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Entries from September 2023

Church Attendance and Trust

In my last post, I discussed the erosion of social trust in the United States and made the case that parishes have an important countervailing role to play in the restoration and maintenance of social trust. Echoing Pope Francis, I wrote:

Little acts are powerful and they do add up to something bigger. They add up if we do the small things not only one-on-one for individual people but also to build beloved communities—families, parishes, workplaces, civic organizations—that then do bigger things for even bigger communities and more people.

But what’s the bigger picture? What major trends are the little actions up against?

Recently, I became a subscriber to sociologist Ryan Burge’s excellent Substack, Graphs about Religion. Here and in his posts on X (Twitter), Burge creates and comments on gorgeous, inventively designed graphs about trends in American religion. On September 4, Burge posted an article titled, “Church Attendance Used to Drive Up Trust, It Doesn’t Anymore,” in which he took a deep dive into the data from the General Social Survey (GSS) from the 1970s though the 2010s. Here is what he found.

Since the early 1970s, the GSS has been asking Americans, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?” At that time, just under 50% said yes, most people can be trusted, and 50% replied that you can’t be too careful. A small percentage, under 5%, said that it depends on the circumstances. That “it depends” answer has stayed flat over 50 years (it has inched up to about 9%), while the other two answers have steadily diverged. In 2022, 65% of people chose the distrusted option and 26% said other people could be trusted. While the divergence has been steady, Burge notices that “trust really took a dive in the 1990s. It dropped about eight percentage points in that decade from the prior one.”

Burge associates the trust responses with frequency of church attendance. In every decade up to the 2010s, the more often that someone went to church, the more likely they were to trust their fellow citizens. But that relationship flipped in the aughts decade, especially starting around 2017. The upshot:

It’s clear that at a minimum, there’s no more positive association between religious attendance and trust. If anything, it may be a slightly negative relationship now … Religious attendance used to clearly drive-up interpersonal trust, by about 5% from the bottom of the attendance spectrum to the top. Now, overall trust [among frequent attenders] seems to decline just a bit (2-3 percentage points).

Burge asks, what’s going on? Here is where he can only speculate because generalizations from data speak to correlation, not fully to causation. His hunch is this:

Church used to be a great way to interact with folks who were different than you. They voted for a different candidate; they came from a different economic background. Folks with doctorates sitting next to folks with a high school diploma. That offers a tremendous amount of opportunities to learn about other people. Build bridges, generate social capital, and all kinds of good things. Now, houses of worship have become monocultures.

The research I have been doing for the past three years—interviewing members of a handful of Catholic and Protestant churches and observing their worship, volunteerism and social life—partially confirms, yet also complicates, the picture from the polls. Greater diversity of members’ careers, education, race/ethnicity and socioeconomics does promote the social capital that Burge mentions. But churches are going to be monocultural in at least some regards; they cannot always do a great deal about increasing diversity on every front. Here’s a very brief portrait of how that can play out.

An Evangelical megachurch in New England describes itself on its website with the adjectives, “Jesus-focused, multiethnic, modern, multigenerational, family-friendly.” In my visits to this church on several Sundays, the reality lived up to the advertising on all five points. The church service and sermons aim to unite the people in expressing joyous faith, and they constantly offer opportunities to “meet your church neighbor.” I have not heard political and culture-conflict issues mentioned there.

By contrast, an Evangelical megachurch in Michigan, despite having many of these same qualities, leans into the culture wars. As profiled in the Atlantic, the church’s pastor has grown his church in part because he offers sermons, conferences and opportunities for public witness that reflect the grievance culture of Fox News and the One America Network. Reflecting its local community but also drawing together a self-selected community, this church’s congregation is much more white than the other one.

Finally, a New England Catholic parish that, after two waves of mergers, serves all the Catholics in a large town, is ethnically diverse to a level that reflects the demographics in the area. For reasons of both its size and the ecclesiology of Catholicism, its membership appears to represent a wider socioeconomic range that than the other two churches. Like the first church, it rarely touches controversial social issues from the pulpit or in any public way. Both of these churches might be said to be trying to prevent becoming political monocultures in a practice of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I would argue, as I did at the end of my prior post, that that’s a flawed approach, even though it is common.

The differences that stand out between the Catholic parish and the New England megachurch on trying to avoid becoming monocultures overall is that the Catholic parish has more raw material to work with but doesn’t have a full strategy for doing so. The absence of youth and families in the pews is noticeable and becoming worse. The megachurch very clearly wants to be multiethnic, multigenerational and family-friendly, and it crafts its services and programs accordingly.

Here are my hunches: The Michigan megachurch enjoys a lot of trust among its members, but these members are likely to look with suspicion on their fellow citizens who differ from them. The New England megachurch and the Catholic parish have similar good trust in general among their members, yet their sheer size means that the benefits of the trust are only felt with the people they know at church. I don’t have reason to doubt that their active members are, more so than not, taking attitudes of trust out into society with them. But the Catholics have been getting hurt in their trust at the hands of the Church itself, both by mergers and clerical misconduct (a priest in this parish was recently removed under the shadow of scandal). The ultimate risk for the Catholic parish in building trust is that there will not be people to rub shoulders with.

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.

When the Bishop is a Bully: Pastoral Misogyny in Texas

In prayer, let us ask for the grace of a pastoral heart, an open heart that draws near to everyone, so as to bear the Lord’s message…For without this love that suffers and takes risks, our life does not work. If we Christians do not have this love that suffers and takes risks, we risk pasturing only ourselves. Shepherds who are shepherds of themselves, instead of being shepherds of the flock, are people who comb “exquisite” sheep. We do not need to be shepherds of ourselves, but shepherds for everyone… 

(Pope Francis, General Audience, 18 Jan 23)

It is something of a lugubrious tale, really, and perhaps not deemed worthy of notice by many people, but the fraught saga of the bumptious Bishop of the diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, Michael Olson, and the cloistered community of Discalced Carmelite nuns of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, in Arlington, Texas, centering on the community’s prioress, Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, is yet another display of the entrenched misogyny of certain members of the ecclesial hierarchy and yet another instance of a Catholic cleric foregoing any semblance of pastoral care or deference to human dignity (especially with regard to women) and preferring instead to assert his wrathful and prideful dominion over a community of women, as the Vatican gives him license to do so.

This is not the appropriate space to adjudicate the full controversy: in point of fact, the actual truth may never really be known since the accusations that have emerged, especially from the bishop’s office (including the monastery being a den of drug-abusing and drug-selling women and that Gerlach herself had crossed state lines to purchase her stash), are as muddled as they are curious. Still, even if any of the original allegations are close to the truth (at worst, sexual impropriety through text or phone since even the bishop does not claim personal contact between the nun and the priest), the response of Bishop Olson has been so appalling and lacking any semblance of pastoral compassion that there is currently a lay-led petition for his removal within the diocese.

The optics are startling. There is the spectacle of Bishop Olson first descending into the monastery with a band of brothers to confiscate all Mother Gerlach’s communication devices; later, his call to local law enforcement to enter the monastery to investigate and confiscate the communication devices of all the other nuns, and then finally, in reaction to the nuns’ rejection of his claims and methods, his prohibition of the celebration of (public) Mass and Confession at the monastery. Indeed, the event of Bishop Olson first threatening excommunication of Mother Gerlach and then censuring of the other members of the community, reminds this daughter of Boston, Massachusetts, not of the compassionate solicitude that any ordained man of the Church is expected to proffer to any member of his “flock,” but more the authoritarian tactics of the Puritan theocrats in the 17th century against women who resisted their dominion. Of course, the Olson episode also echoes the frenetic “apostolic visitation” to religious in 2008 that, ultimately, proved to be only a fruitless exercise of misogynistic furor.

The optics alone of this sordid series of events should give any thoughtful Catholic pause. How can the Church—and this Pope—continue to preach equity and love and mercy when it persists in the atrocious double standard that persecutes and maligns women but continues to care for men and, historically, even abet men in their deception? For example, it took weeks before the name of the priest who was the correspondent in this “sinful” matter to be publicly named, but the bishop promulgated the name of Mother Gerlach as soon as possible. There was little substantive proof or alternate explanations for the many accusations Olson made and yet he acted (and judged) imperiously and without pastoral concern for any of the nuns; however, for decades, the Church hierarchy protected, advised, consoled and even abetted thousands of male priests who were knowingly guilty of heinous crimes against children and other instances of grave moral failure.

As always, however, the specifics are more the sideshow to the grave disease of misogyny that continues to erode the Church. It is not simply a question of “allowing” women a “seat” at the synodal table or more presence at the altar—it is an insufferable culture of disregard and discontent with women (religious and lay) that has been pervasive in the history of institutional Christianity but made all the more acute by the resistant self-regard of a single-gendered community of men. The Vatican has supported Bishop Olson in all his machinations and communications and, thus, seems to have abandoned the nuns, cloistered Carmelites, to their male persecutor.

All of this must be considered with regard to the future of the Catholic Church, at least in the U.S. The epic fail of the Church to demonstrate even a fraction of pastoral care for the community of women and not demur at all when Bishop Olson sends out to the public a video complaining about his treatment at the hands of the nuns and how he has been so unfairly maligned, only telegraphs to women, especially younger women, that the Catholic Church neither defends nor protects their dignity as humans and their integrity as females. There can be no “rebuilding” of any edifice as long as one half is no longer there for support.

June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.

En Route to the Synod: Some Underlying Issues

As a significant milestone on the Church’s synodal pathway approaches with the October Synod on Synodality, it is timely to note some subterranean fault-lines.

Hopefully the Synod will, in accordance with the Instrumentum Laboris, address major challenges facing our church and world like secularity, the climate crisis, immigration, inequality and so on. But it is not being self-referential to hope that significant progress may also be made on the kinds of “neuralgic issues” that have risen in the pre-synodal consultations, notably around the role of women and indeed sexuality and gender in general.

In a recent address to Portuguese Jesuits, Pope Francis chided those whose devotion to traditional church teaching did not allow them to admit any change. He did so under the rubric of “evolution” and pointed to instances like the possession of nuclear arms, the death penalty and slavery. He appealed to Vincent of Lerins for support on this notion of change.

In an interesting piece in the Irish Jesuit journal Studies, written before the Pope’s contribution, Newman scholar Dermot Roantree distinguishes between Newman’s approach to change and that of Vincent. The latter appealed to organic images of growth according to a natural and predictable pattern (variations of which, down through the years, have appealed to an almost syllogistic emergence of conclusions from major and minor premises, or the explicit from the implicit). Newman, however, used the direct image of human growth, the notion that ideas are developed socially through the winding course of life, through trials, false starts, uncertainty, sudden decisions and the constant negotiation of an unfamiliar path. This involves a more radical notion of change—akin perhaps to what Lonergan would later call the “self-corrective process of human knowing”—such that, as Roantree puts it plainly, “Newman became a Catholic because the Church did change, not because it didn’t.” He notes the parallels with Pope Benedict’s assertion that true reform entails “a combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels”—discontinuity in relation to contingent matters “as it is only the principles that express the permanent aspect.” Observing that it is not easy to distinguish between historical contingencies and permanent principle, Roantree notes that conformity with the image of Christ is how Newman approaches this search for adequate criterion, and not “first and foremost continuity with past doctrinal propositions.” This is later taken up at Vatican II under the rubric of the hierarchy of truths.

It is unlikely that at the forthcoming synod the neuralgic issues that I have referred to will arise directly, although it is to be hoped that some real progress around the co-responsibility of women is made, as well as a step forward on the issue of the female diaconate. Nonetheless the issues identified here will bubble up from under the surface. We Catholics have, up to now, cultivated an almost fetishization of certainty and immutability with regard to doctrine. So much so that the late Irish Augustinian theologian Gabriel Daly referred to the approach as doctrinal development by “amnesia” and joked that if ever—as he confidently predicted would happen—the Church came around to ordaining women priests, it would surely preface its announcement with some phrase like “…as the Holy Roman Catholic Church has always taught!” It would be wonderful if, as Pope Francis is indicating, we could find ways of loosening this doctrinal stronghold without good Catholics feeling that we were betraying the “faith of our fathers” (sic). After all, as Vatican II made abundantly clear in so many of its decrees, the Holy Spirit is the inbuilt principle of doctrinal development, leading the Church in fidelity to the life and teaching of Christ and enabling all that to be incarnated in a reading of today’s signs of the times.

It is this principle of the Holy Spirit which points to another underlying issue—the unwarranted limitation of ressourcement to a kind of historic positivism which would allow to happen today only what is strictly shown to have happened at the time of Christ or in the early Tradition. So, for example, it is very useful to be able to show through historical studies that the diaconate once existed for women. But ressourcement needs to be accompanied by aggiornamento, the response of the Spirit to today’s world and the pastoral challenges it brings. Matthew’s reference to “things both old and new” come to mind (Mt. 13:52). If, for example, the credibility of our mission today, allied to the felt call of particular women to ordained ministry, points in the direction of priestly ordination, then it is at least incumbent on us at some stage in the near future to re-examine the scriptural and theological basis for exclusion. This may be the kind of approach being hinted at in the Worksheets of the Instrumentum Laboris where in the context of magisterial teaching the authors note that the “reappearance of a question” can be a sign of a “changed reality or situations” that may require further reflection “on the Deposit of Faith and the living Tradition of the Church.”

Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.

Synod: Together on the Way in the One Church of Christ

On September 30, an ecumenical prayer vigil will be held in St. Peter’s Square under the banner, “Together: Gathering the People of God,” opening a three-day spiritual retreat in preparation for the first session of the XVIth ordinary General Assembly of the Synod. Some may wonder what it matters to other Christians that Catholics gather to reflect on the ecclesial structures and practices best suited to accomplish its mission today. Yet Pope Francis claims “the path to Christian unity and the path of synodal conversion of the church are linked.”

To be sure, Catholics would not likely be seeking to become a more synodal church were it not for sixty years of sustained dialogue with other Christian communions. Those dialogues were made possible by the Second Vatican Council, a synodal gathering which sought not only to update and renew the life of the Catholic Church, but to create the conditions for a more meaningful advance toward reconciliation and the restoration of full visible unity among the separated churches. The council’s Decree on Ecumenism characterizes ecumenical dialogue as a process requiring a humble self-examination where Catholics “make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself” and undertake necessary reforms so that their teachings and institutions better reflect the Gospel (UR 4). A long and careful shared study of the church—not to mention a host of internal scandals and crises—has shone a bright light on the imbalances and inadequacies of existing cultures, structures, practices of ministry and church governance.

Few have attended to the ecumenical horizon of Pope Francis’ concern for synodality. To my knowledge, he first mentioned it during the precedent-setting and freewheeling interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ, editor of the Jesuit review Civilta Cattolica, published in September 2013, just six months after his election. (For the English language translation, see “A Big Heart Open to God,” in America.) After Francis remarked on the need for a Roman Curia that better respects the local churches, Spadaro asked, “How can we reconcile in harmony Petrine primacy and collegiality? Which roads are feasible also from an ecumenical perspective?” From his first days in office, Francis signalled an acute awareness of the need for a more consequential reform of the papacy.

His immediate reply was a prelude, intoning what would become an oft-repeated refrain of his pontificate: “We must walk together: the people, the bishops and the pope. Synodality should be lived at various levels.” Then he went on to muse about how restoring the balance of primacy and collegiality might affect the international synod of bishops, pointing to the ecumenical motive for undertaking such a renewal.

“Maybe it is time to change the methods of the Synod of Bishops because it seems that the current method is not dynamic. This will also have ecumenical value, especially with our Orthodox brethren. From them we can learn about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and the tradition of synodality. The joint effort at reflection, looking at how the church was governed in the early centuries, before the breakup between East and West, will bear fruit in due time. In ecumenical relations it is important not only to know each other better, but also to recognize what the Spirit has sown in the other as a gift for us.”

Francis acknowledged the importance of the 2007 Ravenna document of the Joint International Commission for Orthodox Catholic Theological Dialogue, which drew attention to the role of synodal structures for discerning the sense of the faithful, or what Orthodox theology describes as the “conscience of the church.” These remarks foreshadowed similar comments that appeared several months later in his apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, where he reflected on the ecumenical exchange of gifts (EG 246).

A fuller appreciation of the ecumenical origins of a renewed awareness of the constitutive character of synodality for the life of the church might help us to better comprehend all that is in the balance in the global Catholic community’s engagement in the present synodal process. Its aim is to arrive at concrete proposals for a radical shift in the culture and practices of governance within the Catholic Church so that the gifts and insights of all the baptized might be taken more seriously and better serve the proclamation of God’s reconciling love in the world. The outcomes of the synod, however bold or halting they might be, will not only shape the future of the Catholic Communion but have profound consequences for the future of Christian unity. Other Christians look on and join us in prayer, knowing that the path to ecclesial renewal is one that we travel together, learning from one another on the way.  As Francis sums it up: “We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one. This is the way of Jesus.”

Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.

Of Angels and Demons

The death of director William Friedkin last month prompted an outpouring of paeans, no surprise for the man who made films like “The French Connection” and, of course, “The Exorcist,” the 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel. It was the latter movie that naturally generated a wave of Catholic commentary, the most puzzling of which was Matthew Walther’s column in The New York Times declaring that “The Exorcist” was “the best film ever made about the Roman Catholic Church.”

Now, I appreciate that a columnist needs an eye-catching premise, especially if you are writing for The Times, and on a topic that was already boiling in hot takes. And film nerds can engage in never-ending debates about which movie is the best of any category. For what it’s worth, “The Exorcist” was a great horror film. Yet any number of other films would be better nominees in terms of portraying Catholicism: “Of Gods and Men,” for example, is a personal favorite, and there’s “True Confessions” if you want insights into the priesthood, or “The Shoes of the Fisherman” for an entertaining and moving look at the politics of a conclave. “The Two Popes” is a more recent and insightful entrant in that category, and Terrence Malick’s latest, “A Hidden Life,” is astonishing.

Pick one of those, or something else. Maybe “The Mission” or “Black Robe” if you can put your anti-Jesuit bias aside. But giving “The Exorcist” the award for best film about Catholicism is silly. That is, unless you are trying to make a different argument, which seems to be Walther’s goal when he claims that “The Exorcist” presented viewers with the stark choice between a faith that expresses a “transcendent moral and metaphysical order” and one that “is it just another way of pursuing ideals of compassion and social justice,” which he said is what liberal theologians had been pushing since the 1960s. Friedkin’s adaptation of Blatty’s book “came down on the side of tradition,” Walther declares as he goes on to recite the usual litany of complaints about Vatican II’s “modernizing” reforms and the subsequent collapse in vocations, Mass attendance, supernatural belief and the church’s “moral credibility.” It seems that “The Exorcist” and its agnostic Jewish director took a stand against all that.

Well, leaving aside Walther’s retrofitting of a 1973 film for his 2023 polemic, it’s hard to see how a horror flick about demonic possession, fraught with a seventeenth-century rite long out of fashion, best depicts the sublime essence of the faith. You don’t jump scare people into Catholicism. If that were the case, then the trends that Walther laments would have reversed themselves; there were multiple “Exorcist” sequels plus even a television series and innumerable devil-made-me-do-it knock-offs.

For a Catholic believer, taking the supernatural seriously doesn’t require repeated doses of schlock and shock. More importantly, the supernatural is far more than the demonic. As George Burns lamented in “Oh, God!,” arguably the most theologically astute film from the 1970s, “Nobody had any problem believing that the devil took over and existed in a little girl. All she had to do was wet the rug, throw up some pea soup and everybody believed. The devil you could believe, but not God?”

Indeed, Walther’s real problem is that in his urgency to enlist “The Exorcist” as a weapon in his Catholic culture war thesis (even Benedict XVI and the “hermeneutic of continuity” make an appearance—everybody drink!), he fundamentally misconstrues not only Catholicism but also the film and the novel. As Blatty wrote in a 1974 essay in America magazine responding to his Catholic critics, “The Exorcist” was not primarily about evil and the demonic but about “the neglected and far more positive, consoling and even joyous ‘mystery of goodness.’ It is the point all the critics miss.”

Walther sees the two central priest characters in the story, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), as embodying the “opposition of modernity and tradition”—Merrin the holy, orthodox, old guard cleric and Karras the “young liberal Jesuit.” Good and evil, as it were. Yet after Merrin dies while attempting to exorcise the demon possessing the 12-year-old Regan (spoiler alert!), Karras demands that the demon possess him instead of the girl. The demon, according to Blatty, is defeated by “this act of love” and Karras hurls himself from the window, and by dying expels the demon, saves his soul and saves Regan. “In his act of love, Fr. Karras triumphs,” Blatty writes. That’s not how exorcisms are supposed to go, but never mind. Karras’ sacrifice is the truly Catholic message of the film. It is a hard message to apprehend and harder to make convincing, and horror films like “The Exorcist” don’t necessarily help. “When Jesus cured the blind and raised the dead, there were many who saw and yet did not believe. Faith has more to do with love than with levitating beds,” Blatty wrote.

Pope Francis might agree. “[D]o not take refuge in a religiosity made up of extraordinary events and dramatic experiences, out of fear of facing reality and its daily struggles, its hardships and contradictions,” Francis wrote in his message of Lent this year. “The light that Jesus shows the disciples is an anticipation of Easter glory, and that must be the goal of our own journey.”

Walther’s essay instead is more evidence of the boutique trend toward “weird Christianity” that has captivated a slice of young converts and theocons who elevate medieval aesthetics and baroque rituals into the source and summit of the Catholic faith. It treats Catholicism as a cultural oddity, a style story that appeals to Times editors but does little to witness to the faith.  

A better testimonial came in another Times column two days later, by Margaret Renkl. She wrote about a Catholic priest in Nashville, Father Charles Strobel, who had just passed away at 80 after a career spent serving the poor and needy while reminding a gentrifying city to always recall its better angels. Exorcising demons, alas, is far more entertaining, and Walther’s column generated twice as many comments as Renkl’s. So it goes.

David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.