When I’m out leading missions or speaking at a conference, in the meet and greet session afterwards, the most common conversation I have is with middle aged women who say, “Father, what can I do, my children have stopped practicing the faith!” or they tell me how their children have married Mormons or Methodists or Baptists and left the Catholic Church.
What’s the problem? The problem is not now. The problem is back then. The problem is how we have educated a whole generation of young Catholics. We’ve driven them off with being nice. The Catholic Church over the last fifty years in the USA has become just another nice American institution. Nice like McDonald’s. Nice like Disneyland. Nice like the Mall. Nice like the neatly trimmed suburbs.
We’ve made catechesis nice. It’s all about the sacraments and being nice and the church and being nice and peace and justice and being nice and forgiveness and hugs and being nice. That’s all very nice… but there is another aspect to the gospel which we’ve quietly forgotten. We’ve forgotten that part about, “If anyone would be my disciple he must take up his cross and follow me.” Or that part which says, “The world will hate you as it has hated me.” or “Broad is the way that leads to destruction, but narrow is the gate and few there be that find it.”
So our children aren’t dumb. They grow up and they figure that if it’s all about being nice that you don’t have to go to church to be nice. You can be nice without church. You don’t have to be Catholic to be nice. You can be a nice Methodist if you want. So if they want to be nice they just go along being nice without church, and they believe that because that’s actually what we taught them even when we didn’t know that is what we were teaching them.
Because we never told them it would be difficult and that it would require discipline and that they should have some backbone and determination if they were going to make it in the spiritual life, they learned that lesson, and therefore when it did turn out to require a little bit of grit and determination and difficult things like confession and self discipline and prayer–they went scooting off because they thought it was all about being nice and praise and worship songs that made you feel good and a warm comfy sermon from Father about loving each other more. That’s what they thought it was. That’s what we taught them it was, and when it turned out that being a Catholic required some backbone and self sacrifice and dedication they were disappointed like we are all disappointed when our expectations are shattered. Never mind that they were false expectations to start with.
They felt like they were sold a bill of goods. Everybody said the Catholic faith was all nice and warm and cozy and when it turned out different they scoot off to a church where they are made to feel warm and cozy, and who can blame them?
There is another huge contributing factor to the hemorrhage from the Catholic Church.It is indifferentism, and the indifferentism has three aspects. First is the aspect that it doesn’t really matter what church you go to. You wouldn’t believe the number of potential convert clergy who are told by a Catholic priest to stay where they are in the Protestant denomination and “work for church unity.”
The first aspect of indifferentism is the idea that all the Christian denominations–for that matter all the different religions–are pretty much the same. You know the schtick–“We are all following different paths up the same mountain. You choose your path I choose mine.” The unique claims to Catholic truth have been watered down or denied completely. So if we have been telling our kids for the last fifty years that all the other Christian denominations are pretty much the same we should be surprised when they quite happily marry a Methodist or tootle off to the community church or join the Episcopalians?
Faithful parents will protest, “But we never taught our kids that! We sent them to Catholic school.” You don’t get it. They were taught indifferentism in their Catholic school. They picked it up at that CCD class you thought was okay. They were fed it at that Catholic high school you thought was just fine. The bishop thought that was the way forward. They heard it at their confirmation class. The priests learned it at seminary from modernist professors. To say that other Christians were in error was “judgmental” and “unloving”, “narrow minded”, “rigid” etc.
Indifferentism also applies in a second way: we became indifferent to the importance of doctrine. Doctrine didn’t matter. Experience was everything. Warm, fuzzy experience. In fact, not only did doctrine not matter, but it was considered divisive. All Christians were coming together, and this wonderful unity would be accelerated as we left all those dull, old arguments about doctrine behind us. As it was expressed by an exasperated Methodist when I, as an Anglican priest, announced my intention to resign my ministry and become a Catholic, “Isn’t all that matters how much we love Jesus?!” This is Rodney King theology” “Can’t we all just get along?”
If we were taught to be indifferent about doctrine, then the logical conclusion is that doctrine doesn’t matter, and if doctrine doesn’t matter then it doesn’t really matter what you believe, and if it doesn’t really matter what you believe then you can make up your own religion and believe pretty much whatever seems right and good to you and makes you feel like a nice person. Consequently, the next generation didn’t really see any solid reason to remain Catholic.
So they went church shopping, and they found that the other churches had better merchandise. If they were looking for wonderful music, beautiful architecture and fine liturgy the Episcopalians did all that better than the Catholics (who were busy building concrete flying saucers to worship in) If they were looking for gung ho youth groups, happy music and powerful Biblical preaching the Baptists did that better than the Catholics. If they wanted relevant hip hop sermons with big screens, bagels and a latte–the community church sure did that better than the Catholics. If they wanted groovy, soothing music, easy going services and a feel good sermon “contemporary worship stream” at the mainstream Protestant church filled the need. The Catholics were simply doing Protestant badly.
in the meantime, all the things that were really distinctive and unique about the Catholic faith we, in America, put up at a kind of ecclesiastical yard sale. Eucharistic adoration, the real presence of the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the altar, the apostolic authority, the papacy, the church fathers, the communion of the saints, images of saints, pilgrimages, the promise of heaven and the pains of hell, the need for confession and the sanctity of marriage….if they weren’t exactly put up at a yard sale, at least they were stashed away in the attic in order to make way for a bland, watered down, wall to wall carpeting version of Catholicism that was a mix between a Protestant church, Dr Phil and a poorly done nightclub singing act…and the amazing thing is a huge number of American Catholics liked the result. If you don’t believe me try introducing Gregorian chant or something called a hymn to an AmChurch parish.
The third aspect of indifferentism is simply being indifferent. Careless. Complacent. Worldly. Lacking in passion. Lukewarm. Boring. The reason I am a committed Christian and a passionate Catholic today is because I grew up with people who really believed the old, old story of mankind’s fall from grace and God’s saving sacrifice. My parents not only took us to church. They lived a life of sacrifice. My Dad–with five kids and a failing business–gave 15% of his income to the church and we knew it and were proud of his action. We met missionaries who gave their lives to go and live in the jungle with their families to bring the gospel to aboriginal tribes living in fear and darkness. We met refugees from Russia who had been imprisoned for their faith and escaped with nothing but the shirt on their back and had set up missions to smuggle Bibles into communist lands.
This third aspect of indifferentism is the worst of all. It tames Aslan. It waters down the wine. It replaces the fire of the Holy Spirit with one of those tacky fake candles you pay a nickel for and press a switch. Why do they leave? It’s not hard to figure out. They say it themselves. They asked their kids why they didn’t believe the Catholic faith and the answer was stark and simple: “If it really is the body and blood of Christ and he is really present–why don’t Catholics–priests included (or should I say priests especially) behave as if it is so? They have shopped elsewhere and found other Christians who seem to love Jesus Christ more and wish to serve him with their whole lives.
So what do I actually say to the parents who are bereaved at their children’s loss of faith? I say what I say to any Catholic. “Be a saint!” By the grace of God be the most reverent, most radical, most radiant and sold out follower of Jesus Christ. Leave everything and follow him. Sell it all and be a missionary! Even now leave your nets and follow Christ. Do not be afraid. If even only a fraction of Catholics lived as they say they believe the church and the world would be transformed.
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