Echoes. Personal and impersonal propagation of faith. Published on 01/14/2022



Personal and impersonal propagation of the faith

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Without doubt, the Catholic Church is strong in the impersonal and perhaps, with the exception of the Eastern Churches, is the only one in Christianity to show stability over the centuries in impersonal matters.


The Wall Street Journal commentator for Catholic Affairs, Francis X. Rocca, last week wrote a disturbing essay titled “Why the Catholic Church is Losing Latin America.” In a few months, he reports, Brazil will no longer be predominantly Catholic. And the trend is enduring and without exception.

It’s not like these Catholics are leaving to become sneaky “brilliants” (atheists). They are primarily drawn to the “conservative Pentecostal” movement, which, according to Rocca, emphasizes such things as: a personal relationship with Christ, the primacy of saving one’s soul (over saving the planet), the importance of a free economy, and the pleasure of God in a Christian’s efforts to improve financially, through hard work and business success.

In retrospect, says Rocca, the flirtation of some Catholic congregations in the 1980s with “liberation theology” was a huge failure, as evidenced by the famous quip: “The Church exercised a preferential option for the poor, and the poor exercised a preferential option. option for Christ,” that is, away from a hard, warm-hearted Marxism (which liberation theologians had to offer), toward a religion of vibrant worship and personal connection. The poor wanted a religion that saved them as individuals and not as classes.

The fact that mainstream liberation theology has little room for the Virgin Mary, or the actual presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist, surely also has something to do with its impotence – it is hard to see how a Catholic who cultivates a sincere Eucharistic piety and a childish love for the Mother of God, would easily leave for a congregation where these realities (essentially relationships to people) are not only absent but often even despised.

“Sine dominico non possumus” – “Without the Eucharist we simply cannot go on” – said the early Christians during the persecutions. No one with such an attachment could leave the Church, although one can understand why, after the COVID-era church closings, far fewer Catholics will have retained such a strong hunger.

Rocca’s article and the buzz around synods in the Church made me reconsider that historically there have been two ways to spread the faith: personal and impersonal. By “impersonal” I don’t mean “not involving people”, but rather “not essentially involving personal relationships”. An institution, for example, is impersonal, but if someone is recruited and mentored by someone in that institution, or if a new member befriends others who have a strong loyalty and passion for mission of the institution, then the institution becomes, in this respect, personal.

The impersonal is not bad, far from it. It includes, besides simple institutions, also: social media, websites, podcasts, videos, blogs, articles, books, art, architecture and music. The “impersonal” in this sense the history of the Church, its traditions and its rites, its very hierarchy and its “magisterium” — the festivals, the pious practices, the canon law, the spiritualities and all the rest. Notre Dame de Paris is impersonal. Rome is impersonal. The “Summa” is impersonal.

Without doubt, the Catholic Church is strong in the impersonal and perhaps, with the exception of the Eastern Churches, is the only one in Christianity to show stability over the centuries in impersonal matters.

Now, sometimes someone converts from the Protestant faith to Catholicism because of the impersonal. But generally, only intellectuals do this, from a certain vision of the stability, the seniority or the coherence of the Church (which is not without long-term importance) – contrary to what seems to be the improvised practices of the Protestants.

However, this is rare. Usually, one converts through personal relationships, perhaps stimulated by the impersonal (a visit to Saint-Pierre, an encounter with the “Summa”). Less rare are the indirect personal relationships, for example, you meet a saint through her writings, are inspired by the Spirit to pray to her, and you feel that this saint, still alive, guides your entry into the Church. It happens too.

But usually it’s a living person who takes a personal interest and shows what St. John Henry Newman so often pointed out and called “personal influence.” (See his sermon, “Personal Influence, Means of Propagating Truth.”)

Now, I think it’s clear that in Latin America, conservative Pentecostalism has advantages in “the personal,” which far outweigh Catholicism’s uniqueness in “the impersonal.” Certainly, Catholicism has been hurt by the unraveling of families and neighborhoods, its cornerstone in previous generations for the transmission of the faith.

But here’s the puzzle. It seems that only one personal relationship is necessary. A good friend, standing by her side, will be enough to dissuade a desperate woman from having an abortion. Wilbur was enough for Orville, and Orville for Wilbur. Christ sent out his disciples two by two, not (say) five by five. Aristotle liked to quote Homer, “two can accomplish anything”. A Dominican father made a disciple of Newman. If so, then where are those singular, individual Catholics who can befriend others?

You can see where this essay leads, I think. It is too easy to lament bad turns in the news and perhaps congratulate yourself on having preserved your own faith, a bit like the man in the parable who buried his talent on the pitch, to ensure that it would not be lost. “So you thought I was a tough Master?” the God of history would easily tell us. But let’s examine: putting aside social media and “stances” and asking instead, which specific people do we befriend and share faith with? For how much am I this “necessary friend”?

– Michael Pakaluk, Aristotle and Ordinarius scholar of the Pontifical Academy of Saint Thomas Aquinas, is a professor at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a Busch School teacher, and their eight children. Her latest book is “Mary’s Voice in the Gospel of John” available on Amazon.


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