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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sharing one's faith

          Recently the Pew Trust on Religion and Society conducted a survey of American religious practice and affiliation. It got publicity for the statement that the second largest “denomination” in the country is ex-Catholics. About 30% of people raised Catholic no longer say they are Catholic. That amounts to about 20 million people. There are only 16 million Southern Baptists in the country, and they are the largest single denomination besides the Catholics.

          That is not news to me. I have been following numbers like this for thirty years, and have seen the trend toward leaving the Church increasing over that period. Also not news to me is that the Catholic Church is no worse off and no better off than any other denomination. All denominations have been losing members at the same rate or at worse rates. Whatever is happening to Catholicism is happening to everybody else too.

          The study also points out an interesting fact: a substantial segment of those leaving the Church are leaving it because they see the Church as not religious enough. For example, they see Catholics as not taking the Bible word-for-word literally.

          The only reason the Catholics are growing in number overall is because of the number of Catholic immigrants from Latin America.

          Analysts of the Pew study surprised me with one statement, however. They say that most other groups are making up for their losses by “evangelizing,” by recruiting new members. Catholics aren’t doing that. The implicit concludion: Catholics should get with it and start evangelizing.

          The word “evangelize” sounds bad in the U.S. People equate it with proselytizing. Proselytizing means that you go out and actively poach members from other churches. Evangelizing means that you witness to your beliefs publicly, and, I suppose, work to recruit unaffiliated people.

          There is another connotation to the word “evangelize.” It suggests an appeal based on emotion, possibly on fear. “If you don’t join us, you are not saved.” Not being saved means “going to hell.” Vatican II pushed many of us Catholics away from that approach when it made two significant declarations: 1) God operates in some mysterious ways in religious bodies outside Catholicism, and 2) the individual person’s conscience is supreme over all else. If in conscience I believe that God calls me to leave the Catholic Church and become a Lutheran, God is okay with that.

          If I really accept those two statements, and I do, I cannot go around telling people that they are lost unless they join us. I lose an important recruiting tool. Does accepting the two statements also make me too relaxed about sharing my faith?

          I think it does.

          For some reason, even though I think my Catholic tradition is the best thing in the world for me, and I could never think of leaving it, I am casual about sharing it with others. Why?

          I parallel it with enthusiasm for something like quitting smoking. The way people describe the passage from smoker to non-smoker convinces me that non-smoking is definitely the better course of action. Yet pushing the issue can turn people off. One former smoker I know used to make a pest of himself by reminding every smoker on every possible occasion that the smoker was going to wellness hell if he or she did not quit. That made the rest of us refuse to bring up the topic with our smoking friends.

          I am reluctant to get heavy, deep and real with people with whom I am engaged in casual interaction. But the easy course of action for me is to define every occasion as one that calls for steering clear of the important topic of my faith.

          Do I have any enthusiasms that I find myself sharing with others?

          This blog represents one way in which I do such sharing. A blog gives the other person the freedom to take it or leave it. I don’t risk pestering people. I do risk having them not listen to me at all. I have no idea if anyone reads this blog, or that they arre affected by what I say if they do read it.

          The bottom line is that I do not think God calls me to go on a crusade of street preaching. Someone else may feel called to do that. More power to her.

          I still think it is important to provide good pastoral care to the people already in our Catholic community. There is no reason why we have to copy the rest of the U.S. religious world by letting 30% of our own folks go somewhere else.

          Recently Pope Benedict set up a Church office in Rome to promote the “new evangelization.” The idea is good. I just with he could have found a better word to name his program.


  1. Hi Father Joe,

    Thanks for your timely post. I entered the Catholic Church in 1994. Lately, I have been thinking about leaving due to some things that have happened to me. Your article, along with my ponderings for Lent, have led me to look deep within. I have plenty of darkness inside that needs healing. I can't just drop it on the doorstep of the Church. The grass isn't greener on the other side of the fence, it's greener where its been watered. It's time to water my relationships and plant some new grass where needed. Thanks for the things you wrote and all the rosaries you pray. God bless you.


  2. Thanks, Dennis!

    Most (Catholic) Church people would probably disagree with me, but I interpret Vatican II's declaration on religious freedom as meaning that if you aren't being fed spiritually where you are at, you should go where you are fed. Or, to use Rodney Stark's market analogy, if you don't keep up with your competitors, they have a right to come and take away your market share. We can't behave like a lazy monopoly any more.

    I don't pray the rosary in the traditional way. I use the physical beads while I go through the psalms of the liturgy of the hours. I was impressed by the Muslim practice of bowing down five times a day toward Mecca. Since I cannot do that (they would have to scrape me off the floor if I did!), I decided to sing the psalms aloud. That really makes the whole experience prayerful in a new way.

    Peace and everything good!