Questions

(This is Neil)

I always feel cautious about generalizing about something like the “Catholic blogosphere,” but I think that I can say a few things. When I began contributing to Todd’s blog, most Catholic bloggers were amateurs or popular writers, often insightful, but hardly credentialed experts with institutional affiliations. Now, most magazines have regular bloggers, and theologians and even some bishops have blogs. There are disadvantages to “professionalization,” but the “Catholic blogosphere,” if there even is such a thing, seems less chaotic. This means that there is less pressure to seem more than vapid, political, or entrepreneurial. Also, most Catholic bloggers were conservative. Now, there is more diversity and less pressure to “balance” others or to speak for a different perspective.

I think that I can say one other thing: I’m not prolific enough to be a good blogger.

Thus, I’d like to do something new, at least for me. I’d like to post a series of questions. I genuinely don’t know the answers to these questions – this will be true, even if at times it might seem rather embarrassing for me. I would like to know the answers, if they are answerable. I do think that these are difficult questions that can’t be answered with readily available talking points. I’d be grateful for any insight that you might have, even if you simply want to say that the questions are very badly posed.

This first post in this series has to do with Catholics and Protestants and has a pastoral angle:

1. True or false: In most Roman Catholic parishes in the United States, one can regularly attend Mass anonymously. In most Protestant congregations in the United States, this would be difficult.

2. True or false: In most Protestant congregations in the United States, there is an obvious “secondary” activity for committed participants – usually a small group, Sunday school class, or a Bible study. In most Roman Catholic parishes, there are many activities, but not any obvious “secondary” activity.

3. True or false: In a Roman Catholic parish, the priest will be bemused if someone approaches him after Mass and wishes to politely question parts of his sermon. In a Protestant congregation, even a relatively unlearned pastor will accept this as normal, and, in theory, welcome.

4. True or false: Presently, in many Protestant congregations, there is a detectable presence of ex-Catholics who bring a distinct perspective with them – usually, a belief in sacramental realism and a respect for elements of Catholic spirituality and theology, but also hostility towards clericalism and any seemingly distant and impersonal form of dogmatism and legalism.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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13 Responses to Questions

  1. Mike says:

    Neil, from my experience (verging-on-officially-ex-Catholic who now attends a United Church of Christ Church), the answer to all of those questions is “True,” although the last one is perhaps less noticeable. I have never been to a Catholic church that was welcoming to strangers; I have never attended a Protestant church that wasn’t. Admittedly, it’s a small sample.

  2. Liam says:

    It depends on what you mean by “Protestant” – there’s at least as much variety as among Catholic parishes. There are also regional variations.

    Looking at this from a New England perspective, where megachurch Protestant congregations are not as dominant as in other areas of the country, and where “mainline” denominations are still widely represented, though typically in a minority as compared to Catholics:

    1. Probably Widely True. And there are introverts (Protestant and Catholic) who find this one of the more appealing features of Catholicism. (I’ve had Protestant friends express envy on this point.)

    2. Probably Widely True. Again, the nice thing about this is that people don’t feel forced by convention to have an additional activity.

    3. Possible Widely True. But it’s variable.

    4. Possibly True. I have some Protestant friends who’ve been in congregational governance speak frankly about the wariness of the tendencies of ex-Catholics in their midst – especially the tendency to be, well, very pontifical about what they’ve left. The sacraments and the stories are part of a liminal worldview that travels along with that, even if in photographic negative.

  3. Randolph Nichols says:

    As a convert from Protestantism, I think “yes” applies to all the questions. Liam’s link to introversion is particularly apt. I would be more emphatic than he about #4. I know many Episcopalians who blame the lowering of liturgical standards (usually involving music) on the growing number of ex-Catholics in their midst.

    A personal experience regarding #3: in the late 1980s while listening to a sermon given by an Episcopal rector, a parishioner stood and objected vehemently against the point being made (it had to do with US government involvement in El Salvador). Excepting comments made by priests explaining why a parish is suddenly being closed, I’ve never witnessed a Catholic publicly and vocally raise an objection during a homily.

  4. Todd says:

    Regarding number 2 and parishes with schools, I’d say that there is something of a parallel activity. Some participants would see it as primary and church as secondary. But it does drive the resources and focus of many Catholic communities, especially in the suburbs.

  5. Sherry Weddell says:

    Ok, I’ll have a go

    1) Yes for the most part. There are a few Protestant mega churches where I suspect you could reside anonymously for a long time but you’d have to work at it. In Catholic parishes, you usually have to work to get noticed. Generally speaking, Protestants are vastly more geared toward making sure that people don’t just slip in and out without being noticed. And of course, most Protestant churches are many times smaller than the average Catholic parish.

    2) Absolutely.

    3) Yes, I think this would be true in general.

    4) Not in my experience which is in the evangelical world. The former Catholics that you meet there everywhere are not particularly likely to be sacramentally oriented nor have I ever heard them make comments like the ones in your question. What they do say over and over is that they never “met Jesus Christ” or knew you could have a personal relationship with Christ or something to that effect.

    I imagine what you’d hear from those Catholics who become main-line Protestants is very different but then their motivation for leaving may also have been different.

  6. Jimmy Mac says:

    A general response: I spent 8 years in a non-denominational church, heavily populated by people raised RC. The minister and I became friends and he admitted that his best, most active congregants were “ex/former/whatever” RCs. He said that one they discovered that they had a voice in how things were to be done and their opinions were taken seriously by the clergy, they blossomed – amost like religious adolescents. They/we also were the best financial contributors. I was the church treasurer, so I know of what I speak.

  7. Neil says:

    Dear All,

    Thank you very much for responding. The mentions of introverts, parish schools, and the difference between Catholics who become evangelicals and those who become mainline Protestants are insightful.

    But I think that your comments – as well as my experience – show two things:

    1. The Catholic Church in the United States has real pastoral problems that are not sufficiently discussed.

    2. We need to know more about disaffected and ex-Catholics who attend mainline Protestant and Evangelical churches. As far as I can tell, this hasn’t been sufficiently discussed either.

    Thanks again. I’ll put up another question post soon.

    Neil

    • Sherry Weddell says:

      Actually, Neal, the Pew Forums’ Faith in Flux survey focused entirely on adults who had left the faith of their childhood and especially on Catholics because we are the biggest group and the largest number of people who leave.

      They looked at Catholics who become Protestant and Catholics who become “nothing” separately which is valuable because they really are two different tracks and are motivated quite differently.

      The questions that the Pew Forum asked about motivation and personal relationship with God are very telling when you look at the data long enough to see some patterns that the Pew folks don’t cover explicitly.

      Like the fact that for Catholics under the age of 67 (that is Boomers and younger), Mass attendance is always less than and goes up and down with the percentage of Catholics who are certain that they can have a personal relationship with God. This is true across gender and generations.

      Because huge numbers of Catholics who have retained the identity don’t believe in a personal God but an impersonal God: 29%

      And the percentage drops the younger you get. Only 40% of millennial Catholics are certain you can have a personal relationship with God – and only 34% say they attend Mass weekly.

      There’s tons more deeply interesting and important findings to be mined in the Pew findings. When I did my hour long “introduction to our spiritual climate” piece for 800 people in LA last October, the regional bishop kept saying in shock “those statistics! those statistics!

      And its all available online for free.

  8. Sherry Weddell says:

    The three major sources: Pew US Religious Landscape Survey (2008), Pew Faith in Flux (2009) and the Pew study of Hispanic faith in America: Changing Faiths (2007)

  9. Neil says:

    Dear Sherry,

    Thanks for writing. I have looked at the Pew studies. I tend to be somewhat skeptical of self-reported data and wonder if there are multiple definitions for, say, “impersonal force,” but you’re right – the Pew data is suggesstive.

    To relate the data to my questions – most of those who left Catholicism (71%) claimed that their spiritual needs were “not being met.” It is unclear to me whether this reflects poor celebrations of the Mass – Greeley’s recent book on Chicago Catholics notes that over 40% of them list “Don’t get anything out of it” and “Sermons are poor” as “Reasons for Not Attending Weekly Mass, or a lack of emphasis on small groups, Bible studies, Sunday school classes, etc. (Or both.)

    About 10% of ex-Catholics say they left because of a lack of community in their parish. But another 7% claim that their former parishes were too close. I don’t really know how to interpret these figures – the latter 7% might represent introverts, or it might represent a certain defensiveness about marital status (the specific category is “Too close/Too many minding others’ business”).

    We can say that only a minority of Catholics leave because of a lack of community in itself. However, the lack of community might be connected to spiritual needs being left unmet. Furthermore, a lack of community, while not necessarily spurring people to leave the church, might contribute to nominal or irregular practice – that I don’t know.

    I’ll address the “personal religion” and “impersonal force” thing in another comment that I’ll post shortly.

    Thanks.

    Neil

    • Sherry Weddell says:

      Of course, these are idiosyncratic definitions, not dictionary definitions but it does say something pretty significant if Catholics, who are, in theory, raised very much with the idea of a personal God, just don’t go there. I’ve seen alot of things in my travels but never a Catholic parish that did not refer to God as personal.

      Pew separates out the reasons why people said they left from the reasons why they eventually chose to belong to some other Protestant community.

      The majority said that they left Catholicism because their spiritual needs weren’t being met but they say they eventually choose another faith because they liked their services better.

      Again – what “better” means is undefined. I sometimes find myself mentally yelling at the surveyors “don’t stop there, ask the next obvious question!” So far, no one is taking my advice.

      If you look at the Hispanic findings, there liturgy is a significant issue for about half of the Hispanic Catholics who become Protestant.

  10. Neil says:

    I think that we can ask a few questions about the 2008 Pew US Religious Landscape Survey’s finding that – among other things – 29% of Catholics believe that God is an “impersonal force”:

    1. While the statistics shouldn’t make us happy, are they really that unexpected? The statistics for Catholics are not very different from those for mainline Protestants, and are actually better than those for the Orthodox. Given that the Catholic Church in the US certainly has nominal members and members who persist for ancestral or ethnic reasons, the statistics might be predictable, right?

    2. Were the questions often misinterpreted? Pew asked, “Which comes closest to your view of God? God is a person with whom people can have a relationship or God is an impersonal force?” Perhaps some respondents automatically associated words such as “personal” and “relationship” with aspects of Evangelical religiosity, particularly the claim that one needs to have had a distinct conversion experience.

    3. Are there Catholics who simply have a difficult time explaining their view of God? As Terry Eagleton said in his memorable review of Dawkins, “For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist.”

    We can say that the Pew question might actually be a very hard one, particularly if one interprets “person” to mean an invisible, supersized man with a white beard who lives somewhere in the sky, much like Zeus. (As the Eagleton review suggests, many of the New Atheists have suggested that “God” is precisely that and gotten a hearing.)

    4. Has the Catholic Church had historical problems teaching about the need for a personal relationship with God? If I can return to Eagleton, in his memoirs, he describes growing up in Salford in the UK – Eagleton was born in 1943:

    “One Easter Sunday, a Catholic priest of my acquaintance encountered on the street his Anglican opposite number, who raised his hand in greeting and called out to him joyously: ‘Christ is arisen.’ The priest’s comment in private later was unequivocal: ‘Silly bugger.’ Religion was not something to get all sloppy and personal about; it was more like launching a ship than falling in love, a set of public rites to be precisely executed. Unlike the Anglican clergy, you did not clasp someone’s hand in both of yours on first meeting and stare meaningfully into their eyes.”

    5. Does the Catholic Church have theological problems emphasizing the need for a personal relationship with God? I suspect that there might be concerns that personal religiosity – Augustinian immediacy – always threatens to relativize the hierarchy, rituals, etc. (I’ll post about this in the next couple weeks, but see James McCartin’s history of prayer and Catholics in the US in the 20th century.)

    Thanks again – this is a good discussion.

    Neil

  11. Sherry Weddell says:

    I just came across this again while working on an upcoming workshop so thought I would throw it in as a little PS. Pew figures about motivation specifically for Catholics who become evangelical:

    78% said “spiritual needs not met “
    82% enjoyed new faith’s services/worship
    74% “felt called by God” to new faith

    Obviously the last one may well be projecting their present into their past and not something they necessarily felt at the time.

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