According to the Pew Research Center, which is generally highly regarded, including by me, fully 67% of those in the U. S. who self-identify as Catholic support same-sex marriage. This is consistent with a pattern of Catholics in America rejecting Church teaching across the moral spectrum.
There’s no question that confidence in the Catholic Church as an institution that communicates the revelation of God on moral matters has declined precipitously among Catholics in the U. S. since the 1950s. This is consistent with most other Christian churches, and most other traditions across the religious spectrum. Not only does the Church have little influence on society as a whole, she has little influence on those who claim allegiance to her. Yes, we can acknowledge that the 1950s represented the apex of confidence in the Church among U. S. Catholics, when fully 70% or more of Catholics attended Mass weekly. The Church gradually climbed in her influence over the previous decades, peaked in the 1950s, and has been in decline since. Contrary to the popular myth, the decline actually began prior to the Second Vatican Council.
From where, then, are Americans, including Catholics in America (or, in this case, perhaps it is more correct to say “American Catholics”), getting their moral guidance? Other research by Pew suggests that Americans, by and large, get their moral guidance from … wait for it … themselves! Most Americans have little regard, it seems, for moral authority outside their own consciences. This wouldn’t be the disconcerting news it is were most Americans cognizant of and attentive to the proper formation of the conscience. Any takers on that one? Nah, didn’t think so.
This speaks to the disaster that has been Catholic catechesis for the last few decades. We are suffering the results of two or three generations now of Catholics in America who have been so poorly catechized that few can identify even central articles of Catholic faith and morals, never mind explain them clearly, and never even mind defend them against the onslaught of a secular culture. I recall being confronted by the DRE at a former parish of mine in Memphis who instructed me not to share with the teens in the youth group the Church’s teaching on sexual morality because, she reasoned, they rejected it. I suspect it was she who rejected the teaching and she didn’t want them hearing it lest they might actually embrace it. Few Catholics, perhaps even the most faithful, know what the Church teaches, much less why. This is because they weren’t taught what the Church teaches, or even how to find out what the Church teaches. As a result, most Americans, even most Catholics in America, get their information about the Catholic Church, including Catholic faith and morals, from the secular media, which is notoriously ignorant of Church teaching, notoriously lazy about researching Church teaching when reporting on it, and notoriously hostile to the Church.
Now, one point that needs to be made clear is that the Pew Research Center, as respected as it is, commits a serious error in their poll. They make no distinction in their report between Catholics who participate in the life of the Church and Catholics who haven’t been to Mass in decades. Both get equal voice in their poll, though there’s no reason to expect that Catholics who haven’t been to Mass in years are influenced in the least by anything Catholic. Why do they continue to identify as Catholic? Who knows? But, it is a serious, though common, error among pollsters to gather their data from people based on how they self-identify, regardless of their level of commitment.
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 23% of U. S. Catholics attend Mass weekly, and another 20.5% attend Mass almost every week or up to twice a month. These are the Catholics in America. The 56% of Catholics who attend Mass “a few times a year” or “rarely or never” have no stake in the Church and, in my mind, ought not count among these polls. I grew up in Virginia and lived there until I was an adult. If you asked me, then, I might give consideration to self-identifying as a “Virginian.” But, I’ve not lived in the state in over thirty years and have no plans to return. It’s simply ridiculous to ask someone who hasn’t lived in Virginia for decades and has no plans to return whether the state income tax should be increased. They have no investment in the outcome, so should have no voice on the matter. Furthermore, they obviously aren’t up on the issues that impact the state or its people, so who cares what they think? Why are we even asking them? And, in fact, were the question being raised the matter of a state income tax increase in Virginia, no one would ask these people. For some reason, however, people who grew up Catholic but have had no connection to or interest in the life of the Church for decades get to add their voice to polls measuring “Catholic” opinion. It’s a farce, and Pew ought to know better.
Another point is that the Church’s moral teaching has never been terribly popular among Catholics. Any reading of Catholic history will soon reveal the dismal state of moral affairs among Catholics. In the early fifth century, St. Jerome lamented how few Catholics embraced or practiced the Church’s teaching on contraception. Mass attendance, as well, has always been up and down, so the current state of affairs is nothing new. The 1950s was probably more the anomaly than the rule in Catholic history, representing a time when loyalty to the Catholic brand was wide but shallow. If anyone doubts this, consider why the fathers of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) felt the need to mandate the Easter Duty.
But, none of this is to discount the failure of the Church in the United States to effectively convey the truth of the gospel, not only to the majority of Americans who have never identified as Catholic, but even to the millions of Americans who do, and even to those who participate actively in the life of the Church. How are we going to explain this to Jesus when He asks us, “What are the fruits of your labors?” In the parable of the talents, the king gave to each of three servants a number of talents to invest in his absence. The first two servants invested wisely and returned a profit to their master. The third feared the harsh judgment of the king were he to lose the one talent he had been given. So, he hid his talent away, hoping that returning only what he had been given would satisfy the king. It didn’t. Instead, the king took away what he had given the servant and cast him out into the darkness.
So, what’s the answer? The answer, I think, doesn’t rest in the diocese, or the parish, or even the Catholic School or Religious Education program. The answer rests in the hands of Catholic parents. We Catholic parents need to ask ourselves if we regard the truth of the gospel as something worth passing on to our children. If we don’t, then we won’t, and that will be that. But, if we do, then we need to take our mandate as first religious educators of our children seriously. We need to stop thinking of the parish, or even of the Catholic school, as the institution that is primarily responsible for the Catholic education of our children and own up to that responsibility ourselves, because it is ours, in fact. The parish and the school are there to assist us in our responsibility to raise our children in the faith, not to replace us. It simply isn’t good enough to drop our kids off at the CCD or Catholic School door and expect them to do the work that is ours to do. We need to make the faith a part of our home, and make the passing on to our children a knowledge of the faith and morals of the Church our mission. Because it is our mission, whether we recognize it or not, or whether we like it or not. We will answer to our King for how we invested the talents He gave us.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.