In search of a Catholic mindset

A world Youth Day pilgrim prays at Sacred Heart Church in Krakow, Poland, July 28. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Soon after the terrorist attack in Orlando, Catholic leaders, writers and commentators issued “Catholic” responses to the tragedy. The reactions to the violence, however, were often contradictory and the ensuring debate over whether Catholics should apologize was contentious. Bishops were pitted against bishops, cardinals disagreed with the pope and Catholic bloggers detailed every stage of the dispute.

A similar discord among Catholics can be found in opinions about the presidential election. Certain Catholic commentators claim that a Catholic could never vote for Trump, while others respond that a Catholic could never vote for Clinton. This sequence of disagreement is repeated with every major global event, political issue and election. These “Catholic” responses seem to betray more about the authors’ personal views than their Catholicism. The only common link among all these “Catholic public opinions” is the authors’ claims to be Catholic.

One cause of the bifurcation of Catholic viewpoints is the death of a collective Catholic mindset.

Catholics no longer think like Catholics. They think like Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, socialists or secularists, but not as Catholics.

In the past, historians attempted to categorize the collective thought of a historical group, and numerous books appeared detailing the Greek mind, the Victorian mind or the Islamic mind. Other scholars explored the Zeitgeist or the “spirit of the age,” trying to capture the essence of a particular time period. French historians in the mid-twentieth century looked at mentalite, which could be defined as the thoughts, values and beliefs of a shared community. German scholars used the term, Weltanschauung, or worldview, in an effort to describe the way an individual or group viewed life and the world.

Some Christian thinkers sought to borrow these theories from the social sciences and apply them to Christianity. Harry Blamires, a devout Anglican and friend of C. S. Lewis, wrote The Christian Mind, The Post-Christian Mind, and Recovering the Christian Mind. Monsignor Romano Guardini held the unique position at the University of Berlin of chair in the Philosophy of Religion and Catholic Weltanschauung, and prolifically wrote on the encounter of faith with the world. These past attempts to examine the fundamental aspects of a Christian mindset, however, have fallen from favor.

In the academic world, the broad categorization of a mentalite or zeitgeist is seen as an overgeneralization. Critics claim that no one can summarize millions of individual minds, and any attempt to draw a generalization would merely rely on stereotypes. Current academics seek to disrupt and complicate the standard categories, rather than reinforce them. They look for the female who challenges gender roles, or they highlight the young Muslim who promotes secularism.

From a popular perspective, a collective mentality has a negative connotation, connected to the ideas of herd-mentality or groupthink. This hostile attitude is manifest particularly in an older generation of Catholics who grew up in a church still promoting a traditional mindset but who came of age in a culture that promoted a modern, secular way of thinking. They can promptly recall memorized sections of the Baltimore Catechism, but jokingly refer to it as a form of brainwashing. Modern culture values critical thinking and individualism, and celebrates revolutionaries and trailblazers. Individuals who protest, contest, revolt  and critique are praised; while those who uphold and defend are dismissed. All this, regardless, of the positions held. Thus, not only are the particular tenants of a Catholic mentality under attack, but the very concept that Catholics should think a particular way is questioned.

Preliminary steps to recover a Catholic mindset

In order to begin thinking like a Catholic, individuals must first reduce their exposure to secular mentalities. Modern American are inundated with beliefs and values hostile to a Catholic mindset, and Catholics need to limit this exposure, especially through the media — television, the Internet and movies. One, for example, cannot listen to heavy metal music or hip hop for hours, and then, attempt mental prayer. Your mind would be flooded with noise. Similarly, if one is inundated with the rhetoric of a secular mentality, you cannot turn it off, and think like a Catholic.

Secondly, a Catholic mindset must focus primarily on religious elements. In the last few decades, ambiguities have blurred the nature of the Catholic Church. Some see the Church as a place for fellowship. Others see the Catholic Church as an institution working for social justice and still others expect to be entertained at church. If a group of Catholics exclusively focus on any of these aspects, they will be an utter failure. Nonreligious institutions are far more proficient at entertaining or political activism.

Catholics need to focus on the church’s fundamental function, the salvation of souls. No secular institution offers this function. There is no competition in this endeavor, the most important task of the church. At its fundamental level, the Catholic mindset thus needs to exclusively focus on religious elements, without the political and social ambiguities.

The Catholic mindset should not seek to compromise on its principles. Progressive commentators often propose finding a theological meeting point between the Catholic worldview and the secular worldview, and they believe this shared intersection could become a place for dialogue. While it is necessary to engage with everyone, the purpose of the encounter for Catholics is to bring others to Christ, and not to change the tenants of the faith for the sake of dialogue.

Compromising the fundamentals of Catholicism will only hurt the church and fail to attract others to it. For current members, the result of a watered-down faith is lukewarm Catholics, who are ambivalent about their faith and immobilized. For those who are the object of the outreach, why would they be moved to join the Catholic Church? Who willingly makes the sacrifice to become Catholic for partial truths? It sounds like common sense, but the Catholic mindset should be unabashedly Catholic.

The only mechanism to ensure a unified Catholic mindset is to control membership. In every example, dissenters within an organization weaken the group. If the Republican Party is run by individuals espousing Democratic ideals, then the Republican Party will do poorly. If a pro-life group has members supporting abortion, they will be removed from the group. It makes no sense for members of an institution to not support its most basic ideals and principles. Yet, the Catholic Church has numerous Catholic politicians and individuals working at Catholic universities among many other Catholics who publicly denounce Catholic teachings.

In order to unify a Catholic mindset, those converting to Catholicism should go through a long process which instructs them in the faith and guarantees that they are serious about Catholicism, and not joining the faith for pragmatic reasons. More importantly, a second mechanism needs to be in place for adult Catholics, who were baptized as infants. The Catholic faith has clearly delineated teachings on numerous issues, and if a Catholic publicly denounces those teachings, then there must be some repercussion. If the church fails to correct erring Catholics, people will not know what Catholicism entails, resulting in confusion over what are the key elements of Catholicism.

Catholics often find it easy to compromise their positions, to water-down the faith in order to accommodate current trends in popular culture, and to ignore Catholics who denounce the faith, but these action harm the church. If Catholics only share what is popular, they will focus on what is vague and fluff, barely moving beyond that God is love.

Conversely, if Catholics collectively followed the preliminary steps I outlined above, they actions will result in an increased level of rebuke and persecution. Quite simply, if Catholics seek to be Catholic and reject secular culture, then there will be pushback from society. People with a strong religious mindset can be difficult to live around. They point out immoral actions, they stand for objective truths, they critique society and so forth. All of these actions can make people uncomfortable and result in an intensification of persecution against Catholics.

The pushback against a stronger Catholic mentality is not necessarily a bad thing. It will lead to unity among Catholics, as external threats typically help to heal internal divisions. Periods of persecution, historically, also led to internal growth. The church grew through the initial persecutions under the Roman Empire, and amid the strong anti-Catholicism in United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In sum, very few Catholics think like Catholics. In order to restore a Catholic mindset, Catholics needs to break away from secular culture and embrace an abashedly Catholic way of thinking. This mentality would focus primarily on religious elements and not compromise on truths. Additionally, the church should have a tighter monitoring of membership and Catholic institutions, and in the face of these efforts, Catholic should expect renewed persecution.

Principles of a Catholic mentality

The above points highlight step towards reestablishing a Catholic mindset, but what are the basic principles of Catholic thinking? What elements of Catholicism are mentioned over and over again for the last two thousand years? What is present in the Bible and repeated in the works of the Church Fathers and saints? I postulate these seven essential points. All Catholics should…

1. Seek to imitate Jesus

2. Place God at the center of all activity

3. Have an eternal perspective

4. Respect tradition

5. Have a missionary zeal

6. Be mindful of good and evil

7. Love selflessly

In the following weeks, I will elaborate of each of these points. They are not the basic teachings of Catholicism. They are the context through which Catholics should see the world, and not merely political or global events. They should provide guidance on everyday events: how to raise my child, how do I divide my time, what media should I consume and countless other decisions we face on a daily basis.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.