're at as an evolved humanity.

So how should Catholics respond to criticism, especially when they

disagree with the official church on an issue but still consider themselves good Catholics?

When we call ourselves Catholic, what we're saying is that God has invited us into the human struggle and the church is the place of that struggle. The church isn't a place where the converted gather; the church is the place where conversion happens. It is the place where one is forced to see the complexities, idiosyncrasies, and brokenness of humanity.

I'll use Noah's ark as an example. After Noah brings in all the opposite--the crawling things, the creeping things, the male things, the female things, the wild things, the domestic things--the final line creeping things, the male things, the female things, the wild things, the domestic things--the final line of the story is, "And god locked them in the ark." That is the most marvelous image. We'd all like to get away from one another if we could, but God won't let us. God's keeping us together. We're locked in this human community, and there we learn how to grow up and how to love. Catholicism understands this fact instinctively--although not always doctrinally.

Don't many Catholics just become indifferent to the church?

That has been much of the weakness over the last 25 years--the seeming indifferentism, which is really skepticism and nonbelief. We have to be willing to explain the basis for the hope that is within us. We have to believe in something and not apologize for that belief. That doesn't mean we have to be doctrinal, judgmental, or righteous, but we should be held accountable to what we say we believe. The New Age movement is a perfect example of a belief system where there is no accountability, and that's why so many people got into it. But with Catholicism, we're locked in the ark, where our church holds us accountable for what we say we believe. That's not to say we don't struggle with our beliefs, but it is important not to become indifferent but to keep struggling with the issues. That is the only way that soul and spirit come together into holy wisdom.

For example, let's take the birth-control issue. I don't agree with the church's conclusion on that issue, but the principals that are put at the beginning of Humane vitae are really beautiful. It's a beautiful document.

We need to develop a better tolerance for differences. Such tolerance comes from having prayed, from compassionate listening, from patience, and from a demanding obedience to embodiment, soul work, and transcendent Spirit, not from too easy skepticism and disbelief. The firsk kind of tolerance is a great virtue, a developed virtue. The second is just cynicism and a refusal to take a stand and believe in anything. It's the attitude you'll hear on the talk shows: "Well, I believe everybody should be true to themselves. I believe everybody has to follow their own instincts." That is cheap tolerance.

What do you mean by cheap tolerance?

There is a tolerance that is laziness, fear of criticism, or mere indifference. It leaves one as a reed shaking in the wind. But there is a virtue of tolerance that is a participation in the very patience and forbearance of God. It does not come from an indifference to truth but from a deeper, contemplative awareness of what the full truth demands of us. The virtue of tolerance is "carrying one another's burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2).

Cheap tolerance, like cheap grace, refuses to carry any burdens or defend any boundaries--nothing means nothing because nothing is worth waiting for or believing in. The virtue of tolerance is a hopeful bearing of the burden of sin and error precisely because one does believe in an objective truth that will finally win.

We've got to appreciate that cheap grace is finally not grace at all. If a teacher comes in and tells her class, "You're all so special," the students are going to ask, "Well, if we're all special, then what does it mean to be special?" You have to fight for grace. But when it comes, and when you experience unconditional love, it will feel free and unearned. You'll get it in the middle of your sin, but you'll want it really badly. You'll long and thirst for it. You'll need it. You'll desire it. You'll experience what it's like to be without it.

How do you challenge people to want grace--real grace?

The great teachers said that it is grace itself that makes us desire grace. They called it "prevenient grace." I tell people under my spiritual direction that when they are without desire, they must pray for the "desire to desire." God is both the beginning and the end of the spiritual path. In between these two eternities, we live and die many times. It is our response to these livings and dyings that creates a desire for grace and mercy. Our job, it seems, is to let both the living and the dying get at us, enlarge us, stab us around the heart. Then we will long for grace.

How does a person know whether he or she is going in the right direction

on an issue?

Often in our desire to do social justice, we assume the gospel can work without prayer, but it can't. I think certainty comes when we do our work within a prayer life or a mystical contact of some sort. We can get a sense that we're walking in the place where God is in charge. It's not a certainty about a particular issue, but a certainty that it's a benevolent universe--that God is still in charge of the world. As 13th-century mystic Julian of Norwich said, "All shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well." It's that kind of certitude that the gospels promise us.

Look at Abraham's journey in the Old Testament: every normal certitude of land, marriage, family, camels, goats, and reputation is called into question. He's told to leave everything that gave his people certitude, clarity, order, and control for a land that God promised to show him.

In other words, there is a right direction, there is a way of wisdom, and it is very important that we search for it, desire it, and believe that it can be found. But it is not that important that we always know for certain that we are on it. That is why true faith is so rare and so freeing; it seeks God and God's truth without demanding assurance. I don't know that we ever know for sure that we are doing God's will in God's way. As Saint Joan of Arc said, "If I am, God keep me there; if I am not, God put me there."

But aren't there some values we can use to judge our actions?

Yes, of course. I'm not denying that there is such a thing as objective good and objective evil. If there is not objective good and objective evil in the world, I don't want to live in this world because there's nothing by which I can judge anything. I desperately believe in universal truths. I believe there's a universe with objective meaning, and the believer is one who bows before it and discovers it.

That is a much more coherent universe than what our children have today where nothing means anything. Without the folly of the cross, without the concern for the little ones, or the voiceless, every culture moves toward protecting power and money. In that sense, we Christians, we believers, are the hope of the world. Aristotle said that democracy would only work in a culture already committed to a virtuous life. Then, you can risk democracy. But democracy when it's merely tribalism--with glorified enclaves of self-interest--is not going to produce a great nation.

What's the best way for Catholics to improve our democracy?

There are three levels of social ministry that can help society, and all of us can contribute on one or all of these levels. First is the hands-on caring for the pain that's right in front of you--the person on your doorstep or at your feet or next door who has need. The hands-on ministry of the church is simply to be Jesus and to let go of the questions, Is it working? Is it effective? It's very hard for us to do, but that's what the hands-on ministry means. The second level of social ministry is healing, reconciling, and educating--trying to make things better in the world. Many of our Catholic schools and hospitals originally worked at this level, but this ministry became highly institutionalized by the '60s and lost some of its family feeling. The third level is what most people mean by activism--truly working for social change--working to change institutions.

Almost all of us have the gift of the first type of ministry. Fewer people are gifted for healing, reconciling, and educating, and even fewer really have the gift to be activists. I tell people to find out where they are gifted to be a Christian and make sure they respect, honor, and support the other two. I used to use this image to describe the levels of Christian ministry: the first ministry is throwing the life raft into the water and trying to save the drowning. The second is helping people so that they don't fall into the water. The third is the most effective but also the most difficult: constructing a dam upriver so the waters don't get so rough in the first place.

How do you find that most Catholics get inspired to think of the larger

world?

In my experience half come from the activist side. They leap into the wheel because they've seen human suffering or someone they admire is involved in healing ministries and their actions lead them to faith. The other half come in on the contemplative side. At some point they had a very sincere Jesus experience and then grew in their prayer lives. They made retreats and realized that faith leads to action. It's usually one or the other.

How do people discover their Catholic identity?

It is discovered when spirit and soul come together--when human experience is engaged and heart matters, but it's tied into a bigger story, a tradition that gives individual stories universal meaning. That's great religion. That's when you discover a transcendent significance that pulls you into the holy. For example, Catholics often develop a sense of religious identity after coming to Confession. They tell the priest their gory, shameful stories. And the priest is able to receive it and even find grace in it for them. They'll just sob. They have a sense of encountering God, and they then are drawn into the larger picture of Catholicism.

When the church becomes too doctrinal and absolutist, it fails to honor a person's private story. On the other hand, when it becomes too therapeutic, it does nothing but honor personal stories, so that everything becomes relative and people are never shown how their little cross is part of the cross of Jesus and is tied into a universal story.

This may sound old-fashioned, but in the end, it's the sacraments that help Catholics discover their identity. They let a person bring his or her life's journey into a universal pattern. People don't have to try to be significant anymore--they discover that their lives already have meaning. That's the great healing, the great miracle of religion--suddenly they're a part of the great cosmic story.

Does Catholicism have something to say to the 21st century?

Absolutely. There are now 5 billion of us on this planet, and we're going to increase, so there better be an institution that's done its theological, philosophical, economic, and political homework to keep the nations honest. The Catholic bishops rose to the occasion in the '80s during the Reagan period when they said through their pastoral letters that U.S. economics and military aims had gone outside the realm of the gospel. That was an example of how Catholicism can speak in favor of the defenseless.

But the church needs more practice. In the last 100 years, the social-justice encyclicals, the social theology of the church has been good--second to none in many ways--but the price has often been too high for most Catholics to translate in real terms. We have to give up too much privilege. We have to risk alienating and dividing whole parishes. We have to risk the collections going down and the schools being closed. And so most of us don't have the gift of courage to carry through on the teachings. But at least it's there on paper. And we can say to our children, "Here's what we do believe; here's what we're proud of." And people love that--kids especially; it gives them a sense of security and identity. We all need this order and clarity in our lives of what is right and what is wrong--a sense of the sacred and a sense of boundaries.

Jesus' social plan refuses to let you worship any system, any explanation, except God. That's the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Nothing is to be worshiped--not communism nor capitalism nor socialism nor this president nor the democratic or republican party. What so many Catholics succumb to in their everyday lives is sheer idolatry. The church, too, lends itself to idolatry by allowing members to come close to worshiping the institution. The church is not the Kingdom of God, it's the proclaimer and the announcer and the pointer to the Kingdom of God. That's what Catholicism is all about.
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Title Annotation:Father Richard Rohr
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 1, 1994
Words:4134
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