In response to the lead paragraph of my A Great and Glorious, But Debated, Assumption, an Eastern Catholic friend wrote of those Churches’ “refusal to bend to worldly reality”:
Today is a “day of obligation” (we would prefer to say “day of precept”) for some American Catholics. Unlike our Roman brethren, we do not venerate St. Pragmatica, and so we do not move our feast days to the nearest Sunday. Today is the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, and today we observe that Feast.
Good thing Easter already falls on a Sunday, and that Christmas is a national holiday. I look forward to trepidation when Ascension is observed on the sixth Sunday after Easter (that being the nearest to the 40th day after the Resurrection), and when Transfiguration is shifted to 4 July, in order to take advantage of the long weekend.
The Eastern Catholics are blessed in this. The practical disconnection of the lives of (Latin) Catholics from the biblical story and our vicarious reenactment of it through the Church year is a real problem in itself. And it doesn’t work,
if the intention is to make Catholic life easier and therefore the increase the number of Catholics who live it. Any sociologist could have told the bishops that making the Catholic life easier would encourage people to lose interest in it. As a writer in the Wall Street Journal observed:
Sociologists such as Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, who study the behavior of “religious economies,” have observed that churches tend to lose vigor when they relax demands on adherents, especially those tenets and practices that cut against the grain of wider society. In economic terms, lowering the “costs” of membership in this way ends up diminishing its benefits, among other ways by loosening the bonds of community.
At the most basic level, it removes the rules that separate Catholics from others, which may abstractly sound like a good thing, but the effect is to reduce the social practices that help people identify with their Church. As Finke and Stark explained in their book The Churching of America, 1776-1990, writing about the loss of the Friday fast from meat:
[I]n a pluralistic setting the observance had been a clear cultural marker and social boundary. When Catholic teenagers at drive-ins on Friday nights counted down to midnight before ordering their burgers, everyone present was reminded who was Catholic and who was not. To waive this very visible rule necessarily raised serious questions about the basis of religious truth and institutional credibility. From the point of view of teenagers and even of some adults, the scrapping of meatless Fridays for Catholics appeared as radical as a decision by the Mormon Church to authorize cola and coffee drinking or one by the Southern Baptists to market beer.
But, in contrast to my Eastern Catholic friend, from what I know, the bishops’ original motivation wasn’t mainly pragmatism but an attempt — ill-fated and imprudent as it may have been — to hold within the Church people whose faith is marginal or whose will is weak, by not pressing them beyond what they can bear, or what they can think they can bear. It is better for them to be in than out, and pastors who care about them will do whatever they can to keep them in.
The intentions were admirable, but steadily reducing the burdensome requirements of membership is not an effective way of strengthening the faith or the will. The attempt winds up making more people’s faith marginal because they reasonably enough begin to see the faith as something they can accommodate to the lives they’re living anyway, not something to which they must accommodate themselves. Human beings being sinners, the accommodations they allow themselves — we allow ourselves — grow greater and greater.
The English Catholic bishops have (as some readers will know) recognized this, and restored the Friday fast. As they wrote:
The Bishops wish to re-establish the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity. They recognise that the best habits are those which are acquired as part of a common resolve and common witness. It is important that all the faithful be united in a common celebration of Friday penance.
Thanks to The Moral Christian for the quote from the WSJ.