Erase that disloyal rift between faith and life

September 18, 2006

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 521-537

Sean O'Sullivan made history in 1972 when he was elected at age 20 as, at that time, Canada's youngest-ever member of Parliament. By his own account, O'Sullivan was a combative sort who mostly made his mark battling other members of his Progressive Conservative Party.

After a few years of this, he felt the emptiness of it all and began exploring the possibility of becoming a Catholic priest. He attended retreats and studied the faith.


O'Sullivan realized how little he had known about Church teaching and experienced a great deepening of his faith. He came to see the central importance of forgiveness and reconciliation.

In 1977, he resigned his seat in the House of Commons and entered the seminary. He was ordained a priest for the Toronto Archdiocese, served famously as its vocations director for three years, contracted leukemia and died at only 37 in 1989.

I do not doubt that O'Sullivan had a call to the priesthood. But it does bring me sorrow that when a layperson goes through an intense deepening of their faith, they often assume this deepening means they are called to the priesthood or religious life.

Society and the Church desperately need people of deep faith to live out that faith in the secular marketplace.

The assumption too often seems to be that if one has knowledge of the faith and devotion to God, he or she should enter the religious or clerical state. The contrary assumption is that if one is a layperson then one's faith will be lukewarm and compromised.

In his 1988 document on the laity, Pope John Paul II cited two related "temptations" facing laypeople. One is that of the separation of faith from life. The other temptation is for laity to become "so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that they fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world" (Christifideles Laici, n. 2).

What a difference it would make if O'Sullivan or several people like him had, upon experiencing a profound deepening of his faith, determined to practise forgiveness and reconciliation in the House of Commons all the while standing up for Gospel values.

It is so difficult to live your faith in a secular milieu when, all around you, others are living by a dog-eat-dog ethos. It is even more difficult to change to live Christian values in your workplace when previously you operated by the same standards as everyone else.

But if the Church's social doctrine is to have any effect on our world, such conversion is needed . . . by hundreds, thousands, of Canadian Catholics. We cannot put our faith on the shelf during the work week, only to dust it off for Sunday liturgy.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says the Church must take a giant step forward in her evangelization efforts. The contemporary world is marked by a secular view of salvation, by a split between faith and culture. The new evangelization must help Catholics overcome this gap and "must include among its essential elements a proclamation of the Church's social doctrine" (n. 523).

The Church must teach the whole faith, it says. Its social teachings must receive greater emphasis in all catechesis.

When the split between faith and culture is overcome in our lives, this will be a gift not only to us as individuals and to the Church as a communion, but also to the wider society. Society will benefit if its primary orientation is to eternity. Only then can the human person be understood in his and her entirety.

"Social problems will never find an adequate solution," says the Compendium, "if the transcendent character of the human person, fully revealed in faith, is not safeguarded" (n. 527).

Historians have differing views on the driving force of social change. Some see it as economics, others as politics, still others as great men and women.


One of the most eminent 20th century historians, Christopher Dawson, argued for the inner world of spirituality "as the dynamic element in history and as a real world-transforming power." While Dawson did not call for society to return to some fantasized mythical past, he did see the Middle Ages as "the outstanding example in history of the application of faith to life."

If Dawson is right, then faith, well lived, can transform society. This means serious Catholics should neglect neither their spirituality nor their public witness. Each must form and inform the other. The laity must endeavour, as the Second Vatican Council urged, to permeate the secular world with the spirit of the Gospel.

Being a Christian in the marketplace should not mean being lukewarm and compromised in one's faith. It should mean bringing one's faith to bear in every corner of one's life, even if standing up for one's principles leads to persecution or sacrifice.

The biggest crisis in the Church and in society is the yawning chasm between faith and life.

But by God's grace that chasm will be narrowed and society will be the better for it.