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The Heresy of Low Expectations

Experience shows time and again that people excel when much is expected of them. So why do we demand so little of believers?

Eric Sammons

A few years ago, I was at a softball tournament with one of my daughters and saw a sign recruiting girls for a new travel-ball team. The organizers made clear that girls who joined this team would be making a major commitment: many practices, a difficult playing schedule, demanding coaches. But the payoff was also evident: if you joined this team, it was promised, you would become a much better softball player.

Since we were out of town for the tournament, the next day we attended Mass at the nearest parish. Leaving church, I saw a sign recruiting young people to become altar servers. The organizers made clear that no real commitment was needed: they would hold few practices and would ask little of the young people—just be at Mass once or twice a month.

The contrast between the two signs was striking. In the first, the softball organizers took their activity seriously and demanded participants do the same. In the second, the organizers treated altar serving as a burden they hoped a few young people would accept if the demands were few. The expectations of the first group were high; of the second, low. Low expectations are all too common in the Catholic Church, and they have a dramatic impact on our ability to evangelize.

When I was a diocesan director of evangelization, I often met with parish representatives to encourage them to evangelize. Usually my efforts focused on training parish staff and volunteers on how to spread the Faith, but sometimes I brought up topics that surprised them. For example, I encouraged parishes to establish regular eucharistic adoration—perpetual adoration, if possible. The typical response was, “Oh, no one will come.” And from their perspective, that was the end of the discussion.

Low expectations in the Church aren’t limited to the turnout for adoration. I encountered the same attitude when I encouraged eucharistic processions. A staple of Catholic parishes for centuries, processions became less popular in the latter half of the twentieth century. But they are one of the Church’s best evangelization practices, literally bringing Jesus to the streets. However, when I urged parishes to add processions to the parish calendar, I was often told, “People don’t understand them” or “No one knows what to do during a procession.”

We can see low expectations also in the common practice of many parishes that offer confession only once a week for a short period of time (usually Saturday afternoons before the Vigil Mass). Whenever I’ve asked priests about this limited availability, many say the same thing: “No one goes to confession anymore. We don’t even have a full line the one time a week we do offer it.” And, from my own experience, this is usually true.

However, saying, “No one goes, so we won’t offer confession more regularly” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, an argument could be made that the opposite is true: “Because we don’t offer confession more regularly, no one goes.” By offering confession for only a few minutes each week, a parish is implying it’s not that important. And if it’s not important, why go?

I experienced the relationship between expectations and practice in my own parish years ago. As in most parishes, confession was available only once a week. Eventually a new pastor was installed. Immediately he made confession available before every weekday Mass and doubled the time it was available on Saturdays. His first four Sunday homilies focused on the importance of confession.

The response was dramatic. Even with confession available far more often, the lines were longer than they had ever been. Where before there might have been a handful of people in line on Saturday, now there were over a dozen in line on a Wednesday morning. And this wasn’t a short-term change: even years later, this was still true. By raising expectations, our new pastor inspired people to live up to them.

Most people usually live up to (or down to) the expectations placed on them. If confession isn’t considered important enough to make readily available, most Catholics won’t consider it important enough to go.

Low morals

Low expectations can be especially harmful when applied to areas of morality. Beyond simply discouraging some traditional church practices, low expectations can result in encouraging dangerous and damaging behavior.

For example, I’ve heard more than once some variation of “I can’t encourage my homosexual friend to live chastely—that’s too hard. Being monogamous is good enough.” Most Catholics acknowledge that a promiscuous lifestyle is immoral and dangerous but assume that a chaste lifestyle would be too difficult. So instead of encouraging a person with same-sex attraction to follow completely the Church’s moral teachings, these folks will either tacitly or explicitly condone a monogamous homosexual relationship as the best realistic outcome. It may make perfect sense to the relieved Catholic who now feels okay about not confronting his friend’s sin, but it is at variance with the teachings—and the high standard—set by Christ.

“Ideal” too tough to live up to

We also see low expectations when it comes to the epidemic of divorced and remarried Catholics. Something a Catholic friend told me reflects a common attitude: “My sister has been married to her second husband for twenty years; it’s ridiculous to say that’s not a ‘real marriage.’ I can’t exhort her to live as ‘brother and sister’ with her husband while she gets her first marriage straightened out.” Again, this person assumes that her sister can’t live up to the “ideal” of Christian morality, so she sets her sights lower.

The reasons behind these low expectations can be well meaning. In fact, they can be born from a desire to spread the Faith. A common assumption is that if you call people to a higher ideal, they will be discouraged and walk away. This mentality is widespread; in fact, it’s the modus operandi of most mainline Protestant denominations.

But, as we saw with the example of the softball team, the mentality that so infects our religious actions doesn’t seem to be prevalent in other areas of life. We push ourselves when we want to lose weight, or get a promotion, or succeed in a sport. When we want to achieve something, we demand only the best from ourselves and from those around us. But when it comes to religious obligations and demands, we settle for second best.

The transforming power of God

In my book The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did, I call this attitude the heresy of low expectations. How could such a thing as low expectations be like a heresy?

First, because low expectations deny, whether knowingly or unknowingly, that God’s grace is capable of transforming lives. When we see someone who is far from living the gospel, we assume it’s impossible for him to change. We can’t comprehend the “how,” so we simply change the expectation to make it more palatable for the other person and for ourselves. But what is impossible for the One who rose from the dead?

Consider St. Paul. During his days as a persecutor of Christians, it’s likely that the grandest wish any Christian had for him was that he simply stop attacking the Church. The attitude of Ananias was probably common among the followers of Christ: when he was told by the Lord in a vision to meet Paul and cure him of his blindness, Ananias replied, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name” (Acts 9:13-14).

Ananias had low expectations for Paul: never could he have foreseen that the former persecutor would become the Apostle to the Gentiles. If God is able to transform someone as completely as St. Paul, why can’t he also transform our friend or family member?

Consider also the Sermon on the Mount. Best known for the Beatitudes, Christ’s most famous sermon encompasses chapters five through seven of Matthew’s Gospel and is essentially a call to set high expectations for all people. Early in the Sermon, Christ proclaims:

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17-20).

After setting this high bar, Christ goes into a series of teachings that begin, “You have heard it was said . . . But I say to you . . .” (Matt. 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43). Not only does he state that we can’t relax any commandments, he actually makes them stricter! For example, not only can we not commit adultery, we cannot even look at another lustfully (cf. Matt. 5:21-26). Further, no exceptions are made for certain life circumstances or situations; all are called to this higher way of living.

When we fall short

The apex of the Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew 5:48, when Christ commands that we “be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Christ literally has the highest possible expectations for each of us. Shouldn’t we model our own expectations after his?

Yes, we know that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), but that does not change the call. It should be the goal of every person to strive for perfection in Christ. To lower that bar, for any reason, denies essential truths of our faith.

Of course, human experience tells us that we often fall short. What should be our reaction then? A priest once told me, “I want to be a lion from the pulpit and a lamb in the confessional.” Precisely! All of us are to call those around us to the highest way of life—conformity to God’s laws. But when someone around us fails, we should reach down and pick him up. We don’t wallow with him in the mud and pretend that being half-stuck in the mud is the best he can do. Instead, we lift him up to strive for the gospel way of life. This is mercy: it’s not about accepting a lesser way of life for others but helping them leave that lesser way for the way, the truth, and the life.

Having low expectations in religious matters for others also reflects a certain arrogance on our part. It assumes that some people can live up to the gospel, but others can’t. We may go to Mass and confession regularly, strive to follow God’s moral laws, and seek more profound conversion, but for others it’s just too hard.

Why do we think this? Are we able to do these things because we have innate abilities others don’t? Has God given us some special grace? That is the implication when we set two different standards for living as a Catholic: one for ourselves and one for others. Catholic theology makes it clear that all good comes from God and that we need grace to follow his commandments; anything else would be Pelagianism, the old heresy that teaches we can be disciples of Christ under our own human power. So, if we need grace to follow God’s commandments, why do we think God would withhold that grace from others?

Expect more, receive more

Anyone who’s involved in youth sports can imagine the response to the travel softball team flier I mentioned. If it’s like most travel teams, more girls tried out than there were spots on the team. At the same time, many parishes are desperate to find altar servers, as one can sense from the way the parish’s flier was written. In what appears to be a paradox, asking more from people makes our message more attractive, not less attractive.

We incorrectly believe that lower demands will make more people interested in our message, because it will be easier to follow. But when does that actually happen? Think of the great leaders of history—did they ask for little, or did they challenge their followers to accomplish great things?

When England was faced with the threat of a Nazi invasion, Winston Churchill rallied his people by demanding great things from them, famously proclaiming:

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

This inspirational call to arms inspired the people of the United Kingdom to rise to the occasion. Had Churchill demanded less from his people, perhaps German would be spoken today on the streets of London. He had high expectations, and they were met. People usually live up to—or down to—the expectations set for them. Paradoxically, it seems, calling people to a higher standard results in a more attractive message.

Our call to evangelization is even more important than Churchill’s call to arms; for we are trying to save souls from eternal damnation. If we are to be successful in evangelization, attracting true disciples for Christ, then we need to follow the example of Jesus and urge all people to the highest—and thus the most compelling—calling possible: complete conformity to Jesus Christ.

Sidebar 1:

Jesus Can Do the Impossible

The raising of Jairus’s daughter (Luke 8:40-42, 49-56) is one of the greatest public miracles Jesus performed. Jairus begged Jesus only to heal his daughter, who was dying. Yet on their way to his house, Jesus is delayed, and the young girl dies. A man from Jairus’s house who tells him the bad news assumes Jesus is no longer needed: “Do not trouble the Teacher anymore.” But Jesus shows that his power has no limits, and he raises the daughter from death.

This story is applicable to our evangelization efforts. How often do we set limitations on what Jesus can do for our loved ones? Perhaps we have a brother who is mired in a life of drugs. At best, we hope that Christ might be able to give him the strength to stop his drug use. But do we believe that Jesus can do even more—even raise him from his dead life in drugs into a new life in Christ?

When we evangelize, we should set the same goal for every person: a life of total discipleship in the Catholic Church. If Jesus can raise a little girl from the dead, can’t he also raise up our loved ones to a new life in him?

Sidebar 2:

St. Monica: Unwavering Faith in God’s Transformative Power

Many Catholic mothers today experience what is perhaps their worst nightmare: a child who has abandoned the Faith and is living a profligate lifestyle. The pain can be overwhelming, and despair that even God can’t restore a child’s faith is a frequent temptation. St. Monica could have easily fallen into this kind of despair: her son, Augustine, was an important person in the Roman Empire but had abandoned the Catholic Faith of his youth.

Imagine if St. Monica had decided that her son’s promiscuous lifestyle was too hard for him to escape, as he himself asserted. But she knew that a richer life was possible for her son. So she prayed unceasingly for him, assuming an important truth many forget: God can do anything. And she didn’t pray in a perfunctory fashion. She practically demanded that God save her son, and she backed it up with very concrete actions (that today would be considered “extreme”).

Her prayer was answered, and how wonderfully! Her son became one of our greatest saints and a Doctor of the Church. Were the young Augustine alive today, would we be content to let him wallow in his sinful lifestyle, looking for “positive values” in his immoral relationships? Or would we, like St. Monica, trust that God can make the seemingly impossible possible?

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