This time of the year—the Christmas holidays and a bit later, come Lent and Easter season—we become conscious of what is increasingly said to be the largest our nation’s second largest religious denomination, not the Southern Baptists, but an amorphous group known as “ex-” or “former,” or simply “non-practicing” Catholics.
The reasons for this trend are various. For many, the reason is what was for a long time the most common one, which is that many find the church’s moral restraints, particularly those concerning sexuality, too confining. The “BC” issue, for example, drove many from the Catholic fold, especially when the distinction between using the “rhythm method” (the church-approved form of birth-control) and contraceptives became less and less convincing. While many Catholics have decided to simply ignore the church on this issue, for many others it has sowed the seeds of doubt (especially after recent revelations of long-hidden scandals) regarding other church teachings.
Others, however, trace this massive leakage from the church to what is now seen as the watershed event in recent Catholic history, the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965). For those older folks who grew up before this council, the results were mixed, depending how you looked at it. For the impatient “liberals,” who expected the church to finally catch up with the contemporary world, things at first seemed promising, then later, as old ways of thinking or acting were reasserted, rather disappointing. On the other hand, for those conservatives who had hoped that this council would lead to a more purified and disciplined church (a “reform” in the sense of a return to the teachings of the 15th century Council of Trent or even idealized in a romantic vision of 13th century “Christendom,” rather than a return to the early Christian models of worship and church organization that Vatican II had in mind) this latest council seemed to be outright subversive.
However, I think that two college chaplain friends of mine pinpointed several other troubling indications as to what was happening. One shrewdly observed that it seemed that the easier it became (no more abstention from meat on Fridays and the Sunday Mass obligation interpreted, shall we say, a bit less strictly) the harder it became to identify oneself as a “Catholic” and thus to act like a committed Christian in more fundamental matters. The other friend’s comment, perhaps more superficial, but just as telling, was that he was becoming exhausted in what he saw as his futile efforts in trying to present something new each weekend to keep church services “entertaining.” Both of these problems are still with us. When you expect less of people you get less, and in a media-entertainment and sensation-saturated world, gospel-rock or even charismatic outpourings are apt to attract more people than ancient forms of worship led by old men in dressed in medieval vestments.
Nevertheless, the way I see it, it goes back to something more basic -- to the question of what it means to be a Catholic Christian. The word “Catholic” means (literally) to “take in” or “encompass” all sorts of people with all sorts of inclinations and opinions, or in other words, the polar opposite of denominationalism. Instead, what seems to be happening within Catholicism today, forty-some years after the council, is that an obsession with “orthodoxy” (correct teaching and belief) has replaced the obsession with correct ritual observance that characterized the scribes and Pharisees at the time of Jesus. In doing so, the church is paradoxically becoming less Catholic and more sectarian.
This is not the first time this has happened and apparently some like it this way. But for may others, ritual and belief, once seen as helps, or as “means” towards an “end,” nevertheless are in danger of missing the main objective, which is to bring people closer to God. As a result, there should be no wonder that we increasingly find a large portion of our population, not just ex-Catholics but even ex-Protestants and ex-(observant) Jews, who when asked about the subject, prefer to say that they are “spiritual but not religious.”