One of my favorite movies is Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Looking beyond the chilling plot of the movie—an elusive and deadly virus wipes out a large part of the world’s population—at its core is a kernel of truth that strikes much closer to home: sometimes, the virus of an idea can be more dangerous than a virus of the body.

While the government and world health organizations are working around the clock to find a cure and law enforcement and medical personnel are heroically doing their jobs when all seems lost—everyone who is “in the know” doing everything they can to save lives and keep the world together—there is one character spreading conspiracy theories and inciting a revolt. The government has a cure but they won’t share it with us. There is a cheap cure that the government is trying to coverup and refuses to test. I have been cured by this miraculous drug, so buy my product.

What ensues is mass chaos. Starting first with only those desperate and deranged enough to believe this man’s conspiracy theories (and unable to see how he is profiting greatly from it), some people take to the streets in fits of anger. If they’re not going to help me, I’m going to help myself. Stores are looted. Pharmacy workers are assaulted so they can get more of the “miracle drug.” Laws are disregarded. And while it started as only a few loud and violent people setting the example, their tearing at the fabric of society left the rest of the world with no choice: unless we also start looting, disregarding the law, fighting for our place, and standing up to the government, we won’t survive.

A mob mentality. Uninformed and seeing their peers acting a certain way, rational people find themselves guided by their anger and doing completely irrational things. Surrounded by so many others, they never question their motives, check their facts, search for alternatives, or know when to stop. Things just snowball out of control.

I present this rather dark picture as an extreme example of the tendency many of us have been prone to in recent years. While the increased political nature of our culture represents a people no longer willing to stand aside and be passive when their moral convictions are being challenged—undoubtedly a good thing—the critical thinking, respect for others, patience in due process, and willingness to respond constructively that needs to accompany political and social action has not increased as much. Conspiracy theories have become mainstream, vocal and violent minority groups scare the majority out of rational thinking, misinformation quickly circulates without question, and truth seems to have narrowed to but a singular expression, usually the one that I hold. Those people are wrong, we think. There is an emerging mob mentality in our world.

Oh, and yes, in our Church as well. This week showed us two prime examples.

The first is the case of Fr. James Martin, S.J., editor-at-large of America Magazine, acclaimed author, and consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications. The recent author of a book about building bridges between the Church and the LGBT community, Martin says that he has faced unrelenting hate mail from some in the Church in recent months. Led by three minority but extremely vocal fringe groups in the Church, a campaign of voices directed this anger towards his venues in hopes of “getting him fired.” Despite his talks being about Jesus and not LGBT issues, despite being in good standing with the Church and being officially chosen by the Vatican for a special position, and despite his book in question having the imprimitur of the Jesuit provincial and approved by multiple cardinals of the Church… these venues cowered to the hate speech and cancelled his talks. Even publicly admitted that they did not disagree with what he was going to say, they simply feared the mob.

Another case, same situation. Enter Rebecca Bratten Weiss, college professor and founder of The New Pro Life Movement, an organization focused on integrating Cardinal Bernadine’s “seamless garment” and giving more attention to women’s rights within the “pro life” movement. The recent subject of an attack by one of the same fringe groups that attacked Martin, Weiss’ support of Cardinal Bernadine (yes, a cardinal of the Church), questioning of the mechanics of the current “pro life” movement to make it better, and even her personal life, were brutally chastised online, causing an outcry against the university. This week, Weiss was released from her position, and the president made an official statement to the website in question, assuring its followers that she had been released.

Two recent examples, but not the only ones. Lest what I’m trying to point out be misconstrued as a partisan statement (a criticism that might ironically serve to prove my point), this sort of mob mentality exists on the right and on the left, in the middle and in the apathetic: uninformed people going with the masses and using violence or the power of their voice rather than rational and respectful arguments, is not the exclusive domain of any one group. As we have seen in 2017 alone, mob mentality is everywhere.

And… while I know that this is going to be a longer post than normal, but short answers and loud voices won’t cut it in such a complex situation. I think that this is a critically important issue of our time that needs our attention, and I would like to offer a few suggestions that could help us, as Church, avoid this terrible trap.

There are more than two sides

In our American political system, there are really only two parties: Democrats and Republicans. While there are technically hundreds of parties, no one will ever get elected or do anything significant from outside of these two. Because of this, we are often faced with a false dichotomy: we are told that there are only two answers to a question and we have to choose one. “Which side are you on?” is a famous question to divide people.

The fact of the matter, though, is that every issue has multiple positions one could take, and often, we arbitrarily accept the opinion of a certain party even when it doesn’t fit our view 100%. In doing so, we not only cheapen our own perspective, but we make it easier to see the other as enemy: rather than realizing that there is a spectrum of perspectives and that most people don’t fit perfectly in the box but lean one way or another, we unfairly write people off as “those people” or from “that party” when their opinion might actually be fairly close to ours to begin with. When we realize that there are actually 10, 20, even 50 different ways of looking at things, we are much more likely to engage our neighbor and realize that we have something in common to build off of.

To combat a mob mentality, we need move away from broad categories of large groups and focus on individual people and ideas.

Some sides are in fact wrong: Fact checking

In our post-modern, post-fact world, we have placed the individual above all. While there is definitely a sense in which one’s experience and way they understand the world is valid, as it is their experience, and should be cherished as such, just because something has personal meaning does not mean that it is universally or objectively factual. A good example is something I saw on the news last year. A politician said that his constituents did not feel as safe as they did twenty years ago, therefore, the world was not as safe. It may be true that they do not feel as safe, but statistically speaking, his constituents were drastically less likely to be murdered today. Personally true, factually false and part of a mob mentality when continued to be spread.

I can’t tell you how many times I open my Facebook and see well-intentioned, nice, non-crazy people posting things that are not factually accurate. Usually it’s not a complete lie or slander. No, what I’m talking about is the thing that “sounds” right, comes from a quasi-reputale source, and is about something they like… but is a bit fuzzy on the details. A growing example of this is climate change. Scientifically speaking, there’s no doubt that the earth is warming and that humans are the main cause. And yet, that doesn’t mean that everything weather-related can be used to prove the effects of climate change. A huge hurricane season could be climate change, but it could also be within the statistical probability of a normal climate. One data point does not prove the whole.

To combat a mob mentality, we need to be informed and think critically.

But many sides can be right at the same time: Pluralism is not relativism

On the other hand, just because there might be wrong answers does not mean that there is always only one right answer. Is there only one way to climb a mountain? Surely not. And even though two people may not go along the same path, they can absolutely get to the same place.

As Catholics, those who hold that there are absolute truths about the world, this may sound a lot like relativism, the idea that everything is just as right as another. That’s not what I’m saying. Pluralism, rather than relativism, recognizes that there are absolute truths or ends about the world, but there are also multiple ways of expressing and understanding that truth. Look at our liturgy. Even within the West, the Vatican has allowed the modified Latin rite of the mass to be celebrated along with the normal, preferred rite of Vatican II, as well as having recognized a number of Eastern rites and communions to maintain their own separate traditions. Each are fundamentally different in gesture, purpose, and even outcome, but they all point to the same absolute truth.

In our religious world especially, controversy tends to boil over because we are unable to accept that there might be a different perspective that also holds truth. When we see the way people approach Church, God, family, ministry, and the outside world, there is a temptation in our world to write people off as a false Church, as heretics, as not the true believers. This, I firmly believe, is the result of a lack of faith. Unable to see that God is complex and not capable of being boxed into our small brains, anything that differs from our understanding challenges the validity of our faith… and it has to be stopped. It is easier to call someone a heretic, to protest their talks, to get someone fired, to belittle them as stupid, to laugh at them, or to ignore them than it is to engage what they are saying, where they are coming from, and the ways in which they might be right.

To combat a mob mentality, we need to broaden our worldview and live in the complexity of God’s mystery.

The Church has survived worse

Finally, there is no doubt that our world is witnessing dangers and fears that many of us have never seen before. We are, in some ways, at a turning point in world history, at a fever pitch of tension.

And yet, there’s also a sense that there is nothing new under the sun. The Cold War was much more dangerous than our times. The 1960s and 70s experienced much more social upheaval than today. The 1940s produced more war and death. The 1930s saw a much greater collapse of our world economy. The early 1800s resulted in a much greater cataclysmic tear in the fabric of the religious world. The 1600s witnessed a world in which Protestants and Catholics were murdering each other for different beliefs. Between 800 and 1100 the Church had a pope that sold the papacy, priests becoming overwhelmingly wealthy for doing little work, Church wealth used for war and opulence, and the intellectual decline of our theology. And so on. The Church and world has seen some stuff.

And it has prevailed.

So often in our arguments, our intensity and passion is the result of a narrow perspective: deep down, I think believe that this issue is the most important of history. This issue, whatever one we’re fighting about, proves how terrible the world is, how far we’ve fallen, and that there’s no hope… we have to fight above all else to win it. Too often, we make the stakes too high on the issues, gives ourselves too much credit in being responsible for causing/solving them, and we go nuclear when things don’t go well, failing to live for tomorrow because we believe that everything comes down to this one thing or to us.

There are important issues in our day. Absolutely. And we should definitely be passionate and serious about the world. But we also need to remember that the Church has survived worse. It is not up to us to be its savior, nor is it up to us to employ any means necessary to win an argument—personal attacks, creating false dichotomies, acts of violence, hatred, moral decay—undermining our cause to uphold the kingdom of God by acting against it. We are called to remember that this is God’s institution, not ours, and God will ultimately hold it together, not us.

To combat a mob mentality, we need to take a deep breath and remember that it’s going to be okay. At least in the long run.

I think our world and Church desperately needs these things. To stand for justice and truth, as mobs believe that they are doing, but to do so free of broad, inflexible categories of right and wrong; without personally attacking those with whom we disagree but working to bring the fold together; in integrity for real truth, not just the truth that supports our claims; and with the humility to know that we work for this Church but we are ultimately not responsible for it.

When we do this, standing together for what we believe and engaging the world, we are not a mob… we are a Church.

Advertisements

In this week’s Catholicism in Focus, we take a look at a mildly uncomfortable question: what happens when a priests is in a state of mortal sin and yet celebrates the sacraments anyway? Just as the lay faithful are forbidden to receive the sacraments in a state of mortal sin, so, too, the priest is forbidden to celebrate them. And yet, we can say with certainty that it happens anyway: The recent scandals in the Church that have exposed the grave sinfulness of some of its active ordained ministers.

So, in a very practical, non-hypothetical manner, what happens to the sacraments if they are celebrated by a priest or bishop who is not fit to celebrate them?

For email subscribers, click here to watch the video.

One of the great things about being Catholic is the uniformity of the liturgy. Go to any Latin-rite Catholic Church around the world—or at least any within one’s episcopal conference—and the liturgy will be pretty much the same: while the songs, homily, and people will likely be different from place to place, the readings, prayers, and overall structure of the mass will remain the same. Unlike some other Church traditions, the Catholic liturgy is not dependent on the charisma or creativity of the priest. It is what it is, regardless of the presider.

And yet, experience shows that the opposite is true as well: despite having a fairly strict formula for celebrating the mass as opposed to other traditions, I would argue that the charisma and creativity of the priest has just as much effect on the liturgy in Catholic masses as in other Christian services. The difference between a dynamic, engaging, charismatic priest and one who simply says the words and performs the gestures is enormous. For some, it can even be the difference between a strong and lively faith experience and slipping away from the Church altogether. As much as we don’t want it to be about the priest and as much as we want to it to be about the liturgy itself, we cannot escape the influence the presider has.

What a joy that presents to someone training to be a priest… and what a danger that presents for the people of God. Compare two experiences I’ve had in recent weeks.

The first was a pretty “standard” mass. As a theology student who has studied the rubrics of the liturgy, I can tell you that everything was done absolutely to the letter of the law. The priest “said the black and did the red,” as we would say. When the world around us is in constant flux, it is not only comforting to enter into a controlled, predictable setting, it also allows for greater participation on the part of the laity: not having to wonder what’s going to happen next or trying to keep up with innovations or high energy, we in the congregation are able to move beyond the mechanics and into prayer.

There was only one problem: the priest was dreadfully boring. Although his homily was not the worst I had heard—it was short and had a clear point, which was nice—it was a bit predictable and did not challenge or inspire. Listening to his voice during the prayers was a bit coma-inducing, and really, I felt that the words were being spoken at me or just to empty space in front of the presider. There was no sense of dialogue or relationship, just proper words and actions. The experience, honestly, was fairly forgettable.

Cue the second experience. Beyond everything else, I left thinking about the priest. A dynamic personality, he walked up and down the rows before mass and introduced himself to people he didn’t recognize, even including people’s names and stories in his homily and announcements. His homily was long and moving, filled with memorable stories that were both entertaining and thought-provoking. The way he prayed was comforting, engaging, and inviting, and I felt at times that we was speaking directly to me in an intimate way.

There was only one problem: the mass was all about him. Despite the wonderful music and the active congregation (oh, and, you know, the liturgy itself), everything was touched by the personality and charisma of the priest. While not the worst that I’ve seen—there were definitely some innovations to the mass that the most hardline liturgists would have objected to, but nothing egregious that would have called into question its validity—it was certainly its own mass unlike any other. This was Father’s mass, and at times it felt like “Father’s One Man Show.” As joyful, inspiring, challenging, and enjoyable as it was, the experience was somewhat off-putting to me.

Both masses were absolutely Catholic. Even with the minor innovations and personality of the second priest, both were completely orthodox, valid masses. And yet, they offered completely different faith experiences, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

There, I guess, is where my question lies: do we accept that each strength cancels out its weakness making the two experiences legitimate alternatives to one another based on one’s liturgical preference, or is there something actually flawed about one or the other that makes even its strengths not that strong?

That second Church was packed more than 99% of churches I’ve seen on a Sunday, and a look at their bulletin shows that they are getting out into the world as well; after so many cult-of-personality priests of the past couple of years and crazy innovations to the liturgy, I left the first church at peace, for once not feeling like I had been at the circus. Maybe there is a place for both experiences.

Or maybe not. Even if people like the calmer, more predictable nature of the first priest, it might ultimately be detrimental to their long-term faith to always be casual, disengaged bystanders because they never experience the fullness of the immanent church around them. Or, even if people are full of life, entertained, and look forward to coming to mass as in the case of the second priest, it might ultimately be detrimental to their long-term faith to focus so much attention on one person because they never experience the fullness of the transcendent church in front of them.

I don’t know.

What I do know, though, is that neither expression seems like the complete picture. While it might not be possible to find a perfect middle ground between the two—it might be a situation of trying to balance on a knife’s edge, always ending up falling on one side or the other—I think that we as priests and priests in training have an obligation to try to hold everything together. It is not about me… and yet my life and energy directly affects the faith of others; being engaging is fundamental to worship… but it should always lead beyond to the point of the worship.

For me, all that truly matters is the priest’s ability to better the congregation’s relationship with God and each other. Whatever builds that up—including the priest’s personality—is the work of the kingdom. Whatever gets in the way of that—including the priest’s personality—needs to get out of the way.

In the world of the internet, it seems like everything can be done online: Domino’s pizzas can be ordered, plane tickets and travel arrangements can be planned, and in some cases, doctor’s appointments can be scheduled. Just yesterday, I signed up for an online subscription, opted out of a service, and took part in countless social media endeavors, all without ever having to speak with or meet a real person. We have become so accustomed to the ease of access of such things, that three weeks ago, when I went to the gym for the first time, I was annoyed that I had to sit down with a representative and talk about the gym for 30 minutes before I could use it. Why can’t I just sign up online and walk right in?!

It’s with that as our backdrop that the initiation process of becoming a Catholic Christian appears so counter-cultural. With no “signup now” link on our website, it is only in the rarest of occasions that someone can decide to enter and be a full member in under a month. For most, the process can take six, nine, even 24 months from start to finish. And that is even an abbreviated process compared to what was practiced 1500 years ago!

Why so long? Contrary to popular belief (and even contrary to some popular practice) the purpose of the extended time is not simply because there is a lot to learn; intellectual formation is important, and the Church is rich in many things that are important to know, but being a Catholic Christian consists of more than just knowing. First and foremost, the process of entering the Church is about conversion. Unlike joining a gym or a political party, we as Church are concerned with the way people live—privately, in community, and in the world. Living the Gospel is not an easy task and it takes more than just knowledge to be a Christian, no matter how much knowledge one may have. At its core, formation in becoming a Catholic Christian requires a look at one’s prayer life, moral virtues, commitment to others, and readiness to answer God’s call.

This is hardly something that could be completed online.

What’s interesting about the process of initiation, then, is that it is not a one-size-fits-all experience. There is no aptitude test or bar exam that one has to pass. The question of entry is not about intelligence or ability to memorize facts, it is about one’s readiness to live the life. Depending on who one is, what they need, and what the Church can offer, depends on the process one follows. Flexible to the needs of aspiring members of the body of Christ, the Catholic Church groups people together into three main categories:

Non-Christian converts Never been baptized in any Church? Congratulations! You are a true convert to the faith of Christianity. As a result, we will start from the ground up, introducing you to the basics of the faith, helping you develop the skills needed for prayer, and encouraging you to become an engaged member of the community. Throughout the year-long (likely 9 months…) process, you will be gradually welcomed, strengthened, and initiated through a series of progressive steps so that you are ready to be a Christian when that day comes. Oh, and that day is already on the calendar: all baptisms of adults take place at the Easter Vigil.

Protestants seeking communion Were you baptized in another Christian tradition and want to become Catholic? Congratulations! You are already a Christian! As long as your Church baptized you in the Trinitarian formula (In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), the Catholic Church recognizes the permanent and unfading character of your baptism and already considers you one with us in Christ. Unfortunately, because of the fracturing of the Christian Church over the years, there are still some areas in which we are not one in communion, however, and a period of preparation will be needed to teach about the specifics of the Catholic faith. There is no set time minimum or limit for these people; it all depends on how long it takes for someone to be ready.

Incomplete Catholics Were you baptized a Catholic but never confirmed or received Eucharist? Congratulations! You are already a Catholic! The most complicatedly simple category, there is no impediment for you to finish your initiation into the Church. While continued faith formation is important and usually required, the only thing that you will truly need is for your pastor to get permission from the bishop to complete your initiation and then pick a date to make it happen! Different Churches will have different processes, and some—especially if you know very little about the faith—may require that you attend some classes with the Protestants seeking full communion, but ultimately the focus is still the same: as soon as you are ready, you are ready.

Do you know someone who might be interested in becoming a Catholic Christian? Why not share this video with them so they can know what they have to do? For email subscribers, click here to watch the newest “Catholicism in Focus” video.

For those subscribing by email, click here to see the video.

Often referred to as the “Word of God,” Sacred Scripture is foundation of our faith, offering insight to who we are before God and guidance for the future. The centerpiece of our liturgical worship and the backbone of all of our theology, it is difficult to escape its ever-present nature among us.

And you know what they say: familiarity breeds contempt.

As critical as it is for our faith and as surrounded with it as we are, sometimes we don’t take the time to step back and ask ourselves a simple question: where did the Bible actually come from? It may sound like a juvenile question—obviously it came from God—but I think it is among the most important questions we can ask ourselves, one that can determine a tremendous amount about how we actually read it.

Did the writings come to us all bound and edited, “signed, sealed, delivered” from God in its present form without any input from us?

Or maybe God literally spoke to a prophet who wrote down each text, word-for-word, making sure that everything was as God intended.

Or maybe… just maybe… God chose to work in and through the human experience, inspiring his people with the grace of heaven but entrusting the whole process to them. Maybe the people of God wrote about their experiences in their own words, prayerfully decided amongst themselves what was considered authoritative, and found the authority to interpret such texts within their own worshipping community because that was the only way that it could truly be authentic to our human experience.

As I’m sure you can guess, my thoughts are with the latter answer. The process of producing the Bible that we have today was a complicated and messy ordeal, one that took many centuries, and even today, remains somewhat unresolved. There were many authors, many revisions,  many opinions, many disputes, many uses, and many interpretations over the years. Some of what we read is the result of hundreds of years of prayer, shared writing, and ongoing redaction, not as simple as it may seem.

And while some might find this troubling to their faith, beginning to believe that the Bible is nothing more than a really old human creation, I find the long and complicated process of organizing the Bible to be its greatest quality: God did not just give us a list of rules to follow from on high, he inspired us to be a part of every aspect of the process of creation, allowing us to express in our own words, decide for ourselves, and teach from authority about the things that God had revealed through us. The Bible does not find its authority in the fact that “God said so,” but in the worshipping community that experienced God first and so knows what to write down and how to understand it.

This video is a part of the Catholicism in Focus series, a series devoted to taking a deeper look at our faith to uncover the richness beneath. Each Monday I will post a new video on a topic of faith.