The Sept. 11 attacks, the war in Iraq and the general decline of American cultural life have given many of us cause to revisit our fundamental religious beliefs with a new urgency. Years ago, Robert Fulghum wrote a best seller titled, Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. His book reminded me of the third question in my first-grade religion book, the sorely missed Baltimore Catechism. Succinctly, it asked, “Why did God make me?” This is an elementary question yet one loaded with deep philosophical and theological mysteries that have sparked bitter debates, wars, tortures and persecutions for millennia.
The answer my 6-year-old mind was given was “To know, love and serve Him in this life and be happy with Him in the next life.” It is a simple and direct statement yet pregnant with profound advice. If we really believe it, everything else we do, crave, strive for, lust after or sell our souls for, to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas on his 14th- century deathbed, is cotton candy.
I often wonder how many of the 50 Catholic six-year olds that learned this basic question with me in 1949 still believe its inherent wisdom. Given the intellectual and moral drift of this past half century, I fear not too many. American cultural life has suffered a regression that has warped our very institutions, such as our Constitution, political process and even the meaning of the English language.
The putative rigidity of some religious strictures and the burgeoning movement to subvert and relegate all religious values to the ashcan of history — to finish the unholy business of the French Revolution — have effectively and ruthlessly fostered a great decline in organized religion and its true religious devotion. Sure, Americans are all basically seekers, looking for that spiritual jolt that will help them get through the dark nights of doubt, fear and insecurity that plague most everyone.
But in place of the stern but solid religious foundations that transcend their daily affairs, Americans have chosen the winding, lazy road of shallow thinking and empty spirituality. This is arguably in league with the world’s pagan forbears, who made gods out of the sun, rivers and anything in nature that they feared or respected. In doing so they have lost sight of their reasons for being born.
In search of this inner spirituality, too many have substituted a new-age spirituality for the black-and-white honesty of the Baltimore Catechism. Their refrain of I’m OK, you’re OK is nothing more than psychobabble that provides only the fuzzy warm feeling of thinking oneself a good person or perhaps helping Jimmy Carter build a house or two. Too many pride themselves on these “good” feelings while ignoring a slough of sordid personal behaviors that would make a Marine blush.
A real commitment to the Catholic faith and a mature belief in the afterlife has seemingly descended into the dark void of society’s self-consciousness. We have forgotten the Baltimore Catechism because few teach it any more. The sad fact is that without the longstanding anchor the catechism once provided, it is just too easy for people to float adrift with nothing more than their own petty selves to cling to.
Having lost or discarded the basic metaphysical knowledge in the third question of the catechism, too many Catholics have no clue why their lives don’t seem to make any sense. Unless people, especially Catholics, return to that third question in the Baltimore Catechism, there will be little hope for any real progress in human rights in the end.