Thursday, April 17, 2008
So Much for T-Shirt Theology
By Amy Welborn
At the heart of the Pope’s speech last night was call to the bishops to take stock of the realities of American culture, be realistic about the Church’s weaknesses, and get to work.
A slew of recent studies and surveys confirm what everyone involved in Catholic ministry knows: Catholic identity is very fluid. Catholic views and perspectives on most issues aren’t generally marked by Gospel-centered counterculturalism. Catholic young people are just not absorbing whatever it is they’re being taught.
In my years of involvement in Catholic education, it was clear that concern was starting to mount about all of this. Those of us in parish or school ministry knew that our students weren’t being taken to Mass by their parents. We knew that the chances were high that the young parents bringing their children for baptism hadn’t set foot in church since their wedding, and before that their confirmation. We could see it spinning apart. In the hopeful days after the Second Vatican Council, the belief was that now that the evils of rote memorization and the fear of Hell had been dispensed with, intentionality would rule the day when it came to faith, and everyone would be so much more fully engaged.
But it didn’t seem to be working, and instead of intentionality, minimalism and a stripped-down version of cultural Catholicism in which even the “culture” part seemed to be missing defined the mass of those we worked with. I knew things were bad when one parish religious education director said to me of her hopes for the children of her parish: “If they can come away with the feeling that church is a good place, a happy place, they’ll remember that, and when they get older, they’ll come back.”
So, in the mid-80’s “Catholic identity” became the new buzz word at workshops and conferences. Talk about how great it is to be Catholic. Bring up our rich, interesting heritage. Talk about some saints. Wear T-shirts if necessary.
On the surface, it may seem as if this is what Benedict’s message is all about. But it’s really not, for it goes deeper.
Last night, Benedict was direct about the problems. He talked about “Catholic identity,” but it’s clear that what he means goes beyond “Cool 2 B Catholic” bumper stickers.
“As I just mentioned, one of the great challenges facing the Church in this country is that of cultivating a Catholic identity which is based not so much on externals as on a way of thinking and acting grounded in the Gospel and enriched by the Church’s living tradition.”
He was also direct about how the Church is to blame for this. Bad preaching and inadequate teaching. A failure, ultimately (and this is a constant Benedictine theme) to help people connect the defining questions of their lives with the answers found in Christ, and the Church as the place to find Christ and be nourished by him.
“The goal of all our pastoral and catechetical work, the object of our preaching, and the focus of our sacramental ministry should be to help people establish and nurture that living relationship with “Christ Jesus, our hope”
Now that’s Catholic identity.