Pew Again Print
Written by Sherry   
Saturday, 01 March 2008 06:15
Blogging this week has been interesting since it has been dominated by the Pew survey report which has generated lots of discussion. Here. Over at Amy's.

It has also generated inquiries from a couple of major Catholic on-line media outlets who had seen my comments.

One thing quickly became obvious. It is hard for many of us to set aside our internal concerns in order to simply listen to those approximately 15 million American Catholics who have left for the evangelical world. Can we grasp the basic needs or dynamics that have drawn so many into a very different sort of Christian experience and community? We cannot limit ourselves to the familiar currents of current intra-ecclesial debates if we are going to reach out to the many millions of lapsed Catholics in this country.

The fear seems to be that the only possible result of listening would be to simply adapt whole-sale evangelical assumptions and practices. I was challenged several times over at Amy's by commenters who seemed to think that my desire to listen was really a cover for some other intra-ecclesial agenda. In this case, a desire to "evangelicalize" the Church and undermine traditionalist sensibilities. I responded that I have no such agenda and tried to return to the question: 15 million Catholics didn't become evangelicals accidently. So how can we find out what drew them out of the Church and into the evangelical world?

And then someone else responded: "Sherry, be honest with us. Isn't this really about X(fill in your traditionallist cause)"

Because everything is really about our inner ecclesial battles, you know.

No. Really. It is really, really not about our endless debates over the Second Vatican Council and its impact. It is really, really not about our internal polarization and culture wars.

For one moment could we set aside our endless debates about the past and remember that the vast majority of people on the planet (including the majority of Catholics) don't care about the burning issues of chattering class ecclesial insiders? They make their decisions based upon their own burning issues which often are very different from our own.

Bringing those 15 million back - or losing them and their children permanently - will affect the Church's life profoundly for generations to come. (One estimate is that one third of US evangelicals are first or second generation former Catholics. Much depends upon how you count your evangelicals but you get the idea.)

One obvious question: how many among those 15 million would discern a priestly or religious vocation if they were active Catholics?

We must remember that what is at stake is not just those who have already left but those who are on the verge of leaving today and will be tempted to do so in the years to come - and their children. How many thousands of Catholics in this country are considering leaving the Church as I type this sentence? The 8:1 ratio is still alive and well and there is no reason to believe that it will simply alter in our favor without any attention or effort on our part.

15 million is just the beginning of our possible losses. I am not personally cheered by the prospect of knowing that there is a 1 in 3 chance that the child whose baptism I am celebrating today or next year will either be an evangelical or "nothing" in 20 - 30 years. Do we really want to function as a de facto farm team for other Christian groups?

Circling the wagons or retreating behind barricades is not the historic Catholic response to this sort of situation which we have faced many times before. Creative, imaginative, proactive mission outward is very much in the Catholic tradition.

And listening to and understanding what actually propelled people to leave does not compel us for a nanno second to trash the Catholic Tradition and mindlessly adopt evangelical methodology. LIstening gives us new eyes and new questions with which we can turn to the fullness of the faith and ask "How does our Catholic faith speak to this issue or this need?" It gives us the chance to learn from Catholic masters of evangelization and formation who have gone before us but whose pastoral genius has been lost to history. And it just might involve seeing something new in our faith that speaks powerfully to the needs of our day.

St. Dominic and his early friars went out to and among a huge movement of lapsed Catholics (Albigensians or Cathars) in his day - while when the order was still in its infancy. Even novices, who had not yet received theological formation, were expected to engage in evangelistic street preaching. "Hoarded grain goes bad." was Dominic's motto.

St. Frances De Sales became bishop the "evangelical" way. He set out on foot to re-evangelize an area of alpine France in which every Catholic church had been padlocked for 60 years! Through an astonishing, winsome 4 year personal ministry, he won back huge numbers of Catholics and then was made bishop of the people he had evangelized. "Let us see what love will do" was his motto in an era when armies usually decided the religious allegiance of a nation's citizens.

"The difference between ordinary people and saints is not that saints fulfill the plain duties that ordinary men neglect. The things saints do have not usually occurred to ordinary people at all. . . .'Gracious' conduct is somehow like the work of an artist. It needs imagination and spontaneity. It is not a choice between presented alternatives but the creation of something new." A. D. Linsay as quoted by Dorothy Sayers.