Revisiting the Catholicism of "Christ Among Us"

Educating new Christians in the basics of the faith has always been an important task of the Church.   A few years back I featured a series on Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, which date from the fourth century.  Evangelical churches can be very casual about the whole business, their reputation for dogmatism notwithstanding.

With Roman Catholicism, things are a little more involved.  Roman Catholic doctrine and thought is enormously complicated; it can be a lot for the novice to absorb.  The approach here too has varied.

For many years American Catholics were inculcated using the famous Baltimore Catechism.  Vatican II pretty much left this behind.  When I first revealed to my parish priest that I was interested in becoming Roman Catholic, he gave me Martin Farrell’s Parish Catechism.    You can see an earlier edition of this here; the one he gave me had the obligatory hat tips to Vatican II, but the content was essentially the same.  Farrell was succinct and clear: you knew what the Church that followed it expected out of you, and that was fine with me.  I reviewed it, told him I was good with it and made the Profession of Faith.

Today, of course, it’s different: we have the RCIA, a multi-year voyage which includes the sprawling Catechism of the Catholic Church.  This document is the stuff of legend among conservative Catholics.  We have, for example, the spectacle of Al Kresta, who strolls to his talk show microphone with the Catechism of the Catholic Church in one hand and the New York Times in the other.  (Let’s hope his helpful staff has put the coffee on his desk in advance.)

Between the two was the stuff of another legend: Anthony Wilhelm’s Christ Among Us.  First published in 1967, when I got involved in the Texas A&M Newman Association, I found it was “all the rage.”  One friend had it read at his wedding.  Echoes from it can be found in the Catholic folk music of the era.  It was used frequently in study and, when I got to Dallas, I found myself using it in my high school CCD class.  Since then it’s fallen out of favour.  But what was the appeal?  And did (and does) it deserve the adulation?

The subtitle of the book is “A Modern Presentation of the Catholic Faith.” Both its strengths and weaknesses stem from that premise.

Its Strong Points

  • It makes being Catholic out to an adventure.  And, truth be told, in the 1970’s being Roman Catholic (for me at least) was both fun and an adventure, more so than before or since.
  • It really is a readable and easy to follow presentation of Catholic theology, doctrine and life.
  • It attempts to present the essentials of the faith without making the accretions to Catholic life essential in themselves.  To put it another way, it did not make the sacramentals that characterised pre-Vatican II Catholicism a necessity to arrive at the sacraments.  This, probably more than anything else, set the traditionalists’ teeth on edge.
  • Probably the best part of the book is “Our Christian Presence in the World,” where Confirmation is discussed.  Although not a Charismatic book, it actually adopts a “power to witness for Christ” view of the infusion of the Holy Spirit, something I would find again when I worked for the Church of God.

Its Weak Points

  • It brings in a rogues gallery of modern Catholic thinkers such as Kung, Schillebeecx, and Teilhard de Chardin.  (To its credit it also brings in John McKenzie; it also brought up a name I hadn’t heard in years, namely Michel Quoist.)
  • It works under an implied assumption that the supernatural work of God in the past has been superseded by our own work.  That’s the defective assumption behind the “Contract on the Episcopalians,” and it doesn’t work any better in Roman Catholicism than it does in the Anglican-Episcopal world.  That, of course, leads to its emphasis on social justice work.  I’ve discussed the problems of Roman Catholic social teaching in the past; this book doesn’t do anything to solve those.  The Charismatic Renewal could have helped to bring the supernatural and the temporal together better, but it got bogged down in authority issues and other problems.
  • It frequently implies that the practical magisterium of the church will shift from the bishops to the academics and lay people.  That, of course, hasn’t happened, and many of the changes they hoped for haven’t happened either.  In Mainline Protestantism, the seminaries have been the main source of trouble, eventually rolling both bishop and lay person alike.
  • Its presentation on which sins break the relationship with God and which sins don’t is mushy.  It studiously avoids for most of the book the terms “venial” and “mortal” sin, even though these are central to the whole Catholic penitential idea.

Probably the most objectionable point in the book takes place in (where else?) its discussion of sex and marriage:

Some couples feel that they have a deep, mature and permanent commitment t one another before the marriage ceremony–and often it has its consummation in the sexual union–and in the judgement of the couples this is not wrong.  Their permanent, unconditional commitment (not the instability of trial or companionate marriage) draws them to a fuller expression of their love.  Priests who are counselling couples, while they must present the Church’s ideal regarding this, also realize that what is a beautiful and attainable ideal for one couple may be deeply frustrating and disruptive for another.  Each couple, in dialogue with God, will have to do what they are capable of. (p. 323)

So how do we look at Christ Among Us on balance?  I think the concept is a good one, but the execution leaves something to be desired.  If it were “tightened up” in places, we’d have a real winner.  Unfortunately the drift with many “modern” presentations is outside of Christianity, and that occupational hazard pokes its head out more than once in this book.

The traditionalists, buoyed by the pontificate of St. John Paul, had their knives out for Christ Among Us.  In 1984, after a two-year letter writing campaign, the future Pope Benedict XVI ordered Newark Archbishop Peter L. Gerety to remove his imprimatur from the book.  This move, nearly unprecedented, pushed its publication to a secular house and made its use problematic for parishes.  Combined with the release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church later in the decade, the book largely went out of currency in catechetical work.

And as for me?  Personally I’m glad my years as a Roman Catholic saw my intellectual formation with the Fathers, Aquinas and writers such as Bossuet and Pascal and not Christ Among Us.  I am also glad that my spiritual formation came through not only the influence of this book but of the Charismatic Renewal.  Unfortunately the combination created a “new wine in old wineskins” problem with Catholic parishes I was a part of after undergraduate school that lead to the inevitable burst.

Where I teach, one of the Dean’s secretaries was a Third Order Franciscan.  She noted that the Catholic parishes in this area had a low view of spiritual formation, with few opportunities for growth.  That’s not restricted to this area, sad to say.  Christ Among Us was an attempt to do something about that and, although it leaves something to be desired of, so does the current state of spiritual life at the parish level.

 

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