During a conversation with a soon-to-be ordained priest, he told me that he looks forward to writing homilies now that he will no longer be giving reflections in class but rather to his new parishioners. The people of his assigned parish, he noted, are not well-off. They are struggling financially, and many are undocumented immigrants.
Then he said: “They won’t be interested in theology. They just want love.”
At first, I was simply humored by his statement. Due to the nature of my work at the seminary, I get to watch many young men step out into the “real world” after ordination, and oftentimes it does not look quite like they were expecting. But after a bit more reflection, I no longer found his words funny. I found them to be alarming. His sentiment reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of just about everything essential to the priesthood: love, human nature, and theology.
A number of years ago, Pope Benedict XVI put forth the notion of intellectual charity during an address delivered at the Catholic University of America. He said: “This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the youth to truth is nothing less than an act of love.”
Yes, he was speaking to Catholic educators here, but his words hold true across the board: universities, seminaries, parishes. Charity is inseparable with truth; you cannot give one without giving the other.
So to say that the average Catholic sitting in the pew just wants love, not theology, is disingenuous. What, then, is this love you are offering? Apart from theology, from Truth, is love not reduced to nothing more than politeness, simply common courtesy? A validation of feelings and homilies filled with encouraging words and platitudes? Programs in the parish that hand out clothes and free food?
The Catholic intellectual tradition is immense; the depth of her theology is as beautiful as it is profound. To sidestep that in the interest of providing the type of friendly environment virtually indistinguishable from what one might get a favorite coffee shop is a quite unfortunate.
Our Need to Seek God
As a lay person sitting in the pew, it is frustrating not only because theology is intrinsically good but also because it is desirable. There is a concerning trend in seminaries and beyond, often blanketed in the misuse of the term “pastoral care,” that the faithful want only to be catered to. Don’t say anything that might hurt feelings. Don’t promote anything too intellectually taxing.
However, we were not created to simply be provided for; we were created to ponder, to contemplate the Divine. Just as humans must have their physical needs satisfied, we also have need to seek God.However, we were not created to simply be provided for; we were created to ponder, to contemplate the Divine. #BISblog // Click To Tweet
God Wants to Be Known by All of Us
There is an added element of injustice here, when you consider that the statement was made in response to a perceived indifference toward theology due to his future parishioners’ economic poverty. I myself am a mother. I understand that a woman who does not know where her child’s next meal will come from does not have extra mental energy in that moment to try to understand the Trinity. However, even the woman who has faced the perils of immigration, who has carried her child across countries, through unimaginable struggle and pain, and crossed the border exhausted and terrified is still a human being.
She too is spiritual, physical, intellectual. To treat her as anything less in dehumanizing.
As Catholics, we have an understanding of human nature, and we do not suddenly become dualist based on economic or immigration status. The vulnerable immigrant mother is a person with inherent dignity, made in the image and likeness of God, just the same as the financially well-off mother sitting comfortably in the pew with a diaper bag full of snacks for her children.
Both women walk through the same church doors, close their eyes and pray to the same God, contemplate the same mysteries of the same Rosary. They both want to lead a better life; they both seek knowledge and peace from the same well.
Does one of those women need assistance to help her meet her physical needs? Absolutely, and the Church should respond with unparalleled generosity. But it should be in addition to, and never at the expense of, the gift of the teachings of the Church.
In the vastness of the human experience, evident from ancient paintings left in caves to the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, humans have always wanted to contemplate divinity and the world to come. Men and women have, and always will, search for meaning and purpose. The Church, in her fullness of Truth, claims to have answers.
Why would anyone assume we don’t want to hear about it?
The Reason I Stay Catholic
The tragedy in the Church today is, while priests have bent over backwards for the past decades to avoid preaching anything too difficult or too offensive from the pulpit, they have at the same time betrayed the faithful in the worst possible way by failing to protect our children. In the past, the Church has weathered storms of her own making by essentially holding the Sacraments hostage. Of course the laity are angry, but they will eventually return because they need Baptism, Confession and, ultimately, the Eucharist, which no one else can provide.
But that’s not going to be sufficient any longer. The Sacraments meet human needs, sure, but the world today offers many options that can, on the surface at least, provide apparent alternatives. If I want to dedicate my baby to God, I can chose a Protestant church that offers some sort of ceremony. Don’t they also offer the Lord’s Supper? If I want a sense of community, I don’t even need to join a church. Crossfit will suffice. If I want the cathartic release of Confession, I can turn to social media.
There is only one thing that will hold me to the Catholic Church: her theology. I need to know why the Sacraments of the Catholic Church are different from what the rest of the world offers.
Anyone who has spent time with a young child can attest to their obsessive need to know why. Knowing why provides the foundation, and it is something that we, as human beings, never stop seeking. And as things stand today, for many Catholics, the Church has given them every reason to leave and no reason to stay. The why has been systematically denied to them; why should they come back?
We are not warm bodies, content with a handout and a high five from a jovial parish priest. The priest must look at every person with equal dignity and deserving of the Truth, made to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in Heaven.
Truth and love are inseparable and interwoven, but do not exist in a vacuum. In every parish, there needs to be a trifold: there is a messenger of the Word and its hearers, and the Truth, which is Love, is shared between them. Indeed, I think we will find a cord of three strands is not so easily broken.Charity is Theology #BISblog // Click To Tweet
Cheryl Witty-Castillo is a mother, freelance writer, and director of the Writing and Language Center at St. Mary’s Seminary. You can find out more about her here.