I would like to take the opportunity this Christmas season to reflect, however inadequately, on one of the most magnificent passages in the Scriptures, indeed one of the gems of the Western literary tradition: the prologue to the Gospel of John. In many ways, the essential meaning of Christmas is contained in these elegantly crafted lines.
A team of sociologists, led by Catholic University professor William D’Antonio, recently published a survey that has gotten quite a bit of media attention, for it shows that many Catholics disagree with core doctrines of their church and yet still consider themselves “good Catholics.” For instance, 40% of the respondents said that belief in the real presence of Jesus in the eucharist is not essential to being a faithful Catholic. Perhaps the most startling statistic is this: fully 88% of those surveyed said “how a person lives is more important than whether he or she is a Catholic.” In a follow up piece in the Chicago Sun-Times, a reporter asked a number of people on the street for their reaction to these findings. One man said, “I’m a very good Catholic because I follow what’s in my heart, more than what the church tells me to do…”
In just a few weeks, Catholics in this country will notice a rather significant change when they come to Mass. Commencing the first Sunday of Advent, the Church will be using a new translation of the Roman Missal. I would like to emphasize, at the outset, that this in no way represents a return to “the old Mass,” for the Latin texts that provide the basis for the new translation were all approved after Vatican II. So why the change? What had come increasingly to bother a number of bishops, priests, and liturgists over the years was that the translation of the liturgical texts, which was made in some haste in the late sixties of the last century, was not sufficiently faithful to the Latin and was, at least in some instances, informed by questionable theological assumptions. And so, over the course of many years, two groups in particular—ICEL (the International Commission on English in the Liturgy) and Vox Clara (a committee of bishops, liturgical experts, and linguists from around the English-speaking world)—labored over a new translation. This work was approved by the United States Bishops’ Conference and finally by the Vatican, and Advent 2011 was determined to be the time to begin use of the new Missal.
George Clooney’s taut political thriller “The Ides of March” commences with a beautiful depiction of the act of idolatry, and everything else in the film flows, by a strict logic, from that act. At the prompting of his gifted and hyper-focused press aid Stephen Myers (played by Ryan Gosling), Governor Mike Morris (played by Clooney himself), a Democratic candidate for President, responds at a televised debate to a question dealing with his religion. “I was raised a Catholic,” he calmly explains, “but I’m no longer a practicing Catholic. I’m not a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist. My religion, what I believe in, is the Constitution of the United States.” At this point, his audience enthusiastically applauds. Now one can love the Constitution; one can defend it and admire it. But to believe in it is to commit what the Bible calls idolatry, for it is to make something less than God into God, which is to say, into one’s ultimate concern, one’s central preoccupation. The wager of the Scriptures is that right worship, which is to say, the worship of God alone, conduces toward the right ordering of the worshipper. Once a person’s central focus is clear, then all of the secondary desires and longings of his soul will find their proper orientation and integration. Concomitantly, when a person’s worship is misguided, when it is centered on anything other than the true God, that person falls apart; he disintegrates, his secondary desires devolving into a jumble of warring impulses. More to the point, the Bible shows over and again that a community marked by idolatry crumbles apart and tumbles into violence.
The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich once commented that “faith” is the most misunderstood word in the religious vocabulary. I’m increasingly convinced that he was right about this. The ground for my conviction is the absolutely steady reiteration on my Internet forums of gross caricatures of what serious believers mean by faith. Again and again, my agnostic, atheist, and secularist interlocutors tell me that faith is credulity, naïvete, superstition, assent to irrational nonsense, acceptance of claims for which there is no evidence, etc., etc. And they gladly draw a sharp distinction between faith so construed and modern science, which, they argue, his marked by healthy skepticism, empirical verification, a reliable and repeatable method, and the capacity for self-correction. How fortunate, they conclude, that the western mind was able finally to wriggle free from the constraints of faith and move into the open and well-lighted space of scientific reason. And how sad that, like a ghost from another time and place, faith continues, even in the early twentieth century to haunt the modern mind and to hinder its progress.