Alpha, for Catholics? oh please…

Time to talk about something a little bit more relevant perhaps? go on then.  The Alpha course, it is being aggressively plugged by my parish priest and I think that is a travesty.

The Alpha course isn’t at all relevant to the modern day as it is, it was started in 1977 by an evangelical Anglican!  I mean for crying out loud it is already well past its best! My memory of the course material (from my time in an evangelical church before I converted) is that it is riddled with presuppositions and weak logic.  It doesn’t come anywhere remotely close to passing muster for protestants in this Dawkensian era.

Much less so for Catholics, we have a philosophically, theologically and historically coherent faith. Catholicism runs rings around protestant apologetics at every turn. It has answers to all the questions, and it also understands its reasoning behind those answers. To put it simply, protestantism doesn’t and will never have the depth of thought that goes into Catholic belief.

The protestantisation of the Catholic Church in England and Wales is truly insidious. Why is the Alpha course being embraced? because Catholics haven’t been properly catechised!  Most Catholics don’t have the grounding in the faith that can answer questions and convert people. Worse still is the fact that the more the Church in this country makes itself no different to woolly old Anglicanism the fewer converts we will get. Anglicanism does salvation by niceness alone far better than Catholicism ever will…

I converted to Catholicism because it has fire in its belly, it is a robust faith that will not fail you when times are hard. It has the sacraments, which are essential for good religion to avoid becoming merely an intellectual exercise.  It is accessible to everyone, from people who never get past finger painting to people with the most brilliant of minds.

I’ve often joked that coming to the pub every week with my fellow altar servers is a far better introduction to the faith than any Alpha course, because we go the full 15 rounds, we aren’t satisfied with theology with holes so big you can drive a truck through them.

You have to be strong, ruthless even, in your pursuit of the truth. Ruthless in your battle with the devil, ruthless with the naysayers both physical and spiritual, ruthless with the falsehoods and half truths presented by this world as fact and finally you have to be ruthless with weak ass theology that may get bums in seats for a few weeks but at the first sign of trouble those people will evaporate like the man who built his house on sand.

Now the Alpha course format can be good, having a meal together first is a good way to ease anxiety and relax people so they dare ask the difficult questions that they need to, and with a very significant overhaul/abandonment of the course material it could be good.

In fact it was through attending an Anglican Alpha course as I child that I became convinced of the doctrine of transubstantiation! That was thanks to the Vicar bringing in a Rabbi to explain the last supper from a Jewish religious understanding.  Before you ask, no that most certainly isn’t in the Alpha course material… from what I know the Vicar also threw out most of the course material because it was irrelevant and weak, and this was nearly 20 years ago!

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9 thoughts on “Alpha, for Catholics? oh please…

  1. Catholicism needs more Catechesis – fact.
    The quality of alpha depends on how the material is ‘adapted’ as you mentioned.
    Also while the Catholic Church may have an answer for everything it doesn’t mean that it is a good, logical or reasonable answer.

  2. Well I’d say Catholicism does have a logical answer to everything, and as such they are usually reasonable. As for good, well I think they almost all are good and its a matter of perspective. The ones I think are less good, it is me that needs to change, not the Church. We need to conform ourselves to the Church not the other way around.

    Perhaps sometimes us Catholics give answers that are too much based in reason and logic and aren’t given as humanely as they should be. When it comes to tough moral questions the Church is intractable but then would we want it any other way? would we want the Church, the only true and steadfast arbiter of right and wrong on this earth, to shift its teaching every time the wind blows? no I don’t think so.

  3. You need to check the endorsements by so many in the hierarchy:

    Archbishop Fisachella, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization

    Archbishop Ruiz, Secretary of the same

    Fr. Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household for over 31 yrs.

    USCCB – Alpha is one the “Best Methods of Evangelization and Resources for Parish Outreach.”

    The source documents are all available at:

    http://www.alphaforcatholics.org

    As a matter of full disclosure, I am Deacon Steve Mitchell and the National Director of Alpha’s outreach to the Catholic Church in the US.

    Alpha is being run in 100 countries and 160 languages because it works! Why Alpha in the Catholic Church? Because it works! It is not the Alpha and Omega course but the Alpha course. Alpha doesn’t teach the entire Catechism, but it does teach Part 1 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in a very profound and effective way. Alpha is designed to proclaim the kerygma, the core gospel message that Jesus is Lord and there is no salvation by any other name. Once people have come to an adult faith, made a decision to follow Jesus, their hearts burn within them and they are hungry and ready to be formed, catechized. The Holy Father is calling for a New Evangelization because it is desperately needed, particularly in the west.

    “Trying to give people catechesis that do not have a personal relationship with Jesus is like trying to plant seeds in concrete, it doesn’t work.” Fr. James Mallon, founder of the JPII Institute

    What the Church is suffering from is described by Sherry Weddell in her new book; Forming Intentional Disciples, “The majority of Catholics in the United States are sacramentalized but not evangelized. They do not know that an explicit, personal attachment to Christ — personal discipleship — is normative Catholicism as taught by the apostles and reiterated time and time again by the popes, councils, and saints of the Church.”

    • You know an argument from authority is a fallacy don’t you? 😛 Though I didn’t think anyone with any importance read my little blog so this is a big ego boost to me 😀

      I believe the Alpha course can be turned to the good, but then so can Islam, it doesn’t mean its inherently good. Alpha may get bums in pews (though past success doesn’t guarantee future success). But its non Catholic origins hobble it from the start. What is more if Catholics and protestants both use the same franchise (and that is what it is) this will make people in the streets think there is no difference. Talk about the McDonaldisation of the church.

      Whilst I agree people need first and foremost to have a relationship with God, this does not mean that the intellectual barriers in their path are simplistic or should be overlooked. People have very complex doubts. I remember from my personal experience I had to knock down so many doubts though reason, before my heart could be opened to receiving the gift of faith, this is why faith and reason go hand in hand.

      Alpha can’t call on the depth of thought that the Catholic Church can. I’ve known people who have gone to several Alpha meetings and been unable to engage with anything in the material because it hasn’t dealt with commonly held misconceptions and philosophical barriers from the start.

      If we must have a set course to introduce people to the faith then let us make our own, there are a billion Catholics in the world, I would hope we could think for ourselves rather than turn to our separated brethren. Even better, lets Catechize every single Catholic so we can all talk about the faith without putting our foot in our mouth or worse still doubting our faith.

      Also I made the point in the post, but I’ll make it again, Alpha is now seriously old, the world has moved on. The ‘scientific’ claims of atheism are the new orthodoxy. Each age has its favourite heresy, the Church should be all things to all men and deal directly with the errors of our age.

      Finally I’d like to say, good for you, almost any evangelisation is good (bar the threatening shouty kind), and God uses us when we try to do good. Total respect to you especially since you are a Deacon and thanks for commenting 🙂

      • I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree as Alpha does an excellent job of answering the primary questions posed by atheists. It is primarily designed with the unbeliever in mind, although those on the fringes of faith and even faithful Catholics offer us great feedback. The course has been updated several times since your experience, the latest revision was in 2009. 18 million people have attended the course and it is growing by leaps and bounds, there seems to be a recognized need that Alpha is filling.

        Don’t want to beat a dead horse but without a personal relationship with God in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit most people are not very interested in receiving catechesis, which is why the Holy Father is calling for a New Evangelization. The Church is hemorrhaging people. Data shows that 71% of Catholics that become Protestants say the reason they left was because, “Their spiritual needs were not being met.” These aren’t people who leave for nothing, these are people who have given serious thought. Research shows they don’t leave lightly and it takes the average Catholic 2 years before they final exit. For every adult that comes into the Church through RCIA, 4 leave. The majority of the those who leave say they wanted a relationship with God and didn’t experience it in the Catholic Church. Houston, we have a problem. Continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results is a definition of something.

        Alpha teaches Part One of the Catechism, it is up to the parish leaders then to offer discipleship to those who have converted hearts. Cathechesis is an aspect of discipleship but not the end all and be all. The current model is broken my friend, circling the wagons is not the answer.

        Thanks for posting my comments and offering an opportunity to present a differing opinion.

      • Following an appeal to authority with an appeal to popularity?

        Well if the Church plugs Alpha in such a big way, I certainly would hope a lot of people go on it. That still doesn’t necessarily mean its ideal… Of course Alpha is filling a need because the Church is too lazy to fill that niche itself with something Catholic to the core. Get the Dominicans on the case that’s what I say.

        I’ll say again, I totally agree people need a personal relationship with God…

        I also think there are problems with the RCIA course which I was subjected to when I converted. This is off topic, but its my blog so I’m gonna ramble on a bit 😛

        The problem I had with the RCIA was that it was inflexible and too theologically heavy. It wasn’t what I needed because I’d already argued and eventually agreed at great length over the big theological questions posed by the Catholic faith. Me and my priest would discuss the course material for an hour a week, agree on everything and go home. The problem wasn’t the material, it was the idea that it was a course that had to be stuck to.

        This hour a week could have been much better used describing Catholic devotions & practices and methods of prayer that have served the Saints and were developed over centuries and thus helped me grow in faith. We could have explored the wealth of Catholic culture, Catholic art, music, liturgy. Heck I could even have learned a bit of Latin (especially the parts of the Mass the second Vatican counsel said every Catholic should know in Latin). These are all things that I still feel like an infant in comparison to people who were given good Catechesis back in the day.

        I also very much agree that the Catholic Church is facing big problems. Secularism, materialism, atheism and relativism are at an all time high. Plus the Church recently suffered the sex abuse scandal. Another big factor in why people lapse as Catholics is this: A lot people go to a Sunday Mass with dire liturgy, a bad sermon (thankfully not myself) and music straight out of the 1970’s (unfortunately sometimes in my otherwise marvelous parish), of course they can’t engage or fully participate spiritually in the sacred mysteries. I think every priest should ask himself, “how can I make the Mass as said by me, more like the Mass as said by Benedict the 16th.”

        What is more the faith shouldn’t just be about going to Mass on Sunday… there are plenty of other things Catholics should be encouraged to explore that are uniquely Catholic. The Divine Office, Lectio Divina, the rosary, hundreds of other devotions litanies & prayers, benediction, Eucharistic adoration and many many more.

        From what I’ve heard America is improving dramatically, Bishops have more fire in the belly than they generally do in the UK and the liturgy is improving. England and Wales are still a very long way behind, even resistant in some quarters to the Pope’s desire for renewal of the liturgy. I’d go as far to say England and Wales is a black hole of mediocrity in regards to the liturgy and quality of bishops bar a few notable recent exceptions and the increasing popularity of the Latin Mass. Anyway that was a bit of a digression.

        Where did you get the idea I suggested circling the wagons? every Catholic should be both evangelized and evangelizing others, that is what a true appreciation of the faith, a true engagement with the store of faith and wisdom held by the Church will result in. I just don’t think that a course originating from low Anglicans is going to supply the same depth and breadth as something that’s Catholic through and through. We need to open the Church’s treasure chests and show atheists that we have great things to offer to sustain a life of faith a lot of which protestants simply don’t have.

        To put it bluntly how is the Catholic version of Alpha different from the protestant version? and why was my becoming Catholic a good idea if the best thing the Catholic Church can come up with to convert people to Christianity is protestant? If the Catholic version of Alpha is different doesn’t it inherently suffer from franchise identification problems of having a protestant version that uses all the same marketing?

      • Why reinvent the wheel? The Alpha course teaches creedal Christianity in a clear way. We do believe in the creed, Part 1 of the catechism, so Alpha starts there. Alpha makes it abundantly clear that it is just the beginning of a new life in Christ. Alpha doesn’t teach the fullness of the faith but I find that it is always better to teach someone arithmetic before trying to teach them calculus. We call it the Alpha course and not the Alpha and Omega course. Thank you so much for your thoughts.

      • Yeah I think I might have gotten a bit lost on that last reply. My problem with Alpha is that I think its a Delta course.

        My idea that the course should be more Catholic is based upon my experience converting, that only Catholicism has the answers as to why we believe what we believe about Jesus. People are more concerned with why these days and are tired of ‘because my evangelical minister said so’ being offered as an answer.

        Yes our answer can be long and complex, but it is comprehensive and coherent. We need to start with the why of belief before we get to the what of belief. The post modernist error of the age needs to be tackled first.

  4. Exactly what Alpha does so brilliantly, each talk starts with the why and lays out the case in a clear and consistent way. The presenter was a trial attorney and an atheist himself so the course is organized just this way. Again, if a tool exists that does the job in a very efficient, effective and affordable way, and teaches the very basics of our faith consistently with our Catholic Tradition why not roll with it. I believe that there are some things that even Catholics can learn or use from other Christians. There are things that are so basic to our faith that they cut across denominational lines, Alpha is one of them. It is not the Alpha and Omega course, it is the Alpha course, it is the beginning, the starting point of faith. I encourage you to listen to Fr. Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household for over 30 years as he discusses how Alpha fits this need of ours perfectly.

    Peace and blessings,

    Deacon Steve Mitchell

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