Big news this week from Pew Research, huh? Seems everyone is talking about the decline of Christianity in America. But I wonder if this really is a decline. Does loss in numbers really hurt the Church or her mission?
There’s something curious about the reasons people give when asked why it is that they chose to leave the Catholic Church. The reasons that feature most prominently in recent studies are, in no particular order, the sex abuse scandal, the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, the status of women in the Church, dissatisfaction with a priest, uninspiring homilies, perceptions about the Church and politics, the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage.
Before addressing what I find so curious about those answers, let me say this: When considering the reasons people supply for abandoning the Barque of Peter, it would be great to also hear 1) why people remain on the ship, and 2) why people boarded in the first place. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet seen studies seeking to answer those questions.
So, in their absence, consider the reasons you might give if prompted to account for why you are a card-carrying member of the Catholic Church. I wish I had some survey results to rattle off that correspond to all the reasons that are running through your mind right now, but I don’t. I have only my anecdotal knowledge of my own conversion, the stories I’ve read, and my five years teaching in RCIA. Let’s work with what we have.
First Things published a great article last year that was a follow-up to a talk they hosted with John Beaumont, author of The Mississippi Flows into the Tiber: A Guide to Notable American Catholic Converts to the Catholic Church. Therein, they recount Mr. Beaumont’s list of reasons why people convert to Catholicism. After seven years as a Catholic, I not only agree with the list, but I believe that it holds remarkably true for answering the question, “Why do people stay in the Church?”
Here are those reasons:
8. Moral witness
Now, that list has a couple omissions — I’m thinking primarily of the Sacraments — but consider how they contrast with the reasons given for defecting. Nearly all of the reasons given for leaving the Church are directly contradicted by three major reasons for joining: Authority, Hierarchy, and Moral witness. But I submit that nobody who truly respects the hierarchy of the Catholic Church hates her authority; rather, respect for authority is a precursor to respecting the hierarchy.
So, there are really two reasons why people leave: the Catholic Church’s authority and her moral teaching. But wait, there’s less! The Church’s moral teaching is not arbitrary. It isn’t decided by internal factions, the way a political party’s platform might change over time. No, the Church’s moral teaching is a function of her authority. Without her authority, we should have expected the winds of change to move the Church off course, but it has not. The Church’s ability to endure and to thrive in the harshest of conditions is also unimaginable apart from her authority.
But don’t you see, she isn’t thriving; that’s the point! Oh, I see. I see a report about the number of Christians declining in this country, and I notice that it was published at the same time that the Church has been reading chapter 15 of John’s Gospel.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit….”
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most of the homilies preached on 3 May related this passage only to the individual Christian’s need to be pruned. And without gainsaying what you may have heard from the pulpit, that’s not the complete story.
Repeatedly in the New Testament, we find that it is the place of the bishops to expel those who are unrepentant — check out the letters to Timothy, to Titus, and to the Corinthians, as well as Galatians and the words of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew. It should be no surprise that the God who said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters,” has no interest in the proud and unrepentant.
It was just this past 4 May, a full week before the Pew report landed, that I was chatting with a great priest and friend who is currently stationed in Germany as an Army Chaplain about this very issue. There appear to be things lacking in the Church, but the truth is, God is a Good Gardener. At times, he will prune the vine that is His Church in order that it may bear more fruit. Think of it as a consolidation, if that helps.
Now, I am not suggesting that our attitude should be one of “Good riddance; glad they’re gone”. No, but while that is probably the last thing that should be going through your mind, almost as bad is the “Dang it; we need those people” response. The Barque of Peter is still afloat, and nothing will ever sink it. If we will cling to God, to His Church… If we will remain in Him, He will remain in us, and we will bear much fruit.
Pruning gives a plant an opportunity it wouldn’t otherwise have. Pruning causes a plant to slow for a moment while it closes its wounds, and when that’s done, the plant sends its energy and resources to branches that will grow and blossom. No more waste; no more concern with the well-being of an already dead branch. Let them go! If you could will that they be living, fruitful Catholics, you would have done so long ago. Let them go. Now is the time to concern ourselves with the Lord’s work, and that does not mean trying to compete with the Protestants and their shiny technology or with the world and its acceptance of anything and everything, save for Catholicism.
Should we be sad that they have gone? Yes, but only in the same way that we should have been mourning their condition which led to their pruning. Let’s be about the business of God’s Kingdom, because if we do that, we have every hope of drawing back all who have left. But if attracting them with anything but an unshakable devotion to the truth and true authority is our concern, then we might soon find ourselves joining them.
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