Monday, June 17, 2019

Going, Going, Gone!

During their 3-day meeting in Baltimore, the Bishops of the United States listened to a presentation by Bishop Robert Barron (LA Auxiliary, Chair of the USCCB's Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, and best known for his "Word on Fire"). Barron spoke about young people leaving the Church and what might possibly be done about it. According to Barron, "Half the kids that we baptized and confirmed in the last 30 years are now ex-Catholics or unaffiliated."  He repeated the now familiar statistic that, for everyone who joins the Church, six (or more precisely 6.45) leave, and that the median age for leaving is now 13. Most leave, studies suggest, because they simply do not believe what the Church teaches and have just drifted off.  Most, he claimed, are more ambivalent about religion than hostile.

Barron is a controversial figure, and he considerably complicated his case by referencing an even more controversial figure, the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Putting all that aside, however, the subject is certainly one of the most important issues facing the contemporary Church in the United States, whether or not Barron (an anyone else) can identify an alternative path for adequately addressing it.

This issue is especially important and pressing because our contemporary context is so different from the way things used to be. Undoubtedly, there were always Catholics who were indifferent (or even hostile) to the Church, but that was in a society in which Church membership was presumed and a certain minimal conformity was widely expected. On  the one hand, this may have masked real alienation that ought to have been better attended to. On the other, however, it posed fewer obstacles to the Church's mission in the present and to passing on the faith to each subsequent generation. "A culture that takes its life from a religion is no doubt better than one that does not," Thomas Merton noted in 1941. But then, Merton continued, "the distinction often becomes lost between the kind of acts that belong to the religious life and the kinds of activities that are entirely customary and traditional and totally human in their significance" (Journals, October 18, 1941)

In any event, we no longer have the luxury of living in such a culture. All that has changed, and the greatest mistake is to continue acting as if little or nothing has changed. I am reminded of Hannah Arendt's observation: "We live in a world whose main feature is change, a world in which change itself has become a matter of course to such an extent that we are in danger of forgetting that which has changed altogether." (Cf. "Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political thought," in Thinking Without a Bannister: Essays in Understanding 195301975," ed. Jerome Kohn, Schocken Books, 2018).

One important change is that our contemporary situation makes more demands on people's comprehension of their faith and the Church's teachings than was the case in the past, since our culture constantly exposes us to alternative perspectives, and increasingly those alternatives are attractively and intelligently presented. Being better equipped to give a coherent account of one's faith when challenged (cf. 1 Peter 3:15) will always be important, and the inability to do so may leave too many of us too easily susceptible to attractive alternative perspectives, whether of science, or of history, or of the human condition in general. (At the same time, we need to be wary of one-sided, triumphalist approaches to our story which ignore or minimize our historical mistakes and present failings.)

This reality runs up against the unfortunate fact that in our current context more and more of us may approach Church the way we in this society tend to approach most things - as consumers. It must, after all, be acknowledged that one reason alternative views may be so attractive is that they can reinforce the consumerist impulse to create one's own identity, an identity that is coherent with one's desires rather than challenging of them. In fact, however, we will find little affirmation for our consumerist culture in the embracingly inclusive but morally challenging message of Jesus as presented in the New Testament.

As with most serious social problems, there are no easy or obvious answers either to what is to blame or to what should be done. Before being able to offer adequate answers, maybe more self-reflection and self-examination may be required. And what are some of the spiritual and social resources in our Catholic tradition which we can call upon to meet our needs today?

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