Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Review of Matthew Kelly's Rediscover Catholicism: A Spiritual Guide to Living with Passion and Purpose

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.


Bill Hunt is a witness of the Second Vatican Council, having attended the sessions of the second period (1963) as a peritus (theological advisor). He holds a doctorate in theology from the Catholic University of America and taught Catholic theology at the graduate level for fifteen years.

10 comments:

  1. Thanks, Bill. It is true that Kelly does not have a feel for the Catholic sacramental worldview. I was hoping that if people got together to talk about it, that would be a big step in the direction of deepening, as you say, their own awareness of what Catholicism means to them. Do any readers have experience of having had discussions on the book? It would be interesting to hear how other people reacted.

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  2. I have not read this book, but other works of Kelly's I've experienced as similarly ego-driven and superficial.

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  3. I just finished Thomas Cahill's books, "The Gifts of the Jews" and "Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter." At the end of the second one, he contrasts the Greco-Roman worldview with the Judeo-Christian one that "stressed not excellence of public achievement but the adventure of a personal journey with God, a lifetime journey in which a human being was invited to unite himself in God by imitating God's justice and mercy. It was far more individualized than anything the Greeks had ever come up with and stressed the experience of a call, a personal vocation, a unique destiny for each human being.... There was no eternal cosmos, circling round and round. Time is real, not cyclical; it does not repeat itself but proceeds forward inexorably, which makes each moment--and the decisions I make each moment--precious. ...I create a real future in the present by what I do now." Do you think Matthew Kelly is more influenced by the Greco-Roman worldview than by the Judeo-Christian?

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  4. If you like your heresy seasoned with new age modernism, this is the book for you.

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  5. I found the book superficial and vapid. If one can't remember any impressive ideas contained in the book after putting it down, it's not likely to engender any life changes. It's not going to offend the Vatican II deniers in any way, as the Council is pretty much ignored.

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  6. I have just published two books that might be more to your progressive taste.
    One is World Religions and Contemporary Issues (ecology, women's rights, and peace) . This is available at Twenty-Third Publications. The other is Religion Today; an Integral Approach (Lectio Publications) Dr. Brennan HIll, Xavier University, Cincinnati

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    1. Oh gawd...Please burn them.

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  8. In his book, Mathew contends that this book is an attempt to raise morale among Catholics, to remind readers to the genius in Catholicism, to re-engage disengaged Catholics - and with self-help books selling in the Billions of dollars - I salute him, because he does inspire - and all in honor of our Catholic Faith.

    I am disappointed in this very negative review of Rediscover Catholicism. I am a layperson, not a theologian, I am a cradle catholic active in my parish. I happened to be exposed to this book in 2010. It was shared with me by my boss at the time who had left the Catholic Church long ago, and was an evangelical preacher. His mother had given him a copy. This book along with hearing Mathew, brought him back to Catholicism. I have taken a niece to hear Mathew- she had not practiced her faith in many years and she is re-engaging. I shared the book with a friend in Florida - before the archdiocese promoted his book, and she wrote a beautiful thank you letter expressing how it helped her to re-engage, set up a meeting with her local parish priest. Maybe for scholars its simplicity doesn't feed you - or if the lens is simply to read as a "critic" or maybe you were expecting Mathew to "teach" the faith - that simply isn't the message he is sending. He speaks great truth about the struggles of our Faith, as ugly as it is, and still inspires people to be or re-engage as part of the solution, that disengaging is part of the problem! I continue to struggle to understand the Vatican II council - so he simply spoke truth - but yet honors it ... As SBrinkmann responded on Women of Grace-"What might be making you uncomfortable is his current theme, which is all about creating “the best version of yourself” which sounds suspiciously New Age. However, Kelly’s approach to self-improvement isn’t through discovering our inner divinity – it’s solidly based on Vatican II’s call to holiness and encourages people to rediscover the glory of the Church through personal prayer, a deeper appreciation for the Sacramental life of the Church, and the Eucharist".

    Maybe try re-reading with a different lens.

    God Bless

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