A people adrift?
By Tim Muldoon
Boston College, and Patheos Expert
Peter Steinfels' very perceptive article in Commonweal focuses on the most recent Pew data which shows the massive numbers of Catholics who leave the Church. According to this data, the second largest religious "group" in the United States is former Catholics, second only to Catholics.
By any measure this is disturbing data, and I value Steinfels' analysis as I appreciated his book A People Adrift. Yet the diagnosis is not the same as the cure. While Steinfels' observations are spot-on, I do not find that there is an easy answer to what the data ought to be telling us. But I will offer two observations.
In sound byte form: first, older Catholics are dying; second, success is not the same as popularity.
1. In my book Seeds of Hope: Young Adults and the Catholic Church in the United States, I took a look at the best sociological evidence that points to pastoral needs in the Church today. (NB: it was published before the Pew data came out.) Clearly sociological data can tell us what's going on, and in this case it's clear that young people are in very large part not well connected to the church.
Now here's my critique: that may be in large part because they don't like church of their parents and grandparents. Many, many young, active Catholics with whom I interact as a professor and speaker around the country are Catholic in ways that look very different from older generations. They appear evangelical or conservative; they want praise and worship (some want it in Latin and Gregorian chant); they embrace Catholic teachings on sexuality; and so on. They are a small group compared to the large numbers of young people who drift from the Church, but they are just waiting for older Catholics to finish their ideological squabbles so they can start building the Church again. They want to evangelize their peers but feel hamstrung by outdated theology, lukewarm liturgy, and general malaise. The critical posture of many older Catholics-including very many theologians who teach at colleges and universities-is unhelpful to their desire to evangelize. They are smart, know their Church history, have often undertaken serious spiritual and even theological pilgrimages toward the Church, and are sober about the challenges facing the church. They understand abuse of power and are rightfully appalled by sexual abuse, but also look at the history of the Church and pray for bishops and the pope.
2. Sociology is not helpful in understanding the work of the Holy Spirit. What Steinfels' analysis lacks is attention to a larger cultural milieu: is this drift away from the Church a result of negligence or malfeasance among leaders, or is it more about the toxic cultural waters in which many nominal Catholics are swimming? Does the drift away from the Church's sexual teaching mean that the teaching is wrong, or that many have come to look at sex in the truncated and (if I may) "fetishized" way that has become common in American pop culture?
I don't at all disregard that there have been significant systemic problems in our Church, and I am very sympathetic toward those who, out of a deep faith and a deep outrage at sexual abuse, say "enough!" Yet I am less sympathetic toward those who simply disagree with Church teaching without the ability to thoughtfully articulate what that teaching is. The cultural currents are strong, and may simply be sweeping people away regardless of whether or not those currents have any basis in the good, true, and beautiful.
Bottom line: success is about deepening the life of God in the person and the community, not about popularity-particularly since the popularity in question represents a small fraction (6%) of the global Catholic population. (Thank God for the gifts of Latino Catholics, who simply come at questions of faith refreshingly different from those of many non-Latino Catholics in the US.)
Tim Muldoon (Boston College) is a Catholic theologian, writer, and spiritual director, and a Patheos Expert.
October 21, 2010; 12:25 PM ET
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