Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Why so Conservative?

One of my favorite Catholic apologists, Steve Ray, while making his journey into the faith, became troubled by the many different Christian religions, all professing their allegiance to the same Jesus, yet teaching conflicting beliefs. He decided that the only way to find the truth would be to go back to the way the original disciples of Jesus worshiped. That led him to study the writings of the first Christians, the Church Fathers, and ultimately led him into the Catholic Church.

He sometimes describes the Church as a giant oak tree. We, as Catholics, are all perched in this magnificent tree. Jesus planted the acorn, placed Peter in charge of its care, and allowed it to grow. Now, it stands tall in majestic splendor, but with many little trees around it, kicking at it, throwing things at it, screaming at it. The other Christian religions may be offshoots of the tree, but they are not the same tree, and they do not possess the fullness of truth.

Steve�s analogy can be expanded to explain why a conservative approach to the Catholic faith is prudent. Consider this. The trunk is the thickest, sturdiest part of the tree, a tree rooted in Jesus Christ. It contains the core beliefs, the lifeblood of the Church. All life and truth comes through it. Without it, the tree would die. Attachment to the trunk of that tree is the safest place to be.

Yet, some are not satisfied to cling to the trunk. They want to climb higher into the tree to get a better view. Perhaps they think it will get them closer to heaven. As we climb away from the trunk out onto the limbs, we can still be solidly Catholic, but our position becomes a little less stable. The risk of falling out of the tree increases, slightly at first, and more so the farther away we venture from the sturdy trunk. As the branch becomes thinner, our security becomes shakier.

A minor liturgical abuse may be the first step in going out on a limb. Taking liberty with a rubric is breaking a rule. It is like easing oneself away from the trunk to check the comfort zone. Sitting out on that limb may feel more liberating than clinging to the trunk. After a while, if nothing bad happens and the perch is indeed comfortable, one may be tempted to climb out a little further.

Without even realizing it, Catholics can climb their way into a form of apostasy. Unless they are students of the Roman Missal, they may find themselves swaying in the breeze, unaware that they are living in disobedience to church liturgical practice. Since lay people cannot be expected to know the finer points of the General Instruction, the clergy bears the responsibility for maintaining proper form. A lackadaisical liturgy breeds lackadaisical Catholics.

Some priests and bishops think they can improve their vision through liturgical experimentation. Unfortunately, many seem to have the idea that they need to climb out to the thin branches because that�s where much of their flock resides, not realizing that when they do so, the weight on those branches increases exponentially. In many cases, it is the bishops themselves who lead the way. When others follow, branches droop downward, and the chances of someone falling increase tremendously. In fact, entire branches can snap off, taking many souls to peril.

Beyond liturgical abuse, even greater danger lurks when Catholics knowingly choose to ignore church teaching in matters of faith and morals. They become like squirrels jumping from twig to twig. Security is precarious at best, and the risk of being blown out by an unexpected gust of wind cannot be ignored. As children and cats occasionally learn, descending to safety can be more difficult than the climb.

At the outer reaches are those who choose evil over goodness. They are clinging to leaves, so far removed from the trunk that they have lost sight of it. They may think they are still attached, but at the end of the growing season, those leaves will fall off and die.

The Church is our vehicle to salvation. She is a divine institution with authority from God. It is one place in this world where we do not want to be too adventuresome. Those of us hugging the trunk of the tree are sometimes ridiculed for our inflexibility, but the trunk is a place of strength, security, and comfort. Taking chances can be good in our lives, but not when it comes to our salvation. Too much is at stake.

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