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The Need for Religious Instruction in America Today

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Most people do not realize how secularized our nation has become. By secularized, I mean a society in which practical atheism is rapidly determining our national culture.

To illustrate what I mean, yesterday I went to our library at the University of Detroit to see what a standard up-to-date book of quotations has to say about Christianity, God, and religion. One quotation after another is openly hostile to religion, and, selectively most hostile to the Christian religion.

Under Christianity I read:

  • “In reality we Christians are nothing more than a sect of Jews” (G.C. Lichtenberg).

  • “Christian: one who is willing to serve three Gods, but draws the line on one wife” (Mencken).

  • “I often think the Christian church suffers from a too ardent monotheism.” (E. B. White).

Under God I read:

  • “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.” (Nietzsche).

  • “God give me strength not to trust in God!” (Sinclair Lewis).

  • “If there is a God, atheism must seem to Him as less of an insult than religion.” (Goncourt).

Under Religion I read:

  • “All religious begin with a revolt against morality, and perish when morality conquers them.” (Bernard Shaw).

  • “There would never have been an infidel if there had never been a priest.” (Jefferson).

  • “Those who have loved God most have loved men least.” (Robert E. Ingersoll).

My purpose in this talk is to do three things:

  • To remind us that America is fast becoming dechristianized.

  • To tell ourselves that we Catholics have the primary duty to re-evangelize our nation.

  • To identify some ways in which we can restore faith in God and in Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the world, including the world of America today.

The Deschristianization of America

In order to appreciate how deeply our country has been dechristianized, we have only to look at the widespread legalization of every major sin against Christian morality.

Christianity teaches that human life is sacred from the first moment of its existence. Why? Because it belongs to God alone, who directly creates the human soul at the moment of conception. No one may usurp this right over the life of the unborn. It belongs to God alone.

Yet our country legalizes the murder of over a million innocent children in their mothers’ wombs. The same law punishes those who defend these innocent lives from their murderous aggressors.

Christianity teaches that the marriage bond is sacred because it unites one man and one woman in exclusive love relationship until death.

Yet our country legalizes divorce with remarriage after remarriage after remarriage. Until now in America the stability of marriage seems like a mirage and even Catholics are being instructed by professedly Catholic writers on how to get an annulment.

Christianity teaches that sexual pleasure is not only legitimate but pleasing to God within the sacred precincts of matrimony. But outside of marriage fully deliberate sex pleasure is a grave offense against the Almighty.

Yet in our day, the very words fornication, or masturbation, or adultery have lost any meaning for millions of Americans. They are considered relics of the vocabulary of a by-gone age.

Christianity stigmatizes homosexual relations as most abhorrent to God. St. Paul teaches to persons who indulge in this unnatural vice will be deprived of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Yet in one city after another in our country, homosexuals are not only protected by the civil law, they are legally free to publicize and proselytize their criminal behavior.

Christianity teaches that the marital embrace of husband and wife must always remain open to new life; that contraception is inherently evil and forbidden by God.

Yet in our country, artificial birth control has been elevated to a fine art, and infertility has been reduced to an exact science.

So the litany goes on. One abhorrent sin after another, proscribed by Christianity, has become the law of the land.

Pope John Paul II alluded to this in his first visit to America in 1979. Speaking of the breath-taking freedom we enjoy in the United States, he warned against the danger of anarchy. “Divine law,” he insisted, “is the sole standard of human liberty and is given to us in the Gospel of Christ.”

Catholics have the Primary Duty to Re-Evangelize America

One of the harmful effects of a misguided ecumenism is to obscure the fact that only the Catholic Church, whose visible head is the Bishop of Rome, has the fullness of God’s revealed truth.

We Catholics, therefore, have the primary duty in the desperately needed re-evangelization of our country.

  • We believe that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ.

  • We believe that Jesus Christ entrusted to His Church all the truths we are to believe, and all the moral norms we are to obey - if we hope to reach our heavenly destiny.

But this places on us Catholics the grave responsibility of sharing this revealed treasure with others, no less than others had shared their Catholic faith with us.

Among the longest documents of the Second Vatican Council is the Decree on the Apostolate of the Lay People. It could not have been more plain or more insistent on the role of the laity in proclaiming the true faith to those who either never had it, or who had sadly lost their Catholic heritage. Says the council:

Grave errors aiming at undermining religion, the moral order and human society are rampant. [Therefore], the Council earnestly exhorts the laity to take a more active part, each according to his talents and knowledge, and in fidelity to the mind of the Church, in the explanation and defense of Christian principles and in the correct application of them to the problems of our times (II, 6).

What needs to be stressed is the serious obligation we have to evangelize and catechize. We have no option about evangelizing those who have not yet been baptized, and no choice about catechizing those who are perhaps nominal Christians or Catholics but do not understand their faith.

We have a grave duty to bring the fullness of Christ’s message of salvation to others. “Woe unto me,” St. Paul cried out, “if I do not proclaim the Gospel” (I Corinthians 9:16). Woe unto us, if we do not, to the limit of our powers, do the same.

Just before His passion, Christ foretold His Second Coming on the last day. He described how the human race would be separated into two groups. Those on the right will be called to possess the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. Those on the left will be told by the Savior, “Depart from me,” and will go into everlasting punishment.

In explaining this prophecy, the Fathers of the Church bring out what may not be obvious.

We shall be finally judged on our practice of charity in meeting the needs of others. During out stay on earth, we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the lonely.

But what are the deepest needs of others that we are to satisfy? Are they the needs of the body? No!

The most ravenous hunger is that of the human mind for divine truth. The most agonizing thirst is of the human heart for divine love. The most wretched nakedness is of the human soul to be clothed with divine grace. And the most desperate loneliness is of the human spirit for companionship with God.

We who, through no merits on our part, have access to all this supernatural riches, dare not horde what we possess for ourselves. Either we share this wealth with others or we shall not reach heaven. The parable of Dives, the rich man and Lazarus, the beggar, applies with thunderous emphasis to all of us.

We are the rich man who have at out disposal all the bounty of God’s goodness in our Catholic faith. We are surrounded by Lazaruses who are hungry and hoping to get at least a scrap of food from our banquet table.

Our eternal destiny depends on how clearly we see the application of this parable to our own lives.

There is an adage of Christian wisdom that deserves to be quoted here. It says that, “No one gets to heaven alone. Either we help others reach heaven with us, or we shall not get there ourselves.”

How to Share Our Catholic Faith

No single Pope in Catholic history has written and spoken more on this duty of sharing the faith than the reigning Pontiff, John Paul II. In one document after another and in one address after another, he repeats these imperatives: Evangelize! Catechize! Teach the faith! Proclaim Christ! Preach the Gospel!

In meeting one western country’s bishops after another, the Pope tells them that their nations must be re-evangelized because they have become dechristianized. All I am doing here is restating the Pope’s pleading exhortations.

Our question now is, how?

At this point we can do one of two things. We can re-emphasize the general principles of the apostolate. Or we can become very specific.

On the level of basic essentials, we know that even to try to re-evangelize our dechristianized country, we must pray, we must grow in holiness, and we must embrace the Cross. Prayer, sanctity and a love of Christ Crucified are the bedrock of any effective evangelization.

But I would like to propose two specific ways of restoring the Kingdom of Christ in our beloved country. Both proposals have to do with deepening the faith commitment of still believing Catholics.

Religious Home Schooling of Children. The condition of institutionalized education in our country is such that a growing multitude of American parents are teaching their children at home.

In this matter, the Protestant segment is far ahead of Catholics. National organizations have been created, with magazines circulating in the tens of thousands. Legal counsel societies have been formed to protect the rights of the parents from the secularist invasion of schools, where, among other maladies, sex education destroys the morality of the young.

Catholic parents have been understandably slower in moving into home schooling. Our focus here is on the desperate need for religious education, which means Catholic religious education, which means authentic, uncompromising religious education.

No one has more crucial need for this education than the young, from infancy through adolescence to young adulthood. No one has more divinely conferred rights to provide this education than the parents.

If we are going to bring Christ back to our nation, it had better be through us who possess the plentitude of Christian truth. But we must begin at the beginning, which means with our children. And this means, in growing measure, by teaching them the true faith in the home.

In this context, we have the authority of our present Vicar of Christ telling us what to do. I quote from his exhortation, On Catechesis in Our Time,

In places where widespread unbelief or invasive secularism makes real religious growth practically impossible, ‘the Church of the home’ remains the one place where children and young people can receive an authentic catechesis. Thus there cannot be too great an effort on the part of Christian parents to prepare for this ministry of being their own children’s catechists and to carry it out with tireless zeal (IX, 68).

Four years ago, the Holy See encouraged Mother Theresa to train her Missionaries of Charity, so they in turn could train the parents of their children to develop this ‘Church of the Home’ in mission countries throughout the world. In my judgment, the United States has now become a mission country, where so many of those we once called “the faithful” need to be re-evangelized.

I have been working closely with Mother Theresa and her Sisters in providing the religious education material for training especially parents to train their children in Catholic faith and morality, now in some twenty countries.

The Great Catholic Books Program. Parallel with a national development of home religious education, the time has arrived for adult Catholics to recover some of their lost religious heritage.

For the last generation, the University of Chicago along with the Encyclopedia Britannica has produced what is called the Great Books Program. Over the years, it has influenced the academic education of millions. Some eighty selected authors have their major writings bound in attractive volumes. Among these authors about five Catholics are included. The majority are such intellectual giants as Immanuel Kant and Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and David Hume. Their evil genius has contributed substantially to the secularization of the Anglo Saxon world.

I spent several years analyzing the Britannica program and we now have the foundation for what we are calling the Great Catholic Books. It comes in three parts:

  • Part One is a one-volume Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan, which went into a second printing within a month of its publication last year. It contains the biographies and bibliographies of 104 Catholic writers over the past two thousand years.

  • Part Two is again, a one-volume Treasury of Catholic Wisdom, containing lengthy selections from such writers as St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas a’ Kempis, St. Teresa of Avila, the Little Flower, Hilaire Belloc, Chesterton and Archbishop Sheen.

  • Part Three is a home study program for adults. The first course on the Masters of the Spiritual Life is already available. The next course on the Masters of the Catholic Faith will be available, we hope before Christmas.

Moreover, we have started Great Catholic Books clubs in several parts of the country. Their purpose is to have adult Catholics form groups of 10 to 15 persons who meet regularly to discuss one after another of the great literary masters of Catholic history. The authors discussed may be such writers as Sts. Thomas Aquinas or Ignatius Loyola, or such spiritual teachers as Sts. Benedict or Bernard of Clairvaux, or modern writers like Dietrich von Hildebrand.

If we Catholics are to bring out contemporaries to Christ, or back to Christ, or closer to Christ, we must ourselves become knowledgeable about Christ and the wisdom that He wants us to share with others.

The Great Catholic Books program is designed to train us to become Christ-bearers to the millions in America who are literally starving to spiritual death because they are not being fed the supernatural food which their souls need to stay alive.

It is our privilege and grave responsibility to nourish these starving souls, here on earth, so that with them we may attain to everlasting life.

I would like to close with a prayer for the conversion of America.

Lord Jesus Christ grant to all your servants, but especially to the people of our own nation, the grace of being fully united with you in your Church.
Divine Redeemer, the prophet sang of you, “all the kings of the earth shall adore Him, and all the nations shall serve Him.” Extend your kingdom over the entire human race and in particular our own beloved country.
Grant in your mercy that the people of our land may be converted to you, and humbly and lovingly serve you.
We ask this, O Savior, through the intercession of your Immaculate Mother, the patroness and protector of our country. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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