When I sponsored a friend in the RCIA (1) last year, I accompanied her to all but one of the classes. We dutifully carried Bibles, Catechisms, notebooks, and other materials with us…until we realized that the instructor wasn’t referring to materials, didn’t expect us to, and generally displayed an amazing lack of familiarity with (or understanding of) the teachings of the Church. We had stopped bringing books with us, but after a few incidents we began bringing our book bags back. The most important book in our bags was the Catechism. I cannot stress this enough: if you don’t have a good grounding in the faith, please refer to the Catechism to answer enquirers. If you do have a good grounding in the faith, please refer to the Catechism to answer enquirers. Then maybe you won’t tell someone that “the Church teaches evolution” or that the Gospel of Life is “just an encyclical”. Oy.
So how might one use the Catechism in an RCIA class? Well, first of all, let’s dispense with this RCIA misnomer (see note below). Let’s call it a “Know Your Faith” class, the way the priest did who instructed me. (Everyone else called it a “convert class” but he wanted it to be open to anyone who wanted to learn more about the Church.) At some point the instructor may pause to take a breath and some adventurous soul may venture to pose a question, not realizing how unprepared the instructor actually is to participate in Q&A, no matter how brief or seemingly innocuous that Q&A time is. It might go something like this:
Sponsor: “I know the Church teaches that abortion is a sin. Do you think the Church will rule that you can’t be pro-choice or pro-abortion and be Catholic?”
Instructor: “Well, the Church hasn’t ruled on it yet, but I think it will soon.”
I don’t know which is worse, the sponsor not knowing any better or the instructor being so clueless but both are alarming. And I wasn’t the only one to be alarmed. More than one person in the room turned to me to see my response. I was, of course, getting something out of my bag and wasn’t even paying attention to what was being said. Until I looked up and noticed several sets of eyes on me.
Informed Catholic Sponsor (me): “Huh? What? What’d you say? What’d he say? The Church hasn’t ruled on abortion? On whether you can be pro-what and be which? May rule on it soon? What?!“
This is one of those times when the instructor could have used the Catechism. We could have looked in the index and we could have read what the Church teaches and could have gone from there. But we didn’t. When I pointed out that the Church has been teaching plainly on this matter for 2,000 years (2), the instructor wasn’t very interested. When I pointed out that Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Life states the Church’s position in no uncertain terms, he answered that “the Gospel of Life is just an encyclical”. (3) (That response in itself was troubling, but I can’t tell you how many Catholics have told me the same thing, Catholics who should definitely know better, some of them in positions of teaching in pro-life organizations. Good Lord…)
Let’s turn to the Catechism ourselves at this point and see what, if anything, we can learn about this from the official teaching resource of the Church. (If you don’t have a copy, you can use one of the online texts, such as the searchable one that scborromeo.org offers. I entered the word “abortion” in their search engine toward the bottom of the page). The search results gave me four references: paragraphs 2271, 2272, 2274, and 2322. Let’s look at the first one, paragraph 2271.
2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:
You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.
God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes. [The Catechism is quoting the Didache, chapter 2.]
Now one could say that the Church has not yet “ruled whether or not one can be Catholic and be pro-abortion”, but I think one would have to be rather obtuse to do so. The Church has clearly stated that abortion is murder, infanticide, evil, morally wrong, a grave sin, contrary to the moral law and an abominable crime, stating that this is her clear teaching, has always been so, and always will be. What about that is hard to understand? Can you be Catholic and pro-evil, pro-murder, pro-infanticide, pro-mortal-sin? Only if one wants to be a Catholic in a state of grave sin and out of grace and quite possibly automatically excommunicated. (See paragraph 2272 and also note 4 below.)
2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,” “by the very commission of the offense,” and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law. The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.
So perhaps the instructor could have guided the questioner to realize that the question is not whether the Church will rule on the possibility of being Catholic while maintaining views that are in direct opposition to Church teaching, which is what a pro-choice Catholic would be doing. The question is, rather, what kind of Catholic that Catholic would be. To my mind, that Catholic would be an unfaithful one, a scandalous one. Our word “scandal” comes from the Greek “scandalon”, meaning “stumbling block”. One who scandalizes another causes that other to stumble. The names and actions of Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Patrick Kennedy come to mind, as do those of Sr. Carol Keehan, all of whom pushed the recent “health care reform” bill in a truly scandalous way, pretending that abortion would not be funded with taxpayer dollars and that Catholics could, in good conscience, support this disgraceful piece of trickery and deceit.
I use these examples because I want to make the point that the teachings of the Catholic Church are not mere abstract theories or philosophical imaginings but are teachings on life and death matters. Because life and death matter. Each human life and each human death matter! If you’re looking for nothing more than intellectual exercise, look elsewhere. Every teaching of the Church has to do with the way we live our lives, the way we walk in the footsteps of the Lord, the way we live as disciples, the way we open or close ourselves to the grace He offers us through His Church. Becoming Catholic changes everything. That’s one reason that instructors in the RCIA or any other conversion process should be very well grounded in the faith themselves. You can’t hand on something you don’t have. You can’t explain the teachings of the Catholic Church if you don’t even know what they are and you don’t even bother to pick up a book and read from it when someone asks you a very important question.
And when it comes to those inquiring about the faith, every question is a very important question, deserving an informed and well-reasoned answer. Even if that answer is, “I’ll look into it and get back to you, but for now, let’s see what the Catechism says.” That’s what the Catechism is for. For catechists and instructors to use. So use it already!
1. The RCIA is the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. And, as the name implies, there is actually a rite to be followed. A series of rites. There are liturgies for various stages of the catechumenate (those who are preparing to be received into the Catholic Church). But my friend’s “RCIA” class didn’t follow any of that. The instructors didn’t follow any rhyme or reason at all that I could discover. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big fan of the RCIA. I am, however, a big fan of teaching folks in an orderly fashion especially when it comes to something as complex and vast and important as Catholicism. Especially if folks come to me seeking knowledge and think they are called to the Church. I consider it a sacred task and duty to help them learn what the Church really is and what she teaches. If only the actual catechists would take their task seriously too and prepare themselves to teach!
2. The Pope quotes the Didache in section 54 of the Gospel of Life:
From the beginning, the living Tradition of the Church—as shown by the Didache, the most ancient non-biblical Christian writing—categorically repeated the commandment “You shall not kill”: “There are two ways, a way of life and a way of death; there is a great difference between them… In accordance with the precept of the teaching: you shall not kill … you shall not put a child to death by abortion nor kill it once it is born … The way of death is this: … they show no compassion for the poor, they do not suffer with the suffering, they do not acknowledge their Creator, they kill their children and by abortion cause God’s creatures to perish; they drive away the needy, oppress the suffering, they are advocates of the rich and unjust judges of the poor; they are filled with every sin. May you be able to stay ever apart, o children, from all these sins!” (Didache, Chapter 2.)
3. When I pointed out that in that encyclical the Pope invoked his authority as the Successor of Peter and in communion with all the bishops of the world, the instructor said it was still “just a letter and not doctrine or dogma” and so not binding upon Catholics. Here’s what the document actually says:
57. Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium [the teaching authority of the Church, from magister: teacher].
The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end. It is in fact a grave act of disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God himself, the author and guarantor of that law; it contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and charity. “Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action”.
As far as the right to life is concerned, every innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others. This equality is the basis of all authentic social relationships which, to be truly such, can only be founded on truth and justice, recognizing and protecting every man and woman as a person and not as an object to be used. Before the moral norm which prohibits the direct taking of the life of an innocent human being “there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the ‘poorest of the poor’ on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal”.
“Your eyes beheld my unformed substance” (Ps 139:16): the unspeakable crime of abortion
58. Among all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable. The Second Vatican Council defines abortion, together with infanticide, as an “unspeakable crime”.
The Pope invokes his authority as our Chief Shepherd and Successor to Peter not less than four times that I’ve counted while studying the encyclical. Yes, studying, not just reading. I think every Catholic should at least read this one. In our day and time, facing the culture we face, we need clear thinking and we need to understand what we’re up against and what has happened and is happening in and to our world.
4. The Church doesn’t have to “excommunicate you”; you remove yourself from a state of communion with the Church by your own self-determined action.