My exhibit A is pretty nasty, so if you’re not particularly fond of crude language you’d best not watch. A comedian, an ex-Catholic, making fun of the Catholic Church for being ignorant, complacent, hateful, bigoted against homosexuality, etc., etc. I have to admit that I am scared, horrified, disappointed, and otherwise slightly depressed at how widespread this kind of terribly ignorant view is among contemporary Americans. It is, in fact, stultifyingly ignorant to someone who has a moderately competent understanding of the Church or Her teaching. I think the recent HHS debacles are only the tip of the iceberg. I just read a reddit post which criticized Catholics for being made about the craziness of that lovely secular college of Georgetown inviting Kathleen Sabellius to talk (not kidding). Many of the atheists active in contemporary US militant atheist groups are ex-Catholics. Many of the members of a popular mega church both here in Chicago (where I am over the summer) as well as in my hometown of Toledo are also ex-Catholics. In Latin America, long the stronghold of Catholicism, Pentecostal Protestantism is taking hold. In Europe, just look at Belgium for an image of post-Catholic society compared to the 1950s and 1960s Belgium which had well-nigh evangelized the world single-handedly.
I once had a talk with someone from Europe about their problem of secularism. Europe is so vastly post-Christian in a starkly nihilistic vein that should, I think, send chills down normal people’s spines. But just decades ago it was practicing and fervent, both Protestant and Catholic.
So what happened?
Fundamentally, atheist arguments were the same now as in the time of David Hume or Karl Marx, so it wasn’t really any change on “their side.”
I argued that we Catholics must have made some mistakes.
“Oh, no,” he replied. “Things are better than ever.”
I don’t know that much about his unique situation in Europe, but I do know enough to think that that kind of obliviousness strikes me as intensely dangerous.
On the other hand, suggesting we might want to be a bit more aggressive in educating Catholics (or even publicly informing non-Catholics) on what the Church teaches, accurately, about difficult moral issues … is met with disdain and scorn.
“People will leave the Church!”
First, if they leave because of our difficult teachings, I am less scandalized than when they leave for reasons of sexual abuse of minors by clergymen, or when they leave from apathy.
Second, if they leave because of difficult teachings, at least they care enough about the faith to leave. It’s the people who either don’t give a wooden nickel for articles of faith, or those who seek to change them, that I worry about.
Third, I think Christ’s remarks here are apropos: “What does it profit a man to give his soul for the whole world?” (Matt. 16:26). Selling the soul of the Church to make peace with the world seems contrary to our basic goals. Presenting it charitably, wisely, completely, and honestly, on the other hand, is to still present the Church’s teaching.
Lastly, practically speaking in a Machivellian vein, I don’t think many folks have even heard a homily on the Church’s difficult teachings. Think back to the last time you heard a Catholic priest give a homily on the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.
Oh, wait…there was no last time, was there?
Probably not a homily on contraception either.
Maybe I’m just crazy, but I think I’ve probably only heard ONE homily in my life on the former subject and it was preached by someone I know, only rather recently, and in a different state – and I heard it online. I shared it on Facebook because I thought it was so exceptional.
Where are most people, if they haven’t heard the Gospel preached? Who are those who really do leave the Church?
Most people in the ex-Catholic groups I know imbibed some vague form of cultural “Catholicism” – a grab-bag of experiences of being to Mass as children, followed by seeing a rosary in a church once, with some nebulous touchy-feely claptrap about service and emotions being force-fed to them as they matured. They checked the “Catholic” box once on a census or college admission application. They probably heard a number of horribly boring homilies, knowing the whole time that they were sentimental nonsense, full of contradictions or incorrect logic, mere platitudes, and – on top of it all – boring. They have only heard the word “transubstantiation,” not really having any clue what it means. They have seen a “nun” on television once, in black-and-white, wearing a full and antiquated habit; when it was on TV in color, it was probably a rerun of Sister Act. They learned about the existence of the Pope from MSNBC rather than from any CCD instructor. They were mainly in the Church because their parents were Catholics of obligation, of a stricter-but-n0-less-superficially-cultural ambiance than they. Their parents in all events probably raised them “Catholic” out of the fear either of the marginal threat of “obligation” or of being seen as social outcasts. It’s been two generations since anyone in their “Catholic” family went to monthly or even yearly confession. They’d identify their bishop as being part of a male-centered, patriarchal institution, but they probably wouldn’t be able to name him.
I might have presented an overly stark picture, but I leave it there.
I have my own feelings, obviously, that a solution to this problem can only come by greater fidelity to the Gospel and the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church that comes to us from the apostles. But we just can’t deny the problem. It is horribly irresponsible to say we haven’t failed in some significant ways if this is the state of so many ex-Catholics.
And, most importantly, what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years has not worked.
Beating our heads against the wall by pursuing a course that hasn’t worked even further is pointless.
New ideas are needed – new spirituality, fresh appropriation of the Gospel in priesthood, laity, and religious life, new theological pursuits. I see some of those in my generation. And that’s why I look for more.
In the middle ages, the Church seemed to be collapsing under the weight of old ideas that weren’t holding water anymore.
Atheism and heresy were rampant. Military force and sumptuous monastic living, high prelates riding into battle on horseback, and uneducated clergy were attempting to stem the tide of immorality that was rising around them. Of course, it did very little. Then, one day, the Pope had a dream. In his dream, the Lateran – the Pope’s cathedral and the symbol of the universal Catholic Church – was collapsing and falling to one side. Instead of completely tumbling down, it miraculously stopped just before hitting the ground and shattering. The Pope looked and saw one man, dressed in poor and tattered white and black clothing holding up the walls of the Lateran. This little man pushed it back up and set it right again, all by himself. The next day, that same man walked into the Pope’s chambers wearing his tattered black and white habit and asked, kneeling at his feet, that the Pope would approve a new Order of Preachers.
That man, of course, was St. Dominic de Guzman.
[Don’t listen to any Franciscan’s story about a similar event in the life of Francis – it’s all lies! :P]
This is why I try to be the best Christian and religious I can be in my own station in life, trying to call others to following the Gospel sine glossa (without gloss – without excuses), and respecting the authority of the successors to the apostles, the bishops and priests of the Catholic Church, while calling them to live up to their high calling – because that’s the only way ecclesial reform has ever occurred.
Let’s stop beating our heads against the wall of the Lateran palace and hold it up.
Yours in Christ,
Br. James Dominic, OP