dimanche, juin 04, 2006

Catholicism at the crossroads: the changing face of an ancient church

Almost since its founding, America has been a place of escape for religious individualists, eccentrics and revisionists (not in the negative sense). There's a good reason for that. So many of our ancestors, be they Quaker, Jewish, or Catholic, came to this nation fleeing some kind of religious or ethnic persecution (except, of course for African-Americans, who came here as slaves and worshipped under the watchful eye of the foreman or the slavemaster.) Individualism breeds creativity and spunkiness, but it can be extremely problematic for churches, like my own, that are based in some measure of the forcible consensus engendered by hierarchy. It has been also been a dilemma for American Catholics as they relate to the centralized authority of the Curia. A series of articles in today's Philadelphia Inquirer highlighted some of the issues facing American Catholicism in the 21st century. I'm going to put some of what I gleaned from the article out here, not as a polemical arguement, but in the hope that it will provoke some conversation. There's a tension between Catholicism and American culture" said Chester Gillis (chair of the theology department at Georgetown University) "American culture is winning out."

A Zogby poll in March of 1,901 Catholics in this country found that although the vast majority thought of themselves as Catholic, thought being Catholic was special and that it was important for new generations to grow up Catholic, fewer than half of the young adults said they attend Mass weekly, go to confession at all, or consider it important that priests be unmarried.

Less than half believe that same sex relationships are always wrong, and about a quarter either believe that the church has the final say on sex outside marriage or support the prohibition against artificial birth control.

Bishop Joseph Galante of the Camden (NJ) Diocese commented that the dissatisfaction of American Catholics had evolved out of a "minimalist" understanding of the faith. In other words, they didn't understand the difference between church doctrine (as in the Creeds) and discipline (obligatory Sunday mass, confession and meatless Fridays). Once the discipline of a meatless Friday was relaxed, people felt "hoodwinked" and began to wonder if practices like the Mass and confession were made up, said Galante. "Until we get serious...bringing people to a much better understanding of what it means to be Catholic, we're going to be spinning our wheels."

On the other hand, to those outside the US, the American church "looks robust to Catholic leaders."

"The percentage of Mass attendance is much higher than in Europe, parish life is relatively vital, your fraternal organizations, like the Knights of Columbus, are flourishing," said Archbishop John Foley.
Here's one other quote from an expert on church growth at Fuller Seminary, Eddie Gibbs. I found this one particularly provocative, because it speaks to anyone who wants to reach young adults. "The under-35s represent a culture of networking and empowerment, while the church represents a culture of hierarchy and control."

When I talk to my Roman Catholic friends I hear various themes: strong identification as Catholics, a sense of betrayal over the sexual abuse committed by a minority of priests (the vast majority are faithful men of God), love, tolerance or dislike for their local pastor (so very Protestant), and a feisty unwillingness to march in lockstep with the Vatican (however much they love the Pope, as they did John Paul II). I see an imperfect earthly Church aspiring to model itself on the eternal perfect one which is Christ's bride.

As an outsider, the glass looks more than half full to me. What does it look like to you?

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