Father Leonard Peterson
The 18th century English poet Thomas Gray put it this way: “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” With due respect to the poet, I could respond with “when ignorance is harmful, ’tis wise to be informed.”
Which brings me to the matter of the abysmal ignorance displayed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her “Meet the Press” interview last month. As a self-styled “practicing Catholic,” her wrong answer to the question, “When does life begin?” brought harm to our Church and disgrace to herself. Certainly her comments were no credit to her alleged research or whatever Catholic education she may have had. She has been amply answered elsewhere by our American bishops. Unfortunately, the bishops’ presentations will not get anywhere near the audience that Ms. Pelosi had that Sunday.
I happened to see that interview and almost started talking back to the TV. But my point here is that Ms. Pelosi typifies one of the chief problems we have to deal with in the Church today: widespread ignorance of Church teaching.
The definition of ignorance from dictionary.com is: “the condition of being uneducated, unaware, or uninformed.” On almost any given subject we have untold numbers of Catholics of all ages who carry around in their heads or hold in their hearts false understandings even of the basics. It is something we priests run into almost every day in the ordinary life of a parish.
Examples abound. One category that comes to mind is the misperception of what we hold about the sacraments. Without citing applicable examples for all seven, allow me to do so for a few.
Regarding baptism, I have met an unexpressed but implicit belief in many new parents that this is some kind of procedure one puts a child through either to establish Church membership (somewhat noble) or to appease some kind of wrathful god ready to punish (very ignoble) or to comfort the grandparents (least noble).
I recall a neighboring Lutheran minister in a parish where I served sharing his frustration with me about one of his congregant’s misunderstanding of baptism. He took a call from a person who used this perplexing phraseology: “I want to ‘get my kid done.'” Right then and there this clergyman knew he had work to do. I have not even mentioned the odd requests priests get for proposed godparents, who are meant to foster the Christian life by word and example.
Another case involves the comforting sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Hindered by Hollywood’s interpretation, many Catholics have imbedded in their minds the belief that this sacrament always comprises “the last rites.” As a result, there is a hesitancy to receive it.
I remember vividly the bizarre reaction of a family when I made an emergency call years ago after a nurse had notified me about anointing a sick person. When I arrived at the room, I was respectfully but rigorously blocked because said relatives “didn’t want mom to be upset.”
So many myths abound about matrimony and related subtopics that to catalogue them all would take at least a midsize book.
One is that the Church has relaxed her teaching about couples living together before marriage. Or that once a Catholic is spanorced, they are outside the Church. Or those annulments are highly costly procedures that cause major embarrassment to the parties. How these errors originate would make a good thesis topic.
Until our Catholic people become convinced that formation in the faith is a lifelong process, and decide to act on that conviction, we’re in trouble. It should hardly be a surprise that on yet another talk show we will hear more gobbledygook passed off as genuine Church teaching to some unsuspecting non-Catholic interviewer. There will never be bliss in that.
Father Peterson is pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Hatfield.