The death of Catholic culture
James Matthew Wilson | Friday, March 9, 2007
We are now well into the second generation of Catholics growing up almost entirely ignorant of the faith their Church proclaims. The precipitous decline of Catholic school enrollment serves as one obvious indicator that fewer nominal Catholics are receiving the basic catechesis necessary to understand what goes on at Mass, or Who it is we worship there.
In a fashion typical of a culture in decline, most persons in the Catholic community subsist in their observances by habit or listlessly fall away, while a small flowering of devout and engaged Catholics blossom in increasing isolation. The fruitfulness of this group has been great, resulting in moving witnesses to life in Christ, and in an impressive emergence of attempts to address the crises of our age with the rich intellectual traditions of the Church. Most Catholics, however, float through their sacramental velleities, hearing nothing consciously and absorbing a little through proximity and habit.
The greater numbers of young Catholics get their only exposure to the life of the Church at a weekly guitar Mass. They attend public schools, where they are told everything they need to know is taught in its classrooms. They watch their daily glut of television, where they see that everything they desire can be bought somewhere. And they escape their childhood with at best a few years of weekly C.C.D. class, where they get their souls rubber-stamped for Confession, Communion and Confirmation.
Those who go on to attend a Catholic university are likely to receive a couple semesters of theology and perhaps a couple more of philosophy. This, in most circumstances, gives them an understanding of their Church and its sacraments slightly inferior to that which their grandparents imbibed through the Baltimore Catechism by the fifth grade.
Such ignorance of the narratives, creeds and traditions of Catholicism is itself grave. If asked, “Why do Catholics receive the Eucharist?” or “Why must they receive sacramental forgiveness for their sins?” most Catholics could not provide an answer. Indeed, many of the Catholics I know, practicing or not, would stare blankly at such questioning. It would never occur to them that there might be an answer to such queries. Moreover, they would be bored and in disbelief that anyone would bother to ask them.
Ignorance of the Church’s faith, however, is just a symptom of an even more grave condition. It is one thing not to know the doctrinal expressions of particular sacred truths; it is another thing – and a more serious thing – to live one’s life with a worldview blind to and uninformed by those truths. The great achievement of the so-called secularizing forces of modernity has been in reshaping the way in which we live in and perceive the world. Plenty of persons deny the religious truths their parents and grandparents approved and defended confidently. But plenty more persons affirm their belief in God, or confess they accept myriad other formal doctrines of our faith, while they see the world with the eyes of indifference and unbelief. One can claim to believe in the God Who died for our sins, while at the same time thinking about the world as if none of that business had happened. I do not speak of hypocrisy, but of a loss of religious feeling.
When a student at a Catholic university can write that dining halls should serve meat on Fridays during lent because such “penance” is an individual activity, meaningless if everyone else does it, and a matter of importance only between himself and God, ignorance and blindness converge in a monstrous concatenation. To be clear, that student seems unaware that one performs penance as an act of repentance for one’s sins. One “abstains” from meat on Fridays during lent as an act of solidarity with the poor and hungry, and as a sign of unity with other Christians preparing for Easter.
The ignorance that resulted in misnaming abstinence “penance” is easily corrected. I have just corrected it. But how can one correct a worldview that blindly believes one’s life of faith is entirely private – an affair between the individual soul and God and nobody else? I am no Church historian, but I bet it took many generations for the truth that Christians are “one body in Christ” to disseminate widely and become deeply meaningful. It has taken at most two generations to wipe out that truth, to make it appear repugnant to the average American, Catholic or otherwise.
The great vision of Christianity is that no person is an individual and no one exists alone. God created all things and keeps them in being through a personal act of His love. He creates us not separately, but for each other and in His Kingdom. The families, clubs and countries of which we are children, members and citizens are legitimate but relative analogues to our role as subjects of that Kingdom. When we worship together in mass, we perceive with our senses the fellowship of the Kingdom. When we pray in silence in a monastery, we experience that fellowship in the deepest part of our souls. Being part of Christ’s spiritual body is what makes us most fully persons. From this perspective, there is no such thing as an individual, but only persons in one spiritual body (an analogue to the Blessed Trinity).
Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, recently observed, “Most of what modernity has accomplished has been the secularization of culture and society. Contemporary consumer culture not only makes the individual the center of value; it also caters to the lowest elements of human nature – greed, vanity, gluttony, lust and sloth. Conformity, complacency, and creature comfort hardly represent the ideals of a great culture. They may be economically powerful motives, but they inhibit any genuine spiritual development.”
Historically, individualism began as a Protestant doctrine. Since it leads, by its very nature, to a thoughtless variety of atheism, it now may be called an atheist doctrine. When someone tries to explain a Christian practice like abstinence from meat on individualist, private grounds, it is not that person’s misinformation that perturbs me. I worry rather that such a person is merely one sign of the malformation of an entire culture. When Catholics can no longer perceive themselves as part of God’s Kingdom, as intrinsically bound up in the sacramental movements of the Church’s life, it is only a matter of time before they can no longer confess any belief in the Trinity. And unfortunately, it is far easier to inculcate a belief than it is to help someone to see creation anew.
James Matthew Wilson is a Sorin Research Fellow and loves a good Fish Fry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are those of the authors and not necessarily those of The Observer.