Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The full magnitude of the problem

At Rod Dreher’s blog last week there was a very interesting and civil discussion of the recent Pew report on various religions and their rate of growth or shrinking.  Rod asked what Evangelicals were doing right, and what Catholics might be doing wrong?

Pretty much everybody agrees that this sort of thing is NOT what Evangelicals are doing right. :)

But I was more interested in the various comments from Catholics, most of them regular churchgoers, about where and how the Catholic Church might improve in terms of practical matters.  One commenter in particular, who uses the screen name Agathonika, wrote what I think was a very important comment, and she has give me permission to quote her here:
We should be careful not to beg the question. Maybe Catholics are not doing something wrong. Maybe evangelicals are not doing something right. Maybe there’s a confounding variable that influences this situation. I think wise leaders will resist any temptation to flail about in response to polls and surveys and trends. Trends, after all, are by definition, fickle and fleeting. We who know the truth must not be reactive. We need to stay calm and placid no matter what kind of fuss–in our favor or against it–the world kicks up.
That said, a friend who is a fellow Catholic convert and I were discussing RCIA not too long ago. We both agreed that it is a mess and often a stumbling block, especially for people who are very motivated to convert. I had to sit through the bored, disaffected ramblings of a lefty DRE who hated the hierarchy to “put in my time” before being confirmed. Another family my friend knew was forced to go through two whole years of pre-baptismal instruction, no exceptions, before moving from their evangelical church to the Catholic Church. This with a gaggle of kids in tow! My husband had to find a priest who didn’t care if he missed almost every session, because he works odd hours and all the RCIA classes in town were during his work or commute times.
The thing I am wondering is, are we trying to bring people into the Church or keep them out? What are we afraid will happen if we baptize and confirm and then let the education mostly happen *after* that, as it naturally will even after the most rigorous RCIA class? What about working people who can’t afford to miss work to get to these classes? What about people who have children already? What about people who are not academically inclined and for whom a year(s)-long sit-down class will not help them in the slightest to have a fruitful spiritual life?
But many Roman parishes in particular are very, VERY rigid and wed to their RCIA ways. You can’t get credit for previous studies, you can’t get time off for good behavior, if your work schedule doesn’t allow you to attend you’ll often get a shrug and “maybe next year.” It’s nothing but laziness and unthinking rigidity, all too often flavored with a dose of lukewarmness from the very people who are supposed to be instilling passion for the faith.
They put out more fires than they start! If you desire the sacraments now, the Church all too often seems to be acting as God’s bouncer, not God’s usher.
And then once you’re in, they won’t leave you alone. They always have a pile of procedural red tape for you to sort through. Six months to a year of tedious workshops before you get married. Four months of sit-down instruction for new parents before a baptism. (With a new baby! And we’re supposed to have big families, so what if you have 6? You have to go through this every time because we mustn’t give credit for prior learning, they want both parents, and they don’t provide childcare!) The bloated, ridiculous first communion proceedings, and getting accommodations for kids with learning disabilities is like pulling teeth at best. The increasingly expanding confirmation requirements, with years of stupid workshops and retreats (which cost money you don’t have if you’re a single income family with 5 kids!) and special projects and classroom hours and…
You end up with a church full of people who have in common high tolerance for bureaucratic silliness, and lower levels of passion. And leaders who have forgotten that GOD does the work in the sacraments. Not DREs, not flashy presentations, not lists of things to memorize and spit back. God’s incomprehensible grace through the rituals we should more rightfully refer to as mysteries. Being seven and memorizing the “Angel of God” prayer doesn’t allow you to comprehend the Eucharist, because the wiser you get, the more you realize you cannot understand. Being droned at for 11 months by a DRE does not innoculate you against falling away from your new faith at the first temptation. Going to workshops on communication does not make your marriage indissoluble.
What if we trusted God to do the work in the sacraments, and then committed to learning together about the faith?
Now, you might ask: Why focus on small potatoes like this when the allegedly and erstwhile Catholic nation of Ireland has just approved gay “marriage” by a vote of people who don’t appear to know how to use the sense the good Lord gave a housefly?  Well, because I think that what Agathonika is saying does have something to do with the problem of so many people who still think of themselves as Catholic, and call themselves Catholic, while they dissent from Church teaching and, in fact, leave the Faith altogether (though they think they’re still good Catholics).

A lot of it has to do with what Sherry Weddell calls a spirit of Pelagianism (but in a new and modern form).  This new sort of Pelagianism, somewhat different from the historical kind, leads quite a lot of Catholics--more than we may realize--to believe, in all sincerity, that they’re going to Heaven because they have done and do All The Things.  They got some sort of diocesan Catholic education: Catholic school, CCD or RE, RCIA.  They’ve gotten their sacraments.  They go to Mass at least a few times a year (some of them may go every Sunday).  They give to the poor. They recycle.  They don’t cheat on their spouse or beat their children, so it’s all good, right?

These are the Catholics who will tell you that birth control is okay and nobody but an uber-Catholic thinks otherwise.  These are the Catholics who will scold you to “tone it down” if you’re trying to teach a class of high-school aged Confirmation candidates the difference between serious and less serious sins, what makes some serious sins mortal, what the words “mortal” and “venial” even mean as applied to sin; these Catholics will insist, and really seem to think, that “Vatican II” got rid of all those hang-ups.  These are the Catholics who still think women will be Catholic priests someday (if they don’t think some women already are, not being capable of understanding that ordinations which pretend to ordain women are not valid).  These are the Catholics who are “personally opposed, but...” on abortion.  These are the Catholics who lead marriage preparation classes and wink at the number of couples who are living together to make their fornication habit easier to indulge, and who insist the Church doesn’t care if they’re shacked up so long as they can produce their birth certificates.  And, now, these are the Catholics who show up in droves to vote for same-sex “marriage” on the grounds that the only commandment that matters is the one about making sure nobody’s feelings get hurt (but they couldn’t list the actual ten Commandments if they tried).

When you look at this situation in light of Agathonika’s comment some things start to become startlingly clear: when you program a system to do a horrible job of actually teaching the Faith in any real or deep sense but to do an adequate--if barely--job of stamping people’s papers and certificates and lining them up for one sacrament after another because they’ve fulfilled all the “requirements,” then this is exactly the kind of Catholic you will get.  You will get a Catholic who doesn’t have much knowledge of what the Church teaches on anything, who can’t explain basic concepts or teachings of Catholicism, whose only grasp of Church history comes from Internet atheists, whose relationship with Jesus is based on a sort of warm, fuzzy feeling that Jesus became Man in order to approve of everything we personally want to do in our lives, who has little or no idea of sin and repentance, who thinks the Precepts of the Church is another name for the Church Fathers--but who can produce, in tidy folders, every certificate from every recorded sacrament, and who thinks those bits of paper are the “important” thing about being Catholic, a kind of “Catholic transcript,” if you will, that is all God will need when they arrive at the Pearly Gates.

We can’t fix this overnight.  We can’t fix it by our usual liturgical squabbles or devotional sniping. We can’t fix it by leaving it up to the Bishops, but we can’t fix it without their help, either.  If I told you I knew exactly what to do and how to do it I’d be lying; I don’t know.  This is the first time I think I’ve understood the full magnitude of the problem.  But I also know we’d better think of something, and soon.


Elizabeth said...

One comment Rod Dreher made (back when he was explaining his conversion) about the difference between the RCC and the Orthodox tradition, has always stuck with me. As a Catholic he understood it to be about getting his "papers in order." The Orthodox tradition emphasized "taking your medicine," which accords with the comments Pope Francis makes about the Church as a field hospital after battle.

Perhaps, instead of freaking out every time Francis is quoted in an interview, people should consider the wisdom of his approach.

Re: Agothonika's observations about the excessively long and bureaucratic RCIA, I have to say that I got all of six weeks of 1.5 hour group meetings with an Episcopalian priest(ess) to convert to that faith, over three decades ago. She mentioned that "You can believe the resurrection happened, or not. I happen to believe it did." Any surprise I'm no longer affiliated?

I wonder where the middle ground might be.

Anonymous said...

A few dioceses are changing the way religious education is done back to the pre-vatican II order. Some parishes (my own included) are also changing the way RCIA is done to a two tier program: a fast track (6 sessions) route for nonconfirmed Catholics and others well established in the Christian faith, and the year long session for those who were not raised Christian.

Seems like a decent start.

Unknown said...

We'll see if this makes it past whatever Mercury retrograde thing is keeping my comments from the previous post from showing.

I suspect that all the catechism and all the RCIA in the world won't do a bit of good in keeping folks in Church without an encounter with the numinous.

I certainly wasn't inspired to stop being agnostic by the fullness of the Catechism or the friendliness of the RCIA staff, but rather by encountering God's presence at the Mass.

From what I've seen, that is taken as an unspoken assumption that maybe ought to be made more explicit.

For example, the announcement at the end of Mass asking people to sign up for Adoration on this upcoming first Friday at our parish is greeted with a palpable lack of enthusiasm.

Would that attitude be different if it were explicitly presented as an opportunity to spend time with Christ Incarnate?

TerryC said...

I think you are throwing the baby out with the bath water here. What you are pointing out is a problem that has existed since the end of Vatican II; the collapse of proper catechisis. This collapse has two aspects. One the dearth of true Catholic teaching. The other the absorption of the levers power by the dissident bureaucrat.
As someone who has been involved in teaching RCIA I can tell you that a good number of individuals are in that program only because it is important to their respective future spouse. They have little if any knowledge of what Catholicism believes and if allowed to skip the classes will pick up what they know of Catholic teaching from the media.
While there are certainly RCIA programs, run by dissident Catholics who use the power of their position to both teach heresy and try to push people away from entry to the Church, this is by no means the case everywhere. In my own parish if you can't make the RCIA meeting times, fine. Tell me when we can meet. We have child care available and a ministry called Shepherds Flock which works with children with special needs.
I would praise God if any of the surrounding parishes had pre-Cana that consisted of more than a couple of 20 minute meetings with a deacon or lay person. Or pre-baptismal classes that were more extensive that a 30 minute meeting with the priest or deacon.
Often confirmation requires "years of stupid workshops and retreats" because the candidates basically know nothing of their faith. Since their parents have almost completely failed in their duty to pass on the deposit of faith someone must attempt to make up for it.
In my own parish, which has greater than 800 registered families we're lucky to get 40% in one of the youth programs. That drops to 20% when the weather's nice.
While memorizing the "Angel of God" prayer doesn't allow you to comprehend the Eucharist what it does do is give you a tool for those times when things are so bad you can't bring forth the effort for spontaneous prayer. That is one of the main purposes of all memorized prayer.
God does work in the Sacraments, but that doesn't alleviate the need for Catholic Christians to receive a solid basis in their faith. They won't absorb it like sponge from the secular environment. And without it they are more likely to fall away because if you don't learn why the Church teaches something it is easy to fall prey to the first person who comes along and asks you to defend your faith.

john william vondra said...

I agree --ever think about writing some RC non-fiction, want to collaborate? Add Youtube videos? I really like your style. Cheers
RC from London now in California

Jacque said...

I couldn't agree with this statement more!

"You end up with a church full of people who have in common high tolerance for bureaucratic silliness, and lower levels of passion. And leaders who have forgotten that GOD does the work in the sacraments. Not DREs, not flashy presentations, not lists of things to memorize and spit back."

I went through RCIA 3 times because I had to go through the annulment process and it's very slow. In the meantime I did extra reading and knew most of what was taught before it was actually taught. If I asked a question in class the standard answer was, "We'll get to that." but most of the time they never did. It forced me to learn most of what I know on my own, which can be a good thing if you are the type of person who is willing to put the work in to find credible sources for what you want to know.
There must be a better way! And on a side note, the adult confermation/first communion people should be taught separately from adults who are going to receive all 7 sacraments of initiation. Just my opinion.

Howard said...

"What are we afraid will happen if we baptize and confirm and then let the education mostly happen *after* that, as it naturally will even after the most rigorous RCIA class?" For an extreme case of how that can go wrong, see Japan and the Kakure Kirishitan. These were exactly baptized Catholics who were expected to be educated later, but one of the most intense persecutions in world history prevented that. By the time missionaries were allowed back in Japan, the Kakure Kirishitan were more confused than Mormons. Even though the pressure on the Church will only increase in coming years, I don't see much parallel with this extreme story, though. For one thing, there is too much knowledge of Christianity (knowledge that is tainted and confused, I'll admit) diffused into our culture.

In general, though, I agree that the process is unnecessarily long. My own experience was not so bad, as my RCIA experience was led by a wonderful, crotchety old priest who took us through the Catechism. The Catechism is not a short book, though; to speed it up, it should be sufficient to go through Blessed Paul VI's "Credo of the People of God", plus a few days to go over specific challenges to the Faith that any Catholic today will encounter.

Benjamin Wolaver said...

My family entered the Church a couple of years ago. We had a tangled ride getting in, moving from priest to priest until (by the grace of God) our bishop offered to catechize us personally. I can say that in comparing the evangelicalism I grew up in with the Catholicism I see around me, evangelical Protestantism puts "mission" before all else. This sounds good, but it leads to a real lack of doctrinal integrity and a lot of emotionalism. Having been out of that world for a while now, the trend only seems to have increased as Millenials take the lead.

On the Catholic side, I have witnessed two levels: the first is a strong, heartfelt orthodoxy that is apparent in certain priests and those families that surround them and that seems to have strong connections up through the episcopate, particularly in America and in Africa. The second level is essentially secular and treated with kid gloves by Catholic leadership which in certain areas largely imbibes the same worldly spirit.

The Church, as I see it, as two options: confront the problem openly in the social discourse with fresh language designed to stymie labels and refute lazy arguments, and simultaneously, preach red-meat Catholicism from the lectern. Or, stay silent - and watch as "the core" is besieged until we have to build the whole social edifice again one step at a time.

JoeofCupertino said...

The problem is enormous and needs to be addressed before the Church withers and dies in the West. Some of my compatriots and I have been discussing the exact issues you wrote about for the past several years. The Catholic Church has buried Jesus' church under an ever growing pile of rules, regulations, and procedures. We tell people, "Welcome! Come on in!" Then we slam the door in their face and nail a two foot long checklist of requirements to it with a small note that says, "You can be baptized as soon as you meet all of the following." The rules only get more tedious as you move up the chain of sacraments. We dangle the Eucharist out in front of people like a carrot on a stick, hoping that we can keep them interested long enough to jump through all of our hoops. It's ridiculous, discouraging, and disheartening to watch people go through this process.

Seems to me, and others, that the Apostles baptized people on the spot after a short homily. See the book of Acts for multiple examples. Apostles went and confirmed people on short trips to visit new congregations, no checklists required. What happened to this missionary attitude? We buried it and the Church is crumbling in the West because of it. As Agathonika said, we seem to be bent on preventing people from coming into the Church rather than welcoming them in.

We read Sherry Weddell's book. We read Rebuilt. We read the Joy of the Gospel. We quoted from these sources when we tried to implement some of their ideas. What did we get for it? Animosity. Hatred. Backstabbing. Accusations that we were trying to usurp the authority of the powers that be. All because we suggested that we should get up off of our rear-ends and actually evangelize, that we should make the process of coming into the Church easier and baptize people immediately, and that we should stop doing the same old thing and hope for different results. Crazy talk, I know, and we were roundly criticized for it from our priest, our deacons, the laity, and ultimately, our bishop. And so, we did nothing, and our parish and diocese continue to lose members. Our budgets get tighter as tithing shrinks accordingly. And still the Church does nothing.

We have lost our faith that God will grant us the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit when we need them and have put our faith in human wisdom and learning instead. We have become fearful because of previous scandals and that has paralyzed us. We have tolerated the cancer of blasphemy within the Church in the name of "tolerance". And Jesus weeps as the cancer progresses and slowly destroys his bride. He will save it eventually, but how far will he let it degrade before He acts? Are we willing to sit back and watch, hoping He will return and save us from our own foolishness? I am not, but I fear my voice is a like that of one crying in the wilderness.

gsk said...

I converted before there was an RCIA, and it was like pulling teeth trying to find someone to teach me the true faith (finally was 'adopted' by dear, elderly couple at my parish who taught me everything over the course of a few years). That said, there must be a middle ground between cheesy RCIA and 'baptise them all and let the Holy Spirit teach them.' I understand A's point about the bureaucracy, but it also see what the Holy Spirit' does when we don't offer something better. We cannot presume on the infusion of catechetical graces--we must do our part.

Maybe the Pew poll (combined with the Irish vote) will provide the wake-up call our bishops need to take faith formation seriously. There is much to be done. That said, I did hear of an excellent approach in AZ (Phoenix, I think) whereby in CCD, the parents take the classes, and the kids take the tests. Brilliant, because not only do you teach two generations at once, but the faith must be discussed in the home so that the kids pass the tests (peer pressure plays its part, no doubt). Adult education is key, because it shows that we're not a childish, superstitious bunch afraid of intellectual rigour, but an entirely reasonable Church that still knows its need for a Saviour.

Erin Manning said...

Great comments, all! I apologize for the delay in approval today. :)

TerryC, it’s not just parents who have failed to do their duty. Look at the various scandals involving Catholic high school students agitating for gay “marriage.” Their parents have, in most cases, paid a small fortune for their kids to go to Catholic schools, but the allegedly Catholic schools have taught them nothing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the one statistic Catholic schools wouldn’t dare to publish is how many of their graduates remain Catholic...

We’re doing a lousy job of engaging minds and no job at all of engaging hearts. I think that the Church can do better.

john william vondra said...

The lives of Saints and Martyrs, especially the English ones..and the real story of the history of North America, claimed by Columbus for The Holy roman Catholic Church and the King and Queen of Spain..the attacks on everything catholic by the invaders, and the real story of the non-conformist settlers for UK and the story of the first slaves, (English and Irish Roman Catholics)..the truth will set you free.

E. G. Lewis said...

I went through RCIA about 5 yrs. ago as a sponsor for my wife. I'm a cradle Catholic who attended Catholic schools all the way through high school. The RCIA classes were pretty much a joke. (I could write a book on all the things that overlooked. That said, when I mentioned a novena to our new pastor, he said, "They mentioned something about that in seminary, but I really don't know anything about them.) She admits that she'd know nothing if not for what I've explained to her.
Growing up, I learned a lot about the faith in daily religion classes over a period of 12 years. We don't have that benefit any longer. The "Spirit of Vatican II" has wrecked the Catholic Church.
For years the priests told everyone it was no problem to practice birth control and now they wonder why there are no kids in the school.
I don't claim to have all the answers. I just know that there is a breadth and depth to Catholicism that is not being taught. To run them through and let them learn afterwards will not work...too few bother to learn/study anything after they join the Church. In the good ole days a person entered the Church via private instruction from their pastor. He evaluated where you were and taught what you needed to learn. When he was satisfied, you were in. Call me old fashioned, but it worked a lot better than the one size fits all style of RCIA.

L. said...

Howard's reference about to Japan's "Kakuri Kirishitan" (literally, hidden Christians) is indeed an extreme example, perhaps not directly applicable to what's being discussed here. But coincidentally, one of our local priests just wrote about the lessons we could take from them:

Phill Gabriel said...

When my wife and I and two of our children entered into the Catholic Church in 2013, it was an awesome experience that I believe is worth sharing here, if anything to offer a little bit of hope that there are some good Parishes out there that put love, evangelism and common sense before bureaucracy.

My wife was raised Catholic, but left the Church as a teen to be part of her best friend's Evangelical Church. I was baptized Catholic, but that was it. My 3 children were raised (and baptized) in a non-denominational Church, stressing Reformed doctrine with a "charismatic dimension". I led worship for a number of years in our Church.

Anyway, cutting to the chase, we started along the usual "crossing the Tiber" path of Church history, early Church Fathers, "wow that sounds a lot more Catholic then it does Reformed" to "I'd like to make an appt to meet with "Fr. so and so" to talk about becoming Catholic.

We didn't know what to expect, and when "Fr. so and so" told us that his greatest desire is for people to know Christ and have a real relationship with Him, we were floored.

We entered RCIA as the only family in attendance at the time. The meetings are led by the Church Deacon and his wife with the support of outstanding (mostly retired) committed couples (and a few singles). The truth is, because of all the studying we did before deciding to enter the Church, there were some parts of the material that we could've taught ourselves. Eventually, the Deacon met with Fr to talk about a possible alternative for us, and we were presented with an option that totally blew us away.

Would you guys consider meeting on another evening, and instead of going through the usual RCIA material (we'd still go over some of it), go through a book called "Born Fundamentalist Born Again Catholic" by David Currie? We thought that was a fantastic idea, and so for the remainder of our RCIA, the Deacon and his wife and son came over to our house one evening a week and we went through the material and made our first new close Catholic friends.

Eventually, my wife and I had our marriage convalidated (shortly after which I received first Communion) and then in mid November of 2013 my daughter and my youngest son and I were Confirmed along with the current parish Confirmation class and fully entered into the Church (my kids received first communion at that time).

e are now involved in a vibrant LifeTeen program and help lead the music for the Contemporary/LifeTeen Mass, which I know, is a subject all in itself.

I know that there are many poorly formed Catholics who don't have a clue what the Church actually teaches and it really does sadden me. But when I see excellent programs like LifeTeen who's motto is "Leading kids closer to Christ" and the popularity of shows such as "Catholic Answers Live" and the enormous amount of information on their website, and so many other things (EWTN's Journey Home, Scott Hahn, Franciscan University and so many others) I can't help but to believe that eventually, things will turn around.

john william vondra said...

Today is the feastday of; Bl. Margaret Pole, Roman Catholic English Martyr, imprisoned in the Tower of London for two years and then beheaded on May 28. She was never given a legal trial and was seventy years old when martyred;
Bl. Robert Johnson, Roman Catholic Priest English Martyr, martyred at Tyburn by being hanged, drawn, and quartered and Bl. John Shert, Roman Catholic Priest English Martyr, martyred at Tyburn by being hanged, drawn, and quartered. Their martyrdom says it , all so spread the news, tell their story. teens and adults will listen,

Nick from Detroit said...

We must always remember the three most important things for strengthening the Church: Prayer. Prayer. Prayer.
Pray for your parish priest. Pray for your bishop. And pray for the Holy Father.
And he said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3* Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.
-The Gospel According to Saint Luke, 10:2-3

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Margaret Pole and Robert Johnson... sorry dude, but the reason they were arrested is that successive Popes had made it a duty of any Roman Catholic to rebel against the reigning monarch, overthrow them, and install a "Catholic" regime. The Popes set up anyone professing the Roman Catholic faith to be deemed a traitor and a rebel -- most unfortunate, and some accused may well have been innocent of actual plotting, but the ecclesiastical position to which they owed obedience had declared it their duty to plot. (And Margaret's lands were conveniently situated to facilitate an invasion). In fact, Reginald Pole had been placed by Pope Paul III in charge of organizing the "Pilgrimage of Grace," a macabre name for a violent revolution, and Pius V followed this with "Regnans in Excelsis" (more pompous than macabre) 25 Feb 1570, REQUIRING all English Roman Catholics to rebel against the crown.

Now, lest you accuse me of unreasoning bigotry against the Roman Catholic Church, let me close by saying "If only the popes concerned had read Dante." Absent such worldly distractions by certain misguided popes, English Catholics would undoubtedly have had some hard times, but it might have stopped well short of being presumed guilty of treason.