Feeling a Little Dissolution

The most recent issue of Our Sunday Visitor has an interesting article on the state of the Catholic Church in America called Catholic calculations: Running the numbers on the state of U.S. Catholicism and where it is headed in coming years (Vol 98. no 29). Recent statistics, as you may guess, are alarming. 15% of the total U.S. population now identify themselves as “religiously unaffiliated.” Of this group 24% are ex-Catholics. In 1965 the total number of Catholic priests in the U.S. was 58,632. In 2009, that number has plummeted to 40,666. In 1965 70% of Catholics went to Mass every Sunday. Recent statistics now show that only 31.4% of Catholics fulfill their Sunday obligation.

While these numbers may be alarming, they are not surprising. In my line of work we often lament the sparsity of committed Catholics. Most of the time when I hear people lament the state of our Church they point to Vatican II as the culprit. Recently, Dr. Bill Portier gave a great presentation at Immaculate Heart of Mary on the history, the present situation, and the future of the Catholic Church in America.

Dr. Portier agrees with the anecdotal and statistical analysis on the U.S. Catholic Church. Compared with the Church in 1965, we are in big trouble! When asked “why?” though, Dr. Portier says very little about Vatican II, and a whole lot about cultural developments in the American Catholic Church over the past 4 decades. You can listen to Dr. Portier’s entire presentation here

In his talk, Dr. Portier pulled much of his material from his award-winning article published in Communio Here Come the Evangelical Catholics. Personally, I think everyone interested in the future of the American Catholic Church MUST read this article.

The thesis of this article is that

The dissolution of the subculture is the context in which the Second Vatican Council, and its understanding of the church-world relation in modernity, was received in the United States.

What does Portier mean by the “dissolution of the subculture?” I’m sure that many readers grew up in a Catholic sub-culture. The neighborhood that I grew up in was once a very vibrant sub-culture unto itself. At one time my whole neighborhood was almost entirely Catholic. Everyone went to the neighborhood parish, everyone sent their children to the neighborhood Catholic school. There was an all-girls Catholic high school 100 yards from the Catholic grade school. The neighborhood Catholic parish had a recreation center that was the hub of the social life of the neighborhood. There was even a Catholic hospital in the neighborhood. I’m sure that those of you who were raised in similar neighborhoods could speak to how easy it was to pass on the Catholic faith in such a supportive culture. In such an environment Catholic identity was “caught” not “taught.” As Portier says “There was no Faith Formation when I was a child!”

By the time I was born in 1980 my neighborhood had completely changed. Most of the Catholics had moved out of the neighborhood; out of the inner-city entirely. The Catholic girls-school became an Evangelical Christian highschool and eventually a public school. The Catholic grade school had a steady drop in registration and finally was forced to cluster with other inner-city Catholic schools to survive. Eventually, even the neighborhood parish had to cluster with other inner-city parishes to even have a hope of keeping a Catholic presence in the city. If you drive through my neighborhood today, you will still find a parish, a recreation center, a hospital, and even those 2 school buildings. The Catholics, though, are few and far between.

The story of the neighborhood I grew up in is not uncommon. This is what Portier means by the “dissolution of the subculture.” So what replaced that subculture? Very simply: the dominant culture. Statistics play this out. Demographically speaking, Catholics are virtually unrecognizable as a group.

Without the buffer of a subculture the Catholic Church has been left open to the full force of western culture characterized by all of those scary “isms” – individualism, consumerism, relativism. The result? The alarming statistics we find in the Our Sunday Visitor article for starters. Portier puts it this way,

The most recent study of twenty- to thirty-something Catholics found that the boundaries of Catholicism in the U.S. had indeed eroded. In Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice, Dean Hoge and his colleagues describe the sort of young Catholics we might expect to find without a subculture to shield them from the full effects of pluralism. Catholics under forty generally like being Catholic. They tend to agree with the core beliefs stated in the Nicene Creed. But they have “little experience of Catholicism as a tight-knit culture system.” Cultural and ethnic factors that contributed to a strong Catholic identity in the past have not been replaced. Loss of minority and outsider status leaves them with a sense of Catholic boundaries that is “diffused and ambiguous.” They view their Catholicism as accidental and incidental to their relationship with Christ. Their commitment to the Church as a visible organization is weak. Their sense of being Catholic has a minimal ecclesial dimension. They have been taught that God loves them but in many cases have no language
for talking to God.

So is there hope? Portier point to an emerging minority. He calls them “Evangelical Catholics.” These are young Catholics who are very evangelical in nature. I consider myself one of this breed. While most people our age are drifting, we are excited about our Catholic faith. We love the mass, we love traditional Catholic devotions, we watch EWTN, we have a cheesy Catholic t-shirts that say things like “Proud to be Catholic,” we call Pope John Paul II “JPII.” We really don’t fit in any category preceeding us. We don’t want to go back to the Pre-Vatican II Church because we weren’t even alive for it. We are not liberal. We are not conservative. We may be a minority, but look out because if you go to any seminary or any Catholic religious studies department in the country, and evangelical Catholics are the one’s filling the seats. So while the statistics may leave us a little dissolutioned, and the dissolution of our past sub-culture is irreversible, I still say that it is a very exciting time to be a Catholic!


Blessed are you when B-List Comics Slander You because of me.

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because on me. Matthew 5:11

A few weeks ago B-list comedian Sarah Silverman made headlines for ranting about the Catholic Church. “Sell the Vatican. Feed the world!” unfortunately this is a tired, recycled argument that hold little rational weight. The real story was that Sarah Silverman was able to grasp the media’s attention with this profane rant. Why was this headline news?

The headline for an article in America magazine in 2000 read “The Last Acceptable prejudice?” and reflects on the argument that Catholicism is the last socially acceptable prejudice in the United States. The article quotes eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. who goes so far as to call anti-Catholicism “the deepest-held bias in the history of the American people.”

I can think of times in which I have been confronted with Catholic prejudice. In high school a good friend of mine was a preacher’s kid – of the Southern Baptist persuasion. I can  remember reading my first Chick tract at his house. They were conveniently left out when I was over. Chick tracts are infamously anti-Catholic. A quick browse of their very slick website offers on-line tracts entitled “Are Roman Catholics Christians?” (I bet you can guess the answer)0071_04, and

“Why is Mary crying?”0040_10

and most insulting and degrading of all “Death Cookie” (I refuse to post any of this track – it is just too shocking – but it involves Satan and a priest conspiring to delude humanity about the Holy Eucharist…)0074_01

For a young teenager that was still trying to figure out his faith, you can imagine the effect these tracts had on me. The obvious fallacies in these would be laughable if it were not spewing lies about our most sacred beliefs. Check out Catholic.com “The Nightmare World of Jack Chick” if anyone every hands you a chick tract. How many Catholics have been disillusioned with their faith by anti-catholic bigots like Sarah Silverman and Jack Chick?

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good spirit debate. I am not uncomfortable with people who have different beliefs than I do. I think that human beings are capable of having open, honest discussion about things as important as religion.  pre=””>Spewing anti-Catholic bigotry is a completely different story. I cannot tolerate that. This is my family you are talking about.

Reflection of a hopeful romantic

 or·tho·dox (Pronunciation: \ˈr-thə-ˌdäks\)VATICAN POPE

  • 1 a : conforming to established doctrine especially in religion.

As someone who has earned several degrees of higher education in religion I can say that, in some theological and academic circles, labeling someone “orthodox” is a polite way of calling them childish, unenlightened, unable to think for themselves. Any theological or philosophical argument made by someone labeled “orthodox” does not need to be taken seriously for they are unable to think “outside of the box” like the true intellectuals of our time.

Outside of academia someone who is orthodox has, perhaps, a greater risk in the culture at large. We risk wearing the label “conservative.” This is just another way of discrediting the orthodox belief system as something old fashioned and behind-the-times.

As someone who, after much study, prayer, and reflection considers himself an orthodox Catholic the following words from G.K. Cheterton from his book aptly named Orthodoxy really strikes home: 

chesterton-orthodoxyThis is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom–that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

Reading this quote helps me wear my label proudly. I really am a hopeful romantic when it comes to my faith!

What about you? How would you describe your faith?

If Jesus had facebook…

makesign3-1It’s official; I am now a “fan” of Jesus on facebook. I’m currently debating the theological implications of also becoming a “fan” of God as well.  This past Lent, a e-mail started floating around of Jesus’ facebook page. I thought it was possibly one of the funniest thing I have ever seen. Check it out here:
Jesus' Facebook Profile -

I really enjoy social networking, facebook (Friend me! Sean I. Ater)
, twitter (Follow me!), Linkdin (Add me!). I think it amazing that I can keep connected with people I went to college, high school – even grade school with. Social networking has created the amazing ability for me to know all of the details about a persons life. In just a few minutes I can discover all of the personal details of someone I haven’t seen or talked with in years. Marital status, profession, political and religious views, contact information, their close personal friends and relatives, their hobbies, favorite books, movies, and sports teams. The list goes on an on.

jesusfriendWith all of the wonders of Social Media, though, I really do not have an authentic relationship with most of my “friends” on facebook. This makes me wonder how authentic my relationship with Jesus Christ is. What characterizes my relationship with Jesus? Does my relationship only go as far as the “facts” about who Jesus is? How do I know that I am a true friend with him? Is my friendship with Jesus equivalent to the friendship I have with that person I went to grade school with – just an accumulation of the “facts” of that person’s life?

Jesus told us what makes us his friend. “You are my friend if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). And what does Jesus command of us? “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12b). This is the great mystery of friendship with Jesus Christ! To love others, and to follow his commandments is to love Christ. Wait a minute; does this mean I actually need to love those 275 friends on facebook? Well that changes things….

Wordeling Charity in Truth (and some other musings on Caritas in Veritate)

Very recently Pope Benedict released his 3rd encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” which translates as Charity in Truth. I usually recommend that everyone takes the time to read papal encyclicals. I very much enjoyed the Pope’s first two encyclicals God is Love and On Christan Hope. I found them almost like spiritual devotionals Reading these encyclicals were prayer experiences for me. Imagine my mounting excitement for his 3rd! Well, if you have read Charity and Truth, I think you’ll agree that reading it is anything but a prayerful experience. I think I have had deeper spiritual experiences reading a car manual.

As I struggled through this encyclical, though, I couldn’t help thinking that what the Pope was trying to communicate was very, very important. Even if I couldn’t quite figure out what is was! As with many church documents, it may take years for us to truly flesh out the content of this encyclical and to witness its implications for the Church and for society. The message was obviously important enough for the Pope to take a very high-minded approach to this subject. I think the Pope was avoiding any label of superficiality or theological vagueness. The result, though, is a dense and sprawling document that’s hard to cram into your head.

Have your ever heard of Wordle? According to the website

Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently.

What I great way to get my head around all of these words! Here is a great Wordle word cloud from Catholic News Services


This helped me grasp some important points in this document:

1. By far the most used words are “Human” and ‘Development.” In a post-Enlightenment Age the modernized world has seen itself as constantly developing toward perfection. The Enlightenment philosophy was that through human reason and intellect we could solve all of our problems. This encyclical does not disagree with the progress and development of society. All development, though, should consider one thing above all else – the human person. As any society develops – its political policies, its economy, its culture – it must take the life and dignity of the human person into account before all else.

2. In the word cloud you notice a lot of secular words such as social, economic, and cultural floating around some very religious words such as truth, charity, love, and justice. Can the secular and the religious really work together in developing a society which respects human life and dignity. The message of this encyclical is, I think: They can and they must.

3. Try googeling this document and read the many commentaries floating around the internet. It seems that a great debate is ensuing. Is this a liberal encyclical? (The Pope speaks of a world governing system with more teeth for instance). Is it a conservative encyclical? (The Pope reaffirms the Church teaching that life at all stages must be protected before all else).

I read one blogger comment that trying to label a papal encyclical as liberal or conservative in the American sense is about as senseless as having the French or British try to label it as as one of their political viewpoints. One of the things I love about the Church is that it is universal. This encyclical is a universal (i.e. Catholic) encyclical. It comes from a distinctly Catholic worldview. It will not fit within our (or anyone else’s) political worldview. For me this is very refreshing. It is also very challenging. It forces me to step out of the world-view I am comfortable with and see things from a new perspective. While this is a hard exercises for me to do, I force myself to do it for one reason – I trust the Church and the Holy Spirit I believe guides her.

Whenever I read something that comes from the Church that rubs me the wrong way, I stop and ask myself “What is God trying to tell me here that I am resisting so much.” Charity in Truth is definitely a challenging encyclical, both to read and understand, but also to allow it to change the way we see the world. I hope you will join me in allowing the words of this document to continue to challenge my worldview. Your comments are welcome!

Not-so-ordinary time

The Easter season has been over for a few weeks now. Have you noticed the changes in church? The pretty flowers are put away, the sprinkling rite has been phased out, the great sense of joyfulness seems to have been tempered. We are now full swing in the liturgical season of Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time, isn’t that just another word for boring time? Isn’t that just our default season in the liturgical year as we wait for Advent and Christmas to roll around?

Each of the other liturgical seasons have a decidedly marked atmosphere to them, don’t they? They are either times of intense preparation and penance, or times of intense joy and celebration. All of the other seasons celebrate the highlights of the Gospel story; we prepare for and celebrate Christs’ birth during Advent and Christmas; we prepare for and celebrate the Paschal Mystery – the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ – during Lent and Eatser. What’s left to celebrate after all of this? Everything in between of course! Ordinary Time celebrates nothing less than the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. There is nothing ordinary about that! Ordinary Time is a time, to take the time, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We listen to his parables, we wonder at his miracles, and we are challenged by his teachings. In short, we become like the first disciples, taking the time to learn to be like our Master.

We all know that the liturgical color for ordinary time is green. Nothing about Catholic liturgy is happenstance. The color we choose to decorate our liturgical space is no exception. Green is a color of abundance. Green is the most popular decorating color. Green is the most prevalent color found in nature. Green occupies more space in the spectrum visible to the human eye. Green is everywhere – especially this time of year. Phycologists tells us that the color green elicits soothing and relaxing feelings for both the mind and body. The color green can help calm anxiety and nervousness; even depression. The color green conveys renewal, self-control, and harmony.
What can we learn about the correlation between the color green and its liturgical use during Ordinary Time?As one of my favorite theologians Stanley Hauerwas puts it – to be a follower of Jesus is to begin to follow the “grain of the universe.” In other words, there is nothing so natural as to align your life with the Creator of life. As we begin to listen to, reflect upon, and change our lives according to the Gospel stories which portray the everyday life of Jesus Christ (which is exactly what we do doing Ordinary Time)  we can be sure that His promise of hope and peace will be ours.

To “go against the grain” may be cool when it comes to culture, but when your dealing with God it is better to follow His plan. The color green reminds us that as followers of Christ we to be hopeful, grateful, joyful, and peaceful. I think the prayer the priest prays as the Assembly finishes the Lord’s Prayer during Mass sums up perfectly what Ordinary Time is all about. “Lord, deliver us from evil and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ, for the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory are His, now and forever. Amen!

Evangechesis a.k.a. discipleship

Re-read my first two posts and ask yourself, “what’s the difference between evangelization and catechesis?” Don’t feel bad if you cannot come up with a clear distinction between the two. Evangelization & Catechesis are actually two sides of the same coin. Any true catechesis involves evangelization. Vice versa, any effective evangelization involves some catechesis. I once heard someone mention – “we need a new term for these words – something like ‘evangechesis!'”

While “evangechesis’ is catchy, I think there is another term that wraps up these two ideas very well. In fact, I think this term warps up the entire Christian life very well. That word is “disciple.” This word comes with its own baggage and needs some clearification. There were not 12 disciples – those were the apostles. The disciples were not just men – they were men and women from all walks of life. A disciple, simply put, was a person who answered the call of Jesus and followed him.

The word disciples comes from the greek word “mathletes” which literally translates as “learner.” The disciples were students of Jesus Christ. Our idea of a student, though, is vastly different then the concept for 1st century Palestinians. For us, the concept of a student brings up images of sitting behind a desk, taking down notes, memorizing content, and taking tests to prove our intellcual grasp of a certian topic.

The 1st century concept of a student (or disciple) was vastly diffferent. The best way to describe their concept of student is as appenticeship. What’s the difference between a student and an apprentice? A student learns passivly, though didactice teaching methods. An apprentice learns by doing. The goal of a student is to intellectually master a certian topic. The goal of an appenticne to become like the master! We have lots of examples. Jesus was a apprentice/disciple of his step-father St. Joseph. As a child and a young man, Jesus learned the craft of carpentary. He did this not by pouring through books on the subject, he did this by actually doing carpentary, learning the language and terms of carpentary and practicing the methods of carpentary. The goal of the apprentice is to form a new identity, the identity of the master.

So what is the goal of a disciple of Jesus. Nothing less than become like our Master. We are to learn to speak, act, even think like our Master; so much so that those that see us see Jesus Christ himself.

This is why I think the term “disciple” is in many ways more helpful in identifieying a follower of Christ that the term “Christian.” In the early Church, the term Christian carried a lot of weight. It meant something. The word “Christian” derives from a derogatory term given early followers of Chirst which literally meant “little Christs’.” Isn’t that what it means to be a disciple!? In our modern world, though, it seems the term “Christian” is almost synonymous with our modern concept of a student. Anyone can identify themselves as a Christian if they mearly intellectually ascent to the teaching of Jesus Christ. “I believe in God, I beilve in Jesus therfore I am a Christian.” Christianity is not a book to be memorized, or a test to be passed – it is a way of life!

We have many, many modern day examples of disciples of Jesus Christ. I just read a interview with Jim Caviezel, the actor who played Jesus Christ in the movie The Passion. In a very unique way, he has become like his Master in such a intimate way, that those who see him now see Jesus Christ. He says:

“I wear my role with me everywhere now. See, I can’t take my collar off. It doesn’t matter what I wear now. It has gone beyond that. People used to mouth the words, “There goes Jim” and “You can see, there’s Jim Caviezel.” Now they mouth the words, “There goes Jesus.”

check out the whole interview at:<<http://www.bustedhalo.com/features/busted-jim-caviezel/>&gt;

We all might not be actors, but in a very real way we are all called to be clothed in Christ much like Jim. May those who see us mouth the words “There goes Jesus.”