Needed: Personal Piety

Book cover
Rediscovering Catholicismby By Matthew KellyOur Sunday Visitor 316p $22.95

Many Catholics today seem content to attend Mass on Sunday, send our children to Catholic schools, and worship the gods of materialism and secularism for the other 167 hours of the week. Matthew Kelly, a motivational speaker and unabashed Catholic evangelist, is a post-Vatican II Catholic who writes primarily for young Catholics. His Rediscovering Catholicism is a mélange of this and other blunt-edged criticisms of Christians in particular and American culture in general. The book earnestly appeals to young Catholics to reclaim a certain piety as the essence of Catholic identity. Personal holiness, he contends, is the answer to every problem.

Kelly has spent serious time on the ground with young Catholics around the world, and it shows. He understands the temptations that consumerism and individualism pose to contemporary youth and the ways in which faith can be reduced to self-help, criticisms of the church can excuse personal spiritual lethargy, and disappointment with ecclesial scandal can lead to an immature dismissal of Catholicism’s spiritual riches.

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Kelly recognizes that a passionate apologetics should consume those on the front lines of Catholic pastoral ministry today, striving to show the relevance of Catholicism for a heavily psychological and institutionally cautious culture. For Kelly, that relevance is summed up in the call to holiness, in a striving for perfection that focuses on the saints and attends to the right formation of personal habits. Catholicism will renew itself and regain its ennobling place in the larger culture only if individuals are willing to reinvigorate personal piety, having the courage to take on spiritual discipline and live a Gospel counterculturalism. Catholicism is not a religion of abstruse dos and don’ts, but is about the cultivation of virtues that nurture the best-version-of-yourself.

These are well taken as general premises and recommendations. In particular, Kelly’s eschewing of an overfocus on sexuality and his turn to the (somewhat ironically) psychological best-version-of-yourself language are helpful shifts in pastoral grammar for everyday ministry. But these insights are all but buried by Kelly’s moralizing broadsides against the evils of contemporary culture, his overveneration of the Catholic Church and the bishop of Rome and his highly individualistic construal of Catholic faith.

Unfortunately typical is his too-facile claim that Christ did not entrust the church with a political, social, or economic missionwhich he separates from a spiritual mission. Whenever he talks about transformation, it is almost exclusively of the individual heart, of one’s personal journey with God. As each soul journeys toward its individual destiny, he writes, God employs that soul to touch others, to serve others, and to inspire others to make their own journey. Kelly’s program does not take the measure of the ways in which Catholic tradition has put in the foreground the strongly social, political and economic dimensions that are not additions to, but partly constitutive of, our spiritual selves.

Along the way, there are several dismissive and disparaging remarks about Protestant Christians, and what can almost be called magical tales about the power of Mother Teresa’s rosary. Kelly even discourages young Christians from reading newspapers, which he condemns as whimsical modern reading materials that young Catholics should cast off. One need not dispute that there is much yet to be retrieved from Catholic premodernity, but it is not unreasonable to ask whether these particular attitudes are the riches to be recovered.

Kelly relies heavily on many evangelical tropes, like the truth-disclosing power of confessionally reported personal experience (I promise you that this or that is the case, Kelly often tellingly writes). His turn to individual piety with an emphasis on witness and personal relationship with God, a focus on harnessing the body so that the soul can soar and a suspicion of critical thinking and all things worldly shows just how much an evangelical Catholicity is currently persuading some post-Vatican II Catholics.

Rediscovering Catholicism is in this sense very instructive. Neither ministry to young Catholics today nor apologetics toward the larger culture will succeed unless Catholic theology and ministry take these tendencies toward an evangelical Catholicity seriously, as both possible manifestations of the Spirit and as possible threats to the flourishing of the Second Vatican Council.

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9 years 2 months ago
What are Matthew Kelly's credentials for teaching? Where I do not and would not wish to minimize the value of lay leadership and the lay voice, what is his theological background and training other than public speaking?
S. Koon
3 years 9 months ago
I'd like to know the same thing. I'd also like to know who actually put together his Decision Point confirmation program, what their qualifications are and if anyone has used it.
John Wren
7 years 2 months ago
No comments here after 8 years? Not sure what that means.

We are discussing Matthew Kelly and this book of his this morning and for the next few weeks at Loyola Church in Denver, Colorado.

I'll distribute copies of this review, and I intend to come back here and post a bit about our discussions. I'd be interested in your thoughts, who ever you are reading this right now. Maybe we can get a conversation going online. We'll see.

As for myself, I found Fr James Martin's new Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything much more helpful than this book of Kelly's. I did like Kelly's call for more reading and the importance of adult education; I hope he has read Fr Martin's book. If you read this, Matthew, it would be great if you'd join in this (hopefully) online conversation. You too, Fr. Martin.
Vincent Gaitley
3 years 9 months ago
Exactly what are our so-called social, political, and economic dimensions that constitute our spiritual selves?

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