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Issue Date:  July 15, 2005

'Doctrines are benchmarks of wisdom'

Amid confusion of spiritual resources, tradition offers guides

Kansas City, Mo.

Spirituality is a hot topic and big business today.

Publisher’s Weekly found last year that 18 percent of the 10,000 consumers it surveyed had purchased a spiritual or religious book in the past year. The largest group of buyers, 28 percent, were between 25 and 34 years old.

“Religious books have emerged as the most impressive growth category in the book publishing industry over the past four years,” according to “Book Industry Trends 2005,” a study released in May by the the Book Industry Study Group, a publishing trade association. Sales of religion and spirituality books grew 11 percent in 2004, the study found, accounting for nearly 6.6 percent of the book industry’s $28.6 in revenues last year.

It’s a phenomenon noticed by Catholic theologians. And it can be confusing, said Colleen Griffith, director of the Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College.

“How does one sort through contemporary best sellers like The Celestine Prophecies, Embraced by the Light and Care of the Soul, which get placed on the same bookshelves as St. Augustine’s Confessions, Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle and The Cloud of Unknowing? What an odd phenomenon,” Griffith said in her talk at “Spirituality for the 21st Century: Experiencing God in the Catholic Tradition,” a seminar held June 4 in Kansas City, Mo.

“What is spirituality anyhow?” Griffith asked. “The question seems like an existentially urgent one in our time. For we are, as Peter Steinfels said, a people adrift, a people searching.”

“Simply put, we are getting tired of being harried, hassled and agitated with a utilitarian outlook and having a hard time being centered. We’re fragmented enough. We’re looking for something else. In that search for something deeper, there is no shortage of resources,” she said.

“There are options galore for spiritual pilgrims of every stripe. So where does one look for guidance when deciding about spiritual practices?” Griffith asked.

When the seminar organizers chose the day’s topic, said Richard Miller, the principal organizer, they were reacting to “the explosion of spiritual resources” and the often heard phrase: “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

Miller quoted sociologist Robert Wuthnow saying that because of changes in U.S. culture, “the foundations of religious traditions seem to be less secure than in the past. Insisting that old phrases are cant, many Americans struggle to invent new language to describe their faith. As they do, their beliefs are becoming more eclectic and their commitments becoming private.”

Miller suggested that perhaps one reason for the ascendancy of spirituality and the decline of religion “is that religious traditions have failed to consistently make clear the connection between their doctrine and the spiritual lives of the members of their community.”

“This conference,” Miller said, “hopes to clarify the connection between the central mysteries of the Catholic faith and spirituality.” The one-day conference featured sessions on spirituality and the Trinity, the Incarnation, redemption and the Eucharist.

Fr. Michael Himes, professor of theology at Boston College, said in his talk, “For spirituality to be sane and firmly rooted and for the church’s tradition to be vital and inspiring, it is crucial that the connection be made clear. We must see how our spirituality is grounded in the tradition of Catholic belief.”

Miller said the discussion about dogmas and doctrines “is not a heavy-handed attempt to prescribe a monolithic spirituality. For as will become clear today, there is not and never has been a single Catholic spirituality. Rather a number of spiritualities have flourished in the Catholic tradition.”

Mentioned throughout the day were the spiritual traditions of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Sts. Francis and Clare, St. Benedict, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, as well as the writings of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Karl Rahner among others.

Miller said, “The symbols around which any Christian spirituality is formed, while being true, do not exhaust the ways to God.” He quoted Pope Benedict XVI, “There are as many ways to God as there are men and women.”

Griffith said, “Most Christians assume that doctrines are judicial and legislative propositions to which Christians give assent.” She said, “The primary purpose of doctrines is to be evocative, to nurture the Christian community’s relationship with Christ.

“Doctrines are benchmarks of Christian wisdom over time,” she said. “They are expressions of a Christian community’s insight into the meaning of Christ. As a response to the mystery of God in Christ, no single doctrine, nor all of them cumulatively for that matter, ever exhaust the reality of that mystery.”

Proceedings of the seminar are available from Liguori Publications.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

Family, bishop join to support seminar for laity

An idea born during a family gathering following a baptism has grown into an event that in each of the last three years has drawn more than 400 Catholics from Missouri and Kansas to set aside the first Saturday in June to contemplate the state and future of the Catholic church.

The event is a series of seminars, “The Church in the 21st Century,” that began in 2003. This year’s topic was “Spirituality for the 21st Century: Experiencing God in the Catholic Tradition.” (See above.)

The seminar series was inaugurated to provide a forum for reflection and conversation on central issues facing the church today, according to Richard Miller, who along with his parents, Dick and Bernadette Miller, are the founders of the series sponsored through the Millers’ Catholic Community Foundation of Kansas City.

Richard Miller recently completed a doctorate in theology at Boston College and will begin teaching theology at Creighton University, Omaha, Neb., this fall. It was at his son’s baptism party in 2002 that the idea of the seminar arose in discussion with his son’s grandparents; godfather, Fr. Michael Himes; and baptizer, Jesuit Fr. Michael Buckley.

Richard Miller told NCR that the seminars are grounded in a study of church history and historical theology.

“Studying history,” he said, “brings the recognition that there have been changes, development in the church.” Understanding that, he said, prevents one from taking one point along the line of development and making it an absolute.

Dick Miller, Richard’s father, drew an example from his profession, trial lawyer. “The law has changed significantly because of science and technology,” he said. The church and how people live their faith have changed for the same reasons.

“We’re in a society and culture that is changing, which is why you’ve got to keep educating people,” he said.

The seminars have drawn on well-known Catholic thinkers. This year’s seminar on spirituality featured presentations by Boston College theologians, Buckley, Himes, Colleen Griffith and Mary Ann Hinsdale, as well as from Franciscan Fr. Kenan Osborne of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and Msgr. John Strynkowski, rector of St. James Cathedral of Brooklyn.

The 2004 seminar on lay ministry included Sacred Heart Sr. Carolyn Osiek, Francine Cardman and Dominican Fr. Thomas F. O’Meara. By coincidence, the National Association of Lay Ministry’s annual convention was the same weekend and in Kansas City. The association’s organizers opened their schedule so their members could attend the seminar.

Another unique aspect of the series is that from the beginning it was embraced and promoted by Bishop Raymond Boland, who until May was the bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese.

Dick Miller called Boland’s support of the seminar series “courageous.” The bishop recognizes the value of a forum where adult Catholics can see how Catholic theology applies to real world issues, he said. “He understands the importance of trusting the people and educating the people in their faith.”

He said that Boland has attended every session of each seminar and has sent the papers and audio CDs produced from the seminars to all the bishops in the United States.

Dick Miller said, “The bishop told me once, ‘I had to be there or people will think that I don’t care about it or that I don’t know about it.’ ”

Between sessions June 4, the hallways and cafeteria buzzed with speculation about whether the seminars would continue, since Boland has retired. The speculation was quashed when, near the end of the day, the emcee asked everyone in the audience to reserve the first Saturday in June 2006. “These seminars will continue,” she said.

-- Dennis Coday

National Catholic Reporter, July 15, 2005

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