By Bill Hunt
Rediscover Catholicism comes with great promise. Hundreds of thousands of copies of the book have been distributed free of charge to Catholics throughout the United States. It forms the centerpiece of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ yearlong “Rediscover” program that invites Catholics to re-evaluate the meaning of their faith.
Matthew Kelly brings his skills as a business management consultant and motivational speaker to writing “a spiritual guide to living with passion and purpose.” He contends that the fundamental principle of Catholicism is that God wants us to be happy and holy by becoming “the best-version-of-ourselves” – a phrase he emphasizes throughout his book with mind-numbing repetition.
In the main section of his book Kelly recommends a number of “spiritual exercises” as aids in the quest for individual holiness. He calls these practices “the seven pillars of Catholic spirituality.” They include 1) monthly confession of one’s sins to a priest, 2) daily personal prayer, 3) weekly attentive participation in Sunday Mass, 4) daily Bible reading, 5) regular fasting, 6) daily spiritual reading, and 7) daily recitation of the Rosary. Just as regular physical exercise is necessary to develop a healthy body, so also regular spiritual exercises are necessary to develop “the-best-version-of-oneself.”
The last section of Rediscover Catholicism is a call to action. Faithful Catholics should focus on Catholic education and evangelization. “Teaching young people to recognize and celebrate the-best-version-of-themselves is also the best way to teach them to participate in society, to find work that is uniquely suited to them, and to engage their social responsibilities.” (p. 292) For evangelization, Kelly suggests “a simple four-point plan” based on cultivating friendship, prayer, personal sharing, and invitation.
Kelly is fond of sports metaphors, and Rediscover Catholicism is very much like an extended pep talk. It’s all very simple. The key is discipline. Catholics need to get back to basics, keep the goal of holiness in mind, take inspiration from their Church’s past achievements, study their heroes (the saints), and practice vigorously so that they may become what God wants them to be.
However, for all its promise Rediscover Catholicism is fundamentally flawed.
From the theological point of view, Kelly pays more attention to Michael Jordan than to Jesus; to self-development than to self-giving love. The reader searches in vain for something as insightful as the line from Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Kelly is somehow able to write an entire chapter on prayer without mentioning the Lord’s Prayer and to deal with virtue while almost completely ignoring the Sermon on the Mount. With regard to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, he consistently refers to it as “Confession” and emphasizes its instrumental role in individual spiritual growth rather than its main purpose of reconciling the penitent with the Church and God. His take on fasting as the soul’s weapon in its constant war against the body has an eerily Manichaean tone.
Oddly, this book could have been written fifty years ago. Kelly rarely uses inclusive language and consistently refers to God as “he.” He reminds me of the Catholic Truth Society speakers that I listened to in London’s Hyde Park back in 1958. The CTS speakers defended the Roman Catholic Church as the one true church against the attacks of Protestants and atheists. They adopted an approach that exaggerated both the strengths of the Catholic Church and the weaknesses of the Protestants. For them the road to Christian unity was conversion to the Catholic faith.
Adopting a similar siege mentality, Kelly begins each chapter with a list of threats to Catholicism from secular society. With surprising hostility he accuses “Protestant-Evangelical churches” of kidnapping the word evangelization; of using argumentative and intimidating methods; of being “self-promoting and self-serving;” and of not even considering Catholics to be Christians. (p. 293)
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) adopted a much more open stance based on dialog and a search for common ground. Kelly gives lip service to the importance of the Council, but he hastens to add: “Vatican II was grossly misunderstood by Catholics at large and misrepresented by a great many theologians.” (pp. 75-76.) In the rest of his book he shows little, if any, interest in seriously engaging with the Council’s fundamental teachings.
Kelly seems to adopt the approach of many Catholic traditionalists who consider the Council to have been a mistake. Instead of taking issue with the Council directly, they simply ignore it.
The most positive thing I can say about Rediscover Catholicism is that it forces the reader to re-examine her or his own approach to Catholicism. However, as the rationale for a program to attract people to the Catholic Church it promotes a spirituality that owes more to the principles of the human potential movement than to Jesus’ command to love one another as he loved us.