Against Self-Help Catholicism

By Mattias A. Caro
June 12, 2018

The other day I noticed my local parish was giving away the book I had to have. The author promised secrets to raising "amazing children" and, from the title, that together we would be able to build "better families."

Lately, there's been an explosion of "professional Catholics" hawking a book, video series, or in-person seminar aimed at improving people's lives in the faith. Most of these programs have passed muster, garnering (in the case of books) the official approval of local bishops. While my parish gives away the book for free (as well as an online, Netflix-style suit of videos), many others are paying Catholics to produce content about the faith.

There's nothing wrong with Catholics receiving just remuneration for their work. Even here at Ethika Politika we charge a nominal monthly fee ("less than a cup of coffee at your local Starbucks") for easy access to our articles. Of course, that's nothing compared to the several thousand dollars in speaker fees and associated costs that top-billing professional Catholics charge to your parish to come and visit.

Costs, even high ones, aren't de facto a problem. But they can complicate things, and even significantly. Saint Paul says that what we have received without cost we should also give without cost. Professional Catholics are no different really from parishes that charge for their religious education programs, or even require families to post a nominal fee to receive the Sacraments. Inasmuch as we should scrutinize the professional class of Catholics for making money off of the faith, we should reexamine the practice of charging money for access to the sacraments in our parishes.

A bigger problem is that books, talks, and materials that promise "awesome children" are really just another form of the self-help psychology that's been proffered at airport book stand kiosks for decades. Family life is, for all intents and purposes, a lot of work. While the author's book might get me to think about my family life a bit more critically, nothing can truly replace the intense, sacrificial work necessary for a holy family. 

What's more, as Catholics, we should be immensely wary that a program or book will make us "amazing" people, or that it will contribute much to making our society or families "better." That's the sort of neo-Pelagianism that Pope Francis has been warning about for several years. The deception is especially dangerous because it sticks, because its promises are enticing and the advice given isn't always bad. Oftentimes it's even good; but it's shallow.

Our Catholic faith is richer than "doing it better." It's a constant recognition of the limits of our nature melded with the limitless possibilities of access to sanctifying and actual grace. The affront of neo-Pelagian truths is that they replace the life of grace in favor of the quick seduction of knowledge, which if we only had access to, we would be more like God. Yet knowledge is not the same thing as prayer, a dialogue with God, nor is it the same as the sacramental graces we have access to habitually in confession and even daily in the Eucharist. 

Selling books, seminars, and videos is, to borrow from the Protestant world, a "cheap grace." It can easily rob our attention and time away from important, effective encounters with God, both sacramentally and in prayer. Quick fix and self-help options won't supply what our weak and wounded nature needs.

And even cheaper than the paid-for and given-away copy of a book at my parish, grace is actually, entirely free.

Mattias A. Caro is the Executive Editor of Ethika Politika.