Why Isn’t Being Catholic a Habit?


Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
—Proverbs 22:6

Introduction—Duhigg’s Book about Habits

As part of an alumni book club at my alma mater, George Washington University, we read Charles Duhigg’s New York Times Bestseller, The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, first published in 2012.  The book explains how individual and organizational  habits emerge, how to build new habits and how to change old ones.  It made me ponder why Catholicism, despite extensive education, doesn’t seem to develop into a habit anymore.  Or did it ever?

Catholic Education—A History

Since 1727 the Catholic Church has been educating men and women in what is now the United States.  The first such school was the Ursuline Academy in New Orleans, then under French control.  As the nation grew with the Louisiana Territory Purchase, Catholic school education expanded as state after state was incorporated into the Union.  There were a few Jesuit-run schools and colleges during the colonial period—mostly in Maryland and Pennsylvania, where “Papism”  was tolerated.

In the early days of the republic America’s population was predominantly Protestant.  As Irish Catholics fled Ireland because of the great potato famine in the 1840s, anti-Catholicism grew.  Protestant leaders argued that Catholic children should be educated in public schools in order to become fully American.  It was then that the Church began establishing its own schools.  According to James Hennesey in his book, American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States,  ethnic immigrant groups in addition to the Irish  developed parochial schools to protect their religion, culture and language.  

In 1885 the Church in America adopted the Baltimore Catechism, which became the standard text for Catholic education.  This catechism tells what Catholics should believe in a question and answer format.  After Vatican II a catechism has not been so widely used in Catholic education.

Since 1727 millions have attended Catholic grammar and high schools, colleges and universities.   All were (and are) routinely taught our faith—dogma, doctrine and practice.  Millions more attended catechism classes offered by local parishes to those who could not attend Catholic schools.  

Catholicism—Is it Habit Forming Now?

And yet Catholic Churches in America once filled to overflowing are not so now.  Why does the  teaching and training of young Catholics no longer “take?”   Once it was. In the 19th and early 20th centuries attending Mass was called “the church habit.”  

In his book, Duhigg explores habit formation by using the military as an example:  The habit begins with basic training and drilling, weaponry education, followed by learning to think and communicate under fire.  A key component is learning to accept orders automatically and to follow them without hesitation.  In that sense, military training would be similar to education of Catholic children—the creation of what the church once called making “soldiers of Christ.”  

Individual habits develop because actions are repeated again and again.  Duhigg uses the example of backing the car out the driveway everyday—unlocking the door, starting the car, checking the mirrors, looking for obstacles, braking, putting the transmission in rear and so on.  He also explains that scientists have theorized that there is a three-step loop in our brains that develop habits. 

  • First is the cue, “a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.”
  • Second is the routine, “which can be physical or mental or emotional.”
  • Third is the reward “which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering.” 

Eventually a “sense of anticipation and craving emerges.”  In this way we develop habits like smoking, drug use, eating, drinking and the like—some good and some bad.  

Recognizing the Decline and Why it’s happening

In a 2014 article on CatholicExchange.com, Russell Shaw noted that “forty years ago…the falloff in Sunday Mass attendance by American Catholics” became too obvious to ignore.    Not only had attendance declined but so did religious vocations.  The vocational decline was especially harmful to low tuition Catholic Schools because teaching nuns were essentially free labor.  

Society in this modern technically based age has become more and more oriented to the secular.  And as a result the repeal of laws once prohibiting or controlling pornography, consensual sex acts and abortion  have enabled adolescents to learn too soon and too much about these.

Children now obtain sex education by watching sex videos at an increasingly younger age.  These videos only serve to contradict the Church’s teaching when young people are at their most vulnerable—that time in life best summed up by St. Augustine’s wayward prayer: “Lord make me chaste but not yet!”  Moreover, the seeming hypocrisy of Church hierarchy in the face of sexual scandals has probably contributed to the decline in Mass attendance.

A 2018 Gallup Poll reported that the biggest decline in weekly Mass attendance has occurred during the tenure of Pope Francis.  The article quotes Breitbart News’ Thomas Williams, who suggests this accelerated decline  is due to Pope Francis’s “continual deemphasizing of the importance to obedience to church rules such as regular Mass attendance and adherence to Catholic doctrine.”

Pastor Rick Warren’s Renewal of Habit-Forming Church Attendance

The real question is “can this decline in Mass attendance be reversed?”  Duhigg addresses a similar question in his discussion of the evangelical Christian pastor, Rick Warren ,who sought out a new congregation among people who didn’t  attend church.  Warren’s search led him to Saddleback Valley in Orange County, California.  In 1979 it was the fastest growing region in the fastest growing county in California.  While there were plenty of existing Christian churches in the area, none seemed large enough to handle the expanding population. 

 Warren was inspired by a proposition in a magazine article by Donald McGavran: religious denominations should imitate the tactics of other successful movements.  This meant that “religion” had to be marketed, according to Warren.   His success has been phenomenal beginning with his first service in 1980 with an attendance of 50.   Thirty-five years later he preaches weekly to 20,000 attendees. 

Warren spent 12 weeks going door-to-door asking people why they didn’t go to church. The answers he received:

“church was boring, the music was bad, sermons didn’t seem to be applicable to their lives, no child care, they hated dressing up and the pews were uncomfortable.”

And so he strove to accommodate his parishioners instead of having them accommodate to his church.  His religious views are conservative and more or less in line with current Catholic teaching: he opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.  He promotes abstinence rather than contraception and is against embryonic stem-cell research.  His church attendance continues to grow.  

Warren requires that his parishioners meet weekly in small bible study groups in a church goer’s residence. He found that the groups spent about ten minutes in bible study and prayer but the remaining time was spent “discussing kids and gossiping.” And thus his parishioners developed a sense of community.  Today over 5,000 such groups exist.  Warren’s goal is spelled out in a course manual: “replacing bad habits with…good habits…[to] help…grow in Christ’s likeness.” 

Developing a Support Community in AA and Twelve Step Groups

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is another organization that builds on a sense of community, according to  Duhigg. AA was founded in 1934 by Bill Wilson (“Bill W”) and Dr. Robert Smith (“Dr. Bob”).  The Twelve Steps of the AA program include tenets set forth by the Oxford Group, a Christian religious movement originating in Great Britain during the latter part of the 19th century.   (For an interesting history of AA’s origin, see here.)

Duhigg explains that AA has become “the largest, most well-known and successful habit changing organization in the world.”   AA’s twelve steps focus on spirituality—seven of them mention a “Higher Power” or “God as we understand Him.”  AA meetings provide a  venue for alcoholics to share their stories of failure and recovery and to help each other in recovery—in short, to provide a support community.

Many other Twelve Step organizations have developed, following the principles first set forth by Bill W and Dr. Bob:

  • Al-Anon, for friends and families of alcoholics and addicts;
  • Nar-Anon, for addicts;
  • Overeaters-Anonymous
  • ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics)
  • Gamblers-Anonymous

and over 29 more.

The Decline in Mass Attendance, its Economic Consequences and a Remedy?

What effects does this decline in attendance mean to the Church’s economic well-being?  Insights into Religion recently featured an article entitled Church Giving Tied to Gratitude and a Sense of Mission.  The article reveals that an average Church worshipper in the United States gives $1500 annually.  Interestingly the study shows that Catholics give only $727 a year while Protestants contribute $1627 a year.  Debra Bruce, a researcher for the Presbyterian Church asserted “If people are connected to their congregation, if it’s giving them what they need to face the complex factors they confront during the week” they respond with their pocketbooks.  

Interestingly, Duhigg reached out to his readers asking them to contact him if they wished.  It was an unusual offer by an author.  I did so and inquired if he had any thoughts on the matter.  His response to me:  “ [our] Culture is becoming more secular…when a church is successful, it is because they instill a sense of community.”   There really is no panacea to our plight but maybe, just maybe, the Catholic Church might try to emulate Warren’s outreach and ask their fallen members why they don’t go to church anymore.   They may find multitudes of “faith hungry” Catholics who would like to comment and be accommodated.  It’s worth a shot.

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