Some of you may know the short
story, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. If you don’t, I need to spoil the
ending to make my point. But I promise the story will still be worth reading.
“The Lottery” is set on a summer
day in a small town in 1940s America. The people are assembling for a very old
annual ritual. The ritual has something to do with imploring a good corn
harvest -- but there’s no mention of any God, and no clergy anywhere in the
Each person in the village lines
up to draw a slip of paper from an old wooden box. Tessie Hutchinson, a young
wife and mother, draws a slip with a black mark.
From that moment, the story moves
quickly to its conclusion. The lottery official gives the word, and the
villagers move in on Tessie. And they stone her to death.
“The Lottery” is one of the most
widely read stories ever published in my country. And for good reason. It’s
well told. The ending leaves you breathless. Teachers like it because it
provokes sharp classroom discussions.
Or at least it used to.
A few years ago, a college
writing professor, Kay Haugaard, wrote an essay about her experiences teaching
“The Lottery” over a period of about two decades.
She said that in the early 1970s,
students who read the story voiced shock and indignation. The tale led to vivid
conversations on big topics -- the meaning of sacrifice and tradition; the
dangers of group-think and blind allegiance to leaders; the demands of
conscience and the consequences of cowardice.
Sometime in the mid-1990s,
however, reactions began to change.
Haugaard described one classroom
discussion that -- to me -- was more disturbing than the story itself. The
students had nothing to say except that the story bored them. So Haugaard asked
them what they thought about the villagers ritually sacrificing one of their own
for the sake of the harvest.
One student, speaking in quite
rational tones, argued that many cultures have traditions of human sacrifice.
Another said that the stoning might have been part of “a religion of long
standing,” and therefore acceptable and understandable.
An older student who worked as a
nurse, also weighed in. She said that her hospital had made her take training in
multicultural sensitivity. The lesson she learned was this: “If it’s a part of a
person’s culture, we are taught not to judge.”
I thought of Haugaard’s
experience with “The Lottery” as I got ready for this brief talk. Here’s where
my thinking led me:
Our culture is doing catechesis
every day. It works like water dripping on a stone, eroding people’s moral and
religious sensibilities, and leaving a hole where their convictions used to be.
Haugaard’s experience teaches us
that it took less than a generation for this catechesis to produce a group of
young adults who were unable to take a moral stand against the ritual murder of
a young woman. Not because they were cowards. But because they lost their
Haugaard’s students seemingly
grew up in a culture shaped by practical atheism and moral relativism. In other
words, they grew up in an environment that teaches, in many different ways, that
God is irrelevant, and that good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood
can’t exist in any absolute sense.
This is the culture we live in,
and the catechesis is on-going. But I don’t think this new kind of barbarism –
because that’s what it is; a form of barbarism -- is an inevitable process.
It’s not easy to de-moralize and
strip a society of its religious sense. Accomplishing the task requires two key
factors: First, it takes the aggressive, organized efforts of individuals and
groups committed to undermining faith and historic Christian values. Second, it
takes the indifference of persons like you and me, Christian believers.
I want to focus on the second
factor, because it involves us.
Christians in my country and
yours -- and throughout the West, generally -- have done a terrible job of
transmitting our faith to our own children and to the culture at large.
Evidence can be found anecdotally
in stories like Kay Haugaard’s. We can also see it in polls showing that
religious identity and affiliation are softening. More people are claiming that
they’re “spiritual,” but they have no religion.
Religion is fading as a formative
influence in developed countries. Religious faith is declining in Western
culture, especially among Canadian and American young people. This suggests that
the Church is actually much smaller than her official numbers would indicate.
And this, in turn, has implications for the future of Catholic life and the
direction of our societies.
What’s happening today in the
Church is not a “new” story. We find it repeated throughout the Old Testament.
It took very little time for the Hebrews to start worshipping a golden calf.
Whenever the people of God grew too prosperous or comfortable, they forgot where
they came from. They forgot their God, because they no longer thought it was
important to teach about him.
Because they failed to catechize,
they failed to inoculate themselves against the idolatries in their surrounding
cultures. And eventually, they began praying to the same alien gods as the
pagans among whom they lived.
We have the same struggles
today. Instead of changing the culture around us, we Christians have allowed
ourselves to be changed by the culture. We’ve compromised too cheaply.
We’ve hungered after assimilating and fitting in. And in the process, we’ve
been bleached out and absorbed by the culture we were sent to make holy.
If our people no longer know
their faith, or its obligations of discipleship, or its call to mission -- then
we leaders, clergy, parents and teachers have no one to blame but ourselves. We
need to confess that, and we need to fix it. For too many of us, Christianity is
not a filial relationship with the living God, but a habit and an inheritance.
We’ve become tepid in our beliefs and naive about the world. We’ve lost our
evangelical zeal. And we’ve failed in passing on our faith to the next
The practical unbelief we now
face in our societies is, in large measure, the fruit of our own flawed choices
in teaching, parenting, religious practice and personal witness. But these
choices can be unmade. We can repent. We can renew
what our vanity and indifference have diminished. It’s still possible to
“redeem the time,” as St. Paul once put it. But we don’t have a lot of
time. Nor should we make alibis for mistakes of the past.
Sixty years ago, when Shirley
Jackson wrote “The Lottery,” she could count on her readers knowing what right
and wrong were. She lived in a culture that reflected a broadly Christian
consensus about virtue and moral integrity. That’s no longer the case.
The culture we live in today
proselytizes for a very different consensus -- one based on political and moral
agendas vigorously hostile to Christian beliefs.
A recent article in the New
York Times went directly to this point. It was about a new ad campaign
launched by supporters of homosexual “marriage” in New York. The campaign
features politicians and Hollywood celebrities making a series of
One example is from the actress,
Julianne Moore. Her ad begins, “Hi, I’m Julianne Moore, and I’m a New Yorker. We
all deserve the right to marry the person we love.”
The New York campaign is
misleading and ultimately ruinous to real marriages and families. But when
Christians don’t understand the content or the reasons for their own faith, they
have no compelling alternative to offer.
The points I’ve been making are
First, either we form
our culture, or the culture will form us. Second, right now, the
culture does a better job of shaping us than we do in shaping the culture.
And third, we need to admit our failures, and we need to turn ourselves
onto a path of repentance and change, and unselfish witness to others.
The central issue in renewing
Catholic catechesis has little to do with techniques, or theories, or programs,
or resources. The central issue is whether we ourselves really do
believe. Catechesis is not a profession. It’s a dimension of discipleship. If
we’re Christians, we’re each of us called to be teachers and missionaries.
But we can’t share what we don’t
have. If we’re embarrassed about Church teachings, or if we disagree with them,
or if we’ve decided that they’re just too hard to live by, or too hard to
explain, then we’ve already defeated ourselves.
We need to really believe what we
claim to believe. We need to stop calling ourselves “Catholic” if we don’t stand
with the Church in her teachings – all of them. But if we really are
Catholic, or at least if we want to be, then we need to act like it
with obedience and zeal and a fire for Jesus Christ in our hearts. God gave us
the faith in order to share it. This takes courage. It takes a deliberate
dismantling of our own vanity. When we do that, the Church is strong. When we
don’t, she grows weak. It’s that simple.
In a culture of confusion, the
Church is our only reliable guide. So let’s preach and teach our Catholic
beliefs with passion. And let’s ask God to make us brave enough and humble
enough to follow our faith to its radical conclusions.
Thanks for your attention. God