Lawrence P. Grayson
“I am Catholic.” How easy it is to make that claim. Today, one in four people in the United States does so. Among these are individuals who have achieved prominence in all areas of national life, including business, the professions, the media, education, and governance. Currently, the nation’s Vice President, 164 of the 535 members of Congress, including the Speaker and Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, five of the eight current Justices of the Supreme Court, and 11 of the 34 individuals President Obama has appointed to serve in his Cabinet claim Catholicism as their religion.
With the degree of influence that follows from this preeminence, Catholic teachings should be having a significant effect on the culture, policies and laws of this nation. But they are not. Abortion is widespread, same-sex marriage is legal, assisted suicide is gaining acceptance, pornography is rampant, and freedom of religion – especially Christianity – is being curtailed.
Why is this so? The answer is plain. Too many self-proclaimed Catholics do not practice the faith. They do not live their lives according to the precepts of the religion they profess, and they certainly do not let the faith affect their drive for material success. They have melded into the secularist American culture so completely that their views on moral issues and their behaviors, public and private, are indistinguishable from the populationat- large.
Of the 82 million self-identified Catholics, only 68 million are members of a parish, and of these only 24 percent attend Mass at least weekly, according to data from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. People who do not practice the religion will not shape their behavior according to its dogmas.
Although there is no formal splitting of Catholicism into sects, as has occurred in Protestantism and Judaism, there are wide divergences in beliefs and practices among people who call themselves Catholic. There are those who may be termed “Culturalists.” They typically have been born into the faith and practiced it during their formative years. At some point, however, they stopped going to church and believing in its teachings. These people have ceased to be Catholic. They call themselves Catholic because they have found no other religion to take its place and find the Catholic label as acceptable as any.
Then, there are those who may be viewed as “Pragmatists.” They relegate their faith to an occasional Mass and the rest of the time exhibit a practical atheism, living as if God has no effect on their lives. They are willing to ignore and even deny the Church’s teachings, and have so compartmentalized their minds that they can say they are personally opposed to a moral evil, but will not prohibit others from engaging in it. This misguided toleration is embraced because it imposes no obligation on the individual to publicly live the faith. The ideas, attitudes, choices, decisions and actions of these cafeteria Catholics, as well as the way they set priorities for living, are indistinguishable from the general populace.
A third group are “Progressives,” who advocate a practical faith responsive to the modern world. They treat Church doctrines and moral precepts as guidelines to be used flexibly depending on the individual’s conscience and circumstances. Issues of peace and justice dominate their thinking, and they are much more concerned about the temporal rather than the spiritual needs of others. While frequently involved in the church’s social ministries, many of these people are willing to adapt dogma to fit pastoral concerns and are accepting of women’s ordination, married clergy, and same-sex unions.
Then, there are the “Adherents.” Loyal to the magisterial teachings of the Church and to the authority of the pope, they accept the principles of the Second Vatican Council, but are not satisfied with the way they have been implemented. While welcoming customary devotions, they want the Mass, whether in the Ordinary or Extraordinary Form, to be celebrated with reverence and solemnity, and would like the faith to be presented in ways that relate to their own lives. Upholding traditional Catholic teaching in faith and morals, they defend traditional marriages, are pro-life at all stages, for all people in all conditions, and support priestly celibacy and an all-male priesthood.
With such a wide diversity of beliefs and commitment to the faith, it is easy to see why Catholics are not a major force in shaping the culture of the nation. Archbishop John Ireland, a leading prelate of his day, perceived the potential and the challenge for Catholics, when in 1889 he said: “[I]f great things are not done by Catholics in America, the fault lies surely with themselves – not the republic.” Today, it is clear that Catholics are failing both the republic and themselves. They are forsaking the nation in not bringing the virtues taught by their religion to bear on issues of public concern. They are faithless to themselves because in their consuming drive for material success, they are abandoning fundamental precepts of their faith.
If Catholics are to change the secular culture of America, they must first become well informed in their faith and then fully live by its teachings. True religious faith is more than a set of dogmas to be accepted; rather it is a way of life, a way whose ends are not the temporal comforts of this world, but the gaining of an eternity in the kingdom of God. It rejects the main messages of American culture: that the primary object of human effort is material gain; that success means the accumulation of power and wealth; that the world is all about us.
What Catholicism in America needs is a re-evangelization to the faith. Catholics must relearn its teachings, understand the timeless truth of its doctrines, and develop the moral values and commitment to live their lives in accord with the faith. What is needed is a massive catechization of existing Catholics, followed by an evangelization of the nation.
Every journey begins with a first step. The re-evangelization can begin with the Knights of Columbus. It could begin with your council. With you. Take the first step; pray the rosary; and with Mary at your side, there is no telling what the results might be.
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Published May 2016