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On ‘Christians’ and the ‘greatest Christians’

September 5, 2017

When Cdl. Cupich of Chicago says “some of the greatest Christians I know are people who don’t actually have a faith system that they believe in”, I kinda sorta get what he means.

Raised as we were by an active Catholic mother and a nominally Methodist father, I had many opportunities to compare religious observances over the years. My mom did what was expected of Catholic moms through those years, God bless her, and I scarcely noticed it. But my dad’s religious conduct (or better, his conduct related to religion) caught my attention.

He willingly paid for Catholic schools when there were free public schools just a few blocks away. His Friday dinner was always fish although he would have loved a hamburger. And from time to time, he was the parent who actually made sure we kids got to Mass on Sunday. Thus, when my mother remarked, as she did more than once, that “Your father is the best Catholic in this house”, I knew what she meant.

But I also knew what she didn’t mean.

She did not mean that dad enjoyed the graces that came with Confirmation, the Eucharist, and Confession (being baptized, he and mom shared in the graces of Matrimony). She certainly did not mean that Catholicism was simply one more option among various belief systems, or none. And she never parlayed my dad’s Christian sensibilities into an ersatz Catholic identity cooked up in gratitude for his support in raising the children Catholic. Why not? If for no other reason, because words meant something in our house. Dad saw to that.

These thoughts came to mind when I read Cupich’s remarks about some of the “greatest Christians” being people who believe in nothing—or at any rate in nothing related to Christ. I can, in a way, appreciate his point for, obviously, people need not have a “faith system” in order to be mature, responsible, loving members of society.

But, unless both Cupich and his listeners know the personal examples he has in mind (in the way that my mom and I both knew much about my dad), I think it is confusing, in a world where words seem pretty much to mean whatever a speaker wants them to mean, for a prelate of the Catholic Church to refer to people “who don’t actually have a faith system that they believe in” as counting among the greatest Christians, of all things. Greatest people? Sure. Greatest humanitarians? Quite possible. But greatest Christians? Is that not to treat the word “Christian” as devoid of some specific, belief-oriented, content?

Consider a related point: Canon 205, rooted in Lumen gentium 14, sets out three criteria whereby baptized persons are found fully in communion with the Catholic Church, beginning with the profession of faith, and including also participation in sacraments and cooperation with ecclesiastical governance. Those who have, therefore, no “faith system that they believe in”, and who thus cannot claim full communion with the Church, are to be respected, of course, but also prayed for—not held up as role models for Catholics qua Catholics. Indeed, if one’s lack of “a faith system” is the result of an actual repudiation of the Christian faith (suggesting apostasy per Canon 751) one’s need for prayer and an invitation out of disbelief is all the more urgent, these, being among the pastoral points for bishops included in, say, Canon 383.

Likewise, I suggest, being “Christian” has something to do with, among other things, professing faith in Jesus Christ; being a “great Christian” has something to do with, among other things, proclaiming him boldly; and thus, holding out persons with no discernible beliefs as examples of the “greatest Christians” is not helpful especially in days of so much confusion about the meaning of, and the importance of being, Christian.

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