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The Right Source Matters Over Big Ideas

November 28, 2017 Frontpage No Comments

By SHAUN KENNEY

A conversation with my son this week flips to the pages of Matthew 16 where Christ promised that the gates of Hell would never prevail against the Church. Our conversation centered around Mormonism and whether they were ultimately Christian.
A deep sigh and a moment’s confession: I am a practicing Catholic, though my father is a Methodist and my stepfather is a Mormon. A long slender strand of Catholicism from both of my maternal grandparents — my grandmother being a Maronite Catholic — preserved the line of the faith. Good examples, grandparents . . . that’s what did it for me.
Our conversation in my office turned toward Mormons with a deep love of Christ yet with a theology that is indeed in conflict with the Trinity, Mormons believing that Christ was the son of God, but not quite God the Son. Reflecting on Malachi 2 and the idea of a perfect offering necessitating the idea of the Eucharistic Christ, we wandered.
My son is still forming his conscience and his education. In this, he too is a practicing Catholic, though his theological formation is merely beginning. His struggle — and the struggle of most — is the question as to whether or not nonbelievers will merit salvation. Surely, our focus is and must remain with our souls first and foremost, but questions ensue. What standard do others live up to? What about our Protestant cousins? Orthodox brothers and sisters? Those who remain in invincible ignorance?
Implicit in these questions is the danger of a rigid formalism. The answer cannot be that only those who know the most about God are safest from the perils of damnation. After all, what sort of life is that where the creation of God is simply covered in spiritual landmines?
Alternatively, having a spiritual foundation so open that your soul falls out isn’t precisely the alternative. We can’t all be Siddhartha. Hence the reason why the Catholic is both an individual and a part of a community, the one not able to survive without the other.
Back to our Mormon friends: My son has a love for Jesus Christ and His Church, and was picked on rather ruthlessly for his Catholic faith when he served as a page at the Virginia House of Delegates. I have no doubt that many Mormons (and others) have a deep love for Jesus Christ and His Church — even if they are still learning what that precisely is. Both are growing in that love for Christ, and properly directed it may even prove fruitful.
Of course, the Deposit of Faith and Truth is a deep well with one wellspring — the Chair of St. Peter, established and promised by Christ Himself and the very heart of what Pope Benedict XVI asks us to consider in Dominus Iesus. The balance between insisting on the particular truths of the faith, while allowing for those who are ignorant but open to conversion is a painfully iterative and humbling process.
Our own souls (our pride?) demand instant conformity. Yet human nature is resistant to this. After all, 1 John 4 admonishes Christians to test the spirits of the age to make sure they are of God, lest we be led astray by false prophets.
My son is just beginning his taste for the truly big ideas. The trick, as with most things, is to make sure that he is drinking from the right wellspring. For others who are perhaps outside the Catholic faith, it is cultivating their tastes for the true, beautiful, and good. In this, we are performing the task of evangelization in small ways (1 Cor. 3:2).
Ecumenism, properly understood, must come from a perspective of particularism — namely that one’s faith is indeed the true faith. When it descends into religious pluralism, that’s where ecumenism picks up the taste of the sewer rather than the well.
This certainly gives a different perspective on John 4:13-14, where Christ admonishes a Samaritan woman that those who drink water will be thirsty again, but those who drink living water will never thirst. Today we are surrounded by modern-day Samaritans who thirst, even if they are in formation in their own ways. A certain humility and deep love for Jesus Christ is an excellent starting point — the particulars can come later.
As for my son, I cannot simply belt-feed him papal encyclicals, Sacred Scripture, catechism, and a syllabus, and just hammer truth home. But I can probe a bit and offer him some of the things that helped me. At least while I have him, it will afford us the chance to discuss the big ideas as men and as fellow Catholics. There’s something to be said for that.

+ + +

A reader who begs for anonymity (immediately granted) worries about Trump mastermind Stephen Bannon and the lean of faithful Catholics toward his political temperament — most notably the editorialization in The New York Times about Bannon’s love for thinkers such as Julius Evola.
Much of this worry about Bannon’s predilection for Evola’s work comes from a talk given via video conference at the Human Dignity Institute in 2014, where links — tenuously established by The New York Times — are established between Bannon, Evola, and Raymond Cardinal Burke.
What should appall most readers is the editorial slant. Evola isn’t exactly a household name, nor should he be. Yet Bannon doesn’t praise Evola in the slightest in his 2014 talk. In fact, Bannon is openly critical of Evola’s work and makes very clear distinctions between traditionalism in Russia, Europe, and America.
For myself, I have serious misgivings about Bannon’s approach to politics, and have for over a decade. My instinctive Catholic trust in tradition, institutions, the global neo-liberal order responsible for the defeat of Soviet Communism and created by Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II preserves a certain stability that has preserved a post-Second World War peace and allowed the free market to lift billions out of poverty. Is there truly an alternative?
Regardless of these disagreements, one cautions not to reduce people to Twitter-sized thoughts; especially when the mainstream media are doing the driving. Bannon is by no means perfect, and is no conservative in the Catholic tradition. But a secret Evolist? Doubtful in the extreme.

+ + +

Of course, I am succeeding (but not replacing) the inestimable Mr. James K. Fitzpatrick for the First Teachers column. Please feel free to send any correspondence for First Teachers to Shaun Kenney, c/o First Teachers, 5289 Venable Rd., Kents Store, VA 23084 — or if it is easier, simply send me an e-mail with First Teachers in the subject line to: svk2cr@virginia.edu.

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