Sunday, October 3, 2010

Recapturing the Catholic brand—UPDATED

The release this week of a Pew Forum study has caused some concern among American Christians, especially by the revelation that the highest average score came among atheists and agnostics. As Jimmy Akin pointed out on his National Catholic Register blog, the quiz wasn’t all that extensive and was more of a “how much do you know about all the major world religions?” quiz rather than anything specific to Christianity. Because the US is still predominantly Christian, most Christians would have less interest in learning about non-Christian religions than would other groups, especially atheists. I’m not completely satisfied with this answer—after all, Catholics in the US are outnumbered by Protestants almost 4:1, yet did slightly worse (50% average versus 55%)—but it’s a good and valid point.

However—breaking down the quiz further—there’s still some cause for discomfort. For in a battery of questions reaching towards general Bible knowledge, Catholics came up well short of the mark. If we took the old school standard of 70% for a D- pass, then Catholics would have flunked with an average 45%. (Protestants would also have flunked, with an average 54.1%, with even the highest-scoring bloc, white Evangelicals, doing no better than 60.8%.) And the study noted that 55% of Catholics know that the Church teaches that the Eucharist is not just a symbol, that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ … which means that 45% don’t; frankly, my brothers and sisters in the faith, if you don’t know this one, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.[1]

For over thirty-five years now, the parlous state of Catholic religious formation has become more and more an open scandal and source of frustration for the more conservative ranks of the faith. Many people have horror stories about the slipshod manner in which CCD and RCIA classes are conducted;[2] my personal favorite (if you can call it that) is of the RCIA instructor who, when challenged on the Church’s orientation towards objective truth, replied, “Well, doesn’t the Bible say, ‘What is truth?’”[3] Or, possibly, the Jewish convert who, when asked by the instructor, “What does this passage mean to you?” for the umpteenth time, finally blew up: “I came here to find out what this passage means to the Church!”

Now, given the number of doctrines that various popes and ecumenical councils have decreed to be de fide, and therefore requiring not just passive acceptance or reverent silence but active belief and proclamation, it should be possible in theory to hand every person who is confirmed in the Faith a list of statements: “Here is what we Catholics believe. If you aren’t at least willing to trust the Church’s teaching authority on any of these points, no matter how insignificant it appears to be, then do the honest thing and remain in your pew during Communion.”

It should be possible to make such a list into a check-off sheet or standardized test for Confirmation candidates: “Here is what we Catholics believe. If you don’t know or believe these things, you’re not ready for Confirmation yet.”

It should be possible to make that list the mission statement of CCD and RCIA: “This is what we teach, because this is what we Catholics believe. If our students are learning anything to the contrary from us, we aren’t teaching Catholicism.”

It should be possible to hand the statements to non-Catholic candidates for Catholic school teaching positions: “Here is what you will teach these students. If you have any objections to teaching any of these points of faith as facts to be actively believed and proclaimed, you should recuse yourself from consideration.”

It should be possible to hand this list to every organization calling itself “Catholic”: “These beliefs are non-negotiable, permanent and transcendent facts of Catholic Faith. If you publicly advocate opposition to or rejection of them, you will not be supported or recognized as a Catholic organization.”

We could go on—after all, I haven’t yet mentioned universities that “teach in the Catholic tradition” or dissident theologians holding professorial positions—but I think I’ve hammered my nail into the board far enough; no need to countersink it.

Of course, this all demands the reasonable question: “What constitutes a failing grade?” After all, I’m not considering doctrines any less theologically certain than, say, sententiae de fidei pertinens,[4] below which there’s more room for some modest divergence and even some disagreement. As well, with the list for the already-confirmed faithful I’ve cut some slack, asking only a minimum passive acceptance such that the person is willing to not contradict the teaching by word or deed until they settle the issue in their own minds; this should be combined with an exhortation to further study and reflection so they may learn how to “think with the Church”.

Nevertheless, the way I’ve phrased the statement in each case, anything less than 100% has to be considered a “fail”. There are beliefs, values and attitudes that are Catholic, and beliefs, values and attitudes which are not Catholic even if some Catholics hold them fervently. “What ‘Catholic’ means to me” is not sufficient as an organizing principle or a defining statement, and is no defense for a crypto-Protestant bifurcation of the Church into “people” and “hierarchy”. At some point, given that Catholicism is oriented towards objective, eternal and transcendent truths, the maintenance and propagation of these truths must force us to “separate the sheep from the goats” (cf. Mt 25:32).

As distressing as it is for me to sully the argument with profane marketing terms, it comes down to a matter of defining and preserving the Catholic “brand”. Companies like Levi Strauss, Jordache and Tommy Hilfiger fight counterfeit products and sound-alike names to preserve their brands precisely because they want their names associated with particular standards of quality and style that add consumer value. Moreover, they fight to preserve the distinctiveness of their brands, which also adds value.

We’re now just beginning to see that orthodox, traditional Catholicism has an intrinsic appeal, especially as other Christian denominations begin to slide, along with the rest of Western civilization, into the stifling tar pit of relativism, subjectivism and materialism. Paradoxically, Catholicism rebels against the rebellion by affirming the goodness of family, community and willing submission to authority even while it maintains the intrinsic dignity of the individual human; its adherence and bold proclamation that there are eternal truths pull human attention toward it. The truer the Church remains to its tradition and beliefs, the more effective it is as a sign of contradiction. Whoever thinks that the Catholic Church must become more like the world outside it to become more attractive is precisely wrong, and pushing a marketing campaign destined to fail.

To achieve that distinctiveness in full, though, the Church must make a corporate decision to be “a society with a single religious feeling, a single unity of discipline, a single bond of hope” (Tertullian, Apology 39:1). To this end, perhaps we need something like a Manhattan Declaration of our own, with priests and people united (and perhaps “in congress assembled”?) to declare, “This is what we believe. We believe these things in union with our Pope, with the bishops, and with all the faithful who have come and gone before us. We won’t close our church doors to anyone; we will not refuse acts of mercy or charity to anyone. But if you don’t believe what we believe, you are not Catholic; to let you think otherwise would not be an act of either mercy or charity. The cafeteria is closed.”

I’m sure there are better ways to do it. Certainly, though, I believe the bishops should start with my hypothetical list in all its permutations. Certainly they need to do something dramatic and concrete that forces everyone to take sides, even at the risk of open, formal schism. At the end of the day, they are the successors to the apostles. They are supposed to be our leaders and teachers. It would behoove them to remember that, and to stop waiting for grass-roots movements to do something about it for them.

But a grass-roots movement wouldn’t come amiss. Perhaps it is time for Deal Hudson’s “Catholic Tea Party” to come into being. If we can avoid making the Republican Tea Party’s mistakes ….

Update: Monday, October 11, 2010
Over at The Huffington Post.com—a liberal broadsheet if ever there was one—Michele Somerville is busy justifying her pseudo-Catholic support for gay marriage with the most blatant set of "lies, damn lies and statistics" ever to see print. The most egregious of these howlers is this gem:


Most Catholics know that the church is in a unique position when it comes to the question of gay marriage for several reasons, not the least of which is that by many estimates [that is, by many wild-a** guesses radically unsupported by any independent, reputable study], more than 50 percent of Catholic priests are gay. Many Catholics know that many of the bishops who set the homophobic agenda are themselves closeted gay men grappling with the psychological fallout of growing up gay in a hostile homophobic world and church. [And just how do they "know" this, he asked archly? By consulting Ouija boards? And how many are "many" ... two? three?]
Having predicated homophobia a priori as the only permissible and only acceptable explanation for the Church's stance against gay sex, gay adoption and gay marriage, Somerville—along with Andrew Sullivan and a host of other pseudo-Catholic pundits—is rehashing the tired, clichĂ© psychobabble of the 1970's to build a straw-man attack: "They're only against it because they're working out their own sexual issues, y'know. If they would just be honest with themselves and come out of the closet, everything would be okay." But besides being a straw man, the problem is that such a line of reasoning was bulls*** in the 1970's and it's bulls*** now.

But what do we do with the (unfortunately) indisputable fact that 62% of American Catholics now support gay marriage? The same as before: effective catechesis. For a long time, a wavering majority of Catholics were for abortion as well; that number is starting to decline, due to changes in how the pro-life story is taught. Ven. John Paul II's theology of the body promises similar results in teaching the Church's position on human sexuality. In some ways, reversing the trend here is going to be harder because the Catholic people have to unlearn the urban legends and psychobabble of the last fifty years against the pressure of the cultural factories and social-science subjectivists that maintain them as the social orthodoxy.

But the fact remains that, whenever a person identifies themselves as Catholic yet not only opposes a dogmatic teaching of the Church but damns and defames the bishops and Pope who maintain it, that person is lying to himself. Moreover, when he presents herself at Communion—an act which presumes full faith and adherence to the teachings of the Church—he is "guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Cor 11:27), and thus "eats and drinks judgment on himself" (v. 28). Ms. Somerville may choose not to interpret this passage literally ... but she does so at her own soul's peril.

Update: January 18, 2011

A recent article in Catholic News Agency (CNA) reported the conclusion of Dr. John J. Convey, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Professor of Education at CUA. Among other reasons for the marked decline of enrollment of Catholic schools—declining birth rate leading to fewer available children to be educated, increase of tuition and costs at parochial schools, and lack of support from pastors and bishops—is the decline of an authentic Catholic identity in many schools.

Speaking only from anecdotal evidence, I know that a lot of orthodox, practicing parents are choosing to homeschool, or to send their children to Evangelical Christian schools and giving their religious education at home. (The latter option, I'm afraid, has some potential for backfiring unless the home religious education is pursued rigorously and thoroughly.) But there's also some (equally anecdotal) evidence that, because of grass-roots efforts on the parish level, things are beginning to turn around.

"I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth" (Rev 3:15-16). This is, in the end, what I mean by forcing everyone to choose sides. While I believe the Catholic Church is inherently more attractive when it functions as a sign of contradiction, when it fully embraces that role it automatically creates polarities both within and without. Jesus warned that he would be a cause of division and dissention: "I came to cast fire on the earth, and would it were already kindled" (Lk 12:49)! While the Church should not actively drive anyone out like moneychangers, and it should remain clear that we are all sinners, we need to make clear that Jesus preached only one Gospel message ... not six billion.


[1] At one point, I thought the teaching had gone by the wayside; when I found out differently—from a Methodist yet!—I was ashamed of myself.
[2] For non-Catholics, CCD stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, which runs after-school religion classes for Catholic children who attend public or non-Catholic private schools. RCIA stands for Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, and is the program required for adult converts to Catholicism.
[3] Yes, it does; the person who says it is Pontius Pilate (Jn 18:38).
[4] “Teachings pertaining to the faith”; i.e. teachings not necessarily directly revealed but very well connected to and supported by other more theologically certain points, and which require at least passive acceptance.