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Limping Catholics?

Matt Emerson ended a post to the thread below on the interview with Archbishop Dolan that prompted a discussion why people are leaving the Church: The point of all this is to say that I think people are prone to dismiss something without really appreciating why or investigating whether their reasons for doing so are consistent or valid. I think a lot of Catholics have left the faith or find it unconvincing because they have never been introduced to, or considered, the deeper elements that sustain it.I think this is a very important point. I wish there were data onat what level most Catholics ended their education in the faith, grade school? high school? college? after Confirmation. Id like to know how many of them have an education in the faith equivalent in quality to their education in other areas, and not just in the area, say, of their college major. Thus they leave their education limping, one leg well developed, the other weak, atrophied. Most Catholics do not attend Catholic schools or colleges. Most Catholic colleges require only two or three courses in religion; some of them dont require that they be in theology as distinct from religious studies, so that you could come out of a Catholic college having satisfied your religion-requirement by taking one course on Meso-American Creation Myths and the other on The Marxist Critique of Religion. Anecdotal evidence points to an astonishing ignorance of their religion on the part of Catholics entering collegeso much so that at Catholic University we had a mandatory introductory course that the faculty, among themselves, called Remedial Catholicism. And, again, most Catholics do not go to Catholic schools or colleges! So that when people say that this is the best-educated generation of Catholics in history, I want to make some distinctions: In other areas, perhaps yes; in their faith, I have my doubts.Again, I would love to see data on what effort adult Catholics have made to make up for the deficiencies of their education in the faith or, if they got a decent one, what they have done to make progress in their adult appropriation of the faith. Id love to know how many of them have ever read a serious work in contemporary Catholic theology, or any of the great classics of Catholic thought, How many Catholics are there in the USA60 or 70 million? Publishers regard a book in theology as a great success if they can sell 1,500 copies of it! How many parishes offer programs or courses in adult education in the faith? How many people ever take part in those that are available? One may often justly criticize the quality of preaching, and wonder about the level of education that priests have received, but at some point do not Catholics have to take some responsibility for their own appropriation of the faith?All these factors must surely enter into any discussion of why people leave the Church. I do not say that they are the only, and perhaps they are not the most important ones, but Matt Emerson has raised a point that surely needs attention and discussion.


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"My bride thinks that most Catholics are unaware of the reasoning behind these Church teachings because the clergy are too afraid to proclaim unpopular teachings from the pulpit. She might be right, but I suspect that part of the problem is that most priests dont understand or dont agree with the arguments in Humanae Vitae and Theology of the Body. Why teach to adult Catholics a teaching one does not understand or does not agree with?"Hi, Peter, and congratulations on your marriage.I think your wife is being insightful. Certainly, in my case, as I've mentioned before, I went into marriage unaware of what the church taught about birth control. It seems so obvious, what's the problem with it? (That was my thinking).Although I've subsequently learned and practiced church teaching on this topic, I've never preached about contraception or Humanae Vitae. I'm not particularly allergic to controversial topics; in fact, I strongly believe that preachers need to talk about things that are real and important in the lives of the people in the parish. I also believe that part of the preacher's art is being able to talk about difficult topics in ways that don't needlessly alienate the listeners.So why not talk about birth control? My main reasons are kind of pedestrian: like most Catholic preachers, my homilies are rooted in the readings for the day - usually, but not always, the Gospel reading. And for whatever reason, I haven't had a set of readings that "led me" toward birth control. So I think that Lectionary-based preaching is one limitation that makes it difficult (at least for me) to make the leap to birth control.Also, to be frank - I don't like talking about sex in my homilies. Usually there are quite a few families with young children in the pews when I preach. I don't want to put their parents in the position of having to talk about awkward topics if, in the parents' judgment, the kids aren't ready yet for that kind of talk. Maybe I'm being overly squeamish; there are definitely preachers who disagree with me, and believe that they should say what needs to be said, and if the parents are left with an uncomfortable conversation thereafter, so be it.I think Theology of the Body is sort of a different animal. My understanding is that it's a relatively new theological framework - I don't know if JPII is credited with originally pulling it all together, or if its been around for years and he simply promoted and popularized it (to the extent that it's popular at all). I just don't think there are many priests or deacons that know much about it.I've never had an extended and systematic exposure to Theology of the Body, but to be honest, what I do know of it leaves me unexcited. I don't think it's the key to transforming people's acceptance of what is taught in Humanae Vitae, and I also think that it's not an apt topic for a homily. The homilist only has a few minutes to pull the listener in and proclaim some Good News. Springing an entirely new anthropology on a congregation and then trying to draw some not-particularly-intuitive conclusions from it doesn't seem like a successful project for the preacher. At least not one, like me, who only preaches once a month and so can't do "homily series". And at any rate, Lectionary-based preaching discourages extended teaching programs during the homily, so even pastors who preach weekly shouldn't be doing mult-part seminars during the homily.I do talk about birth control in non-Sunday-homily settings (as I have written about it here in the past). Not the homily, though, at least so far.

Jim: "my homilies are rooted in the readings for the day - usually, but not always, the Gospel reading. And for whatever reason, I havent had a set of readings that led me toward birth control."Well, there you go. The reason is clear from my perspective: the readings lead you to consider and discuss topics that are important for our Christian faith. Birth control is not an important topic.

Christopher: sorry you lost your faith after UND. May I refer you to this bit of folk wisdom: "I am the Lord thy God. Thou shall not have strange gods before me."My nephew went there and is one of the better Catholics who is totally serious about his faith that I know.

"One of points was to say that the concept of an institutional church; a church focused on mortar and bricks is dying."Bill, my point was that In the time of Jesus, the concept of an institutional church, a church of stone, was dying. Tear down the temple and in three days a new temple will rise in spirit and in truth. In the days of St Benedict, people were leaving the churches of stone for spiritual gathering places. In the days of St Francis, the Church needed to be rebuilt, and not neccesarily in the stone form. At the Reformation, the ornate buildings needed to give way to the simple faith of the individual. etc.IOW, for 2000 years the institutional brick and mortar church has been collapsing. This is nothing new. And the response to that collapse is going to still include institutional, brick and mortar churches, as it has in every other age. That we are living stones, raised up as children of Abraham, does not mean that mortar and brick will not be needed. That an institution dies does does not mean it will remain buried and not be raised up like the body of the Lord.So maybe my position is that the death you predict is inevitable, but it will not be final. Brick and mortar institutions will continue like the body of Christ.Late have I loved you Lord, great beauty so ancient and so new.

Thanks, Jim McK. We needed that :-)

Good points, Jim McK - I agree. Poor emphasis on my part but was trying to say that many of us for various reasons - education, training, comfort level, family reasons - over identified the brick and mortar church with the church of faith. So, when the Jesus Triduum experience faces us (and it always does), we go through suffering, dying, death, and eventually rising?) My point - if you overidentify faith with an institituion of family parish/church, you mix up a whole lot of things. It gets to Fr. K's point about faith formation - if we do not focus on the essential elements - the sacramental cyle of Christ in our own lives - but rather focus on buildings, parish, secondary pieties we face dissolusionment, discouragement, etc.

Agreed, Bill deH.Sometimes I wonder whether a fundamental problem for those who do not know the basics of the Faith is that they have never learned how to pray, or just simply what prayer is. I guess I mainly mean the sort of one-to-one contemplative prayer that we got a bit of instruction in when I was in Catholic schools. If you don't know what prayer is experientially, then I can see how for many people the Mass is reduced to listening to a not-very-good sermon, singing a couple of songs (of greater or lesser relevance and beauty), and perhaps smiling at one's neighbors and shaking several hands. True, if one is scared off by that long word "transubstantiation" one is probably not going to have any curiosity about what "the real presence" can possibly mean, nor any notion that He is in our midst listening to us in our hearts and hoping we'll respond. (Please, please, theologians, invent a new word!)

Ann and Jimmy McK - here is a much better and articulated expression of what I am trying to get at: from National Catholic Reporter -, she resonates with the birthing, living, suffering, dying, rising cycly of life, sacramental life, the life of a church. Her prediction is that the catholic church is facing again a paradigm shift (that seems to occur about every 500 years). Her conclusion is that the central "glue" of catholicism is what Jesus brought us - relationship and community.

Bill, I think I understand your position already, and in part I reject it. I am more sympathetic to Matt's position as expressed in his note ending "While we consider how the Church hierarchy may need to respond to the new things, it seems to me we are far too soft on our own selves and underappreciate the need for our growth and maturity in the process of better understanding the wisdom of the Church."The difference is not that I do not believe in a Great Emergence, but that I think the Great Emergence has been happening for 2000 years and will continue to the end of time. Putting it into time spans within the Church, as Ms Tickle appears to have done, is like trying to build our faith out of mortar and bricks. It can be helpful, but the real faith is in our hearts.I am not saying you have to agree with me about this. But neither should you expect that your position will just be adopted by me, or ME(Matt Emerson), just because you quote some who agree with you. There is much that we do agree on, and that lets us work together. But there can be profound differences in how we approach the Great Emergence if we accept it as a new utopian vision, or as an occasion for internal transformation, or as a chance for us to join Christ's mission to save the world. I am not sure which is the best choice, but I have a great deal of sympathy for what Matt has said. (that uncertainty makes me wonder why I am pressing this so hard. my apologies if it is too much, but I am trying to work out some of this for myself as parishes around me are slated to close.)

JoeK, do you know that this is the 110th comment to your initial reflection?Do you also know that if you copy the whole thread and put it into a word document that all the comments are numbered? So no, I didn't count them.I've been away so I am just catching up but I must say the quality of this discussion is first rate. I am going to use Joe's first comment to draw Catholic educators to this thread at my Catholic education blog.I think it can be used in a number of places in Catholic education. Catholic practicing teachers in P.D. Teachers in training in their courses. In high school, students in religious education. And finally, yes, in adult education in parishes which have the luxury of such programs.As for me, with my four years of Catholic high school religious education, it is really my over four decades of reading Commonweal that has educated me...plain and simple.I will conclude with one other thought: being very involved in reading and reflecting on the Church, doesn't make it any easier; in fact in many ways it makes it much harder, often much much harder.

I used Joe's comments to bring this thread to the readers of my (actually the Spiritans) blog Tomorrow's Trust. ( Cooper, one of the authors who has published at asked me to share this piece which is on Joe's topic:Finding the Good News message: a response to Teens lose faith in droves - see



About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.