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May 1988


Frank Morris, a distinguished veteran author and columnist, in his critique of the NCCB Review of the RENEW Process, criticises it for its emphasis on so-called experience at the expense of objective truth, which it ignores.

Experience Replaces Objective Truth

FRANK MORRISS

What the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine has said, in effect, about RENEW is that if it were not RENEW it could be genuinely Catholic. It reports that the concept, procedure, and "overall value" are laudable, but that RENEW:

  • Tends towards a generic Christianity;
  • Is unbalanced in favour of a community model (underscored for emphasis in the committee report) and against the Catholic Church "as a structured, hierarchical, visible, sacramental community bound together in a tradition that includes Scripture as a font of faith but also the authoritative development and interpretation of the doctrines of faith by the Magisterium…";
  • Slights the cognitive (intellectual and rational) aspect of "faith life" while stressing "personal and shared experience";
  • Is preoccupied with the Eucharist as a "meal", promoting a misunderstanding about the manner of Christ's Presence in the Eucharist - not the Real Presence of tradition but a presence through "sharing". (The critique calls this a promotion of the Eucharist as an "agape prayer service" with a symbolic presence of Christ, as opposed to the sacramental Eucharist);
  • Lacks a balanced, well-articulated doctrinal base.

With those deficiencies, what is left really to call specifically and essentially Catholic in RENEW? Well actually nothing!

The bare tree

This must be embarrassing (if those who bought the RENEW package at great cost are willing to face the critique honestly) to those who have allowed RENEW to function with all its emptiness these past many years. The bare tree that is the "logo" of the program has shown up in diocese after diocese, working the evils that the Doctrinal Committee's critique hints at when it says "we must be concerned about what such a pedagogical/formational device teaches by exclusion as well as by inclusion". (Note the use of "exclusion", not mere omission.)

I have written in another article about a group featured in the newsletter Gathering that reached the conclusion that the hierarchical structure of the Church has "made victims of both clergy and laity". That group was part of the RENEW program and was obviously an evil fruit of the program’s deficiencies. Loyal Catholics have a right to ask why such a program was allowed to function and to spread in the Church in this country with the deficiencies that the Bishops are – after a decade or more – onlyh now addressing.

The Doctrinal Committee’s critique is far more likely to be ignored than implemented - or perhaps it may be ostensibly implemented, in a superficial way aimed at having little effect. The reason I say this is that RENEW was conceived to sell exactly the eviscerated and deficient kind of pseudo-Catholicity that the Committee has, in essence, detected. And it is enthusiastically received and promoted by those who agree with that kind of ersatz Catholicity. It gave them the opportunity to attempt to poison the faith of those who innocently saw the program as something salutary, being recommended by pastor and allowed by bishop or archbishop.

How few may be the bishops and pastors who would utilize the program were it to reflect the eternal truths about the faith that the products of the new seminary training and the new theology want forgotten. It is an encouraging sign that a committee of the present national Episcopal Conference would: speak out in favour of the ecclesiology that is based on a hierarchical structure ; affirm a concept of the Eucharist that upholds the Real Presence apart from the "communal meal"; recognize the sacrificial nature, of the Eucharist; signal a possible return to scholastic philosophy as the understructure of our faith; and which, for a change, even sounds a warning about what once was called "indifferentism"- now pointed to as "generic Christianity".

But after decades of open attacks against those truths, who can be found among today's pastors who might transform RENEW into a genuinely Catholic educational and evangelical vehicle? As I have said, if the critique were to be fully implemented, RENEW would cease being RENEW as it was conceived and structured by its midwives in the Newark Archdiocese. The critique upholds its criticisms by reference to RENEW documents themselves, principally an "Overview" from the national office of RENEW in Newark. It is unlikely that anyone will be sought who would be capable of putting out documentation for RENEW that would work the corrections called for by the committee's critique.

Neverthless, the critique's findings and inferences should be carefully analyzed and publicized so that those still loyal Catholics can have something at hand to combat RENEW in their dioceses and parishes - to warn the innocent and unaware away from RENEW as the program is constituted by its creators and promoters.

One is struck, on reading the deficiencies detected by the Doctrinal Committee, by how much they parallel the deficiencies long pointed out by loyalist scholars in texts used in Catholic high schools almost universally in this country. No wonder bishops who have tolerated these texts would not have hesitated to allow the same errors to be propagated on the parish level in RENEW.

No wonder

The critique says in effect that what is specifically Catholic in regard to prayer, Scripture, community building, and justice has been drained out of the RENEW program, or to be more precise, simply was excluded from it in the first place. What RENEW promotes (as The Wanderer has long and at considerable length insisted) is a kind of religion of goodwill toward men, as the Protestants have, long translated the message from Heaven at Bethlehem. There is no hint that there are specifics of God's will as to religion and that those specifics are safely part of the Catholic Deposit of Faith, and are guaranteed nowhere else. The generalities of religion become the specifics, and the true specifics are simply discarded or left to personal choice.

It is no wonder then, that the RENEW participants of the Gathering article and in the Milwaukee Archdiocese can conclude that the Church should do and teach when they choose. This is reinforced by the faulty ecclesiology of RENEW as detected by the Bishops' Doctrinal Committee. In this ecclesiology, the community forms the Church, and not vice versa. Unity and apostolicity as marks of the Church all but disappear; holiness becomes an exercise in "mission and discipleship" without any authority recognised to determine what mission means or what discipleship involves. It becomes personalist and immanent. Mission and discipleship are measured by experience and subjective reaction. There are never any "hard sayings" that would cause the disciple to turn away from the "Mission". Hard teachings imply an authority to which the disciple is subject. One never imposes a hard teaching upon himself.

A people in rebellion against the Magisterium is not going to accept a vision of the Church that includes such a Magisterium. In true reform, the authority is not destroyer ; in a rebellion it always is, as witness both the French and the Russian Revolutions.

For almost a generation, there have been those (such as this writer) who have warned against the stress upon experience and the affective, personal, and emotional in today's Catholic education. The flight from the intellect is an instinctive reaction on the part of the neo-Modernists. The intellect defines and distinguishes faith as a reality based on what is outside the person. Faith becomes a personal commitment to what in essence is impersonal. The intellect testifies that the person of faith believes what is actual and true.

The affective and emotional can testify only to what is personally satisfying, without necessary relationship to what is true and real outside the person. It is no wonder, then, that the Doctrinal Committee, citing the three-year duration of the RENEW program, would say:

"Because of its duration and impact on the local church, we have to be concerned about the effects it has upon the orthodoxy and orthopraxis of our people".

The critique quite bluntly warns that Catholic unity cannot be maintained if the cognitive dimensions of faith are separated from any extended process of renewal or formation in the Church.

The danger is compounded when one realizes that the new education and the new theology and the very overweening influence of the philosophy of existentialism have left the vast majority of leaders incapable of providing an appreciation of "the cognitive dimensions of faith". Only a handful of schools and colleges - most of them private enterprises rather than official Church ones - have maintained a respect for the cognitive as the master of experience.

It is refreshing to have the Bishops' Committee on Doctrine confirm what this writer and others in The Wanderer have long pointed out - the "trivialization of the Eucharist" as a result of the deficiencies that consider that sacrament merely another communal "experience", with the presence of Christ reduced to an individual, subjective experience. How casually do many "take the bread and the cup?" How routinely do all approach for Communion as a kind of herd activity? Receiving is almost a routine Sunday cultural thing, the way chicken dinner used to be in rural America. What little effect the Eucharist seems to have on the multitudes for whom, to borrow the words of Eliot, Christ the tiger came "to be eaten, to be, divided, to be drunk among whispers".

The critique of RENEW is somewhat amazing, despite its polite recommendations and words of faint praise. It was hardly to be expected considering the apparent progressive majority of the Bishops' Conference it represents. Can it be that the new firmness of the Holy See in protecting doctrine has indeed reached the attention and understanding of our Hierarchy – if not the consciences of all its members?



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