Q. Our son just finished his first year of college at what we were told is one of the "real" Catholic colleges in the country.
He has been surprised, however, by some of the groups he is urged to participate in to be a more authentic Catholic. Frankly, we share his confusion. Some make us hesitant, especially one which is allegedly tied to appearances of the Blessed Virgin.
Another experience that gives him, and us, some concern is the claim that no one can be a "good and loyal Catholic" except their way.
Sometimes they sound very narrow. Have you any suggestions on how to deal with this? (Michigan)
A. Your concern is a healthy one, and, as my mail reveals, is shared by a number of faithful and well-informed Catholics.
Good common sense is always the first judge in such dilemmas. After that, Catholic tradition suggests some solid basic guidelines.
It is always good to remember that ours is a big church. In all its 2,000 years it has been at its best and most alive when there has been room for a whole rainbow of ways for people to pray, to think, to live out their faith and grow in holiness.
Just because something does not appeal to us, doesn’t necessarily mean there is something bad about it. Without respect for, and willingness to explore, honest varieties within the appropriate framework of faith, the church stagnates, intellectually and spiritually.
One danger sign to look for is any position that rejects out-of-hand what the church is teaching today. We’ve experienced sad examples in the past few decades of individuals and larger Catholic factions who refuse to accept any developments in the church since the Second Vatican Council.
In their opinion, present teachings and practices conflict with what they view as the "golden age" of Pope Pius V and the Council of Trent in the 16th century, and therefore deserve no respect or recognition by authentic Catholics.
We believe, on the contrary, that the same Holy Spirit who was with the church in the past is with it now.
Another warning flag is the claim that this or that faction constitutes the "elite" in the church. They are the genuine orthodox Catholics. Anyone not with them, or who sees things differently, is at best a second-level Catholic.
These types of movements (one might even call them cults) have been around since the beginning of Christianity. We read about them already in the New Testament.
Exaggerated claims like this seem to be a common temptation for enthusiastic religious associations. In my 55 years as a priest I have led or participated in dozens of spiritual and apostolic movements. All have accomplished much good.
Nearly every one, however, went through a stage when it was tempted to consider itself something like an eighth sacrament, to assume that no one is a genuine, full Catholic until he or she has done their "thing" or seen things their way.
Naturally, groups and societies who pursue this course always have the highest motives, to "purify" the church and so on. But unchecked, such attitudes often lead to gross arrogance and intolerance. When sufficiently large, they can cause enormous personal pain, persecution and hurt to the body of Christ. But still they surface every generation or so.
The eucharistic liturgy, the sacraments, the Gospels, intelligent efforts to grow in knowledge of the faith, and the basic prayer and spiritual exercises contained in continuous Christian tradition still suffice to make good, loyal and faithful Catholic Christians.
Finally, the best criterion of all in evaluating any phenomena in the church is the old standby: What are their fruits, their results? Do they bring to the Catholic community (parish, diocese, universal church) greater hope, unity, charity, kindness, peace and other fruits of the Spirit listed by St. Paul in Galatians 5:22-23?
Or do they foment mistrust, secretiveness, elitism, hostility and bickering, division and oppression?
You can guess which ones St. Paul and Christian tradition recommend.
A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.