The man who never made a mistake never made anything. Likewise, the man who never takes a risk never gets ahead. Whether it is starting your own business, getting engaged, pursuing your dream career, getting a great education or achieving athletic greatness, if you don’t take a risk you don’t take the prize.

This is why the story of Peter walking on the waves is one of my favorite encounters with Christ. Despite the storms, Peter had to get up, see the situation, hear the call of Christ and risk everything to go wave walking. In every area of life, to succeed taking a risk is necessary, and yet in the area of our spiritual life we too often do just the opposite.

Jesus Christ presents each of us with a challenge and a call. Will we step out of the boat to walk on the waves with him? Will we leave everything to follow Christ? The problem with too many Catholics is that we have forgotten this primary call to discipleship and have settled for a religion in which there is no risk, no call and no challenge.

When I served as a high school chaplain I observed three essential responses to the challenge of faith in the lives of my students. The three responses are most clearly seen during adolescence because that is when so many life choices are being made. However, the same three responses can be observed among people at every stage of life.

The first response to the challenge of faith is “polite conformity.” In this response the young person regards the challenges of the faith with a benign detachment. He shrugs and says, “I suppose if the grown ups say this is true I’ll go along with it.” He conforms to the norms not because he is committed to them, but because it is the path of least resistance. “You want me to go to Mass on Sunday? OK. I’ll go. Will  you then stop bugging me please?”

The Catholic who responds to the challenge of Christ with polite conformity simply goes with the flow. His faith becomes part of his comfortable life and as he matures he goes no further in the faith. The Catholic Church in America today is full of men who still  occupy the pew because it is the path of least resistance. They punch the churchy time clock. They put in their time. They fulfill their obligation. They not only don’t step out of the boat, they never even rock the boat. They are polite conformists. Furthermore, the path of polite conformity seems to pay off. They become respectable. They fit in. It all seems snug, secure, cozy and comfortable.

One of the big problems with catechesis in the past is that our church leaders, teachers and catechists have been content for the pew sitters to be polite conformists. They have schooled children in their religious duties and proper moral behavior and never expected anything more. In The Book of Revelation the Lord has a few choice words for the polite conformists: “Because you are lukewarm I will spit you out of my mouth.”

The second type of response to Christ’s call is “outright rebellion.” This is when the teen says, “Fugeddaboudit. This religion thing is dumb and all the grown ups who say they believe are a load of hypocrites. I’m outta here.” It’s an understandable adolescent response. Too often the same response carries on into adulthood. In “outright rebellion” the individual is actively opposed to Christ and his church and believes he has good reason to be.

When I talk on this subject I ask teenagers, “Which is better, ‘polite conformity’ or ‘outright rebellion.’?” They always get it right and reply, “Outright rebellion.” This shocking answer is correct because at least the person who is in outright rebellion has taken the claims of the faith seriously and although he has rejected it, he is thinking it through. The polite conformist never thinks it through and may mistake his polite conformity for real faith for his whole life. Cocooned in a secure world with other polite conformists he never once gives the reality of his faith a second thought.

The third response is “intelligent enquiry”. The person who responds to the challenge of faith most authentically does so with intelligence, wit and grace. He questions in a spirit of honest enquiry and curiosity. In other words, he takes the risk of faith. He steps out to discover for himself and learn about the faith through his own experience. He doesn’t mind challenging his religious teachers, but he does so with a genuine desire to learn and grow.

To really explore the faith demands not only an intellectual quest to understand, but the risk of commitment, self discipline, study and self sacrifice. Through intelligent enquiry one  embarks on a heroic adventure. We call it a risk because to go on that adventure requires one to leave his old world behind and launch out into the unknown.

St Paul says, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” What he means is that the life of faith is a great adventure or it is nothing at all.  Outright rebellion is a sad and immature rejection of the faith, and polite conformity is no faith at all. Intelligent enquiry launches us out of our comfort zone to take the risk of faith.

That risk is the risk of everything, so at the end of our exploring we will have reached the omega point where all is harvest—where we gain all things, know all things and are known and welcomed home.


Editor’s Note: Browse Fr Longenecker’s books and connect to his two blogs—”Standing on My Head” and “The Suburban Hermit” by visiting his website

  • Jonathan

    Well said. For 29 years, I was the polite conformist. I actually thought it was good that I “got along with everyone”. Here’s a question: what values are most important to teach young boys so that when they reach adolescence, they approach faith with “intelligent enquiry”? As a father of 3 boys under the age of 5, I’m very interested to know. I suspect humility and discipline are probably pretty key.

  • Pat_h

    Father Longenecker’s Standing On My Head blog is one of my favorites, although I lament that the comment feature is disabled on it now. I can guess why it is, as his comments are always very straight forward and no doubt that attracted some trolling, although I always suspect that those trolling in Catholic waters are seeking to be pulled in, rather than pull fish out.

  • Larry

    This article is a giant self-contradiction.

    We are supposed to believe statistics from the Pew Research survey, that millions upon millions of American Catholics have left the Church. And according to Bishop Olmsted’s recent paper, this is all the fault of men.

    So please explain exactly where American churches are “full of men who still occupy the pew because it is the path of least resistance”. Really… you can’t have it both ways.

    I am one of the few men remaining that attends weekly mass, and attempts to live by the Church’s rules. As my father did, and his father before him, and so on. How dare you accuse me of “occupying the pew because it is the path of least resistance”, “punching the churchy time clock”, “putting in my time”.

    It seems that among the few Catholics standing, there is now a competition to see whose faith is better. A local parish started reading the “Dynamic Catholic” book and I’m pretty sure this is exactly the kind of behavior that Christ warned against.

    I’m genuinely confused as to what the author’s point is.

    • James Baxter

      I don’t see the “giant self-contradiction” that you speak about, Larry. Two things:

      First, both propositions can be true without contradiction. a) Pew polls indicate dropping Mass attendance (which verify an honest visual scan across your average Catholic parish); and b) those who attend Mass often attend out of obligation. In fact, I see the two to be entirely linked. If many men in the pews are leaving, it strikes me as incredibly likely that those who stay are negatively affected by the many men they know who no longer go to Mass. So, many men keep going because they feel like they have to.

      But what is still possible with those two propositions (which you seem to have overlooked) is for there to be some men in the pews and at the altars who are sincere Catholic men striving to imitate Jesus Christ in the way He is asking them to do so. Hopefully, that’s you and me and the many men who read Those Catholic Men.

      You seem to take this article as a personal affront: why?

      • Larry

        I wrote two comments on this article. The first one was finally approved and published. If you did that, thank you.

        But the second comment, I believe, made the point that it seems borderline offensive for anyone – much less a priest – to question the faith or the motives of ANYONE who makes the effort to attend Mass. I have to take frequent breaks from the “Catholic media” (blogs, forums, radio/TV) because many authors and speakers earn their keep with messages that plant suspicion about the quality of people’s faith. It’s absurd.