Recently, the Pew Forum published a survey on the level of religious knowledge across faith and denomination lines, and Archbishop Chaput of Denver delivered an address concerning what it means to be Catholic in the "Late Republic." Father Steve Grunow analyzes both articles here.
The juxtaposition of two articles struck me as significant. Archbishop Chaput of Denver recently delivered an address to the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars entitled, “Life in the Late Republic: The Catholic Role in America After Virtue."
The Archbishop’s remarks are for the most part concerning John Courtney Murray SJ. Quotes abstracted from a text written by Father Murray in 1940 leave quite an impression and give pause for much reflection. However, what struck me most about the speech was this gem from the Archbishop himself: “The people of Israel forgot their God because they weren’t taught. And if American Catholics no longer know their faith, or its obligations of discipleship, or its call to mission- then we leaders, parents and teachers have no one to blame but ourselves.” Also this: “The role of Catholics is exactly the opposite of what we’ve been doing for a half century or more- compromising too cheaply, assimilating, fitting in, fleeing from who we really are as believers; and in the process, being bleached out and digested by the culture we were sent to make holy.”
The Archbishop’s prophetic words were in my mind as I read the results of the latest survey from the Pew Forum
. This survey determined that on average, Americans correctly answered 16 of 32 questions concerning religious knowledge. Not all that good. But here is the kicker: atheists/agnostics could answer more questions (20.9 of the questions) than professed believers. The atheists/agnostics are followed by Jews and Mormons. Evangelical Protestants are ahead of white Catholics. In last place, Hispanic Catholics- the emerging and most significant demographic of Catholics in the United States. I have written before about similar surveys on this forum, so while the results of the Pew Forum Survey did not surprise me, I was distressed at further confirmation that the Church is failing in its mission of education and catechesis. The recent Pew Forum survey confirms data published years ago that indicated that Catholics understanding of the Eucharist is deplorably inadequate. More than four in ten Catholics (45%) do not know that the Church teaches that presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not merely symbolic. Whatever efforts the Church took years ago to correct this deficiency has proved to be woefully inadequate. The Second Vatican Council declared the Eucharist to be the source and summit of the Christian life. If the Pew survey is to be believed, this declaration has fallen mostly on deaf or indifferent ears.
What stings as much as ignorance is indifference. According to the survey, nearly half of all those affiliated with a religion (48%) say they seldom or never read books or visit websites about their own religion. Are we just too busy? The claims of religious conviction are, in the words of theologian Paul Tillich, “ultimate concern.” Evidently not. Such claims are in reality of relative significance to believers. Don’t just listen to what people say, watch what they do- and no matter how much one hears how important faith and spirituality are, the practice (or lack thereof) of these convictions reveal the truth. Americans profess in survey after survey to be deeply religious, but the sincerity of these convictions could easily be questioned. We are a nation of spiritual dilettantes, and my guess is that we are comfortable in this identity.
Of course there is a cost to all this. The often superficial and vacuous preoccupations of our culture bear witness to the price that we are paying. What public art have we produced of late that we really think will be worth preserving? What literature holds us together? Religion has for centuries been a maker of culture, and what it has produced in art, literature and architecture have proved themselves as being eminently worthy of our conservation. Religion in our current cultural context has become thin and as a result produces little of significant cultural impact. The consequences of this are not just for believers, but the culture at large languishes as well.
All this brings me back to Archbishop Chaput’s remarks. Late twentieth century Catholicism in America has produced little in terms of cultural importance. Our energies have been expended, not in building a culture, but in secular imitation and internal disputes which themselves seem to me to be symptomatic of the assimilation of the culture of the Church to the American experience, an assimilation that has gotten to the point where there is little that differentiates Catholics in their convictions or way of life from their secular and Protestant neighbors. This assimilation is a betrayal of who we are meant to be. America, even with all its benefits, is not the City of God, and being American is not meant to usurp one’s identity as a member of Christ’s Mystical Body. Total assimilation of one’s identity to American culture might be possible for the Protestant or the secularist, but for the Catholic, there is no replacement for the Church. Therefore a Catholic’s relationship to American culture will always be negotiated, but in the past few decades, what Catholics have brought to these negotiations has lessened with the collapse of Catholic’s ability to understand and practice the way of life that makes them unique participants in the American experience.
In these respects, the Archbishop is right. We have only ourselves to blame if we willfully remain ignorant of our own Tradition or if we foolishly cling to models of education and catechesis that continue to fail us. It is also time for Catholics to take America’s commitment to religious freedom seriously and claim that right as a right to be different and to build a culture that makes that difference known to our neighbors. I think that there has been an ascendant ethos in the Church that has feared Catholic difference and sought assimilation and accommodation at all costs. This ethos is largely responsible for the thinning of Catholic culture. Learning to do the opposite of what has been the prevailing ethos of Catholic life in American for the past few decades is the challenge for the Church in our times. This learning begins with re-discovering who we are and what we believe and once we have learned this at a level of depth, passing it on to the next generation, not as a collection of vague abstractions, personal experiences or self assertive opinions, but as a living Truth, rich in content, that has not only the power to create culture anew, but to be that Truth that can set us all free.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.