E.M. Forster is not generally considered an author of high comedy, but I do recall one particular line from A Passage to India that caused me to laugh out loud when first I read it.
In describing the attitude of a certain character toward questions of faith, Forster wrote, “Ronny approved of religion as long as it endorsed the national anthem, but he objected when it attempted to influence his life.”
It is a sentiment that appears to be rather widely shared today.
There is a particular school of thought that seems willing to allow “religion” to carry on in the background of our society, so long as it does not manifest itself in any form that would actually have some bearing upon our lives.
Whether it is a question of our Catholic faith being taught in Catholic schools or Christians generally being able to state their firmly held beliefs in any public forum, objections seem to be multiplying both in number and force.
And while we were initially inclined to do our level best to accommodate opposition, to twist and squirm in our Catholic boots in an effort to find some common ground that would keep all parties satisfied, it has become abundantly clear that such efforts are in vain.
Like Ronny, those who object to any public impact of the faith which we profess will not be satisfied until we are reduced to banner-waving mutes; employed to endorse the national anthem or whatever the prevailing winds of the latest neo-orthodoxy demand.
Yet our faith mandates public profession: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)
And the love we are called to show as members of the mystical body of Christ is made manifest by deeds: “Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18)
In the years to come, particularly in the western world, we will all have no choice but to closely examine what it is we truly believe and how that bears upon our actions, because those around us may well demand our silence or acquiesce in the face of positions and policies that are contrary to Christ and the teachings of the Church.
Last year, sitting across the breakfast table from Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe in the early hours of one winter morning – as the cold Melbourne air rattled the window panes – I raised this issue with him.
As is his wont, he had a story that was perfectly on point.
He had spent the previous 12 months giving talks to teachers and principals at Catholic schools in Australia and in the United Kingdom, and had heard many different perspectives.
Yet the conversation he had with the principal of a world-renowned school in England was that which remained foremost in his mind.
This Scottish headmaster with whom Fr Radcliffe was conversing was a convert to Catholicism.
The prestigious English school at which he was principal was not founded by Catholics nor, on the whole, are its teaching staff and students Catholic.
Fr Radcliffe asked this man how he got along with the other staff and – particularly – the students of the school, in view of his very public Catholic faith.
The headmaster said that he made no bones about his beliefs, and that the staff and students seemed to respect him for that.
“After all,” he said, “if you think these are strange alien beliefs that need to be kept hidden, do you really believe them?”
It is a question we all ought to ask ourselves at this point in time.
If each line of the creed does not actually have some bearing on our lives, do we really believe it?
Our faith, by definition, is not an addendum to the national anthem.
It is our whole life – an expression of our very being as participants in the life of God.
It informs who we are and all that we do; it is not simply a community social activity that occupies one hour of our week.
This is worth bearing in mind as various elements of our faith come under pressure from those who do not understand anything we believe, or how belief in Christ undergirds and impacts upon everything we do.
I mention this fact because there has been a tendency in recent years to fluff the faith, in order to make it seem more reasonable to those who do not believe it.
This was usually accomplished by dissecting the remarkable tapestry that is our Catholic faith and dividing it up into smaller and larger sections – “core” and “non-core” beliefs.
Once every aspect of our faith had been disassociated from every other, we were then safely able to jettison those parts of the tableaux that are deemed unacceptable by the glitterati who control public opinion.
Over time, however, the seamless tapestry that portrays the “analogy of faith” – that phrase which encapsulates the fact that each aspect of our creedal religion is informed by and reinforces every other aspect – looks more like a dog’s breakfast.
After all, as we head down this particular non-confrontational path, at what point do we pass the proverbial line in the sand beyond which we are no longer actually professing the Catholic faith, but instead confessing something that looks as though it was concocted during “Make Up Your Own Religion Week?”
At what point does someone decide that the resurrection from the dead is a “non-core” belief?
I myself was asked to give a series of talks to classes of students at a few Catholic primary and secondary schools recently.
Following each of my presentations, I was expecting a series of hostile interrogations, particularly from the senior students; questions which are posed, not in order to elicit a considered response, but to score a point.
I was amazed by how many such questions I received.
None. Not one.
The students asked a great many questions of course – one grade seven boy posed the perennial ‘what is the meaning of life?’ – but they were all genuinely interested to hear my answers.
Our faith is far more compelling than we often think.
For those who have never had our Catholic faith presented to them straight – with no wishy-washy evasions, no obfuscation and no employment of confected distinctions between “critical” and “post-critical” belief – it is fascinating.
And this is largely because it all hangs together; each part supports each other part and forms a unity of belief and an understanding of the universe and our place in it that is unmatched by anything else the world has to offer.
Moreover, thanks to over two millennia of saintly thought, prayer and reflection upon life in the light of Christ, we in the Church actually have a rather compelling story to tell.
Yet the faith only retains its innate compelling force – its divine impetus – as long as it is maintained in its entirety.
Our Catholic faith demands the full engagement of our whole lives, not simply a part of them.
Our Catholic faith mandates a full-throated profession of our beliefs, not a mumbled apology for them.
If every Catholic were to take up this challenge – this command of Christ to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) – we might well be surprised at the response we encounter.
If we truly believe what we profess and do not regard our faith as some strange set of alien beliefs that must be excused and modified to be rendered socially acceptable, then those around us might take more genuine interest.
They might find themselves as compelled as we are.
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