So what’s to be done? Is there any hope? Yes! With God all things are possible. In recent years, faithful Catholic groups and organizations have networked and now form a solid foundation that is beginning to rebuild and renew the faith. They are being supported by a growing contingent of bishops who recognize how deep the rot has gone and are determined to do something about it. There are more and more young people who are on fire with the love of God and who are willing to live the faith to its fullness. They are certainly not a majority but they are now present and visible in many places. Not a few have entered the seminary or novitiate. It will be these young people of today who will be rebuilding the Church in America.
However, if this rebuilding is to have maximum success, we need a plan. The first step in solving any problem is to admit that a problem exists, something many Church leaders have thus far been unwilling to do. However, the survey results make it painfully clear that we do have a problem. That said, the next step in solving any problem is to identify its causes.
Saint Paul said, “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” (1Cor. 14:8) Clearly, for those Catholics of the baby-boom generation, uncertain notes were the only ones being played, with the result that one-third of our fellow Catholics have now left the field. Furthermore, of those 53,775,000 American Catholics who remain in the fight, except for the elderly, most are so poorly catechized that they continue to be highly vulnerable to invitations from evangelical congregations or to the secularizing influences in our society. In a word, our problem has been dissent tolerated by weak leaders, which in turn has led to confusion as to what we as Catholics believe and how we should live.
The final step in solving any problem is action. To that end, we must work to stem further losses and then begin to go out and seek those who have left and invite them to return. I might add that this survey is a godsend because it has already identified for us where our work is most urgent.
Like generals marshaling their forces, our bishops need to do several things. First, make sure that everyone is presenting a clear message. All remaining dissenters must be expunged from their positions within diocesan offices, major parishes and influential positions in the Church. This is especially crucial in Catholic colleges and universities, which form the weakest link in the nascent renewal we are experiencing. For the most part, they are still seriously undermining the faith of our young people, young people who will be our nation’s leaders. This must stop if we ever hope to have well-formed Catholic leaders in business, education, politics, science, the arts and medicine. Bishops and donors must apply pressure to our Catholic colleges and universities to reform their theology and philosophy departments. Bishops must also apply pressure to the religious orders that run many of our schools to support the needed reforms.
Second, the survey results reveal that the faith is weakest among the young. We must act immediately to reverse this trend before we loose the better part of yet another generation. Consequently, our parish religious education programs must be reformed. In our present culture, an hour a week in religion classes is not enough to make our young people Catholic. Parents must be re-engaged in the process as well. I think all pastors would agree that when parents are not practicing the faith, our efforts to educate their children are almost fruitless.
Along these lines, we need to take a good hard look at our Catholic schools. Often, lots of money is spent with little to show for it. We end up offering an alternative to public schools to parents who do not practice their faith. It should be noted that some religions, such as the Mormons and Jews, offer strong religious education programs that cost far less than running a school while retaining more of their members than do Catholics. We should reconsider what role Catholic schools should play in the twenty-first century and where we can get the greatest bang for our buck. Perhaps parish funds could be better spent on well-designed religious education programs or by supporting online schools that don’t require expensive infrastructure.
Third, aggressive steps must be taken to retain the many Hispanic immigrants coming into our country (who now number nearly half of all Catholics ages eighteen to twenty-nine). We cannot let these people slip away into evangelical congregations or into the growing unaffiliated group.
Fourth, while men and women have an equal dignity before God, they are not the same. We must recognize and acknowledge the significant psychological and emotional differences in men and women and how they view the world. The overt and covert feminization of the Church must end. Men and boys need strong male role models to look up to and to emulate. Masculine approaches to the faith must be developed and affirmed if we are to erase the significant gender gap that now exists and retain more of our male members.
Finally, we must reach out to those who have fallen away. They are the lost sheep of today. As this group is diverse, we must address at the very least the larger segments within it. For example, it has been this pastor’s experience that many former Catholics who have joined evangelical congregations tend to be very zealous members of their new congregations. For the most part, they are good, faithful people who love God but who were not fed in their Catholic parishes. They were attracted to these congregations because of clear and strong homilies, Bible studies, youth programs for their children and good music. They need to be shown that Scripture alone is not enough and that we need the Eucharist and the rest of the
sacraments as well. On the other hand, former Catholics who are now part of the educated, unchurched secular group need to see that science alone cannot explain all we experience in the world and in our hearts. To that end, because few pastors have the ability or the knowledge to answer or address all of the questions and concerns specific to each group, diocesan programs need to be developed to reach out to these groups and others.
It’s now far beyond the time for half measures. We must act now to clean up the messes that remain and to develop reasonable, workable plans to move forward. Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Matt. 12:30). Tolerating dissent has led us to where we are today. It’s time for some intolerance.
Amen! Amen! Amen!