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Unintentional Mega-Blogging: the Collapse of Cultural Catholicism PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Friday, 28 January 2011 11:58

The blog comment that grew.

On Monday, I responded to a "Sherry bait" post over at Mark Shea's Catholic and Enjoying It.  Mark posted my comment and it grew into a 113 comment fest.

Then Fr. Dwight Longenecker picked up a paragraph from that post at Mark's and made it the beginning place of a discussion of the collapse of cultural Catholicism yesterday.

And today Fr. Z over at What Does the Prayer Really Say, picked up the same paragraph this morning and the conversation is going strong over there.

Here's the paragraph in question that has been quoted over and over:

"Here's the deal: roughly 32% of those raised Catholic have abandoned the identity altogether. An additional 38% of those raised Catholic retain the identity but seldom or never bother to show up. 30% attend Mass at least once a month. Only about 15.6% are at Mass on a given weekend. So the next time you witness a baby's baptism, think, in 20 years, 2/3 of those babies will either be gone or non-practicing. Only 1 in 6 of those babies will be attending Mass regularly."

This is just a snippet of the hour long presentation I do on "Spiritual climate" at the beginning of every Making Disciples seminar.  The problem is that I can't do that presentation in a blog post - although, as the three devoted readers of Intentional Disciples know, I have certainly tried to do so over the past three years.

So I end up trying to answer the obvious objections and questions and explain the background of statistics over and over again in comboxes.

But what I find fascinating and so sad at the same time is that almost no one picks up on the main point of my original post:

This goes so far beyond a failure to catechize. We are two generations past that. We are on the edge of a demographic precipice that is going to make the post Vatican II fall-off look like a golden age. We are going to have to (gasp) GO OUT and make disciples.

In our culture, religious identity is not longer inherited, it is chosen. And reconsidering the religious identity of your childhood has become a rite of passage for young adults. So we have to evangelize when they are children and we'll probably have to do it again when they are young adults. 

I've written about this at enormous length over at Intentional Disciples ( and we cover all this in our seminar Making Disciples. We are still spending our time debating what happened nearly 50 years ago while our future walked right out the door and we didn't notice.

In the future, people will be fervent Catholics because they are disciples of Jesus Christ first who know that this is his Body on earth which he has provided for them and where he desires them to be.

We've worked in 40% of American dioceses now and I can tell you: cultural Catholicism is DEAD, DEAD, DEAD as a retention strategy for the American Catholic church in the 21st century. 

In the 21st century west, God has no Grandchildren.

You know the mantra: If we don't evangelize our own, someone else will: evangelicals, Mormons, or a post-modern culture of vague agnosticism.

If you want Catholics, MAKE DISCIPLES.

If you want Mass attendance, MAKE DISCIPLES.

If you want vocations, MAKE DISCIPLES.

If you want people who will fill our Institutions and pay for them and care for them, MAKE DISCIPLES.

It is what our Lord has commanded us to do in every generation, but we thought that culture and institutions would do it for us. But those days are past.

And yet almost no one, on any of these blogs, seems to want to talk about Making Disciples.  The only category they seemed to understand was "Catholic identity" and "Catholic culture".  Which is NOT necessarily the same thing at all.

We go over this at every Making Disciples but let me say it here again:

"Catholic Identity" and "Catholic culture" is not the same as discipleship.  Catholic identity flows from discipleship.  Catholic cultures are built and sustained by disciples.

Catechesis is not initial proclamation.  Catechesis comes after the initial proclamation of Christ which awakens beginning Christian faith.  Because the Church teaches that catechesis is intended for the maturation of those who are already disciples of Jesus Christ.

Our deepest, most fundamental problem is that the vast majority of those baptized as Catholics, whether they are practicing or not, are not yet disciples.  Disciples pray.  Disciples worship.  Disciples study.  Disciples give.  Disciples serve.  Disciples discern vocation.  Disciples obey.  Disciples repent.  Disciples are transformed. Disciples are increasingly filled with faith, hope and love.

And nothing is more obvious in our present situation than that mere "Catholic identity" can co-exist with the complete absence of all these behaviors that naturally flow from discipleship.

Sara S, a very thoughtful young Catholic of less than a year from a "none" background, made an important observation during the discussion over at Mark's, that very few people took in:

"I do wish we could stop referring to our experiences of 40 years ago when the crisis is with people who weren't born when older Catholics were cutting and pasting for Jesus."

I'll raise my hand. I am a 29 year old convert from "nothing". I don't care one bit about how bad it was for the folks on my RCIA team when they were kids, and I wish they wouldn't have wasted so much of my time trying to explain it to me when I was in RCIA.  Both sides think it was bad. The "old hippies" were all trying to pull the candidates aside and explain to them how bad it was when everyone had to speak Latin, and when they were finished, the angry young men were waiting on the other side to pull the candidates aside and explain to them how the old hippies had ruined the music.    

I wish I could explain how disillusioning and ridiculous it all looks from the outside, and how much of it makes literally no sense to someone like me who doesn't already have years of exposure to this stuff.   If you can "evangelize" more effectively-- or put up a more heartfelt defense-- about some bit of Church culture or liturgical issue or controversial teaching-- than you can about the Kingdom of God-- what is someone from the outside supposed to think is more important to you?  I literally thought that the majority of Catholics I met were just nice folks who liked music and doing good works but didn't believe in God much... because every time I tried to talk about how I was falling in love with God they changed the subject to music and/or good works.  

I love to evangelize and I don't find it hard-- to me it is just about, as another commenter said, living with my faith on my sleeve. There are a lot of "nothings" out there, like I was, who are so deeply moved by people who live joyful, counter-cultural lives and aren't afraid to say that they are motivated by a deep love of Jesus and a desire to follow Him.  

The 20 somethings I talk to, who have abandoned the religion of their childhood if they ever had one at all, might *think* that they are dead-set against the Church because of its teachings (so did I, 5 or 6 years ago)-- and if I were to approach them with Church teachings I would have some very short conversations.  But I find that I can talk with these same people just by talking about my own life-- about Scripture, about saints, about how faith informs my choices every day-- just give them enough to start feeling hungry. I trust that the Holy Spirit will do the rest when they get to the point that they are worried about controversial teachings.

None of the Catholics Sara knows in her culturally Catholic part of the county, on her RCIA team, in her partly Catholic family, wanted to talk about loving God.  How unspeakably sad.

Because the vast majority of Catholics who are missing in action couldn't care less about our liturgical or culture war insider debates.  They are so far removed from the faith that those things don't mean anything any more.

As I put it in the original post:

"At the very moment, I type this, about a quarter of US adults are either actively seeking or at least are passively open and scanning the horizon for spiritual options. This is true of Catholics in our pews, Catholics who no longer practice, and huge variety of other people of all religious traditions or none. If we were out there, proclaiming Christ in the midst of his Church in a joyful, intriguing manner, the interest of many would be peaked. But so many "orthodox" Catholics are holed up behind their barricades and inside their institutions.

This is a large group who, if we were reaching out evangelizing them during their "limbo" time, could easily become the Catholic saints and apostles of the 21st century. But so many of us distain their hunger and ignore their spiritual distress. They aren't going to accept "no" or "just shut up and do your duty" as an answer. They will vote with their feet.

There are those who leave and become "nothing" because it just doesn't mean anything or because they don't believe in specific Church teaching or even in God anymore. (14%) 80% of this group are gone by age 23. They are really out there and we will have to GO OUT and find them with the imagination and zeal of a Francis Xavier setting foot on the soil of Japan for the first time."

Update:  More thought-provoking discussions are breaking out over at Fr. Chris Mathias' Blessed is the Kingdom , Kevin O'Brien lets loose over at the End of the World, and, from an Orthodox perspective, over at Fr. Gregory Jensen's blog, Koinonia where his post is entitled stunningly, "About Jesus Hardly at All".

Whew.  Exhale deeply.   But there is something so right and blessed about a number of us all wrestling with this, most essential and fundamental source of all the rest of the Christian life.  This kind of discussion shouldn't be so rare around St. Blog's.

Now I must return to writing the train the trainers weekend for the large scale Making Disciples initiative underway in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Comments and questions welcome.  I'll try to respond as I can.



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