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home : bishop : columns

6/2/2011 5:28:00 AM
Why Catholics fall away and why they should stay
'Amazing God' can be an opportunity for spiritual growth


Our Diocese's "Amazing God" evangelization initiative has led many of us to reflect on how best to meet the spiritual needs of people living in our 21st century.

Certainly, there is no topic which is more timely than spirituality. On the one hand, there is a great hunger for spirituality - as evidenced by the plethora of books, DVDs and internet resources on this matter.

On the other hand, we in the Church are experiencing consternation and frustration about how to respond to this hunger, especially among our own people as more and more Catholics - especially younger Catholics - are alienated from or indifferent to the Church, and find little meaning in its rituals, language and traditions, which they experience as unrelated to their lives.

Hence, we are perplexed when we see our young, and not-so-young, gravitate toward evangelical churches and non-traditional spirituality centers, or choose secular settings over sacramental practices.

Many of our people feel free to dismiss Church teachings which are inconsistent with their own experiences with relationships and sexuality, or they ignore Church proclamations about the beginning and the end of life.

Vocations to religious life have declined by more than 50 percent and vocations to the priesthood by more than 30 percent since 1965. Mass attendance in the United States has decreased by 30 to 40 percent since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

Some attribute these trends to the implementation of the Council or to the Council itself. Others blame the scandal of clergy sexual abuse.

Quite frankly, I believe it is more than any one cause.

Let me cite three factors in the contemporary milieu which, I believe, must be understood both if we are to nurture our own spirituality and be responsive to the spiritual needs of contemporary men and women.

The first is a loss of a sense of sin. This is evident in a variety of ways: most notably for us as Catholics, in the decline of the numbers of those celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation.

While penitents have dwindled to a corporal's guard, those receiving the Eucharist at Christmas and Easter or at weddings and funerals, even when they haven't darkened the doors of the church other than on such occasions, is all too frequent.

I am not proposing that we revert to the sin-dominated culture of the pre-Vatican II Church, with its emphasis on weekly confessions or not receiving communion unless preceded by confession. But I am suggesting that, for many contemporary Catholics and others, sin is no longer a reality which is significant in their lives.

I see this as an obstacle to contemporary spirituality, because if there is no sin, then, there is no need for a Redeemer.

Maybe I'm all wrong in this regard. Maybe sin really doesn't exist in today's world. Maybe sin was the result of a Jansenistic piety or an antediluvian approach to control the masses, which is no longer relevant in our enlightened, post-modern culture.

But the fruits of sin are certainly evident all around us. We see it daily in domestic violence; in family breakdown; in child physical and sexual abuse; in addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex and pornography; and in gambling, street crime and school violence - as well as in the social sins of racism, sexism, ageism, militarism, homophobia and xenophobia.

But unless there is a willingness to acknowledge the existence of sin and evil in the world, to assume responsibility for it and to bring about the conversion of mind and heart which alone can rectify it, then there remains only a social approach to these ills - which is inadequate to respond to what is primarily and essentially a spiritual problem.

A second issue is consumerism. In his 1991 encyclical, "Centesimus Annus" ("The Hundredth Year"), Blessed Pope John Paul II lamented consumerism, which he described as "exhausting."

He noted that we, in the West in particular, are sculpted and shaped from cradle to grave to live and act like consumers. We are bombarded incessantly with high-powered advertising techniques which seek to define and create more and greater needs.

The superfluous becomes the convenient; the convenient becomes the necessary and the necessary becomes the indispensable. "Enough" is not a word that advertisers use.

Our prevailing culture is about choice, more for less and instant gratification. We see evidence of consumerism all around us. Our supermarkets give us 40 brands of shampoo to choose from and eight different types of potatoes. We have new gadgets and software available every month, $150 flights to the Caribbean and 120 channels on cable.

Furthermore, these high-powered advertising techniques not only seek to define and create more and greater needs, but they seek to shape the attitudes and personality of the consumer as well: The self becomes the center of the universe; other people, things to serve one's needs; the moral norm, efficiency; the means, whatever works. Let the chips fall where they may - be these the chips of unethical business practices, the exploitation of labor or rapacious usurpation of the environment.

Consumerism has also seeped into our approach to spirituality. While not intending to take a potshot at our friends from the evangelical churches, I believe that a consumeristic approach is one of the ingredients for their success.

An article in the Wall Street Journal by James Twitchell, titled "A Congregation of Consumers", points out that today's Christians are first and foremost consumers - and that the complacent mainline churches are dropping out of the competition because they are not marketing "their products."

What is it that makes their "product" so desirable? Sociologists point out that the churches which demand the most of people - tithing, bowing to firm doctrine and observing strict rules - are the fastest-growing.

Sacrifice, Twitchell suggests, signifies value. The more you sacrifice, the more you visibly value the product.

Another key to the product success of the evangelical churches is selling. Missionary zeal is at the heart of their attraction - not only because sharing the Good News with others is a basic Christian responsibility, but because it means you yourself have found the Way.

For many, Twitchell says, selling the faith to others "comes down to a kind of narcissism, like taking pride in your Prius."

Another form of selling in which these churches engage is "innovations in supply." They offer playgrounds, day care, coffee shops, DVDs, souvenirs and a mall's worth of service. These churches also hire consultants and public relations experts to "grow their flock," and they adhere to market discipline.

Whether you agree with Twitchell's analysis that the reason for the success of many evangelical churches is the end result of a form of consumerism, there is no question about the fact that consumerism is deeply ingrained in our American psyche - and we must be keenly aware of it when seeking to address our people's spiritual needs.

However, rather than cater to a consumerism which enslaves us, I would suggest that, as Catholics, we are called to break free from this lifestyle of high consumption, of wasteful depletion of resources and affluent use of service and leisure around us so that we might listen to what Gospel values have to say.

Gospel values tell us: "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Gospel values point out that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle then for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Gospel values remind us that we should be content to be fed and clothed.

While most would readily admit that these are Gospel norms and values, unfortunately, there are far too few people today who are willing to take the steps necessary or to make the sacrifices required to translate these Gospel values into lived realities.

For example, the poor person says, "Let the rich begin. I've had enough frugality already." And the rich person says, "Why should I give up that which I have legitimately acquired? Therefore, let someone else begin, and then we'll see."

The net result is that no one does anything.

Despite this pessimistic reality, however, there are signs that many people today have had enough of media-driven consumption patterns and self-obsessed lifestyles and are heeding God's call to be different by learning to live simply, sustainably and in solidarity with people who are poor.

This solidarity with the poor is not, as Blessed Pope John Paul II notes in his 1987 encyclical "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis" ("On Social Concerns"), "a feeling of vague passion or shallow distress at the hardships of people both near and far."

Rather, "it is a firm and pervading determination to commit ourselves to the common good. It involves building a human community where liberty is not an idle word, where the needy Lazareth can sit down with the rich man at the same banquet table."

I believe this is that kind of sacrifice to which we must call our people: "to share rather than to hoard; to be generous with ourselves, our time and our resources; and to consider how much is enough. For to live simply is not just to live frugally for its own sake - that would be like fasting without prayer or almsgiving.

"It is to live in such a way that human dignity is respected and all may reach their full human and God-given potential."

That means taking personal responsibility for creating change and for understanding the impact our way of life is having on poor people and on the global environment we all share.

I am convinced that this approach to spirituality - rooted in the rich social teaching of the Church - is the best way to challenge our people to change their lives, to transform our consumer-driven society and to bring about God's kingdom in our day.

This surfaces a third issue in the contemporary milieu: the bifurcation between spirituality and religion.

More and more, people - especially young adults - make the distinction between spirituality (which is conceived as private, subjective and individualistic, freeing one to be in touch with the authentic self, with one's true inner core) and religion (which is viewed as an assent to a self-limiting creed which can lead people to become dogmatic, rigid and intolerant).

This tendency to embrace a "spirituality-only" or a "Catholic lite" approach to faith fails to appreciate the importance and value of tradition and community.

Tradition, and the rituals which sustain it, is not traditionalism (or what the late theologian Jeroslav Pelekan called "the dead faith of the living"); it is the living faith of the dead.

Unlike a spirituality-only approach, with a religious tradition we don't have to start out from scratch. We not only have a time-tested and track-proven perspective on life and its ultimate purpose; we have a community that can challenge us to examine our biases and self-centered habits, and that can sustain us emotionally, esthetically, intellectually and morally through all the dry days and dark nights that inevitably occur on our life's journey.

Faith is not just a "God and me relationship," because God calls us not as individuals, but as a people - a people who share a faith and tradition that teaches us how to take risks out of love, how to challenge the status quo, how to live and act with justice.

We share a faith and tradition which enables us together to be a source of love in our sin-wounded world; to offer words and deeds which affirm rather than denigrate, that build bridges rather than erect walls, that shed light in the midst of darkness.

As we continue our Amazing God journey, I hope we will reflect upon these three obstacles to our spiritual growth and find ways to combat these pitfalls as we seek to evangelize others.

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