There was a very entertaining book published a few years ago by Ross Douthat, a conservative political editorialist. The book is entitled Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. The premise of the book is that traditional religion (and wider society), in the United States has been corrupted by efforts to make Christianity more “consumer friendly.”
Douthat is not a theologian or a sociologist of religion. He is a political commentator, and his primary concern is politics. He blames the growing fragmentation of politics in this country on the growing fragmentation of religion. I mention the author and his book because he claims that the growth of novel (heretical), interpretations of Christianity is having a negative effect on American politics. His definition of heresy, however, is itself something a novelty, as it is not used in traditional Christianity.
Douthat defines heresy as a deviation from received truth; this is the definition understood and used by most people. In Catholicism, however, heresy is about Church unity. Unity among the faithful is so important to Catholicism that we make it a criterion with which to judge truth and falsehood. In the Catholic Church, “heresy” is defined as a false teaching promulgated for the purpose of destroying Church unity, and judged to be so by a bishop. Heresy isn’t an abstraction; it is seen in the concrete reality of an attack on ecclesial community.
This Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word provides several examples of the surpassing value that the Church places on ecclesial unity. In the Gospel, Jesus appears to the group of the apostles. It is no coincidence that the one apostle who would not believe was the one who was absent from the group. Thomas heard first-hand reports from men whom he knew and trusted, but his response to those reports was “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)
Curiously, the Gospel doesn’t say that Thomas actually touched Jesus’ wounds. Rather, the Gospel portrays a central Catholic value, namely, that faith is something received from the company of believers and exercised in union with one’s fellow believers. When Thomas was present with the other Apostles he confessed the Risen Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” (John 20:28)
In the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples shared all things in common, not prayer only, but their daily activities. The first reading says, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) This is a description of Church unity. It isn’t a description of shared religious activities alone; it is a description of a common life, a social life together as believers.
It is also a description of the consequences of a common life. The result of their unity and shared life was that “every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47) The Christian Faith is something that happens only in union with fellow believers, and it is something that has the necessary consequence of spreading to others.
Evangelization has become a popular topic in recent decades. This is largely the result of the continuing decline in church attendance by Catholics and members of other organized religions. Evangelization has become a particularly difficult issue for Catholics. The majority of Catholics see a great need to engage in evangelization and, at the same time, the majority feel ill-suited to the task.
The discomfort that many Catholics feel over the prospects of engaging personally in evangelization has spawned numerous programs and projects aimed at preparing Catholics to take on this necessary activity of believers. All of the trainings and programs, however, have made no measurable difference. The rate of religious practice in this country continues to decline. I have to question, therefore, whether we’re approaching the issue from the correct perspective.
The apostles and their converts had no formal training in evangelization techniques, but they seem to have been quite successful at it. The first generations of believers had no creeds or catechisms, but they were very effective at announcing the message of Jesus’ resurrection. We, on the other hand, are spoiled for choice when it comes to evangelization techniques and cognitive content, yet we don’t seem to be having great success.
The Scriptures say that the first preachers of the Gospel, and the first generation of believers, had a strong and contagious faith. The Scriptures also put a strong emphasis on communal unity among believers. Perhaps what is missing from our contemporary efforts is what the Apostolic Church had in abundance: ecclesial unity.
Instead of developing new evangelization techniques and skills, perhaps we should be developing old, apostolic values. The Church’s efforts to spread the good news of the resurrection of Jesus have never been successful due to eloquence or skill. Rather, the Church’s preaching of the Faith has always been believable and effective based on the Church’s witness of a common life.
The one thing that is necessary for us to experience the Faith is the same thing that is necessary in order to share the Faith; that one thing is a shared life together, not just shared prayer, but a common social life. Even in a relatively small parish it is impossible to socialize with all of one’s fellow members, but it is not necessary to do so. It is necessary only that we build our lives around community with fellow believers, if only a few.
This task of creating and maintaining a common life with fellow believers is much easier than it might sound. It is as easy as beginning a life of shared faith in one’s family and in one’s home. Good news spreads under its own momentum. To live a life of faith, and to share that faith with the world, doesn’t depend on being brilliant or eloquent or comfortable or well-prepared; it depends on our community with one another and our unity with the Risen Lord. All of this can start without having to leave the home environment; it’s as easy as imitating the example of the first believers who “were together and had all things in common.” (Acts 2:44)