It seems to me that in our world today there are often two competing visions of “Christianity.” On the one hand there are those who see Christianity as a set of beliefs and rules that believers are expected to accept and adhere to in order to live a good and righteous life, and so be fit for heaven (this is known as orthodoxy). On the other hand there are those who see Christianity simply as a loving way of life, in which we are called to live in common care and concern for one another (this is often referred to as ortho-praxy).
I think both of these visions, in and of themselves, are incomplete. It is not enough simply to give allegiance to a set of beliefs and rules. Somehow what we believe must have an impact on and find expression in the way we live. Likewise, while it is good and important to manifest a loving way of life, our lives must be grounded in faith, and in a set of beliefs. Without this anchor, it is too easy for a “loving way of life” to become whatever suits one’s fancy at a given moment in time.
Now certainly the above is not a new issue. It has been around since the beginning of the Church. In the letter of Saint James we read: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone may say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works” (James 2: 15-18).
When we talk about a vision for Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular we need a both/and, not an either/or approach. It is too simple to profess a set of beliefs without giving witness to those beliefs in the way we live. I have encountered too many people who were steadfast in the profession of their beliefs, but who were cranky, judgmental, and in some cases, downright mean. On the other hand, I have also encountered people who identified themselves as Christians, and who lived good and loving lives, but who, when pressed, couldn’t tell you exactly what they believed and/or why their beliefs made a difference in the way they lived.
Both orthodoxy and ortho-praxy are good, important, and necessary. We need to remember, though, that they go together. They are inseparable from one another. Whenever we overemphasize one, or worse, pit them against one another, we are going down a dangerous path. Jesus knew this. I think that is why, when he was asked which was the greatest commandment, he gave two and yoked them together. Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular require that we believe and profess our faith, and then give witness to it through our words and actions. This is what Jesus asks of and expects from all of us.