The near future of the American Church
Since the election, folks have pondered the future of the republic. The results validated the continued implementation of Obamacare, hence folks have also pondered the future of the Church’s missionary and charitable activities since the HHS Mandate asks Catholic employers to pay for morally objectionable “treatment.”
While it was the HHS Mandate that unanimously rallied the Bishops together around a common cause, the election results showed a far from unanimous Catholic vote. Indeed, the fact that a majority of Catholics supported the arguably most anti-Catholic Presidential candidate in decades should give us considerable pause. It doesn’t help that the laity are led astray by what should be Catholic leaders, be they clergy (in homilies or in print) or laity themselves. Where is our Church going? What will it look like in a century?
I don’t think it is a stretch to call 2012 the Year of the Atheist (fortuitous that Pope Benedict asked for this to be the Year of Faith?). Non- and anti-religious proponents certainly saw significant political victories this year, as seen in the state-level same-sex “marriage” wins, the removal of “God” from the Democratic platform and Obama’s Thanksgiving address, the push for “freedom of religion” to morph into “freedom of worship,” and the anecdotal evidence of increased arrogance and intolerance exhibited by nonbelievers in online fora.
See if this picture is out of the realm of future possibility: Americans continue to relegate religious expression simply to Sunday worship, and realize that a huge proportion of Catholics don’t really fit this definition, since few of them attend Mass weekly. Add to that that most have an embarrassingly low level of religious understanding, aided in no small part by the scandal given by dissenting clergy, religious, and public officials. The connection to Catholicism for this group seems merely to be the doing of good works, especially if these are divorced from catechesis on moral behavior. Sure, they may have a sincere love of prayer and the Eucharist, but will these loves be strong enough against the societal pull away from Church teaching?
With cultural pressures making authentic Catholicism seem unacceptable, the large population of luke-warm cultural Catholics might simply go away, joining any of thousands of Protestant ecclesial communities or just the secular Church of Me. And why not? With government restrictions making it harder for the Church to do its normal work (place adoptions, provide healthcare, marry, speak its mind in public), and with government itself ostensibly providing many of these services (with its typical bureaucratic inefficiencies and dismal results), why would people who do not think with the mind of the Church remain with her? At every turn, our beliefs and teachings on pretty much everything is derided by the rest of society, be it God’s providence and love by atheists or God’s teaching on abortion, contraception, and natural marriage by liberal Christians.
Counterintuitively, the presence of awesome JPII and Benedict bishops and priests, great Catholic communicators (Scott Hahn and company, orthodox Catholic blogs), and modern applications of authentic Church teaching (Vatican II documents, Theology of the Body, the Catechism) will actually serve to magnify the divide between living a true Catholic life and simply living secular but calling oneself “Catholic.” Since it is now so easy to demonstrate the flaws of “pro-choice Catholics,” of the hermeneutics of suspicion or disruption, and of the viability of remaining a “dissenting Catholic,” it is that much easier for people to realize that they are not, in fact, Catholic despite the label they gave themselves while growing up.
With the choice of remaining authentically Catholic seeming so difficult, and the choice of defecting seeming so easy, I can see the American Catholic population (including clergy) declining dramatically in the next few decades. I don’t want it to happen, and I don’t think it is certain to happen, but I think it is more likely than not.
A time to despair? No. A large scale defection of fence-sitters will actually cause some to fall on our side of the fence. When cultural Catholics ask “Why am I Catholic?”, as I did when my then-fiance challenged me, some will do the homework and realize the beauty and truth of the faith. Non-Catholics observing the goings-on, who are authentic truth-seekers and/or unsatisfied with secularism or Protestantism, will do the same homework and come to the same realizations. When you sit to hear the homily, you will be assured to hear rock-solid words of eternal truths by men who love the Church. Your neighbors in the pews will not squirm when hearing about NFP Awareness Week, and you will have seen many of them during your trips to the adoration chapel.
And, honestly, it will be kind of nice to not have to ask follow-up questions when you meet a fellow Catholic. “Oh, you’re Catholic? And do you believe in the Real Presence? Do you accept the authority of the Pope and Bishops? Do you believe in the sanctity of life from conception to natural death?” You can ask better questions instead: “Who is bringing the snacks to Bible study this week? Are you taking the 9:00 or the 10:00 hour to pray at the abortion clinic during 40 Days for Life? Which seminary is your son going to?”
We will be able to celebrate a life well-lived, a faith well-taught, and a God well-loved.