One of the most common takeaways from Synod 2015 is that it revealed deep “divisions” within the Catholic Church. While I will suggest that “divisions” is too strong a word, no one can deny that Synod 2015 demonstrated the existence of strong theological tensions within the body of Catholic bishops, and that this in turn points to disturbingly pronounced and conflicting conceptions within the Catholic faithful of what Catholic belief and practice is or ought to be. What did the evident tensions at Synod 2015 mean for the Church? What does the reality of ever more diverse and conflictive creedal alignments among the baptized mean, particularly for the Church in the US? Herewith, I offer some thoughts on both questions.
Janet Smith may well be right that in the aftermath of Synod 2015, the Church is now facing what she calls a “new Humanae Vitae moment” of “relentless infighting over what exactly the Church teaches,” this time around, on the possibility of admitting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to communion. Much will depend on the content of the post synodal apostolic exhortation which Pope Francis is expected to author in the coming months.
The Dominican Fr. Thomas Michelet may well be right that, unless that exhortation shows evidence of being unambiguously harmonious with prior magisterial teaching (particularly with the teaching of John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio), then ministry to the divorced and civilly remarried will likely dissolve into something of a pastoral free-for-all according to regional episcopal “interpretations” of what constitutes right pastoral practice in their regard—what Fr. Michelet does not hesitate to call a “de facto schism.”
The concerns validly opined by Smith, Michelet and many others both leading up to, and in the aftermath, of Synod 2015 (myself included) nonetheless need to be tempered by the infused virtue of hope, a clear expression of which has been provided recently by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a synod participant, who suggests that the manifest tensions among the bishops at the Synod were, in fact, “creative tensions” from which can emerge the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, be what may the aftermath, come what may the tensions within the Church in the coming decades, is not the Holy Spirit still working in our midst? It is the Holy Spirit who turns us again and again to the vital mission at hand in every age: the mission of inviting our brothers and sisters to discover Jesus Christ—risen, alive, present, the Lord of history—and to embrace him as their savior and redeemer.
Which brings me to the issue, not of “divisions” within Catholicism, but yes, of the evident disparities in contemporary American Catholic self-understanding. When referring to the approximately 80 million Americans who identify Catholicism as their religion, we are in fact referring to a population whose creedal commitments (what Catholics actually believe about God, the Church, the world and the salvation of humanity) span a wide and at times even contradictory spectrum of beliefs and practices. To many readers, this will not come as news. Others will find it helpful—notwithstanding the limited usefulness of categories.
One thinks first of all, of course, of the vast majority of our good Catholic folks who are practicing, albeit in varying degrees, who constitute the majority of those in our pews on Sundays—and who don’t in all likelihood spend a lot of time reading the Catholic blogs. Many of them are elderly, though not all. They are seen in the same pew, Sunday after Sunday, year after year. They might be involved in their parishes to some degree: ushers, parish council, St. Vincent de Paul society, and so on. They go to confession at least a couple times a year. Many practice devotions such as the rosary, or might read the Bible occasionally or prayerfully read from a Catholic devotional. Many will attend adult faith formation programs on occasion when offered in the parish. Their basic beliefs, at least at an intellectual level, identify with the Catholic creed; they believe the story of salvation history, they believe in the Church, the sacraments, heaven, hell and purgatory. In their personal lives, the vast majority have tried to tow the line of Catholic moral teaching. Characteristic of not a few of these good Catholic brothers and sisters, it should be noted however, is that (as they themselves would admit) they seldom if ever have had anything like a personal experience of Jesus. The language of “personal experience” and “relationship” referring to Jesus seems foreign, “Protestant-sounding,” and intimidating. As a possibility for their faith lives, it remains as yet untapped.
A smaller nucleus among practicing Catholics are what we might call today the intentionallyorthodox who make up the core of those often referred to as “conservative” Catholics. They strive not only to live by her moral teachings, particularly on marriage and sexuality, but also to promote those teachings as something altogether liberating and humanly fulfilling. Their practice of the faith is personally driven, and arose from a conscious determination to embrace and live the faith—with all its consequences. Some amongst the intentionally practicing might not be able to point to a conscious “before and after” moment of self-determination in the faith because they grew up in very Catholic, very practicing households where a vibrant Catholic practice was the air they breathed. But many more of the intentionally practicing can point to such a moment: a powerful conversion experience, a process of “re-version” to a committed living of the Catholic faith after having been a “luke-warm” or “fallen-away” Catholic, or maybe something more intellectual, like the culmination of an extensive theological journey to Catholicism from another Christian communion. What’s normally the common denominator of this group (arguably not more than 5% of Catholics in the U.S.)? Their faith and practice are driven by, and are expressions of, what they describe as a personal, one-to-one relationship with Jesus, risen from the dead, and present in their lives.
A small but growing contingent within the broader group of orthodox-practicing Catholics is a group often referred to as “traditionalist Catholics.” They most commonly and distinctively share an appreciation and preference for the Mass as it was celebrated according to the 1962 Roman Missal, sometimes simply referred to as the “Latin mass,” but today technically called the extraordinary form of the mass. Many, if not most, are also active in efforts to encourage further reforms to the present liturgy of the mass, referred to today as the “novus ordo” or ordinary form of the mass. They have a penchant, especially in their own personal faith experience, for many of the customs, usages, and private and public devotions that were more typically a part of Catholic piety prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962–65).
Fr. Dwight Longenecker has made a helpful distinction between traditionalist Catholics and what he terms “magisterial Catholics”:
“Magisterial” Catholics put loyalty to the authority of the pope and magisterial teaching first and foremost. They are happy with the principles of the Second Vatican Council, but want to “Reform the Reform.” They want to celebrate the Novus Ordo Mass with solemnity, reverence, and fine music. “Magisterial” Catholics are likely to be enthusiastic about apologetics, evangelization, and a range of pro-life ministries. They think the Church needs to relate to the modern world, use new media, and connect with the younger generation, but they look to the pope and Church teachings to help them do that faithfully. They uphold traditional Catholic teaching in faith and morals, but wish to communicate and live these truths in an up-to-date and relevant way.
And as Fr. Longenecker points out, it is this group that broadly coincides with Catholics George Weigel has dubbed “Evangelical Catholics.”
But the Church also includes an ever-swelling proportion of baptized non-practicing Catholics. This would include first a notably large group of individuals who are currently not practicing the faith, but who have never formally left the Church. Many, in fact, might identify themselves as “bad Catholics,” yet remain inwardly open to returning to a more regular practice of the faith—some day.
The baptized non-practicing also encompass baptized Catholics who currently either identify as not practicing any religion, yet identify as Catholic by ethnicity or family tradition. Closely associated to the latter segment are those who have joined another Christian communion, those who now practice a non-Christian religion, or those who consider themselves “spiritual” but religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”). Many within this broad grouping of baptized non-practicing would be easily inclined to identify themselves as “cultural Catholics.” We could also mention Catholics—often labeled “progressive” or “liberal”—who consider themselves “practicing” yet openly (and sometimes very vocally) disagree with any number of the Church’s moral teachings, openly dissent from those teachings, and might even consider themselves to be doing so “faithfully.”
And if that weren’t already quite the panoply, it gets more complicated still.
Overlapping any number of these categorizations, we would also have to acknowledge the pervasive influence on contemporary American Catholics of an ersatz culturally engendered religious creed—a quite different sort of creed—that has surreptitiously displaced much of the Catholic content of the faith in the minds and hearts of millions of the baptized.
I found that creed articulated in a fascinating—and in many ways deeply disturbing—book published by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton entitled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Granted, what follows is especially true of Catholic teens (teens in general were the target audience of Smith-Lundquist study), but as I shall suggest just ahead, the authors’s findings apply to a much broader Catholic population.
Soul Searching was the result of their research interviewing hundreds of American teens of all creeds and faith persuasions to get at the inner workings of their religious experience and convictions. But I would suggest their findings apply not only to teens and millennials, but to a broader and older population of Catholics as well. The authors term this creed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” It consists, as the authors portray it, of some very simple convictions: 1) A god exists who created the world and watches over us; 2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions; 3) the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself; 4) God does not need to be particularly involved in our lives except when we need him to resolve a problem; 5) Good people (and we’re all basically good) go to heaven when they die.
This creed is “moralistic” because it holds that people are expected to be “good,” that is, sincere, altruistic, socially responsible, courteous, caring, law-abiding—in a word, “nice.” It is “therapeutic” because it sees religion as a sedative for hurts, and as a supplement providing a sense of well-being and personal contentment. It is “deistic” because the God of this religion, though benevolent, helpful, and capable of intervening in our lives, is nonetheless (when not needed for something) largely distant and impersonal. The authors pull no punches in their concluding assessment:
[W]e can say here that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers, and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear… to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather, more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.
Now, replace “Christianity” with “Catholicism” and “Christian” with “Catholic” in that paragraph, and I would suggest this describes the essential creed of thousands of American Catholics.
Such then is the complexity of our Church in the United States. As members of that Body, particularly as ministers, catechists, pastors and evangelists, we simply must understand—with serenity and faith—that this complexity generates tensions, and those tensions will likely continue to characterize the Church in the US for decades to come.
One might be tempted to ask whether we as a Church are not on the cusp of going the way of Judaism—as recently suggested by Daniel McGuire—a religion with “branches”—orthodox, conservative and reform. Do we today have “branches of Catholicism” in the Church? I think not. But tensions we do have, because Catholics embrace conflicting and even incompatible creedal commitments.
What to make of all this? Shall we despair? Shall orthodox Catholics allow themselves to be overcome by a bunker mentality—all the rest be damned? If we have taken it to heart that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,” then most assuredly, no. Rather, beyond the synods and beyond the tensions, let’s keep our focus on living a robust, orthodox and joyful Catholic faith—extending to our Catholic brothers and sisters who have yet to experience it, the means and opportunities for a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Let’s do that with trust in the transforming power of his grace, the inscrutable depths of his Divine Mercy, and the sanctifying action of his Holy Spirit.
And ever so importantly as well—let’s do that with a smile.