In this (partly fictionalized but mostly true) episode of Adventures in Catechism1 we will follow Gemma Zimmerman (aka Zombie Girrl), a first-time catechist, as she navigates The Treacherous Waters of Unexpected Questions...
It was a sunny Sunday two weeks ago, and all was right in the world, more or less. The Confirmation Class had gone fairly well. Not many people had come that week, but the discussion had been fruitful and lively. We had been discussing the kids' roles in the Church and what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ, and were just wrapping up for the end, when Cecilia2, one of the candidates (i.e. student), raised her hand and asked, "Okay, but what if you go through all this and then you decide that you're an atheist?"
I traded a quick Look with my senior co-catechist, Ana. You take this one, her Look says to me. Yipes! Seriously? God, help me!
"Well, firstly, that'd be a sin, and a big one too, because you'd be denying that God exists, which is a serious failure in love," I said, condensing everything I had read on the subject.
I was met, not with nodding and understanding as I had expected, but with a slow blink and, "Yeah, but would happen?"
Thinking that I knew what it was she was getting at, I said, "Okay, by saying that God doesn't exist and denying His love, you are telling God that you A) don't need Him, which is a lie that stems from pride, and B) that you don't want Him in your life, which is a mortal sin. If you die in this state, denying God as your Creator and only means of Salvation, you will go to hell because, as much as it pains God to see it happen, He will not force Himself on you by going against what you chose and making you spend an eternity in His glorious Presence. It's to do with free will; God gave us free will so that we could choose freely to love and serve Him. Does that help?" I added hopefully.
Cecilia furrowed her brow and asked, "But how can you go to hell? If you don't believe in hell, than hell doesn't exist. It's not real," she said in a completely logical tone.
I thought, This is way worse than I thought. She's talking about relativism! How many of them think this way? "Okay, you're saying that if a person doesn't believe something than it's not real. What if you didn't believe that the sky was blue? Does that it a different color?"
Michael, ever the gentleman, raises his hand before saying, "But it's not blue. It just looks that way because of the oceans reflection."
"But that's beside the point--" I start.
"That's not why the sky is blue!" interjects Edward, another candidate, "It's because of the angle of the--"
"Okay, guys," Ana says in her take-charge way, "the point is not 'why is the sky blue?' Let's try to focus for a few more minutes, okay?"
Thank you, Ana!
"Okay!" I say, shaking off the sense of desperation. "Let's say there's a guy in West Virginia who has never had nor seen electricity. Someone tells him about it, but he says it's hogwash and not real. He doesn't believe in electricity; does that mean that electricity doesn't exist?"
Michael raises his hand again, "Well, it doesn't exist for him," he states baldly.
I take a deep breath and wonder if they're pushing my buttons or if they're just really bad at analogies. "Maybe," I say, "but electricity does exist, just like God exists for everyone in every time no matter if they choose to believe or not. It doesn't depend on whether you choose to believe in Him or not, He is still the Truth. Okay?"
I look around hopefully and am met with silence. Pins drop. Crickets chirp. Stomachs rumble. The whole nine yards.
Ana and I trade another Look: Class is nearly over, her Look says, maybe we should move on and call it a day-- No! I Look back at her, Just give me another minute. We need to cover this.
I grab Plan B from my bag and flip madly to the index, locating the passages I'm looking for in record time. When in doubt..."The Catechism of the Catholic Church says 'Hell's principle punishment consists of eternal separation from God... [CCC 1057],'" I state, "So by choosing not to have faith and separating yourself from God in this life, you are in effect choosing hell in the next life. It also says that, 'Atheism is often based on a false conception of human autonomy, exaggerated to the point of refusing any dependence on God [CCC 2126],' and this is what you're saying when you claim that hell only exists if you believe in it; you're saying that we are separate and independent of God and that everything depends on us and what we believe. This isn't true. We rely on God for everything, whether we acknowledge that dependence or not. Atheism is a sin against the first commandment, we covered that last week, guys. God doesn't want anyone to go to hell. He loves us all and wants to spend eternity with us; it's why He sent His only Son, Jesus, to redeem us. It's why He created you! Furthermore, He wants you to be in His Church; that's why He went to all the trouble of founding it. Does that answer your question?"
Cecilia gives a noncommital reply.
"Okay," Ana says with finality, "Let's close with prayer. In the name of the Father..."
After the closing prayer, before they've had a chance to scatter to the four winds, I raise my hand, almost involuntarily, to share a story that had just come to mind, "One final point:" I say, "Do you want to know where the true Cross is?" My question is met with a few murmurs, though they do seem interested, so I go on, "It's at the gates of hell, and Christ will do anything to keep a soul from passing through those gates." Thank you, Deacon Jim, for relating that story!
I look around at all their faces; they look thoughtful. Or maybe they're just hungry. Who knows. I can only hope that it's the former rather the latter.
As I gather my papers and whatnot, Ana says, "Nice analogy!" I smile at her complement. I can only hope that it helped.
After the kids have gone, Ana and I sit down to discuss the class.
"Where did that come from?" I ask.
"Well," she says, "it could just be curiosity, or maybe she's having doubts. At least she's asking questions."
"That's not even what I'm most concerned about."
"No. Didn't you get what was implied? They were saying that religion, salvation, morality, truth, everything is relative. I just read a book that went over it3. I wish I could make them read it--"
"But they won't. They already have a ton and half of homework. We can't pile more on them. Their plates are full."
Yeah, I think, full of junk food. "Well the book said, and it was a really good point, that relativism is due in large part to our society. They've been taught that everyone is right, and that means that everyhting is relative to what a person chooses to believe. They think that Christians will go to heaven or hell because that's what they believe; and that atheists will, I don't know, just cease to exist or be reincarnated as dolphins or something because that's what they believe. Do you understand what that means? They could just decide that being Catholic is too hard, and it is hard, become atheists, and never bat an eye because they won't believe that there are consequences! We need to go into this further."
Ana is quiet for a moment, probably wondering how she ended up with such a worry-wort partner.
"We'll do a recap next week and go over the discussion we had at the end," she says. "Beyond that, the only thing I can think to do is give Cecilia Did Adam and Eve Have Bellybuttons?4. That should answer any questions she may have."
That class is over and done with, but I'm still worried about what that brief discussion implied about their basic belief system: Relativism. This is a big problem these days. Our culture teaches us that freedom means that everyone is right about everything, and that truth is relative to what you choose to believe. It teaches us that there is no such thing as absolute truth, when there is.
I'll use morality as an example, because it's the most relativised thing ever, and to be super specific so I don't end up rambling on and on, I'll use a candidates questionnaire I read the other day.
One question in particular really got me thinking about how relative morality has become in mainstream culture: "Should an unborn fetus be treated as a separate victim if it is harmed or killed due to an attack or accident inflicted on the mother?" The answers were as near to unanimous as you get; every single candidate, save one, said Yes. Yet how many of them think that an unborn child need not be treated as a human being if it is unwanted? How many of them hold that, if the child is wanted, it is to have all the dignity and protection that you and I receive, but if it is an unwanted child, it is to be treated as something disposable? How can they be so hypocritical as to justify the innately evil act of taking an innocent life when they all agreed that to kill an unborn child, even by accident, was a crime unto itself? And furthermore, how stupid do they think we are that we wouldn't notice their inconsistencies and call them out on such?
Although, how many of us have noticed and simply don't care? How many have been deluded and mislead into thinking that having a double standard for the value of life based on desire for the life at stake is a perfectly logical bases of such a cruel double standard?
Pilate asked, "What is truth?"
Christ answered, "I am the Truth."
We know the Truth, why do we continue to live in opposition to it?
1 As I said once briefly, I am now a catechist at my church. I help instruct the Confirmation class every Sunday. At first I was afraid that the teens would be... well, teenagery, i.e. scary. I remember teens being very frightening people when I was one, but they're actually really good kids as far as I can tell. Pretty well behaved, though they have trouble focusing. But then, apparently so do I.
2 All names have been changed for safety's sake. That includes mine. If you actually think my innitials just happen to be GZ while my online persona just happens be ZG, you are sadly mistaken. And also a little bit oblivious. But I'll let that slide.
3 Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics by Chrales J. Chaput, O.F.M., Cap.
4 Did Adam and Eve... is a book of that answers 101 questions that teenagers have asked concerning faith and the Church. It's really quite helpful and also kinda funny.
5 If you've stuck with me this long and have read the entire article, I am now giving you a long-distance cyber-hug! I love writing, but I love it even more when people read what I write. Otherwise, I wouldn't post online. I'd write on napkins. Or in the sand.