Back in April, David Bonagura wrote a column here (“Will Catholics Return to Mass”) in which he noted that Catholics are used to facing lousy odds: “Post-COVID-19 Catholicism does not look promising for religious practice, but when does the state of the world ever look good for the Church? Still, as has happened again and again in history, crises in the world have inspired renewals in the Church.”
From his mouth to God’s ear.
I have no idea how many adult catechumens entered the Church in 2020. The pandemic made in-person catechesis difficult, and I also don’t know how many dioceses moved their RCIA classes online. In both 2018 and 2019, somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 Americans “crossed the Tiber,” but the pandemic will surely have cut substantially into that number over the last twelve months. And the coronavirus will just as certainly depress the numbers of those willing to become Catholic for who-knows-how-many more months to come. And these may be losses we’ll never recover.
If true renewal does happen and the Body of Christ grows, it can only come from the kind of catechesis that forthrightly presents Church history and dogma in a way that is both authoritative and appealing.
I suppose the Church could begin advertising: Come to the Church that’s been faithfully following Jesus since 33 A.D. You’ll be welcomed with open arms. [Imagine an accompanying photo of Vatican Square’s colonnade.]
Or perhaps the Church could approach the various hotel chains and arrange to have a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church placed in dresser drawers alongside the Gideons’ Bible.
Better still, we could encourage folks who inquire about the Faith (or seek renewal in it) to read a good book about the Church, one that’s accessible and concise. And speaking of David Bonagura, his forthcoming Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God’s Plan of Salvation is just such a book.
His book is an excellent fill-in for in-person catechesis for kids and adults who want or need to learn about the Church. Its presentations of the history and tenets of Catholicism have been honed by Professor Bonagura’s teaching at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.
You could drop a copy of that 900-page Catechism into the lap of a wayward or aspiring Catholic, but – let’s face it – that’s no way to begin, especially with certain Protestants, whose first impression might be that it’s a sort of Pharisee’s handbook.
For this reason, I was especially intrigued by Bonagura’s chapter, “Why so many teachings?” It’s a good question, one anybody considering the Catholic Church would ask. After all, most non-Catholic Christians are used to (what I’ve uncharitably called) “shark-like sanctuaries pared down by evolution to the essentials of respectability and fundraising.” Catholic churches, with their statuary and stained glass and their candlelit alcoves, can be a shock – and that’s before somebody hands them a fat book of rules and regulations that rivals in size the Bible itself.
The answer (and the refutation of truncated theological and liturgical practice) comes from the importance of teaching, tradition, and interpretation. Bonagura cites Dei Verbum:
This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit.
We ought to love, without apology, one word that’s certainly odd to a Protestant’s hearing (I should know – I was one for the first 24 years of my life). I’m referring to Magisterium, the deposit of faith comprising, in Mr. Bonagura’s words, “all that God revealed in the Old Testament, the teachings and works of Jesus Christ, and the preaching of the apostles.”
That, of course, depends upon another underappreciated aspect of Church history (even among certain Catholics): Apostolic succession. Bonagura writes:
Since a principle of leadership existed in Israel and in the first days of the Church, it stands to reason that Christ intended that the authority he entrusted to his apostles be passed on to their successors.
The larger argument here is that authority in Catholicism applies not only to the persons in the Church (bishops and, especially, popes) but also to their pronouncements. And this dual authority was unquestioned among Christians until the Great Schism (1054), which – though significant – was barely a break with tradition, in that it had mostly to do with papal primacy, the proper substance for the Eucharist, and the Filioque. The Reformation, half-a-millennium later, was a different matter. Bonagura explains that:
early heresies about the person of Jesus conflated his divine or his human nature; one nature was overemphasized while the other was intentionally denied. The Protestant heresies of the sixteenth century were similar: rather than keep faith and works, Scripture and Tradition, as complementary pairs, faith and Scripture were exalted while works and Tradition were rejected.
But Staying with the Catholic Church is not a broadside about heresies, which abound to this day, or against Protestantism, which thrives (perhaps more so than Catholicism, at least in America). It’s simply a survey of the Truth. Bonagura writes: “The Church’s structures, offices, and ruling authorities are necessary to keep Christ present in the world, but his presence transcends their limitations – including the moral failures of his own vicars. Christ, being God, knew his vicars would fail him, as he knew St. Peter would.” In other words, the Barque of Peter sails on. Or, as Hilaire Belloc so perfectly concluded:
The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine – but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.
Let’s hope those wishing to be Catholic but also those already in the Church find guidance here. We’re going to need it, now that a nominal Catholic is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – a knavish imbecile, when it comes to the Church.