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The Rise of Inconsequentialism

I was reading a report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life on the state of religious knowledge among Americans,and I was struck by a few observations. To be fair, most of these observations involve Catholicism, which is only to be expected, since I am a Catholic. The results of the survey may interest others, but since I don’t know enough to critique any other religions, I’ll leave that up to others. And I will continue the theme into other areas, because I believe it explains a lot.

First, the numbers. More than four in ten Catholics, for example, say the church teaches that the bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood. Barely more than half know that the Church believes in transubstantiation. 77 per cent believe that there is more than one way to interpret the Churches teachings. Only 16% believe that the Catholic Church is the one true religion, while 79% believe that many religions can lead to heaven. Perhaps the most interesting finding is that 23% believe that the bible is literally true, while 27% believe that it is not the word of God at all. Those numbers add up to 50% that don’t understand or believe Catholic teaching on the Bible.

Oddly enough, those numbers have a parallel in demographics. For example, while nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic. There are those who maintain that the losses would have been greater had it not been for a large influx of immigrants. The survey also finds that among the foreign-born adult population, Catholics outnumber Protestants by nearly a two-to-one margin (46% Catholic vs. 24% Protestant); among native-born Americans, on the other hand, the statistics show that Protestants outnumber Catholics by an even larger margin (55% Protestant vs. 21% Catholic).

There’s also the issue of lapsed Catholics. Approximately one-third of the survey respondents who say they were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic. These losses, however, have been partly offset by the number of converts to Catholicism, but also by the large number of Catholics among immigrants to the U.S. The result is that the overall percentage of the population that identifies as Catholic has remained fairly stable.

What the numbers show is that even though the percentage of Catholics has remained constant, it’s only by accident. The American Catholic Church is losing Catholics, and the ones that stay are Catholic in name only. Fully half of all Catholics do not believe in Catholicism. One needs only to look at Central and South America to see the inroads that fundamentalism and evangelicals are making among what were once predominantly Catholic nations.

I have developed a theory as to why this is all so. I call it the theory of inconsequentialism. It goes like this.

First, the Church refuses to teach. The local parish, and its priests, are the only contact most people have with the institutional Church. The person in the pew gets their education about the fundamentals of the faith at the local parish level. The nuns who teach in the schools and the priests who teach from the pulpit. Clearly, this teaching has been a failure. If half of all our students in high school believed that 2+2=5, parents would be up in arms and protesting in the streets. Yet a corresponding religious fundamental in similarly misbelieved.

Second, if one does not believe, for example, in transubstantiation, then the difference between Catholicism and other religions shrinks. If a belief that the wholeness of the church subsists in the Catholic Church disappears, the difference shrinks further. And it continues to shrink with each bit of ignorance about the Church, or disbelief in the teachings of the Church. A “cafeteria” Catholic isn’t really Catholic in the long run.

Third, when religious services become people centered instead of Christ-centered, one more distinction between Catholicism and other religions disappear. Eventually, the distinctions become meaning less, a set of customs “honored more in the breach.” Modern catholics ignore teaching they disagree with, or find inconvenient, or difficult. Mass interferes with football, so we go on Saturday. But then that interferes with our night at the movies. Ask a Catholic about “first Fridays” and you’ll likely be greeted with blank stares.

What this leads to is the belief, even if unstated explicitly, that all religions are equal, and the differences between them “inconsequential.” Once one believes that, then the choice of a particular form of worship becomes a matter of preference and not conviction. What schedule is best, what preacher makes me feel best? The ultimate truth or falsity of a belief is never really questioned.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem the Church in America faces. The Church loses members faster than it can replace them. The Church is also either incapable of, or reluctant to, teach the singular differences that attend to being the one true Church. And if the Church won’t stand up for itself, how can it expect its members to do so?

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. October 3, 2010 at 6:56 pm

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