Recently, there has been a renewed interest in Joseph Ratzinger’s reflections on the future of the church, first written four decades ago. In particular, one excerpt is receiving a great deal of attention due to its prophetic nature.“The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes … she will lose many of her social privileges. … As a small society, [the church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.”
Statistics for the America Catholic Church are truly sobering. According to the Pew Research Center, one third of all adults raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholics, and 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics. What can we learn from thirty million former Catholics?
Most ex-Catholics leave the faith for two reasons: dissatisfaction with church leaders or the church's hard line on sexual morality. A study from the Diocese of Trenton broke down this analysis further, asserting that many Catholic left due to the abuse scandal, uninspiring and distant priests, and the church's stance on homosexuality and divorce.
I would, however, label these reasons as immediate causes, a tipping point for someone already on the fence. Catholics can make the important distinction between the leaders of the church and the church. The abuse scandal rightly generated a lot of holy anger against certain individuals, but it should not have caused someone to abandon the faith. Additionally, the church's position on divorce and homosexuality have been pretty consistent for the last two thousand years. Why are Catholics leaving now? Maybe we should be investigating why Catholics are on the fence, not why they are jumping off.
The simple explanation is that America is entering a more secular age, and people from all backgrounds are leaving their childhood faith. Yet, Pew's statistics demonstrate that the situation in the Catholic Church is worse than other denominations, with some non-denominational, evangelical churches even gaining members.
Undoubtedly, many long term causes exist, but I think the failure of Catholic education has played a significant role. It is hard to quantify the level of Catholic education in schools, universities, religious education programs, sermons, and the family. I can only rely on a few anecdotes from my personal experiences.
A few years ago, I attended a school Mass at a local parish, during which the priest quizzed the students on topics related to the readings. He began by asking the students what is the first commandment, and after numerous responses summarizing the golden rule, he forfeited the correct answer. He followed up by inquiring what are the rest of the commandments. In five tense minutes or so, the entire kindergarten through eighth grade only came up with one commandment: thou shall not kill.
About two weeks ago, I had a long conversation with a friend who was teaching a confirmation class. As he was nearing the end of the class, he asked his students if they had any questions. To his surprise, they asked incredibly basic ones: why do we have to go to church? Is there a God? and so forth. These students were about to complete years of Catholic education, but they had no grasp of fundamental Catholic apologetics.
Lastly, I am an example of the ineffectiveness of the current system. I attended Catholic schools, have advanced degrees from the top Catholic universities in the country, and heard thousands of sermons. Yes, I know the Ten Commandments, but I could only list a few of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit or Works of Mercy, either corporal or spiritual. More significantly, I would be hard pressed to define a simple term like "grace," and often my tongue is tied when debating more confident and better informed Protestants.
As a teacher, I know what students learn during the school year is forgotten in the summer. We cannot blame the priests that sacrifice their lives for the church or Catholic school teachers who work long hours with low pay or religious education teachers who give up an hour each week. Catholic education needs to be reinforced at home.
In the age of helicopter parents, dads spend hours with their children practicing sports, hoping their child will be the next Tiger Woods (In light of recent revelations, I hope less fathers dream about their children playing professional sports), and moms work themselves into a frenzy trying to get their toddlers into the best preschools. How often do parents pick up the religious education textbook and review it with their children?
A further systemic problem is the lack of content in Catholic education, a reaction to the style of education before the Second Vatican Council. Upon reviewing the old catechism and talking with many older Catholics, I discerned that the previous system was based on rote memorization of key church teachings. Older Catholics know basic doctrines, but they lack the knowledge as to why they should believe them.
The post-council philosophy swung, like a pendulum, to the opposite extreme, emphasizing only big themes and downplaying specific teachings. In countless homilies and years of religious education, the same ideas are repeated: God is good, God loves you, and you need to love your neighbor. As religious education minimized distinctively Catholic principles, it unintentionally primed people to leave the church. When a particular Catholic faced adversity – a new priest who was not pastoral or a political drive to assert a controversial moral teachings – some Catholics believed they could follow the main elements of religion – God is good, God loves you, and you need to love your neighbor – better at home or at a different church. We need to shift the pendulum again, not to the other extreme, but to the middle, including basic Catholic teachings and the reasons why we believe them.
Fortunately, Ratzinger’s assessment does not end with a bleak outlook. He continues: "And so it seems certain to me that the church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”
I concur that the church will enter a new spring after a long winter. Many signs indicate an ongoing revival in Catholic education in schools and universities, on the parish level, and most importantly, in families. We can only hope for more.
May 07, 2012 04:16
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi