I recently read a report on the results of a survey of why Catholics have left the Church. The survey was taken in one particular diocese on the east coast of the United States. It elicited one comment that struck the researchers as particularly significant. One layman, describing his experience in trying to engage his pastor around a personally distressing issue, said: “every time you ask a question, you get a rule.”
To get a rule is, of course, to get your real concern ignored and often to feel disrespected as well. It is not easy to live with the feelings evoked when “you get a rule;” and those feelings can erupt into all kinds of further difficult feelings and problematic actions – including leaving the Church. In fact, that seems to have been partly what precipitated many to walk from the Church in the past. Church history provides examples.
At times, in the past, when the faithful sought a way into a deeper spirituality and a richer expression of their relationship with Christ, they received “a rule.” To “get a rule” is quite different than “to get a way.” And it is significant that the early Christians identified the good news as a “way” (Cf. Acts 9:2). Real questions are answered better by a way of thinking, a way of seeing, and a way of acting than by a rule of thinking, a rule of seeing, or a rule of acting. The good news of the Gospel is not a new rule or a clarification of old rules, it is a new life in Christ, and a new way to live that life without violence.
One of the stepping stones on Therese’s little way is a “new” emphasis on a way of thinking, a way of seeing, and a way of acting. She emphasized faith and love as our contribution to receive and then to live God’s love, which has been poured out to us in Christ. This is “new” not because Therese discovered it. It is new because Therese rediscovered it after it had been hidden under the teaching of Jansenism that permeated the Church in her day
That is what Pope John Paul II said in 1997 when he made Therese a Doctor of the Church: “she helped to heal souls of the rigors and fears of Jansenism, which tended to stress God’s justice rather than his divine mercy. In God’s mercy she contemplated and adored all the divine perfections.”
Therese’s spirituality does not give us rules; it does not even give us pious devotions. It invites us to look at life in a spirit of faith, with confidence and love in God’s mercy, and to respond in integrity and compassion without violence to ourselves or others.
Societies and institutions must be built on rules and laws. But spiritual life must be lived from a “way” - a spirit of faith, which, of course, will include obedience to legitimate rules.
The tension between rules and Christian life is becoming more obvious to me as I continue to experience African life and society, although this tension is true of all life and all societies. Rules, which must include enforcement, necessarily lead to violence, as Jesus experienced in his own life.
That we get a “way” and not just a “rule” is another reason why today more than ever we need, personally and socially, Therese’s Little Way of love without violence. Her life and teaching might offer a better response to those asking questions of the Church today, than just giving questioners “a rule.”
Brother Joseph Schmidt, F.S.C.