Restoring Catholic Relevance in Society- Part I

Am I the only one feeling that the Catholic Church has become irrelevant in political, social and moral arenas?

It’s not really a question anymore. The cultural outcomes have objectively provided the answer across a broad bandwidth: abortion, gender-identity, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, genetic engineering.  Take your pick.

This article isn’t another “hand-wringing” eulogy for Catholic values.  Quite the opposite!  It is a hopeful “get off you’re a–” exhortation to us Catholics. The laity, pastors, and Bishops. All of us.  If you like what you saw here – email it to somebody. If the solutions proposed make sense – forward this to your pastor and Bishop. Let them know that you agree.  We must work with the Holy Spirit to restore Catholic relevance in secular society because if we don’t raise our hands, nothing will change.

If you think everything is fine because “Jesus will preserve the Church” you can stop reading now. That’s bad theology. Jesus chooses to work through our human nature.  Even God won’t walk a dog with no legs. If we’re that dog – and we refuse to pull at His leash, God won’t drag us.  God respects our “free will”.  He didn’t drag the Chosen People out of Egypt, did He? They had to walk.  That option was left to them.  As it is to us.

Can we rely on our Cardinals, Bishops, and pastors to “rescue” the Church from this ponderous burden of cultural impotence?  Maybe if we just pray more?  Encourage them? Then God will make it all work out?  We have been praying for them, haven’t we? Get serious. Don’t put this burden on them or on God. It’s not fair.

Nor is it particularly insightful.  A far greater energy, insight, inspiration, and courage to address this challenge will be tapped within the laity – not the hierarchy.  Why do I say that?  With all due respect, the agenda of the General Meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on June 14-15, 2017 in Indianapolis is a persuasive case in point.  It was filled with dynamic non-sequiturs such as:

  • Approving a “translation of the Order of Blessing of the Oil of Catechumens and of the Sick and of Consecrating the Chrism”;
  • Revising “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities”
  • A talk on the “Spirituality of Immigration”
  • Approving the establishment of a permanent Standing Committee for Religious Liberty and,
  • A Theological Reflection on the Synod theme.

All well-intentioned and high-priority topics, undoubtedly. But relevant to “real life” Catholic concerns and challenges?  Seriously?  Perhaps.  If you’re a Bishop…  But such distinctions don’t help us.  Don’t go there.

Our focus is not on them, but on a singularly terrifying statistic that remained completely unaddressed and inexplicably ignored in that General Meeting of the US Bishops. This statistic is the bell-weather indicator of an impending demographic catastrophe in the Catholic Church. It is already descending on the Bishops (and us) like the Hindenburg after a spark – with a lamentably similar consequence.  Not good.

It’s said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something different to happen.  That’s exactly what the Church has been doing: watching the Hindenburg go down with hands in their pockets. This article proposes a bold change in order to confront this coming catastrophe realistically.

What catastrophe?

You can validate it with your own eyes: look around next time you go to Sunday Mass.  It’s evident in every Catholic church in the United States (except those on college campuses). What you see (or more accurately, what you won’t see) has become frightfully apparent to most Catholics in the pews. Somebody’s missing.

Hey, Catholics, We’re not in Kansas anymore!

The Church has lost an entire generation of future Catholics.

That’s not an exaggeration. The Millennial Generation has gone AWOL from the Catholic Faith.  Nothing the Church is doing presently is bringing them back. FOCUS, Evangelical Catholic, and Opus Dei are on the front lines of this crisis. They see the danger clearly. But they’re out there all alone. By contrast, the cultural forces opposing their courageous efforts are a comparative tidal wave.

Therefore, it’s essential that the entire Church now recognizes and rallies to this call. This may be the most serious worldwide crisis the Church has ever faced in its entire 2,000-year history.  [Ok, maybe Arianism was pretty bad…]  But never has an entire generation been lost to the faith before. That’s what this article is about.

A 2015 Pew Research Center Study confirmed that over 1/3 (36%) of the Millennial generation aged 18-24 identified themselves as an atheist, agnostic or “none” – having no particular religious affiliation at all. One in 4 American adults under age 30 also identifies themselves in that same category.

Among Catholics ages 18-29, only 45% indicated that religion is very important to them. 66% of Catholics under 30 don’t attend weekly Mass. For younger-generation Catholics, choosing between attending Mass or watching college football is a coin-toss. Mass is an alternative, but not a priority.

Only 64% of young Catholics between 18-29 have an absolutely certain belief in God. That means roughly 1/3 of them aren’t convinced that God actually exists!  That defines a secular agnostic. But Catholic? Not so much.

One final statistic hits us with unrelenting force.  When Millennial Catholics were asked by Pew Research if they believed their “own religion is one true faith that leads to eternal life”, 83% answered “no.”  For them, Catholicism is a possible alternative, but not an essential Truth.  82% believed there was more than one true way to God.  Wow.  Was Jesus aware of those other options before they hammered Him to the Cross?

This is the future of our Catholic Church.  The demographics are grim.  The Church will be visibly poorer and smaller 20 years from now.  The parish collection plates will be too.

The Millennials are the largest generation ever born in the United States – larger than the Baby Boomers.  Because they are a huge demographic, they matter.  As their generation goes, so goes the United States. And also – so goes the Catholic faith in America.

Demographics don’t change rapidly. People age slowly, so demographics proceed ponderously.  But this horizon is already visible. We’ve only got 20 years before the Church begins to list precariously after hitting this massive demographic iceberg.

The probability of that disaster increases each year we get closer. When my Catholic generation dies, our kids won’t be replacing us. The average life expectancy of a healthy 60-year old today is 22.8 years. Pew Research says that the median age of Catholics is 49, but 49% of all Catholics are over 50.  Do the math.

On August 24, 2017, Crisis Magazine published an article by Deacon John Began entitled “What’s Missing in the New Evangelization” in which he summed this situation succinctly:

“Therefore, a general lack of enthusiasm and motivation is a serious symptom of doubts and disbelief affecting parish communities. Thus, we cannot create deeply vibrant, evangelical communities without addressing their apprehension and help them to fully believe.”

“During the Convocation, Bishop Barron said for every person joining the Catholic Church, six are leaving. Also, in the survey of the parishes I serve, 80 percent of the respondents were 46 years old or older. So, time is very limited to turn people into disciples because we are hemorrhaging.” [emph. added]

An entire future generation of Catholics lost.  Just let that reality sink in… The hand-wringing and controversy over Amoris Laetitia pale by any comparison.  Distractions can sometimes be intentional.  Let that sink in too.

What’s the Bottom Line of Secular Relevance?

In a secular society, the relative value of human pursuits and ambitions devolves down to one fundamentally brutal “bottom-line” proposition: “What’s in it for me?”

A friend who works for Dynamic Catholic recognizes this reality acutely.  So, his question to me was commensurately spot-on: “What is the value proposition of becoming a highly engaged Catholic?”  Good question!  It prompted me to write this article. Because obviously, the Catholic Church hasn’t been able to answer that question for the Millennial generation!  Why?

American culture is sated with entertainments, comforts and financial resources that exceed 99% of the rest of the world! So, hurdling the secular culture’s “must have” value proposition is a commensurately hard challenge!  With all the techno-media static out there, value priorities are easily lost in the frequency overload.

But the question remains.  What is the “value proposition” that will make Catholicism relevance to the next generation in our secular society?

Maybe Salvation? But if you don’t believe in God or aren’t sure, that proposition is a non-sequitur value proposition for a lot of Millennials. But nice try. Share your consolation prize with the Church and sit down. Next contestant!

Round 2: Maybe they just have to understand the Catholic Faith! Perhaps we Catholics just need to explain it better for them!

Wrong. Sit down. The Millennials are the most educated generation ever in America.  The majority are college educated.  Smarter than their parents (they’ll tell you that, too!).  If you don’t believe this, try setting up your website without their help or synching your Android to your Amazon Echo. Point taken.

The Church has developed fabulous adult Catechism and instructional materials!  Scott Hahn, Peter Kreeft, and Carl Keating are brilliant apologists. Their books and videos present the “what” and the “why” of the Catholic Faith effectively and engagingly. As a catechist for almost 30 years, I can personally endorse Bishop Barron’s Catholicism DVD series and Dr. Edward Sri’s Augustine Institute DVD series Symbolon as among the best adult Catholic formation materials ever produced! We’re blessed to have all of these resources.  But they aren’t the solution.  Because the problem isn’t the presentation of the Catholic faith!

The problem is something that was once fundamental to the Church’s ancient persona. This ancient attribute was determinative in how Christianity ultimately conquered paganism. The modern Church lost it somewhere along the way as it stumbled headlong into a technological age of suburban sprawl.

It’s called “community.”

Fighting Digital Dominance

The social dynamic that relentlessly pervades our media-saturated techno-culture works to isolate individuals rather than unite them. Increasing technology has rendered direct human interaction obsolete.

This is confirmed in the de-humanization of personal interactions through a mind-boggling assortment of self-indulgent technological “selfie” experiences. They require no corresponding face-to-face interaction with another human being. Think of the internet, computer gaming, cell-phones, texting, pornography, apps, sports broadcasts, and the fleeting images of Instagram.

This is why we see otherwise coordinated and competent people walking into signs, lamp posts and falling over urban obstacles as they text, check apps, browse Facebook and Tweet to somebody they talk with maybe only twice a year.  Digital reality has so isolated them from their anthropomorphic reality that they injure themselves.  And this is progress?

This “techno-culture” isolation beckons individuals – and particularly the Millennial generation –  toward a digital interface that is temporary, changeable and non-committal. It’s the only world Millennials have ever known.  As such, the temporal conditioning that digital reflexives are subtly imprinting on human behaviors now conform sociological norms:  hook-ups and cohabitation have replaced traditional dating and formal engagements. Sound-bites circumvent deeper dialogues. Attention spans dwindle as deep concepts dilute into “quick-takes”.

As a result, secular culture now prefers merely to “sample” another person’s individual reality. But individuals don’t wish to personally share in those realities by participating in them directly.  Don’t need the “hassle”, right?

This morphing of distinctions is important. “Sharing” requires that we exchange something of ourselves with another person. Conversely, digitally “experiencing” another’s reality via a remote interface enables us to “sample” that person’s reality without becoming part of it.

When this behavior is extrapolated to a ridiculous extreme, it produces the Japanese “Hikikomori” – people who have become so reclusive and socially withdrawn from any real human contact that they hide in their rooms all day. They sate their perversely truncated socialization instincts with TV binge-watching, playing video games or surfing the Internet. Their life is “virtual”, not real. They sample the realities of others – but they do not share them.

The Virtual Parish

The Catholic Church is no exception to this trend of deteriorating personal interactions.  It has followed the culture toward “experiencing” in preference over “sharing”.  That’s why it’s irrelevant to this younger generation.

Within any Catholic parish, you will find perhaps 10% of the parishioners actively involved in liturgical ministry, charitable or community outreaches, catechism instruction, fundraisers or devotionals. Ask any pastor.

The rest are simply “experiencing” Catholicism. They attend Sunday Mass for only one hour a week and then head off to the kid’s soccer game. Who would have suspected? The kids wore their game uniforms to Mass!

Perhaps they also drop their kids off for a mid-week “kiddie-catechism” class, but they remain otherwise uninvolved in that activity.  By reason of such minimal parish interactions, these Catholics remain functionally AWOL.  They attend Mass with literally hundreds of other people on Sunday whose names they don’t know and who – for the most part – they will never get to know or work with at their parish. The Catholic parish reality has thereby devolved – for the majority of its members – into a community of strangers.

Just like Facebook.  Except Facebook offers more of them.

The Catholic mantra of “parish community” is objectively deconstructed by this observation.  It’s a fabrication. A pious illusion. Consider that Mass attendance involves no direct personal interaction with other human beings except a “sign of peace”. Even this is a perfunctory and token gesture to a random person who happened to sit near you and will thereafter likely remain a total stranger.  You don’t need to know people to worship at Mass.  The focus of the Mass is on Jesus, right? I know a priest who has actually eliminated the “sign of peace” from the Catholic Mass liturgy.  Reason?  It’s distracting people from the Eucharist!  Result: a dehumanized parish of commensurately reduced interactions and increased individual isolation.

For Millennials, the Mass has simply become another “experience” that is no more or less relevant than their Tweets, Pro Football broadcast or Facebook “friends”.  The Mass is something they can also passively “experience” because it requires little of them.  It’s not something that they share deeply with anybody who has personally become emotionally important to them, except perhaps family members who may be there.

The Millennial Catholic “religious” experience, therefore, intersects tangentially – but not centrally – within a broadband menu of potential experiences that distinguish no particular priority except immediate gratification.

If the Millennials believed in the Real Presence, it might make a difference.  But most don’t.  So, something else must become the “value proposition” for them.  We’ll identify what that “value proposition” might be in Part II.  Stay tuned.

continue reading Part II

Guest Contributor: Michael J. White is a Catholic convert, a real estate investment banker, lawyer, Cursillista and father of four boys. Having navigated an Exodus from California, he now lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with Mary Jo, his wife of 36 years. Mike teaches RCIA  at his parish and writes on contemporary faith and economics issues.