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Catholicism a la carte

Gary Caruso | Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mary Blessed Mother of God, why must so many in this country insist that their own personal style of religion be imposed on others? Three times during the last two decades, in 1990, 2001 and last year, researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., conducted one of the nation’s largest major surveys of religion. Results released earlier this month reveal that the rigidity of religion tends to move Americans to the fringes of the religious spectrum.

The percentage of Americans who call themselves Christians has dropped dramatically during the past two decades. The American Religious Identification Survey, funded by the Lilly Endowment and the Posen Foundation, most recently surveyed more than 54,000 people between February and November of last year. Americans identifying themselves as Christians has dropped to 76 percent of the population, down from 86 percent in 1990.

Those who call themselves Christian are increasingly identifying themselves without traditional denomination labels, describing themselves rather as “nondenominational,” “evangelical” or “born again.” Forty-four percent of America’s 77 million Christian adults now say that they are evangelical or born again. Even 18 percent of Catholics choose that label as they join 40 percent of the non-Catholic population into what Trinity’s Program on Public Values director calls “a sort of generic, soft evangelicalism.”

The number of people who use nondenominational terms has increased from 194,000 in 1990 to more than 8 million last year. On this end of the spectrum, the survey substantiated trends sociologists already identified. While the importance of denomination has slipped in America, a growing number of people say they have “no” religion. Moreover, religious minorities has increased, most notably Muslims, Mormons and movements like Wicca and paganism.

One need but to read the recent rantings on this Viewpoint page to ask why in our world-class academic Notre Dame community must many also insist that their understanding of Catholicism is the only, correct and absolutely certain way to worship? If those expressions are any indication of this season’s personal Lenten enlightenments, the only response can be – shame, shame, shame.

Shame on the drunken Notre Dame architectural students in London who loudly badgered fans from other teams, for that conduct does not gain heaven. Shame on the University administration for parsing the word “festival” in the ongoing Queer Film Festival series so as to suggest that the event celebrates gays and homosexuality rather than their artistic creations. Shame on last year’s alumnus who ridiculed those pointing out the festival controversy while so much as saying Notre Dame should not care about gays, and goose-stepped page by page through the Catechism in an effort to prove universal truth and Catholic morality (“A Catholic University,” Feb. 17).

Finally, shame on the Innsbruck program student whose Viewpoint column (“The same Church, but not mine,” March 17) published on St. Patrick’s Day, the cheeriest day on campus, was equally as self-absorbed. Her Catholic European Ash Wednesday experience left her so void of the feeling her Georgia parish gives that she felt like a guest rather than a member of the one, true, universal Catholic Church. Maybe her homesickness can be forgiven, but why must she choose her Catholicism à la carte like so many – especially that 18 percent now more frequently calling themselves evangelicals?

The à la carte answer may lie in our religious dogma falling siege from our free will and intellect. Ask two Catholics why Christmas day celebrates the birth of Jesus. One will say that it is the actual birthday while the other will correctly note that it was set by the early Church to counter a pagan winter solstice holiday. Ask two Catholics why priests may not marry. One will say that it is to better minister to the flock, naturally avoiding how equally well other married religious denominations can minister. The other will cite Pope Gregory’s edict and his desire to grab a priest’s property which otherwise went to spouses. Ask any number of questions, including why women cannot be priests or why certain gospels were rejected when writing the Bible, and the magic infallibility answer emanates from those protecting the rigidity of the man-made traditions of Catholicism.

Lent is a time of self-examination and introspection, a time when we attempt to identify with the original Christians who gave witness under penalty of death, without politics, material riches or the belittlement of others. Our Lenten eye should be on behavior that recognizes the internal conflicts of each soul and extends a patient hand as one of our own personal à la carte offerings to others. Only then can we draw others closer in rather than out to the fringes.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a communications strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs

director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.