It was perhaps foolish for my wife and me to attempt effective social-distancing with three children under six on a summer evening in a neighbor’s backyard. So we contracted COVID-19 on the Fourth of July. Our symptoms were relatively mild, and for a few weeks we lived off groceries that our friends left at the top of our driveway. One morning at breakfast, our three-year-old said he did not like the yogurt. We were confused. Greek yogurt, honey, and granola is his breakfast staple. Then we read that undesirable word on the container: “light.”

When writers use the term “Catholic Lite”[1] they are using a dietary metaphor. “Lite” conjures up images of watery yogurt or weak beer. Something important—fat, calories, alcohol—is missing, and even a three-year-old can taste the difference (in the yogurt, at least; not the beer). They are saying it might be essentially Catholicism, but that this does not matter much. It is missing all the good stuff—the fat and calories that really make it worthwhile.

What, then, are the ingredients that have been unnecessarily, even damagingly extracted (to extend the metaphor) from full-bodied, Vitamin D, whole-milk Catholicism? From stout, craft Catholicism? Without attempting to be comprehensive, we might compile a basic list that almost every reader of this article already knows: liturgical laxity; insufficient emphasis on the “difficult” Church teachings on sex, birth control, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality; too much emphasis on the “easy” Church teachings on social justice, the poor, the environment, and charity.

The metaphor has its limits: light beer is still beer, and light yogurt is (I think) still yogurt, but Catholic Lite is—according to those who use this term—a deeply flawed, even harmful form of Catholicism. The assumption underlying the comparison is that Lite Catholicism, since it lacks many integral aspects of Church teaching and practice, is ultimately harmful to the soul, just as “lite” foods are ultimately…harmful to the body (insert quizzical facial expression here).

How might we evaluate the fittingness of this dietary metaphor? What are the essential “ingredients” of Christianity, then, according to the teachings of the Church?

In Introduction to Christianity, Josef Ratzinger described the decisive elements of Christianity, by which it differs from other religious realities, as the categories of encounter, otherness, and event.[2] According to Ratzinger, all other religions have sought liberation essentially through the efforts of man himself, whereas in Christianity liberation is initiated, sustained, and fulfilled by the work of God. Later, as Pope Benedict XVI, in his seminal encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est, he contrasts the essence of being a Christian with two subtle forms of pseudo-Christianity: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”[3] The essential ingredient of the Christian experience is neither an act of our will (“an ethical choice”), nor an act of our intellect (“a lofty idea”), but the encounter of our entire person with Another.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae,[4] uses similar language: “At the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, the only Son from the Father.”[5] We have a name for this God-in-movement toward his beloved children: Mercy. Jesus Christ came to reveal to humankind that God is a father who is “rich in mercy.”[6] Thus, according to St. John Paul II, “the essence of the Gospel and Christianity” is “merciful love.”[7] Pope Benedict XVI called Mercy “the very name of God, the Face with which he revealed himself,”[8] “the central nucleus of the Gospel message”[9], and the “center of Christian existence.”[10]

According to the Church teaching promulgated by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, the essential ingredient of the Catholic faith is the love of God the Father, revealed in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, which, from our point of view as his fundamentally passive, receiving creatures, is called Mercy. Catholic Lite, according to these two popes, would therefore be a deformation of the Gospel that extracts the essential nourishment of Mercy from the center and replaces it with harmful additives.

Pope Francis is thus speaking directly from within the tradition of his predecessors when he uses his own culinary metaphors: “At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.[11] Like watery lite yogurt or weak lite beer, Francis warns that the Gospel can be “reduced, constricted, deprived of its simplicity, allure, and savour” when Christians fail to give central importance to the person of Christ as the revelation of God’s mercy.

In his apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, on the call to holiness in today’s world, Pope Francis elaborates his predecessor’s warning that the heart of Christianity is neither an ethical choice (our own will) or a lofty idea (our own intellect).[12] Francis identifies these “false forms of holiness”[13] with two ancient heresies in the history of the Church: Gnosticism and Pelagianism. The temptation of contemporary gnosticism is to “judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines,”[14] thinking that “their explanations can make the entirety of the faith and the Gospel perfectly comprehensible.”[15] Mercy is meticulously removed from this pseudo-gospel, and those who succumb to gnosticism “become incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopaedia of abstractions.”[16]

Pope Francis responds to this Gnostic temptation of desiring absolute, black and white clarity about the minute application of doctrine by emphasizing the Mysteriousness of God, which is precisely where space is made for his ineffable Mercy:

Nor can we claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life. This is part of the mystery that a gnostic mentality cannot accept, since it is beyond its control.[17]

Francis also takes up Pope Benedict’s rejection of Christian holiness seen primarily as the acceptance of a system of ethics and the following of rules and prescriptions.[18] Contemporary Pelagianism ignores, in practice, the perennial Church teaching of the primacy of God’s action (grace) and emphasizes, instead, the primacy of human effort: “When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added.”[19] Mercy is methodically extricated from this brand of Catholicism, and centrality is instead given to “a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment.”[20]

St. Thomas Aquinas, addressing the question of whether the new law or the old law is more burdensome, states that moderation should be observed in adding teachings to the natural law, “ne conversatio fidelium onerosa reddatur” (lest the manner of life of the faithful should be rendered burdensome).[21] St. Thomas is here citing a letter from St. Augustine to Januarius, where Augustine reminds his friend that there is a way in which Christianity, according to the words of Christ himself, is meant to be “light” and “easy”[22]:

He has bound His people under the new dispensation together in fellowship by sacraments, which are in number very few, in observance most easy, and in significance most excellent, as baptism solemnized in the name of the Trinity, the communion of His body and blood, and such other things as are prescribed in the canonical Scriptures.[23]

Pope Francis is speaking from within this tradition when he proposes an answer to contemporary pelagianism: we must return to the primacy of the theological virtues, at the center of which is charity. Charity is, in fact, the human reflection of the Mercy of God in the life of a Christian, and, according to St. Paul, the entire law can be distilled to love of neighbor[24]: “amid the thicket of precepts and prescriptions, Jesus clears a way to seeing two faces, that of the Father and that of our brother.”[25]

There is indeed a danger of a “lite” Christianity, in which the essence of the Gospel is left out, to the detriment of the life of the spirit. According to Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis, the greatest detriment to evangelization is the replacing of Divine Mercy with secondary, derivative ideas (gnosticism) and rules (pelagianism). Pope Benedict, in fact, saw continuity between his predecessor and his successor precisely along these lines:

At this point, the inner unity of the message of John Paul II and the basic intentions of Pope Francis can also be found: John Paul II is not the moral rigorist that some have partially portrayed him. With the centrality of divine mercy, he gives us the opportunity to accept moral requirement for man, even if we can never fully meet it.[26]

It might be true that some signs of “watering down” the Gospel message of mercy include liturgical laxity, a failure to uphold difficult Church teachings, and an unwillingness to speak out on difficult aspects of Catholic social and sexual teaching.[27] But we must also consider that—in an effort to return the person of Christ to the center of the Gospel proclamation—some Catholics (including and especially Pope Francis) believe that the most effective way to evangelize is to emphasize charity and mercy when engaging with a world riddled with anxiety, confusion, and self-hatred. It is intellectually lazy and ultimately inaccurate to dismiss broad sectors of the Church, and—implicitly—Pope Francis himself, with the indiscriminate use of the term “Catholic Lite.” Our deeply wounded world desperately needs to know that the burden of Christ is, in fact, light, as Pope Benedict taught:

The true disciple of Christ is marked by love both of God and of neighbour.” This is the true simplicity, greatness and depth of Christian life, of being holy. This is why St Augustine, in commenting on the fourth chapter of the First Letter of St John, could make a bold statement: “Dilige et fac quod vis [Love and do what you will].”[28]

 


Notes:

[1] See, for example: Weigel, George, “The Next Pope and Vatican II,” First Things, July 15, 2020

[2] Ratzinger, Josef, “Introduction to Christianity,” Ignatius Press, 2010

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, n. 1

[4] Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, n. 5, October 16, 1979

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 426: At the heart of Catechesis: Christ.

[6] Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, n. 1, November 30, 1980

[7] Ibid, n. 14

[8] Pope Benedict XVI, Regina Caeli on Divine Mercy Sunday, March 30, 2008

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pope Benedict XIV, Letter to Polish Bishops on the Occasion of the Centenary of St. John Paul II’s Birth, May 4, 2020.

[11] Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, n. 311, March 19, 2016

[12] See above, footnote n. 3

[13] Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, n. 35, March 19, 2018

[14] Ibid., n. 37

[15] Ibid., n. 39

[16] Ibid., n. 37

[17] Ibid., n. 42

[18] Pope Benedict, General Audience, April 13, 2011

[19] Ibid., n. 49

[20] Ibid., n. 57

[21] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 107, a. 4

[22] See Matthew 11:30

[23] St. Augustine, Letter 54, to Januarius, AD 400

[24] See Galatians 5:14

[25] Gaudete et Exsultate, n. 61

[26] Pope Benedict XIV, Letter to Polish Bishops on the Occasion of the Centenary of St. John Paul II’s Birth, May 4, 2020.

[27] It is worth noting that, at times, the “difficult” Church teachings that we are proud to uphold can be much more difficult for others than for ourselves.

[28] Pope Benedict, General Audience, April 13, 2011

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