Some years before he was elected pope, Joseph Ratzinger was asked what he thought about the health of the Church. He answered that she was doing very well; she was just a lot smaller than most people thought. He was exactly right. We need to think of the Church in our age as a seed of life embedded in layers of dead tissue. We also need to distinguish the Church in the emerging world from the Church in developed nations.
In the emerging world, the Church has few material resources. She rarely has adequate money for education, development, or ministry. She faces well-financed and aggressive Islamic growth, and cults and competing religious groups of every sort. And she suffers various forms of state harassment and persecution in China, North Korea, Vietnam, across the Islamic world, and even in India.
The situation in developed nations is more ambiguous. In some places the Church has ample resources. She supports a wide variety of important educational institutions and service ministries. She often has an effective public voice.
But Catholic and other Christian influence on daily life in the developed world is rapidly diminishing. In western Europe, the number of Catholics who attend Mass is very low, and the number of people who identify as Catholic is declining. While American religious belief and practice remain high by European standards, these facts are changing. Roughly seventy-five million Americans claim to be Catholic, but less than a quarter of them attend Mass on most Sundays. Some 69 percent of American Catholic adults say they would not encourage someone to become a priest or religious sister. The implications of that one piece of data for the sacramental and apostolic life of the Church in the United States are enormous.
How did this happen? I can only speak for my own country. The American Founders were far friendlier to religious faith than their French revolutionary counterparts. Well into the 1940s, American government and religious bodies often worked in a mutually supportive way—and very effectively—to serve the common good.
But there’s a flaw in the American gene code. The Jesuit scholar John Courtney Murray named it more than seventy years ago. Murray said that America is simultaneously a land “of immense material comfort” and “immense suffering of a peculiarly soul-destroying kind”—a nation driven by the anxiety for money and the fear of life without it.
From its founding, America has always been a paradox: a country of fierce individualism and hunger for material success, tempered by widespread Christian faith and community. If the churches decline, selfishness and greed rise—which is exactly what’s happened in the United States since the end of the Second World War.
Father Murray, writing in the mid-twentieth-century, hoped that Catholics would provide a Christian soul to American life in a way that Protestants no longer could. We know how that turned out. Notre Dame social researcher Christian Smith and his colleagues have tracked in great detail the spiritual lives of today’s young adults and teenagers. The results are sobering. So are the implications for Catholic life in the decades ahead.
The real religion of vast numbers of American young people is a kind of fuzzy moral niceness, with an easy, undemanding God on duty to make people feel happy whenever they need him. It’s what Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” To put it in the words of a young woman from Maryland, “[Faith is] just whatever makes you feel good about you.”
This is the legacy that my generation has left to the Church in the United States. For all practical purposes, American Catholics are no different from everybody else in their views, their appetites, and their behaviors. This isn’t what the Second Vatican Council had in mind when it began its work fifty years ago. It’s not what the council meant by reform. Left to itself, the life of the Church in my country is not going to get better. It’s going to get worse.
Unfortunately, what happens in my country affects everyone else. The developed nations lead not just through the “hard power” of military, economic, and political strength. They also lead through the “soft power” of their mass media; media that tell us what to desire; whom to believe; what qualifies as news; and when to laugh. The developed world creates the appetites, aspirations, and dreams of the planet. And those dreams—even today—bear the stamp “Made in America.”
From the outside, the Church in my country often looks strong. We have buildings and ministries and programs—but these are misleading. Catholic life is weakening from the inside. The pace of that weakening increases as young people detach from Catholic culture. My own city of Philadelphia is a prime example of how this is already happening.
It doesn’t need to be this way. Tens of thousands of young Catholic men and women do take their faith seriously. They do try to live it vigorously. More than seventeen million American Catholics worship at Sunday Mass every week. Double that number attend Mass at least once a month. Millions support the Church financially. And many are active in their parishes and in other ministries outside Sunday worship. These are good facts to build on. In the United States, the faith is not just a memory. It’s still alive. But there’s no way we can go back to the “glory days” of the past as a model for the future.
Catholic life needs to be reignited. American culture is a new kind of mission territory. It’s a cocoon of marketing, entertainment, and manufactured appetites; a narcotic of noise, distraction, and relentless propaganda for self-absorption and confused sexuality. Being in the United States in the weeks before Christmas is an education in what the culture really worships. It worships commerce.
Real Christian discipleship rejects and resists the kind of radical personal license and acquisitiveness that animates a consumerist society. So when the Catholic Church teaches about the dignity of the unborn child, the purpose of human sexuality, economic and immigration justice, the rights of religious communities and believers, and the nature of marriage and the family—she’s not just unpopular. She’s hated as the enemy of individual privacy and personal freedom. That shapes the way the Church is treated in the mass media.
For Catholics in my country to recover their vocation as a Church, they need to be awakened; they need a reason to be zealous again about their faith. They need to hear the witness of people who live the Catholic faith with confidence and joy. They need to see their Church growing and fruitful, and young again, instead of constantly retreating and in decline.
This is the value of the new ecclesial communities and movements. They’re alive in Jesus Christ, and their new life and energy spill out into the whole Church. What they can bring to the Church is a clear and honest view of our pastoral realities—including the failures and flaws of the Church herself; a view tempered by love, ruled by fidelity, but unencumbered by legacy, habits of the past, or an investment in keeping things the way they are.
The essence of these communities is a new spirit of Christian equality rooted in the mandate of baptism, honoring each vocation in the Church for its unique task and importance, but recognizing that the call to holiness is universal, and that the mission to “make disciples of all nations” belongs to all of us in equal measure—ordained, consecrated, and lay.
A holy impatience; the passion of youth; a sober understanding of the culture that shapes us; a zeal for Jesus Christ guided by deep intellectual formation; and a demand for excellence in all things for the sake of God’s glory—these are all marks of the best of the new ecclesial communities. And they’re the tools God uses throughout history to make all things new. The fruitfulness of these communities and movements comes from living the new evangelization without compromise and at personal cost, instead of planning for it and talking about it, but never actually doing it.
Nothing is more powerful than the witness of Christian men and women loving God and serving God’s people; working together; and sharing lives of courage, joy, and friendship. In an age of aggressive individualism and the isolation it breeds, the new ecclesial movements offer two absolutely priceless gifts: community and purpose.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the Archbishop of Philadelphia. This column is based on an address he delivered in Lima, Peru, on November 29 to the leaders of Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a Society of Apostolic Life of pontifical right.
Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate
John Courtney Murray, S.J., “The Construction of a Christian Culture,” 1940
Christian Smith, et al, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood
Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers
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