The Democrats made history this week with the nomination of the first woman candidate of a major party for president. Eight years ago, the Democrats made history by nominating the first non-white candidate for president. And 56 years ago, the Democrats nominated John F. Kennedy who went on to make history as our first Roman Catholic president. His election, the NY Daily News said at the time, dropped a hydrogen bomb on the tradition that no Roman Catholic could ever be elected president. Now no Catholic has been elected president since. But, for the past 8 years, we have had a Catholic vice president, and this year the Democrats have once again nominated a Catholic for vice president.
Interestingly, while the Democrats were preparing to nominate another Catholic for vice president, the Republicans this year nominated an ex-Catholic. Indiana Governor Mike Pence was raised in a strong Irish-Catholic family, was an altar boy, and supposedly toyed with the idea of becoming a priest. But then he did what far too many other Catholics in this country have done and became an Evangelical Protestant. In fact, like Pence, some 6 million ex-Catholics (13% of those raised as Catholics) now consider themselves Evangelicals, according to a 2014 Pew survey.
The point is not candidate Pence particularly, but the larger trend represented by those 6 million ex-Catholics. As Sherry Weddell, author of Forming intentional Disciples: The Path of Knowing and Following Jesus, recently wrote in the National Catholic Register, "God has no grandchildren" in the 21st century. "Faith is not simply inherited, but personally chosen." Hence, "cultural Catholicism by itself is dead as a retention strategy."
Inadvertently, therefore, the two vice-presidential candidates highlight this significant dilemma that is confronting contemporary Catholicism. In its time, "cultural Catholicism" had a lot going for it. In fact, I think one of the long-term earthly goals of faith is to form and transform culture, and our contemporary failure to do that has been a genuine loss for the world - the world God loves enough to have become a part of it himself.
But, as Sherry Weddell says, nowadays in our culture, "God has no grandchildren." What used to be passed down from generation to generation and absorbed from one's family and the surrounding community is no longer. Hence, the fundamental challenge facing the Church today to create committed, "intentional" disciples.
Here again the vice-presidential contest is illustrative. Would Senator Tim Kaine speak so comfortably about his Catholic faith and about fe, familia, y trabajo, without the formational experiences he had under the auspices of the Jesuits, especially his missionary service in Honduras? Obviously, not everyone can go to Honduras. Not everyone is called to be a Jesuit Volunteer. But unless our ordinary local Church communities can incorporate comparably powerful formational experiences, it is hard to see how subsequent generations will be successfully drawn to the intentional commitments that seem to be the necessary successor to our lost cultural Catholicism.