The Case Against R.C.I.A.
Editors’ note: The Rev. Andrew Greeley was a frequent contributor to America for over five decades. A priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, a noted sociologist and a well-regarded commentator on Catholic life in the United States (as well as a prolific novelist), Father Greeley was famous for his sharp wit and pugnacious style in print and in person. In 2006, America honored him with the Edmund Campion Award in recognition of his contributions to Christian letters over more than half a century. He died in 2013. Earlier this month, America published a brief overview of his life and works, including his contributions to the magazine. The following article, featuring Father Greeley’s typically blunt and acerbic style, first appeared in the October 14, 1989 issue of America.
The Rev. Robert D. Duggan, an expert on the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, offered a rebuttal that ran alongside Father Greeley’s essay. You can read that here.
“THE R.C.I.A.,” I have been told often in the last couple of years, “is the answer.”
I respectfully submit that it is not the answer, even assuming that we know what the question is, which I don’t think anyone does anymore. The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RC.I.A.) is just that—a rite. When it is imposed as an obligatory paradigm, it violates the freedom of the Spirit and the integrity and the dignity of individual human persons. I protest against it even when it is imposed as an obligation on those who have never been baptized. I protest against it a fortiori when it is imposed on those who have already been baptized. Finally I protest against neo-gnostic oppression of which the R.C.I.A. is only the most recent, though possibly the most offensive, manifestation.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow remarked that the person with the “answer” is a hammer and those on whom the answer is to be imposed are nails. In the hands of its enthusiasts, the R.C.I.A. has become a hammer and the presumably Spirit-less laity—Catholic or would-be Catholic—have become nails.
Like most liturgical innovations of the years since the Second Vatican Council (the most notable exception being the Mass of the Resurrection), this rite is not particularly distinguished either by its artistic beauty or by its linguistic felicity or by its responsiveness to human needs. It is spun out of historicist and academic concerns and displays no sensitivity to either the nature of contemporary religious experience or the cultural environments where it is to be exercised. (How can you call people the “elect” or require “scrutinies” or babble about “mystagogy” in the final decade of the 20th century?)
At a very general level it makes two important points that have been forgotten in the past and of which contemporary Catholics needed to be reminded—that becoming a Christian is a process and not an event, and that it is a process which of necessity should involve some sort of community. I would have called these two “points” guidelines, save that in contemporary clerical culture “guidelines” means “rigid laws” (just as “dialogue” means accepting a bishop’s order). For all I know those who actually drafted this rite intended nothing more than making these two points. Yet, the process, contrary to what is thought by those in the R.C.I.A. movement who interpret the document, is not necessarily that which is administered by the parish “staff.” and the community is not necessarily the parish “R.C.I.A. Team.”
The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RC.I.A.) is just that—a rite.
“The catechumenate has been restored,” the liturgical and R.C.I.A. enthusiasts chirp merrily, as though that settles the argument, when in fact it only begs the question. The proper issue is whether a paradigm resurrected after 15 centuries (more or less) adds much to our understanding of human religious problems and the working of the Spirit today.
Why not restore Gregorian chant? Or polyphonic music? Or Septuagesima Sunday? Or the blessing of the vegetables after the Lord’s Prayer? Or the custom of only two confessions in a lifetime—at conversion and death? Or the Irish penitential rites? The logic that enables enthusiasts to draw a practical program from a rite could as easily apply to any or all of these restorations.
THERE WERE REASONS a millennium and a half ago to require sponsorship and scrutinies to make sure that only worthy people approached the Eucharist—the bishop literally did not know anything about those who presented themselves for admission to the church. There were also reasons to exclude such prospective Christians from the Eucharistic Prayer. The Discipline of the Secret protected the church from the spies of the Roman Empire.
The empire hasn’t been around for a long time. And neither have the other assumptions behind a literal imposition of the rite. There are no grounds for ordering anyone out of church after the homily. Such behavior is an offensive and insulting anachronism. I did it once, caught by surprise, and still feel guilty about it. I’ll never do it again. I’m not an elderly Irish canon from the turn of the century with a blackthorn stick in hand. What right do I have to tell anyone that she or he cannot sit at the Lord’s table?
Let me illustrate, with four somewhat fictional cases, the mindlessness of the R.C.I.A, paradigm,
1) Bertha, who is not Catholic, has been married for 20 years to Titus, a Catholic. They were married at Mass, by a priest. She has attended Mass with him every Sunday since they moved into the parish. Their four children attend Catholic schools. She has been active in the Mother’s Club, has served as a faithful chaperone at high school “dances” and participates in one of the parish’s prayer groups. More recently she has received Communion every Sunday. The priests—rather against the wishes of the Vatican, it is to be feared—argue that it would create grave scandal if they denied her the Eucharist. Many people in the parish assume she is a Catholic. In late May, she informs Father Prudens. the pastor, that she wants to become a Catholic, preferably on the day of her husband’s 45th birthday, which is also graduation day from high school for her elder daughter Tina. Father Prudens sees no problem until Bertha tells him that, well, she never was baptized. His R.C.I.A. director, Elutheria, insists that Bertha must go through the whole process and that she cannot under any circumstances be baptized before the following Easter, 10 months away. If the pastor baptizes Bertha on the day she has requested, Elutheria announces, she will resign.
2) Coenobius is a distinguished literary critic and art expert. He has wandered the world religiously. Now married to a Catholic wife, Martiana, and the father of two small daughters, Coenobia and Fiona, he finds the religion of his family powerfully attractive. As he admits to the selfsame Father Prudens, he may finally have chosen to settle down with a Catholic family because he has always found Catholicism appealing. Peter Paul Rubens in particular has drawn him to the church. He is deeply impressed by the vitality of the parish, even finding the English liturgy attractive, although he deplores the quality of the translated text. The more he reads the literature of humankind, he says, the more he is convinced that humankind is destined for Something beyond itself and that Catholicism is the best representative there is of that human instinct. Long ago he read Augustine and Aquinas and more recently Teilhard de Chardin. Now he wants to talk out his insights and intuitions.
At a very general level it makes two important points that have been forgotten in the past and of which contemporary Catholics needed to be reminded—that becoming a Christian is a process and not an event, and that it is a process which of necessity should involve some sort of community.
3) Jucundus is an upright young son of an important Anglo-Saxon family that has not been religious for three generations. He knows hardly any Catholics. But as an undergraduate student at South Cook County University and a devotee of the classics, he has devoured Catholic theologians from Ignatius of Antioch to David Tracy, some of them (including Father Tracy) in the original. He is convinced, like the young Avery Dulles, that Catholicism is True. A friend. Anna, tells him that she has heard from Catholics she knows that Father Prudens is very sympathetic to people who want to become Catholics. Father Prudens is the first Catholic priest to whom he has ever spoken.
4) Sarah, a Jewish woman, and Bono, a Catholic man, have met at college and claim to be desperately in love with one another, a claim that profoundly offends both their families, as it has been designed to do. Since Sarah is marginally more strongly motivated to offend her parents, she agrees to become a Catholic, although she is repelled by the church. However she finds herself intrigued by it. too. She has what she thinks is a powerful mystical experience at Christmas Midnight Mass and tells Father Prudens that now she has no choice but to become a Catholic. She even compares herself to Paul Claudel who had a similar experience at the first Vespers of Christmas (Father Prudens is surprised that anyone has heard of Paul Claudel these days). She thinks she may break up with Bono and become a cloistered Carmelite.
What is Father Prudens to do? Turn these four people over to the enthusiastic shallowness of the parish R.C.I.A. team?
Give me a break!
Each of the four need a process and a community, but the needs of each are different, and none of their needs will be met by being run through a formula the way I.B.M. cards used to run through counter-sorters. Or by being pounded like nails with the R.C.I.A. hammer.
Bertha has been part of a community for years. She should be required to endure a “pre-Catechumenate,” “scrutinies,” “election” and “mystagogy”? You gotta be kidding!
Coenobius needs someone to ruminate with about the intellectual and artistic aspects of the Catholic heritage. His wife and family and their friends in the parish are already his community. To force him into an R.C.I.A. program would be like compelling G.K. Chesterton to endure a similar program.
Jucundus needs a community of devout intellectuals who will support his fervor and introduce him gently into the poetry (as opposed to the prose) of the Catholic heritage. He can quote some of the mystagogic theologians in the original language. He belongs in an R.C.I.A. program?
Sarah is deeply disturbed. She may be an authentic mystic (these days, who knows?), and she may be just a little crazy. Maybe both. What she doesn’t need is to go through “scrutiny” and “election.”
I respectfully submit that it is not the answer, even assuming that we know what the question is, which I don’t think anyone does anymore.
Father Prudens does his best. He baptizes Bertha in a festive ceremony on the Sunday she has chosen and tells his furious R.C.I.A. director that she can resign if she insists. He meets late at night (over port, and quality port at that ) with Coenohius. He sends Jucundus off to a community of Jesuit scholars (with the rueful thought that the young man will probably end up with an S.J., after his name). He directs Sarah to a wise nun with training in both the spiritual life and psychology.
MY FOUR CASES, it will be said, are exceptions. Sorry—everyone is an exception. Everyone is unique. The Holy Spirit still blows whither She wills. The uniqueness, that which is most special about each person who comes to the rectory, is precisely the message, to those who preside over the rectory, of the Spirit of Variety and Pluralism. We have no right to try to arrange Her schedule, budget Her time, routinize Her grace. No one’s spiritual pilgrimage fits a formula. No one can be run through an automatic process. No one can be forced to jump through a series of hoops that have been designed a priori by liturgists and religious educators.
Am I merely saying that the R.C.I.A. must be more flexible and more responsive to individual human needs (and thus the devious workings of the Spirit). I am saying that it must be so flexible and so responsive that it will be unrecognizable to its enthusiasts—and I mean those who write the books and run the conferences and edit the newsletters and pontificate on the tapes and staff the national offices. If I am told that it has been mandated by the bishops, I respond that such a mandate and a dollar bill will get you a ride on the Chicago subway. Moreover, an appeal to hierarchical authority comes with very poor grace from those who dismiss the bishops when they talk about celibacy or the ordination of women and broadly hint that infant baptism should be abolished so that all Catholics would be processed through the R.C.I.A.
IF THE R.C.I.A. is at most a very sketchy outline— suggesting community and processes for those who are not Catholics, it has no place at all in the spiritual pilgrimage of those who have already been baptized. They are by definition not catechumens (conceding for the sake of the argument the validity of the term) and should not be treated like catechumens. Using the R.C.I.A. as a model for all sacramental preparation is, alas, typical of the resurgent clericalism of the Catholic Church in the United States. Instead of viewing a request for a sacrament as a sign of the Spirit at work (however tenuously) and joyously and enthusiastically responding to that request, the New Clericalist (who need not be a priest) converts the sacramental experience into an obstacle course, a series of barriers to be surmounted, a list of tests to be passed. (Young people have told me that they “passed” the psychological tests their priests gave them and hence were free to get married!)
The R.C.I.A. movement as it presently exists in this country is an attempt of the liturgical gimmick-makers to take over the life of the church, despite their failure at virtually everything they have touched.
Sure, a sacramental occasion is one to be approached with reverence and respect. Certainly, the priest must be sure those that request it are ready to receive it. Of course, there must be instruction. But none of these truths mean that there have to be rules, much less rigidly and harshly imposed rules. Is there not enough charm and wit and cleverness left in clerical structures that these goals can be achieved subtly, generously, graciously, so that the whole experience is one of happy celebration instead of burdensome response to requirements? Cannot one respond to the Spirit with delicacy and tenderness that is appropriate whenever She manifests Herself?
In cases of doubt ought not She and the sacrament be given the benefit of the doubt over rules? Is this not what the Latin phrase sacramento propter homines means?
FOR A QUARTER OF CENTURY, clerical culture has desperately searched for a program that would be the “answer”—a new and better hammer, a response to the confusions and uncertainties of the post-conciliar age (as experienced inside the identity-crisis-ridden-clerical culture; there is no evidence that the laity are confused). From Salvation History and the Cursillo through Sensitivity Training, Marriage Encounter and the Charismatic Renewal to Parish Renewal, Evangelization and the Preferential Option for the Poor—all of these programs have been characterized by the following traits: 1. A simple a priori theory; 2. rigid formulae (accompanied by an esoteric vocabulary) of the sort that can be quickly picked up at a two-week summer school course, a weekend workshop or a one-day “institute”; 3. an enthusiastic elite that has the answers and is determined to impose said answers on those who do not have them; 4. unreflective superficiality that obscures whatever truth the “movement” may actually possess; 5. the “routinization of the Charisma” (in Max Weber’s terms) as the “movement” becomes institutionalized into diocesan and national offices and its enthusiasts go on to the next fashion; 6. total faith in the success of the “movement” without any empirical validation.
I am particularly concerned about the refusal of such movements to submit their work to systematic empirical verification. No one has produced any proof that those who have been processed through R.C.I.A. are any better Christians than those who went through the Enquiry Class (a kind of proto-movement.) There is no systematic evidence of what those who have experienced the “restored” catechumenate think about it—or of how many have been driven away from the church by it.
Liturgists are not empiricists. They are not interested in the religious experiences of the ordinary people, who they often dismiss as “materialists” and “consumerists.”
Those who engage in R.C.I.A., the “team,” enjoy it enormously—the only measure of validation that seems to matter. Why shouldn’t they enjoy it? It gives them what every gnostic elite wants: power over the lives of other humans.
I AM ESPECIALLY OFFENDED that “liturgists” are the ones who are trying to impose the R.C.I.A. on the rest of us. They have mucked up everything they have touched (again excepting the Mass of the Resurrectino) since the end of Vatican II. They are responsible for abandonment of chant and polyphony, the terrible state of liturgical music, art and architecture; the repudiation of popular devotions; the horrible English translations, the listless, boring and interminable Liturgy of the Word (after which the homilist is hard pressed to wake up the congregation); the long delay before the Offering of the Gifts, while ushers mess around with collection baskets in the rear of the church and the endless fussing with the distribution of the Eucharist.
LITURGISTS, as I have argued before in these pages, are not empiricists. They are not interested in the religious experiences of the ordinary people, who they often dismiss as “materialists” and “consumerists.” They believe they have a monopoly on the Spirit as She is revealed in their a priori theories and precious, often “arty,” enthusiasms.
They seem not to have read such seminal authors as Jungman and Dix and not to understand that the genius of the Roman Liturgy is its brisk, sober, restrained movement. Unlike the oriental rites, the Roman Liturgy at its best does not delay, poke around, dawdle. It moves. The “liturgists” do terrible violence to it when they add their kinky, quirky, “cute” little innovations that make them happy and often turn the congregations’s stomach—not that the congregation matters.
I watched a congregation sit for 15 minutes at the Easter Vigil while the newly baptized retreated to don Easter finery (which for some reason could not be worn under their baptismal gowns). The delay, which the R.C.I.A. director would not permit the priest to end, destroyed any sense of wonder and joy that the actual baptismal ceremony may have created. A fragile aura of mystery was forced to give way to the R.C.I.A. director’s passion for gimmickry.
The R.C.I.A. movement as it presently exists in this country is an attempt of the liturgical gimmick-makers to take over the life of the church, despite their failure at virtually everything they have touched. I am astonished at how successful this ploy has been. It will fail, of course, like all previous “movements” have failed and will be routinized in diocesan R.C.I.A. offices as the enthusiasts go on to the next movement, with no count of either its successes or its failures, no evidence of how many people it might have helped or how many it surely hurt.
The mature and responsible laity deserve more sophisticated and enlightened leadership. The clergy should put down the hammers. From the Pope to the most recently ordained priest and most recently appointed director of religious religious education, they should listen attentively to the questions and insights that rise up from the people, questions and insights that are surely signs of the Spirit at work, blowing whither She will—despite the “liturgists.” It is time for the clergy to grow up.