|Pope Francis at World Youth Day|
I was reading an interesting article about why people—and often entire congregations—are leaving mainline Protestant churches and either dropping out of formal religious practice altogether or affiliating with more “evangelical” groups. The reasons given for the breakdown of the mainline churches is
Bullying tactics by denominational leaders
A perceived abandonment of foundational principles of scripture and tradition
A devaluation of personal faith
It is interesting to look at the crisis of American Catholicism and ask how and to what extent these same issues have affected Catholics in the United States and led them to make other religious commitments (or non-commitments).
Bullying tactics by denominational leaders. The Catholic hierarchy in the United States has a long history of oppressive and even “bullying” behavior towards the faithful. While John Carroll, in the flush of excitement of the new American Republic, tried to set a democratic tone to American Catholicism, by and large American bishops after him followed the monarchic style of their European counterparts. With the exception of the rare bird such as John England of Charleston (bishop 1820-1842), the American bishops have more often than not been heavy-handed tyrants. Even the liberals such as John Ireland of Minneapolis St. Paul (1875-1918) or Patrick O’Boyle of Washington (1948-1973) were most often unabashed autocrats while the conservatives such as William O’Connell of Boston (1906-1944), James McIntyre of Los Angeles (1948-1970), or Michael Corrigan of New York (1880-1902) were ecclesiastical despots. Pope Francis has adopted a radically more open style of leadership as pope and it can be hoped that his episcopal appointments’ for the United States will reflect this change of approach in leading the Church. Blase Cupich of Chicago certainly seems to be of this new Francis generation. Coadjutor Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Newark is another Francis appointee who seems to have won the confidence of the clergy and faithful. The new bishops of Fall River (Massachusetts) and Gary (Indiana) are also signs of hopeful change in the hierarchy. For the most part, the Catholic faithful seem enthusiastic by Pope Francis’ style of leadership. At the same time there are loud and strident voices that lament that there are not more dictatorial prelates in the style of Raymond Burke when he was Archbishop of Saint Louis or Fabian Bruskewitz, former bishop of Lincoln Nebraska whose resistance to change in the Church is legendary. I think the message is clear that under Pope Francis bullying will not get a bishop or priest any desired advancement in his ecclesiastical career. Hopefully the Church will be blessed by having this Pope long enough to make a permanent change in the style of leadership not only in Rome but in local chanceries as well.
The second issue I think is a bit more pertinent—actually much more pertinent—to our Catholic situation. I don’t doubt that there is a perceived—and, in fact a real—break with the best of the Catholic intellectual tradition. I am not sure, however, that the American Church was ever as strong on biblical and theological scholarship as was ancient and medieval Catholicism or pre-WWII European Catholicism. The state of homiletics in the average Catholic parish in this country was horrendous before Vatican II and it is still poor; what is worse is that today’s poor preacher is too often speaking to the very poorly catechized Catholic. For all its pedagogical faults, the Baltimore Catechism in its day provided a thorough survey of Catholicism 101. That is not to say that the average Catholic of the past knew, much less understood, his or her faith. But there was a definite curriculum of doctrinal content available. The state of religious education in American Catholicism is abysmal and has been abysmal for two generations now. I remember studying secondary education as an undergraduate—it was one of my minors as, at the time, I thought I might end up a high-school teacher. We were taught to always teach just above the student’s level so that reaching for comprehension would keep their interest in the class. I always followed that in my decades of teaching—which turned out not to be secondary school but mostly at the post-graduate level. But these years since Vatican II Religious Education both in Catholic Schools and parish Religious Ed programs has always gone just the other way and so grossly oversimplified things as to make the doctrinal content of our faith ridiculous to anyone with a critical mind. Today in most parishes children have yet to master “The Lord’s Prayer” by Confirmation—forget any understanding of the Scriptures or the Deposit of Faith. What can we do? Well we need to put an emphasis on Adult Faith Formation (as distinguished from Adult Education.) I am not a fan of the neo-Catechetical movement as I think the doctrinal thrust of the “neo-Cat’s” has been tainted by a certain level of Gnosticism, but the methodology of developing a post-baptismal catechumenate is, I believe, brilliant. And while saying that, let me also give a plug for Father Robert Barron’s video series on Catholicism. It is both a thorough presentation of basic Catholic doctrine and a profound introduction to our rich Catholic culture—both historical and contemporary.
Finally, the matter of the devaluation of personal faith is another thing that I think we Catholics need to look at. In the pre-conciliar Church we had little access to a mature spirituality but we did have a rich piety that sustained our immigrant parents and grandparents through the struggles of an economic Depression and devastating wars. Among the babies that went out with the bathwater over the last five decades is a healthy mature spirituality suited for modern Catholics. The old devotionalism won’t do, but neither does it have to. We have in our Catholic heritage a rich heritage of being introduced to the great mystics. We have a rich sacramental/liturgical life. We have superb biblical scholarship of the last seventy+ years. Modern religious movements like the Community of Saint Egidio and the Monastic Community of Jerusalem as well as the Ecumenical fellowship of Taizé have developed magnificent prayer-forms. In addition to the Classics of Catholic Spirituality we have the writers of the 20th century like Merton and Houselander. Today’s writers like Rohlheiser, Rohr, Keating, and Chittester are sources of spiritual guidance for those who are seekers. We hear a lot about secularism, but people today are as anxious as ever to bridge the everyday for the Transcendent. There is much we can do in our parishes to meet these hungers, but until and unless we do we should not be surprised that the hungry are looking elsewhere and the searchers have become disillusioned.