Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Once Christian People

Most Reverend Richard Clarke, DD, Anglican
Archbishop-Elect of Armagh and Primate of all
Some years ago I was doing a series of workshops in Ireland and I found the book A Whisper of God: Esssays on Post-Catholic Ireland, by Richard Clarke, Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath and Kildare and now Archbishop-elect of Armagh and Primate, most helpful in comprehending the state of the Church in Ireland.  My first visit to Ireland was 1971 and I remember when Ireland was a seriously devout country.  Recent visits show a very different country and a very different Church.  Vocations have dried up.  Congregations have grayed and the next generations have other plans for their Sunday Mornings—golf, brunch, or just a lazy day in bed.  The clergy are openly despised.  And the faithful, or formerly faithful, have moved on from the Church.  There are those who blame the materialism of the Celtic Tiger era for the alienation but the honest truth is that the Church brought the Temple down on its own head much like Samson.  The Irish finally had enough of the abuse of clerical power and the arrogance of generations of parish priests; the sex-abuse crisis and the disastrous handling of the same has pushed the Irish over the ledge and caused a huge sociological revolt. 
     We do have had a sex-abuse crisis in our country and our bishops have handled it no better than did the Irish, and we too are seeing a defection on the part of regular Churchgoers, but it does not seem to be for the same reasons.  Oh yes, there are some who attribute their new-found Sunday leisure to pederasts and their protectors, but as the defection is not limited to Catholics—or even any more strong among them than among the general population—we need to look for other reasons.   
       According to a recent Pew survey, one in five Americans now identify themselves as “unaffiliated” when it comes to their religious membership.  Part of this shift has been the loose boundaries among American mainline Protestants where people shifted from Presbyterian to Methodist to United Church of Christ more according to neighborhood convenience than doctrinal commitment.  Women no longer being confined to the home and its duties, and children having a multitude of activities ranging from Tai Kwan Do to ballet to sports, has reduced time available for Church activities just as the expansion of American social life in the years since World War II with gyms and clubs and civic organizations has reduced the need for the Church to be a social center.  In this Catholics are no different than their Protestant neighbors and few look to the Church to be more than a place for worship.  An exception to the general trend is the number of Catholics who see their Church not only as a place for worship but an opportunity for volunteerism.  Catholic parishes seem to be more active than ever—and in terms of numbers more involved than Protestant Churches, mainline or evangelical—in outreach to the homeless, in food pantries and soup kitchens, in adult education and awareness programs, in community service projects, work camps, and other outreach programming.  Yet, at the end of the day, there is an increasing number of former Catholics among the “unaffiliated.” 

      Some simply leave the Church and formal religion altogether for the same reason that others find new Church homes among Protestant Churches—mainline or evangelical.  Not being able to come to Holy Communion because of their being in a marriage not recognized by the Catholic Church leaves them feeling cut off and second-class.  Others feel rejected due to their LGBT status—or their disagreement with the Church’s stance towards the LGBT community has led them to think that they have moved on and left the Catholic Church behind.  While the majority of American Catholics disagree with the Church’s teaching on contraception that issue has not driven many from the Church—they have just learned to find themselves comfortable with the fact that they disagree with doctrine.  Knowing that the majority of clergy are not committed to that particular doctrine probably helps them over any discomfort they might otherwise feel.  Similarly women who have had an abortion find they often can reconcile with the Church and still feel at home in her, while those men and women who are more vigorous advocates of “abortion rights” find themselves very uncomfortable even in progressive parishes. 
       The state of Sunday morning in many Catholic parishes has not helped.  One Sunday recently I was walking with a friend when he got a text message from an acquaintance whom he had recommended that she should try a particular parish.  His friend was ecstatic: “I finally went to a Mass where the priest was not telling me that I was on the road to hell.”  Priest after priest today tends to tell his congregation what the Church is against without any idea how wearying to the soul this message can be.  We all know what the Church is against.  That doesn’t inspire us.  Can you tell us what it is for? 

      Sermons are not only invariably negative they are too often ill prepared with the preacher just following his stream of consciousness as it trickles down to a rivulet or runs dry all together.  Some of the younger priests in particular have more confidence in their seminary training than their education merits and it is embarrassing to hear them pontificate on subjects they know nothing about to congregations who are often better educated and certainly more experienced than the preacher.  These same priests have often reintroduced liturgical styles that are stuffy at best and often just turgid in their mind-numbing tedium.
       What is to be done?  Well one thing is we need leadership that wakes up to this problem, doesn't blame it on someone else, and is concerned about it.  To many bishops and priests today say “a smaller, leaner Church is good” with no concern for the spiritual welfare of those very people who are being made to feel unwelcome.  The smaller leaner Church answer is only a cop out for “shepherds” who are too lazy to look after the flocks entrusted to them.  We need good shepherds—that is the first step. 

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