Counteracting The Protestant Formation Of Our Catholic Youth
July 17, 2018
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(Editor’s Note: Dr. Hippler is chairman of the religion department and teaches religion in the Upper School at Providence Academy, Plymouth, Minn.)
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Anyone involved in catechizing the young in our schools and parishes on the sacraments must always remind themselves that they are not writing upon blank slates — there is a formation already there, and that formation is usually Protestant. The loss of distinctive Catholic signs and symbols has had, over the decades, the cumulative effect of making our children default Protestants. Several examples should make this fact evident.
Our young people believe that everyone is a child of God. Being a “child of God” is, for them, a natural quality of humanity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, teaches that it is Baptism that makes us “an adopted son of God” (n. 1265).
The Catechism cites the words of the Second Vatican Council: “Incorporated in the Church through baptism, the faithful are destined by the baptismal character for the worship of the Christian religion; reborn as sons of God they must confess before men the faith which they have received from God through the Church” (Lumen Gentium, n. 11, cited at CCC n. 1270).
Without the belief that Baptism makes the baptized a child of God, we now have the view of Baptism held by evangelical Christians, namely, that Baptism is a ceremony welcoming someone into the Christian community. If we are already “children of God” by nature, it is hard to understand why the Church insists on infant Baptism. Evangelicals, who baptize adults, are more consistent on this point.
One also sees this Protestant formation in Confirmation. How many times have I heard Catholic teenagers tell me, “Confirmation is what allows me to take the faith for myself, accept the faith as an adult.” I usually remark, “Congratulations — you’re a Lutheran!” The Evangelical Lutheran Church teaches that confirmation “provides an opportunity for the individual Christian, relying on God’s promise given in baptism, to make a personal public profession of the faith and a lifelong pledge of faithfulness to Christ.”
By contrast, the Catholic understanding includes the notion not only of professing the faith, but doing so under persecution. Confirmation “gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross” (CCC, n. 1303).
As John Paul II explained, “Since the Middle Ages, theology, which developed in a context of generous commitment of ‘spiritual combat’ for Christ, has not hesitated to highlight the strength given by Confirmation to Christians who are called ‘to serve as soldiers for God’” (general audience, April 1, 1992). Many of our confirmandi have never heard the expression “soldier for God.” Confirmation for them is an acceptance of faith without any corresponding risk.
Finally, it is not uncommon, indeed all too common, to hear young Catholics describe the Mass as a “memorial of the Last Supper.” While it is true that the Eucharist can be referred to as “the Lord’s Supper” (CCC, n. 1329), it is not a memorial of the Last Supper, but of the Lord’s Passion (CCC, n. 1330). Indeed, the Mass is a sacrifice “because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church’s offering” (ibid).
The Last Supper is important because it anticipates the sacrificial death that our Lord undergoes the following day (cf. CCC, n. 1329) .To emphasize the “Lord’s Supper” to the exclusion of “sacrifice” is Calvinism (see Calvin’s Institutes, IV. 17-18), The notion of Christ’s death as a “sacrifice” is already vague to young people, and the teaching that the Mass shares in the eternal sacrifice of Christ on the cross is doubly vague.
These misunderstandings and confusions apply only to our Catholic youth who have some degree of engagement with the faith. For many others, the whole sacramental system is a puzzle.
Without having the words for it, they are modern Pelagians, who do not really believe that man is a fallen creature, but rather suffers from bad parenting or bad schools or bad neighborhoods. Still others wonder why if grace is to be necessary at all, why it must come through sacraments, and instead not be present in the world like oxygen in the atmosphere.
The requirement that God meet man in determinate ways and traditional rituals seems unreasonable and unfitting. In fairness, these latter errors are not so much mainline Protestant beliefs but rather the legacy of the liberal Protestantism that developed during the late 1800s. As Richard Niebuhr felicitously expressed it, it is the belief that “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Catechizing our young people on the sacraments is not then a matter of merely providing information. The Protestantism, whether mainline or liberal, that they have absorbed from the society around them, reduces or eliminates the biblical teaching that God makes Himself known to us through sensible signs.
As St. Thomas teaches, “Since it is natural for man to receive knowledge through his senses, and since it is very difficult to transcend sensible objects, divine provision has been made for man so that a reminder of divine things might be made for him, even in the order of sensible things” (Summa Contra Gentiles, III. 119).
To deny the need for sensible signs in receiving spiritual gifts is to disregard the needs of our nature as men. In other words, catechesis on the sacraments must be proceeded by a catechesis — I almost said a “re-evangelization” — on the nature of the human person.