Catholicism’s Uphill Battle

29 02 2008


Although I tend not to post things on “relevant” topics, the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s survey has really got me thinking on many topics dear to my heart. As you may know, the survey confirms many things that we already know: that Americans shop around for their religion, and one of the largest religious groups in this country are ex-Catholics, at an estimated ten percent of the population. On Catholic radio this morning, it was said for every convert that enters the Catholic Church, four leave. The only reason the Church is maintaining its numbers is through immigration. (Yes, you can all thank us later.)

Instead of crafting a well-formed essay on the subject, I will merely put out some random thoughts, in no particular order:

Catholicism is not a very marketable religion. That is because Catholicism is all about a way of life and not an abstract doctrine. Ever notice how most Catholic apologetics centers around practices: whether or not to pray to the saints, indulgences, following the Pope, praying for the dead, etc? Aside from the whole paedobaptism controversies that have fractured Protestant communions, Protestants don’t seem to argue about doing things differently. It all seems neither here nor there: one could have a “contemporary” worship service in the same church as a “traditional” service. Most Protestants don’t have practices that other Protestants deem as superstitious or idolatrous. Because we have such strange practices, Protestants have always had the suspicion that we Catholics are closet pagans. And in a way they’re right. In order to be truly human, one has to be a pious pagan, or at least look like one.

I have recently finished the book Ambivalent Conquests on the Franciscan Inquisition of the Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula. When the friars got there, they were content to teach the neophytes only a few things before baptism: the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria, and how to make the Sign of the Cross. It was thought that while that was not enough, at least it was a beginning. They had to learn to look and act like Catholics before they could be Catholics. Sadly, I think the root of our problem is that we have flipped this principle on its head.

 (Maybe before an aspiring Catholic starts delving into the secrets of the Tridentine dogmas on justification, he should be sure that he can say a rosary all the way through, or know all the names of all the saints represented in the artwork of an old Catholic church.)

If Catholicism is so rooted practice, then, it is also rooted  in culture, and it may very well be that outside a Catholic culture, or at least a cultural ghetto, it is doomed as a popular religion.  Many people blame poor catechesis on people falling away from the Faith, as if all the teaching in the world could make a postmodern man comfortable with praying to statues or talking to the dead. Catechesis cannot really give us a reason why rubrics need to be followed, feasts kept, and medieval anachronisms observed with scrupulous care. These can only be preserved by something beyond our modern intellectual utilitarianism. There must be a surrender to the glorious Divine Absurd, a falling into the Madness of the cloud of rusty and unpolished witnesses.  Many argue that people leave the Faith because they don’t know it. Maybe they really leave the Faith because they think they know too much.

When I used to work with the California Conservation Corps, I was friends with another young Mexican-American man who was by no means religious, but still went to church occasionally (probably to pick up young women). He went once to a Protestant store-front church predominantly attended by Mexican-Americans, and I was struck by the complement that he gave the pastor. “He said a lot of things that I could use in my daily life,” he commented. I suppose I am all for the idea that sermons should exhort people to be virtuous, but I don’t think we are talking about virtue any more. A lot of the rhetoric that the evangelical mega-churches peddle is on how one can be successful in one’s life as it relates to Jesus, and the keyword is “success”. Christianity is not about success. Saints are not successful. The Gospel doesn’t “empower”. In real Christianity, one is acted upon, one is seized by the Spirit of God totally aware of one’s utter failure. And you do not form the Faith. It forms you.

All the talk about enculturation, lay-empowerment, and all of the other newfangled tricks of the aggiornamento are thus extreme misjudgements as to the real essence of human nature. There is not a superfluous cultural shell that covers the precious Gospel core of the Catholic identity. These “immature” things are the rigorous result of 2,000 years of contemplation of the Gospel and its rubbing against human nature. They are not disposable, but all the more necessary in the age when man has no other anchor in this tumultuous cultural sea.

In the end, we are fighting an uphill battle. It’s one we will win, but it won’t be pretty. I will not give the game plan here, other than to leave you with an extended quote from my favorite pious pagan, the Neoplatonic hierophant, Iamblichus:

For, let “ignorance and deception be error and impiety,” yet it does not follow that, on this account, things which are offered to the Gods, and divine works, are false. For a con­ception of the mind does not conjoin theurgists with the Gods; since, if this were the case, what would hinder those who philosophize theoretically, from having a theurgic union with the Gods? Now, however, in reality, this is not the case. For the perfect efficacy of ineffable works, which are divinely performed in a way surpassing all intelligence, and the power of inexplicable symbols, which are known only to the Gods, impart theurgic union. Hence, we do not perform these things through intellectual perception ; since, if this were the case, the intellectual energy of them would be imparted by us; neither of which is true. For when we do not energize intellectually, the synthemata(symbols) themselves perform by themselves their proper work, and the ineffable power of the Gods itself knows, by itself, its own images. It does not, however, know them, as if excited by our intelligence ; for neither is it natural that things which comprehend should be ex­cited by those that are comprehended, nor per­fect by imperfect natures, nor wholes by parts. Hence, neither are divine causes precedaneously called into energy by our intellections ; but it is requisite to consider these, and all the best dispositions of the soul, and also the purity pertaining to us, as certain concauses ; the things which properly excite the divine will be­ing divine synthemata themselves. And thus, things pertaining to the Gods, are moved by themselves, and do not receive from any in­ferior nature a certain principle in themselves of their own proper energy.

De Mysteriis






14 responses

3 03 2008

I appreciate what people are saying about their or their relatives’ experiences with cold, impersonal Catholic clergy and parishes. Clearly, these things really happened, and they are tragic. But can one really extrapolate from these examples to the Church at large? People’s experiences vary widely. I have known not-very-pastoral priests, and I have known intensely pastoral priests. Our former pastor, a rather mushily liberal elderly Jesuit, once went out of his way to bring me the Eucharist –and we live way out in the boonies–because he’d heard I was under the weather and couldn’t make it to Mass. I was dumbfounded; he didn’t have to do that. Heck, I just had a bad cold, LOL. But he did stuff like that all the time. He spent himself for the sick and the elderly. I’ve known other priests like that, too. And yes, I’ve known some stinkers as well. I think it depends on the particular priest and the particular parish. I’m not sure one can generalize.

Furthermore, the grass is not necessarily greener on the Protestant side of the street. I live in a heavily evangelical area, and I have many evangelical friends. Some have been through absolutely horrific experiences at the hands of spiritually abusive pastors who ruled as tinpot dictators (with absolutely no accountability) in their little start-up micro-churches. My Pentecostal next-door neighbor was sexually harassed by one pastor, spiritually abused by another. She’s still healing, still wary of church. This is the flip side of all that evangelical “love-bombing.” Sure, there are examples of genuine community out there. But there’s also a lot of rather toxic spiritual abuse, especially in the smaller, more decentralized communions.

I used to hang out at an ex-Pentecostal forum. (I’m not ex-Pente myself, but I was trying to sort out some of the weird stuff I’d been exposed to at my neighbor’s ladies’ Bible study.) You should read the horror storiest at this forum; some would make your hair curl. Truly, the grass ain’t greener. Things are tough all over.

Interestingly, several of the posters at the ex-Pente forum have converted from Pentecostalism to Catholicism precisely because they wanted to escape from the overly intense “love-bombing” experience (with its huge potential for spiritual abuse) into a more sedate, orderly, liturgically oriented environment, where they would not have to live at such a keyed-up spiritual pitch. So, there are two sides to that story, too.

In my experience, there are very few communities where people truly “bear each other’s burdens” and lay down their lives for each other. Most evangelical communities–in my experience–give lipservice to this sort of thing and perhaps make a show of (seemingly) doing it, but when the going gets tough and the demands get too burdensome, then all bets are off.

I think my own small parish has a pretty good track record in this area–our members are there for each other when a spouse dies or when someone falls seriously ill. I’m sure we have failed some people, though, and I know we have some bitter ex-members. But we do try. Maybe we’re not as ostentatious about it as our evangelical brethren, but we try.

Sorry for beebling. Take it from whence it comes.


2 03 2008
cara de nopal

Phillip Glass brings me closer to G-d.

1 03 2008
Jonathan Prejean

Maybe more effort should be done at being “pastoral” and less on debates on apologetics (the same arguments rehashed)

That will bring more people into the Catholic Church

I tend to agree with Arturo that a blog can’t really be a vehicle for conveying the sort of personal connection to grace required for Christian conversion. I see apologetics as being primarily directed to the benefit of Catholics who are troubled by such things, and even then, there is only so much that one can do if someone is really agonizing over certain issues. People have to be spiritually fed elsewhere for apologetics (or any of this) to be of much benefit to them.

I view the goal of the Internet as fostering a more mundane sort of friendship and communication. I want to articulate myself in such a way that I will have an opportunity for enjoyable conversation with people whose beliefs I find interesting, and I don’t see my task as going much beyond that. If that helps people through God’s grace, then that is not my doing. But the good I seek is not much different than it has been in any of the numerous places I have been: to meet people I would not have met otherwise.

Sometimes that experience is sorrowful; for example, I have encountered more anti-Catholic bigotry on the Internet than I would have thought possible. I also have wasted a great deal more time discussing quackery with people that I would have quickly escaped in face-to-face conversation, although that probably hasn’t necessarily hurt, because I have more insight into the pathology that produces pseudo-science. But in the end, it’s just guys and gals talking, not anything particularly more profound for the most part.

1 03 2008

I have often said that “sanctity does not confer infallibility”. In Peck’s case, the opposite is true.

1 03 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I should also say that this blog is not about inspiring pious feelings or even virtue per se. I say this because I know that I am not the best person in the world to do it, and I don’t think that I could keep a straight face while doing it since I have my own set of problems to deal with. I am obviously not going to reveal them to a bunch of perfect strangers. My own personal and spiritual struggles are enough to make me shy away from trying to post too often things that will inspire people to have fuzzy feelings about Jesus. I would just feel like the biggest hypocrite if I did this all the time, even though I do occasionally write stuff of this nature, as you can see in my links.

The tone of this blog thus tries to be a bit more sober than it could be. This is also because I find much Internet piety to be on the verge of pornographic, just because I think the medium is all wrong. If you want to talk to God, go to church. Don’t come to my blog. This blog is for discussion of philosophy, society, culture, art, music, and the Church in the least “spiritual” way. (And I intentionally leave out “theology” in this list.) This is because I think that this is what this medium is most conducive to. Anything else would be akin to listening to Mozart out of a jukebox (to quote the Pope’s Latinist) or eating sushi wrapped in a fresh corn tortilla. This is not the place, nor should it be.

1 03 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Um, who says I am trying to solve the Church’s problems here?

Just trying to shed some light on the subject. When did I say that we shouldn’t be charitable? Unfortuneatly, this would not be enough, because Protestants are many times just as nice. That doesn’t mean that they belong to the true Church, but it should put us to shame, and exhort us to be better.

And priests being social workers is not the point, since a priest can probably be a better social worker if he WASN’T a priest. That is probably why so many left the priesthood in the 1960’s.

1 03 2008

Maybe more effort should be done at being “pastoral” and less on debates on apologetics (the same arguments rehashed) or heated discussions on Latin translations or the extraordinary form of the Mass with Fr Z
or do you think most Hispanics would even understand the New Liturgical Reform-Reform of the Reform
discussions of minutae on rubrics or the Mass and vestments
and condascending discussions of the evils of On Eagles Wings
or discussions of Victoria v Palestrina or women singing Gregorian Chant

The first thing that especially the Trads need is CHARITY!!!!!!!!
Second is EDUCATION!!!!! If Gregorian Chant and Latin are important than go into some barrios and TEACH IT TO POOR HISPANIC KIDS!!!!!!

If you want to make a sacrifice, mortification–don’t worry about eating less or wearing a cillus or hair shirt BUT MAYBE STAY UP ALL NIGHT AND SAVE A MARRIAGE!!!!
or GO TO A PRISON!!!–and not just the Oxford GK Chesterson discussion Group–go bring some GK Chesterson or Shakespeare books to prison

Go teach music and Palestrina to African American kids at some low income African American Church–not post on some board on the internet and complain about your Churches music program.

Be like the Good Samaritan
That will bring more people into the Catholic Church
(not to diminish the importance of either nor the importance of learning but this level of learning is pro multis–and not for everyone)

1 03 2008

The Mormons, much belied on this blog, also have a great deal of a real community and social support. I am not Mormon. But I understand that the priest for the month goes to every house to see how they are doing. They also have a welfare internal system.

I think Arturo has it right about strip malls v small towns.

Not all Catholic parishes are like two of the posts above. Many do have very pastoral priests.

But I think there is also a point here about being “pastoral” while many Catholic priests seem to be sacrament factories (should I bring Owen in to talk about home made baked communion bread v factory wafers? 🙂

Doesn’t Jesus to command us to Love one and another
and to do unto others…
and affirmative commands to
visit the sick
feed the hungry
go to prisons
and clothe the naked?

So if someone calls in the middle of the night with a marriage issue–maybe the priest should help–understanding that all human beings need sleep and it is impossible to help everyone
If there is someone in prison who wants communion or to say confession than priests should make themselves available
If someone in Iraq or a wife had a crisis the “community” should be there
If someone is trying or even thinking about committing suicide a priest (or layperson should get involved)

I think that in the past priests were super social workers, and even (I think it was Dostoevsky) criticized (Some Russian Orthodox) the Jesuits and Lithuanians, Germans in Russia, and Eastern Rite Ukrainians
for focusing on temporal matters, food, jobs, health care
and not just being mysterious with the Divine Liturgy all the time
although there is a balance to both

Sometimes it is time (many Catholics Churches have a lot of people with few priests)
there are some bad priests
there is some bad training in pastoral matters

But we can learn from Mormons taking care of their own or Evangelicals listening and reaching out to others (even if it is with an agenda or a psuedo community)
People don’t care if you are right so much as if you care (I think that is a phrase)

Fr Greg–I like M. Scott Peck (although he was a serial philanderer and a quasi pantheist but does have a fairly orthodox take on evil, believes in exorcism, and was friends with Malachi Martin–although I think he thought he was a liar)–The Road Less Travelled was my favorite–especially the Christian notion of love being self sacrifice and 2 becoming one—and also his critique on romantic love

A sense of community and being pastoral is a good thing
If Arturo is right that it is clerical culture or celibate culture–that is very bad–I hope Arturo is not right–although I have not been clerical from the inside
although Arturo has not been in “mainstream” clerical communities being a schismatic or at least canonically irregular SSPX and monastic life in the Byzantine Rite (which is not supposed to be pastoral per se although certainly a community but I assume more contemplative–although the baking stories turned me off)
The Anglicans don’t even have priests so they don’t count

I think Michael makes some good points.

We should all work together to be a better part of the community(ies) we are in and lay or priest we should all work to be more pastoral, loving and charitable.

1 03 2008

Thanks, Arturo. That is my plan. Interesting the direction the comments took here. I’ve encountered many of these stories before. Not a pretty picture. At the same time, speaking as one who grew up “born again,” I wonder if these Evangelical communities are, in many cases, examples of what M. Scott Peck termed “pseudo-community” in a A Different Drum. As the experience of my own micro-jurisdiction illustrates, becoming a true community requires a real struggle. Monastic life also bears this out, as have many marriages, including my own.

At the same time, I do not wish to short-change the experiences of those who have found real strength and help when these communities, pseudo- or not, have reached out to them in their moment of need. All of us, Roman or not, have a great deal to learn from such experiences.

1 03 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Well, that is the rub isn’t it. I don’t think priests have historically been very “pastoral” if only because they were considered separate from the laity. Having experienced clerical culture myself, it would seem that many priests see people as “the enemy”. It is a sad but true reality.

And that is really the problem with clerical celibacy in this day and age. It is not possible for pastoral care to be handed over completely to a small cadre of celibate men, particularily if their numbers are getting fewer and fewer. The thing about evangelical churches is that they become the community for their members where they take care of each other. I don’t think Catholic churches have ever been that: they are for sacrament distribution, and nothing more. That was the experience of my father growing up, and to a lesser extent my mother. Most people I know who are even devout Catholics are devout Catholics in spite of the clergy, not because of it, or are at least indifferent to it.

So I would blame the real culprit as the atomization that we experience generally in our day to day lives. In my mom’s village in Mexico, for example, your extended family would be very close and the people of the village would be there for you in the time of need. Now, we have subdivisions and strip-malls, and barely know our neighbors. So an institution will come in, like the evangelical churches, and take their place. That in a sense is the same phenomenon I describe in this post, if only from a different angle: Catholicism is about community and a way of life, not rigourous doctrine. That is why more catechesis probably won’t work, but an affirmation of Catholic identity might.

And I like the beginning of your blog, Fr. Greg. Keep it up.

1 03 2008

I have a friend named “Tom”–he was Catholic–he had problems with his wife–he went to the Catholic Church and the priest told him that they had baptisms in two weeks and next month confirmations–make an appointment.
No time, too busy, no personal attention,
So he went to some Evangelical Protestant Church–they met with him immediately–talked all night and rescued his Marriage.

I had a friend in jail. I asked a priest from Opus Dei (who albeit was very busy) to go to jail to visit him but said he could not because he was too busy but he would for me but not for my devoutly Catholic friend (who was in their on a civil money contempt issue and not criminal but in criminal jail)
Kind of reminded me (not exactly) of the Good Samaritan (a Croatian Fransiscan eventually went to the prison that did know him at my request)

More recently, a young lady friend of mine called me and threatened suicide, had almost crashed a car, was drinking heavily (possibly drugs but not admitted to me), clearly depressed, drove drunk etc
I called a popular “Traditionalist” (fully in union with Rome) Church (as did she) to get some immediate counseling or referral
The priest on the phone was dismissive laughed at one point
and told me to call Catholic Charities but did not have a number
Catholic Charities which is not all that orthodox in theology or practice

I believe that many Catholic Churches are overly bureacratic and not very pastoral, are too busy and forget people in their times of need
people need spiritual direction (which Opus Dei does do well but not perhaps the more emergency personal needs)
The Traditionalists, or quasi Traditionalist bi-ritual Catholics with the Palestrina and better statues (at least some) need more charity and love

I forget which verse says without love it means nothing
So a well performed Mass with beautiful Gregorian chant, and proper sounding Latin and great hand movements without Love is not great

so marriage counseling, prison visits, personal counseling, emergency intervention–should be a definite part of any ministry and pastoral part of almost any priest and and parish or ministry

More personal attention
More pastoral charity

This is the real reason (as noted above in the 1st post) why Hispanics are leaving the Catholic Church and not for not reading Peter Kreeft’s Fundamentalism and Catholicism or reading Apologetics blogs like Jimmy Akin or Catholic Answers
or getting into debates about translations with Father Z
The real reason is not better catechesis (although that would help)
or either as Arturo asks better practice and aesthetics (although that would help)
it is demonstrating you care
and a sense of community (not just factory Catholicism or dates on a Calendar)

29 02 2008
29 02 2008
Tony Neria

My daughter, 24, who grew up Catholic and went to a Catholic school until 8th grade turned to a Protestant church in her “hour of need”. Long story, but in nutshell, her husband is a Marine severely wounded in Iraq—he is being cared for at the VA hospital in Palo Alto, Ca and she lives there on site at the “Fisher House”. When my daughter arrived at the church for the first time(I believe it’s called “Peninsula Bible Church”, the first person she met was one of the pastors (one of nine!). He greeted her kindly and she fell into his arms weeping. If she went to my church (Catholic) in the Sacramento area, she probably would have been ignored by the pastor. She now goes to a weekly bible study and has become part of their community. I accompanied her to her church this past weekend, and I felt right at home. The pastor’s sermon was about 30 minutes long and I was enthralled with his ability to take a few passages from the bible and apply it to our lives. And for the record—at our confirmation service this past weekend, there were 150 children being confirmed. I would say about 95 percent of them were Hispanic.

29 02 2008
Jonathan Prejean

Many argue that people leave the Faith because they don’t know it. Maybe they really leave the Faith because they think they know too much.

I have a recent post that fits well with this theme. I have portrayed Catholicism as a downhilll battle in that case (specifically, a battle to keep people from climbing the Tower of Babel!), but the concept is the same.

I entirely agree with your conclusion that the seizure of the Christian by faith fulfills an experience foreshadowed by the pagan Neoplatonist. Xavier Zubiri has written on that subject in detail, as Joaquin Redondo describes in his introduction to Man and God:
Man is experience of God. He experiences God at the level of person, as inter-personal reality. God gives Himself to man, and man surrenders to God through simple faith. Man realizes himself with the reality of things, and ultimately with God, the fundamental reality. We put our life on the line. This realization takes place whether one is a theist, an atheist, or an agnostic. The difference comes from the intellectual justification each provides for taking God into account or not, which results in a greater or lesser radical intellection of what it is to be human.

BTW, I think you and Zubiri exemplify how the metaphysicist and the artist convey the same truth from radically opposite directions (aesthetic Christianity on the one hand, the metaphysics of sentient intellection on the other). Instead of trying to make the artist into the metaphysicist, I want to convey my appreciation and admiration for both your method and his.

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