Why Do We Want People to Stay Catholic, Anyway?

A couple of interesting posts below have worried about the number of people leaving the Church. Is it because they're badly educated? Is it because the Church no longer resonates experimentally with them? Is it because they view the Church as morally corrupt (child abuse)?As I thought about the question, I realized it might be fruitful to approach it from another angle: Why do we want people to stay?First it must be said that many people don't. They think that if you're not 100 percent on board, leave. If you don't accept the Church's teaching on hard issues, well, leave. If you're not with us, you are against us--so get out. Better a small, pure faithful Church. If you think the Church teaching is wrong on any point, well, be honest. Join the Protestants.Another answer is, we want them to stay for extrinsic reasons. We wan their money. We want to be able to count their numbers in our group. We want to be able to exercise more political power. If only . .Catholics didn't leave, and were faithful., we could transform America. And even if they're not faithful, keeping them in the fold is the first step.We could also say, we want them to stay for their sakes--they will lose something by leaving. Extra ecclesiam non salus est. But most people, I think, wouldn't go that far. They would say that they are losing an objectively fruitful way of communicating with God, through membership in the Body of Christ, in its Catholic form. The trouble with that argument, of course, is that people tend to want to define what counts as their own good-even spiritually. And most people are inclined to respect that--not always the case in every society. It's hard not to see that some people seem happier and better adjusted and to have a better prayer life after they've left.We could say that their leaving bothers us because it says something troublesome about us. We haven't been able to go forth and evangelize; we're not communicating the message of Christ effectively. We are failing in our vocations --in passing on the faith. When Jesus comes back, he's going to say, Hey, what happened here? Two thousand years and you were the ones who lost it all for me?"But even the ideas of "leaving" and "staying" are problematic. The idea of leaving the Catholic Church, in eras and areas where life was permeated by it, by its philosophy, its imagination, its practices, was almost unthinkable. But in the US, at the beginning of the 21st century, it's entirely thinkable --and doable. Change is in our culture. Most Catholics know and are friends with non-Catholics. Leaving the Church wouldn't necessarily mean a great disruption in the rest of one's life. We don't live our lives in one place--moving is in every sense less traumatic than it was in earlier eras.So have we, for better or worse, simply become one more Christian denomination?

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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