The end of March saw the conclusion of a week-long meeting held at the Vatican that engaged young people from all over the world. The meeting was established as a precursor to the upcoming synod on “Young People, the Faith, and the Discernment of Vocation.” The point was to encourage young people to come forward and give their honest criticisms and suggestions for moving the Church forward and becoming a better community.
In the document, released March 24, this group of young people outlined the problems that they felt the Church needs to fix:
“Today’s young people are longing for an authentic Church. We want to say, especially to the hierarchy of the Church, that they should be a transparent, welcoming, honest, inviting, communicative, accessible, joyful and interactive community” says the document. In essence, young people are craving authenticity.
“Young people look for a sense of self by seeking communities that are supportive, uplifting, authentic and accessible,” the document starts off. It continues saying: “The Church oftentimes appears as too severe and is often associated with excessive moralism . . . We need a Church that is welcoming and merciful, which appreciates its roots and patrimony and which loves everyone, even those who are not following the perceived standards.”
In a world marked by inauthenticity, lies, fake news, and propaganda, authenticity is certainly needed. However, it’s interesting that this group of 300 people who are supposed to represent a global community want authenticity from the Church and yet demand that she become less severe and less focused on “excessive moralism.” In other words, they want the Church to become more adaptive, forward-thinking, and modern.
Perhaps there is a misunderstanding on what the word “authenticity” really means, as the entire message relayed through the document is completely inconsistent and at many times contradictory and confusing.
Authentic or Existential Authenticity?
It’s almost a contradiction in terms. If we are to be an authentic Church, then remaining true to the Teaching of the Church is exactly what we need to do. For some reason, however, this always comes across to modernists as being too traditional, too moralistic, and, in the words of the delegates, too severe.
To be authentic means to follow one’s roots, traditions, and origination. But in existentialist philosophy it means relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life. And this seems to be how the delegates understand the meaning of authenticity. According to this definition, there is fluidity to authenticity because it is based on relativism and subjectivism more than anything else. But Existentialism, and so, therefore, this definition of authentic, is at odds with Catholic Theology.
Catholics, and all Christians, derive the meaning of life from God. The Catholic believes that reality and Truth exist apart from our senses and our individual existence because God exists outside of us and apart from us regardless of our existence. But, Existentialists believe that it is the individual that gives meaning to life. The existentialist believes that reality is seen and discovered by the individual and not as separately existing apart from the individual. In essence, the existentialist would believe that the tree falling in the forest gives off no sound because there is no one to hear it. Reality is what we as individuals make it. It is based in relativism and subjectivism.
So it would seem as if this last definition of authenticity is at odds with the original meaning of the word. However, despite this appearance of contradictions, there is one aspect of authenticity that runs through both definitions: to be true despite external pressures and influences. In other words, to be authentic means to reject the influences and pressures of the material world and follow a higher calling, what Catholics refer to as God, Christ Jesus, and the Church.
Yet, despite the usage and common understanding of authenticity, we have a group of young people demanding the Church be both authentic and follow tradition and yet break with tradition and “excessive moralism” to become more modern. Such thinking is confused. It is, in a word, modernism.
Modernism is a difficult philosophy to define without quoting an entire book on the topic. It’s long, complicated, confusing, and extraordinarily so convoluted that it’s impossible to believe anyone in his or her right mind would call themselves a modernist. Yet, the belief is so dangerous and so at odds with the Church that it needs to be defined as succinctly as possible. This is because it is this very belief that has infected the world and caused such demands as the ones listed in the document.
In its essence, modernism is a contradiction. It is a desire to seem “authentically Catholic” by following the Traditions set down by Christ on earth while at the same time adapting these traditions to the ever-changing material world around us. Modernism seeks to honor tradition but break from it when suitable. It teaches morals, but not as Truth. It is “to be” and “not to be” all at the same time (if we can borrow an idea from Shakespeare’s Hamlet).
To the modernist, being welcoming and merciful is not only accepting the sinner but also, and most poignantly, accepting the sin as well, “in the spirit of the age.”
Welcome and Mercy
Indeed, the Church should always be welcoming and show mercy, as these young people desire. However, this cannot come at the expense of accepting sin and ignoring and repealing our Traditions, Teachings, Truth, and in the end Jesus Christ Himself. After all, Scripture teaches us that God is welcoming and merciful and yet is the Hand of Judgment:
“His winnowing fan is in his hand,” St. John the Baptist tells us in Matthew 3:12, referencing Christ Jesus. “He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
This is the complete opposite image of being welcoming and merciful. Heaven is welcoming, and God is merciful, but only to those who reject sin and follow His Teachings, which are revealed to us through the Church.
Again, Jesus teaches us through Scripture in the Matthew 19:23-26 that not everyone will be saved:
“Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
In further answer to His disciples’ question, Jesus tells us that those who follow Him and give up everything in His name will inherit eternal life. All things are possible with God, as Jesus teaches us in this passage, however, only those that follow Him and His teachings will enter the Kingdom of God.
How do we know Christ’s Teachings? The establishment of the Church is the answer, as Jesus instructs the Apostles on how to handle sin, in Matthew 18:15-20.
“If your brother sins, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
To be merciful then is to accept those who reject sin, renounce Satan, and take up the Cross to follow Christ. To be merciful is to love and to love is inform of wrongdoing so that the sinful can change their ways. And to be saved, as we are taught in Matthew 18:1-5, is to humble oneself and become like a child, asking forgiveness from the Father for wrongdoing.
Complex Issues and Rationale Thinking
Despite the contradictions and confusion throughout the document, the delegates did get one thing right: better answers to the complex issues of today are needed. As the document says, “We need rational and critical explanations to complex issues – simplistic answers do not suffice.”
Indeed, this has been perhaps the greatest problem plaguing our catechesis or lack thereof, particularly in America. Over the past 60 years, there has been a steep decline in rational thinking based on reason and faith in catechesis programs throughout the country. Many times, catechesis simply entails repeating what is already taught in the Catechism with no further discussion, critical questioning, or actual teaching. More so, many of the challenging aspects of Catholicism are left by the wayside out of fear that they are too complicated, complex, and unattainable to be understood by the average layperson. It’s a problem that is now rearing its ugly head as people leave the Church in droves due to a lack of true understanding.
One can even make the argument that the lack of authenticity and complexity in the Church over the last few decades has directly led to the decline of Catholics and Christianity, in general, all over the world.
The delegates also hit the nail on the head when they made a reference to a watered-down version of the faith that has been presented over the past 30-40 years – ironically in order to seem more welcoming:
“The young have many questions about the faith,” says the document, “but desire answers which are not watered-down, or which utilize pre-fabricated formulations.”
Mercy, Love and Salvation
It is confusing then that young people wish to have an authentic Church that is not watered-down and yet more welcoming and merciful according to their definition. Indeed, we as the Body of Christ should be aiming to be more Christ-like. To be Christ-like means to be merciful and loving. But to love, as we are taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, means to will the good of another, which means instructing the other in his or her wrongdoing – to lead the other to repentance and following Christ. Only then will we be shown mercy and welcomed by God into the Heavenly Kingdom, just as the penitent thief dying upon the cross next to Jesus was welcomed with open arms:
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:39-43).