I have seen more than a few articles as of late as to why our last three generations have been leaving the Catholic faith en masse.
There are many cognizant points.
As a pastor of 22 years, a member of one of those generations that departed, and a person who did leave as young man into agnosticism, I have my own theories based on my own experiences and what I have seen and read from others.
The first culprit is that we forgot the transcendent.
Check that…we actively excoriated it from our identity. This happened in several ways.
First, we tamed God. We made Him into our image. We turned him into a kindly and ineffectual therapist whose chief job is to enable our every behavior and pat us on the back for rebelling against Him.
With such a tamed God, there was no need to focus on Him. The concept of personal sin went away and became social sin or societal sin. With this move, confession went to the wayside and was replaced with a morphed view of social justice.
This gave us the liberty to complain about corporate sin and smugly distance ourselves from it. The tamed God was always on our side to the point where His being around at all was little more than a security blanket; something to be outgrown.
But God was not the only thing we tamed. We tame the devil and the demonic.
They became fodder for occult parlor games, slasher films, and as a poster boy for secular humanism. When we tamed him, there was no need to be any more afraid of him that we are of carnival rides.
Taming God and the devil lead us to largely dismiss them.
Along with God and the devil went their corresponding courts: The Blessed Mother, the saints, the rosary and rest of the devotional life was dropped as was any sense of the demonic and sacramentals used to fight them.
Spiritual warfare was dismissed and replaced with ‘be nice.’
Dismissing God’s transcendence made it easy. We simply snapped our intellectual fingers and poofed them out of existence. In reality, what we actually did is let down our guard, dropped our armaments, and dismissed our help. We left generations open to being run over with very little resistance.
We dismissed the transcendent in two ways: liturgy and education.
In liturgy, the focus of Mass went from God to humanity. We came to affirm ourselves and not worship God. We went for what was comfortable and unchallenging.
In fact, things were so unchallenging that Mass itself became a dreary exercise in self-affirmation. If you want to lose people, especially men, then this is the correct route to take.
The more we experimented with the Mass, changed the Mass, gutted the challenge from preaching into therapeutic moralism, filled it with songs about us, the more and more people wandered out.
Pair this now with the emptying of the transcendent in education.
Catholic identity was not only seen as old fashioned, but as detrimental to education. The Land o’ Lakes declaration shooed Catholic identity away as if it were a pesky fly. This seeped into the catechetical materials used on ages of children.
We shifted away from a transcendent God who has expectations of us as His people to a doddering old fool of a God who enabled our whims because He had no real preference to morality.
Morality became subjective.
Want to use birth control? Cool. Want to cohabitate? No problem! Want to reduce you body to carnal playground to be used as a toy? Sure! The list goes on and on.
Without the transcendent, religion is reduced to “feeling good.”
Sure enough, Catholic priests and nuns started dabbling in eastern religions and eastern mysticism. They encouraged others to do the same. Why? Because the human heart needs a sense of transcendence.
If we take it from God, we will have to appropriate it for ourselves. We made God irrelevant in that pursuit. This was the seedbed from which the popular ‘spiritual but not religious ‘ mantra used by the ‘nones’ came.
For three generations, we made God irrelevant.
This seeped into our homes. This is where things became fatal. The first generation raised on this watered-down nonsense became parents who learned well the lessons taught. If happiness was already guaranteed from God without our effort, then we could focus on happiness in the world.
After a few generations, the eternal happiness was overwhelmed by the temporal.
The primary way religion was taught was by absence. Children, like their parents, became comfortable with pursuing the temporal exclusively.
Mass, prayer, and religious formation became theological roadkill on the highway to hell. However, as I said before, the heart need the transcendent.
So, what happens?
The temporal starts to take on a transcendent quality. The pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power, and honor became the focus. The temporal got treated with the devotion once given to the transcendent, and the transcendent got treated with the laissez faire attitude of the temporal.
Why is it parents will consistently choose sports, dance, leisure, and multitude of things to worship and religious formation?
That was what they were taught to do! We made God irrelevant and these things filled that gap. It is why parents get hostile when approached with this: it is like we changed the rules on them.
Catholic schools then became reduced to private schools with statuary. We became comfortable with that. Catholic identity was no more important in the parish school than it was in the university.
Land O Lakes weaseled its way down to the elementary level. Religion classes were seen as the most optional of the curriculum, prayer as entirely to be sacrificed for more important endeavors, and Mass as bothersome to the more important aspects of the schedule.
Religion itself was taught as if morality and faith were subject to personal likes and dislikes. The students see this, and when this is paired with parents already readily sacrificing Sunday Mass and other Church related things, we almost beg them to drop away.
In losing our transcendence, we also lost our relevance. No wonder we have a shortage of priests! Who wants to give their life, not marry, and serve in such a faith?
Again, though, the human heart needs transcendence.
If we truly want to get our lost generations back, it will be by reversing this trend towards the temporal as being the be all/end all of our lives. This will have to happen in our liturgy and education first.
We need to remember that without a transcendent God, the Church is irrelevant!
The world very much believes this and for too long we have acted as if they were correct. We must reclaim our birthright by remembering who our God is and what He expects.
This will be a long road. It will be a shock to the system. It starts with us admitting we messed up. We have to own our mistakes, do an appropriate mea culpa, and reverse course. We must understand that in trying to tame God and the devil, we left ourselves open for ruin.
Can there be any wonder that we have experienced the depravity in and outside of the Church in the last century?
The sexual scandals are a symptom of the disease, but not the disease itself. Sexual scandals can only grow in swampish landscape of a loss of transcendence (how can you molest children and seminarians and cover it up and still believe in a transcendent God?).
To drain this swamp takes more than protocols to deal with where the swamp water is; you have to see where the water is coming from and stem the source.
Our Masses, families, parishes, and schools must truly reflect reality.
There most definitely is a transcendent God. He does have expectations of us. While He does indeed love us uniquely, we too must love Him as well. The road to relevance, a road we lost decades ago, can only be regained by restoring the transcendent.
Our foray into a sappy Catholic human-centered fraternal order has given us the identity of a cheap greeting card. We can and must remember who we really are called to be.
Fr. Bill Peckman is a priest in the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri. He is the pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Macon, St. Mary Parish in Shelbina, St. Patrick Parish in Clarence, Sacred Heart Parish in Bevier.
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