Catholicism in the Marketplace: the Key is Evangelisation and Catechisation

I’ve been meaning to blog on this all week, but things have been a little busy at the office and at home. But it’s Saturday morning, and the rains have gone, and the sun is shining (and it’s bloody humid) and I am now outside with my pipe and my coffee and my computer and its TIME TO BLOG!

Readers of this ‘ere blog will know that Brian Coyne and I have had a long running discussion about the group he calls the “85%” of people who are baptised Catholic and who have ceased to participate in the life of the Church. To put it absurdly and reductionistically simply, Brian claims the solution is that the Church should scrap those aspects of its teaching which conflict with the modern mores, and I claim the solution is better evangelisation and catechisation.

Into that mix comes this article by John Allen Jnr: “In America’s religious marketplace, the real Catholic problem is new sales”. The Catholica Forum has picked it up, but as yet there isn’t much discussion there.

It should be noted (as Sherry does on the Siena Institute blog, that

the topic here is the retention of religious identity, not how often people who still regard themselves as Catholic actually attend Mass. Around the Catholic blogosphere, we tend to conflate the two issues but the Pew study addresses both separately and John Allen is focusing on the first issue of religious identity in this interview.

So the article does not address all of the issues that are relevant to Brian’s “85%”. Also we need to remember that Allen’s article is about the US, and it the figures there do not necessarily translate into figures for Australia where the religious culture is a little different, but I do think that one aspect is probably true: a great proportion of members of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Australia were baptised as Catholics, and hence make up at least a significant proportion of Brian’s “85%”.

That being said, it also needs to be said that, as the Pew Forum chaps in the interview point out, the figures for the States are rather confusing and do not lend themselves either to neatly “proving” the liberal or conservative Catholic point of view on the matter.

Still, the point that Allen focuses upon and which seems to fit here in Australia too, is that the Catholic Church is not as active as the Protestant Churches in the area of attracting new members from outside the Church. I don’t have the figures in front of me, but I reckon it is probably true to say that about 2-3% of Catholics here too are converts to the Church. RCIA has been relatively successful in this regard.

The real question is how to get more people into RCIA in the first place, and then how to make the catechetical impact of the RCIA program – and of our day to day catechisation in our families, schools and parishes – more effective in retaining those whom we evangelise. Allan’s interlocutors say:

But one of the points of the report is that to understand the dynamics of American religion, you have to see retention and recruitment together. It’s the churn, the ratio of leaving to joining, which matters. It’s the recruitment side that sets Catholics apart. Four people leave Catholicism for every one who joins, and there’s no other religious group where you see a similar ratio. Baptists, for example, also have more people leaving than joining, but their ratio of 2-1 is twice of what we see for Catholics.

The conclusion is simple. “Recruitment” = evangelisation. “Retention” = catechisation. Brian may well be right, there are probably a lot of non-practicing Catholics who do not participate in the life of the Church because of its doctrinal and moral demands. But the evidence of the Pew Forum study shows that quite aside from this issue – and the merits or otherwise of a program of “reform” that would soften those demands (note that the Pew Forum guys say that the high figure of ex-Catholics in the Evangelican and Pentecostal churches would indicate that these ex-Catholics are looking for a church which is MORE rather than less conservative) – improved efforts at evangelisation and catechisation are required if we are to improve our recruitment and retention statistics for the future of the Church.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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18 Responses to Catholicism in the Marketplace: the Key is Evangelisation and Catechisation

  1. Dan says:

    I don’t like this tone to Allen’s article and slightly in yours, that seems to see the church as some sort of corporation whose only intent is get more people. Didn’t Jesus establish the church to carry on his message? and do so authentically?

    I’m reminded on B16 words in Britain where he says:
    “One might say that a church which seeks above all to be attractive would already be on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for itself, does not work to increase its numbers so as to have more power,” he answered. “The Church is at the service of Another; it does not serve itself, seeking to be a strong body, but it strives to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ accessible, the great truths, the great powers of love and of reconciliation that come always from the presence of Jesus Christ. In this sense, the Church does not seek to be attractive, but rather to make herself transparent for Jesus Christ.”

    Obviously we do need to be concerned about those sheep who stray, but in a sense, that true interior conversion (and that is what is really needed, I think) is only achieved by Christ. I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something…

  2. Terra says:

    I know people get upset when the language of business is used in relation to the Church, but actually I think it is helpful, so long as we are careful to allow room for grace! Business practices work because they treat us as embodied people – those who insist on seeing the Church as totally other tend to forget the importance of that.

    And closely related to this on the problem of catechesis, can I recommend this article, which basically suggests that all the catechesis in the world will be ineffective unless it is backed up in actual practice, particularly the recovery of a sense of the sacred: Mass, Actions Speak Louder Than Words WHY LITURGICAL LESSONS AREN’T BEING LEARNED By Michael A. Beauregard. You can find it here: http://pblosser.blogspot.com/2011/02/at-mass-actions-speak-louder-than-words.html

  3. Tony says:

    @ Dan

    I don’t like this tone to Allen’s article and slightly in yours, that seems to see the church as some sort of corporation whose only intent is get more people. Didn’t Jesus establish the church to carry on his message?

    I’m not sure I ‘like’ the tone of this paragraph either. It seems to me to convey the notion that the ‘message’ is something separate from the hearer. Everyone is interested in numbers to a certain extent because it is a measure, albeit an unrefined measure, of how many hear the message.

    @ Terra

    And closely related to this on the problem of catechesis, can I recommend this article, which basically suggests that all the catechesis in the world will be ineffective unless it is backed up in actual practice, particularly the recovery of a sense of the sacred …

    Surely the practice of the church and its most imporant message is love in action? Just reflecting on my experience of those who are champions for the extraordinary form; yes, they are obsessive about liturgy and getting it right but they’re also pretty contemptuous of those who don’t see it their way. I have, for example, never come across a group that uses the term ‘protestant’ in such a perjorative way. They are (again I emphasise in my experience) ‘resounding gongs and clashing cymbals’.

    In short, the message is love, not liturgy.

    @ David
    Not meaning to rebel against a ‘closed cork’ I think it only fair to let you know that I posted a comment on my own blog about your treatment of Fr Bob.

    • Gareth says:

      Tony: In short, the message is love, not liturgy.

      Gareth: Yes, but ‘love’ can mean different things to different people and has truly lost its meaning in the modern context.

      I don’t think it is wrong for the church to want to get what it proclaims to be ths source and summit of all Christian life (a pretty big claim) 100 per cent right.

      After all, the sacrament can be a very ‘heart-binding’ sacrament if approached correctly.

      • Tony says:

        And working out what that love in action is — as modelled by Christ — is way more important than getting the liturgy ‘100% right’. Jesus’ ultimate command to us was to ‘love as I have loved you’ and everything followed from that.

        The Gospels made it pretty clear that Jesus was a dutiful Jew but the message of the Gospels wasn’t about ‘liturgical duty’ or ‘liturgical correctness’, that wasn’t the ‘practice’ Jesus was concerned with.

        Not, I hasten to add, that I dismiss the importance of liturgy and its capacity, among other things, to be ‘heart binding’, to use your term.

  4. Joshua says:

    Very good points you make, David!

    It would not do to get side-tracked onto the left or right, liberal or conservative, post-Vatican III or pre-Trent sides… because the important points are the ones not neatly pigeonhole-able (is that a word?), which indeed are neglected because they don’t fit the usual categories.

    From what very limited experience I have of ex-Catholics gone Protestant, they fit into two groups: those who join some Pentecostal/Evangelical group “because here we found Jesus – we never knew Him in the Catholic Church” (how damning a comment, reflective of those yearning for bread yet given stones); and those who have become Anglican, because they wanted more doctrinal and moral latitude or laxity.

    Prescinding from the latter (in a sense, they are being quite reasonable: Coyne et al. could follow their example and achieve a more consistent ecclesiological position), I think the former is the group who offer Catholicism the greatest challenge.

    After all, whatever the doctrinal and moral standards, de jure (Pope, Magisterium, Tradition, Revelation, etc.) and de facto (local parish, local priest, local school, local Catholics), if – as the former group suggest – Catholicism is not helping people “Meet Jesus”, then it is abjectly failing and damned.

    Speaking for myself (but then again, I am a convert), I do “find Jesus” and find a prayerful contact with Our Lord, precisely in and through my Catholic Faith. That said, I know of Catholic school students who seem to have not the slightest idea of such a warm personal devotion to Christ; they would be quite confused enough about the Trinity or any reaction to Catholicism save boredom, indifference, and incomprehension (coming as most these days do from families unchurched for more than one generation, and thus, whatever their teachers may attempt, gravely disconnected from even the basics of heartfelt religion, as opposed to knowing some of the basics of Catholicism).

    A great Catholic ideal – a warm personal devotion to the Lord Jesus – was (as my old parish priest, Bp Jarrett, explained) a hallmark of Evangelical Anglicanism, and I would claim is part of any Anglican Patrimony worthy of the name, a Patrimony that the Pope wishes incoming Anglicans to share as a treasure with the wider Church.

    Dare I say, David, that such a warm personal devotion is also a hallmark of Lutheranism, at least of certain esteemed (ex-)Lutherans we could name?

    • Gareth says:

      Joshua: Speaking for myself (but then again, I am a convert),

      Gareth: I never knew that

      • Schütz says:

        Josh, like myself, was raised with a “translation” of the Liturgy far superior to the current ICEL translation. That’s part of our perspective. It amuses me that the new translation is very much closer to Cranmar’s BCP translation and to the translation that I was used to as a Lutheran. There are ecumenical consequences of our decisions in regard to Liturgy. It isn’t just about us.

  5. Matthias says:

    “Note that the Pew Forum guys say that the high figure of ex-Catholics in the Evangelican and Pentecostal churches would indicate that these ex-Catholics are looking for a church which is MORE rather than less conservative) ” Yes there might be the appeal of conservativism theologically,morally and this is also translated into politics as well eg Steve Fielding- about to depart the Senate.
    There is also the appeal perhaps of the the “cabaret” style worship in a great many Proddy churches. I look at the one I currently attend,and then i have heard services from Hillsong and also from Crossways Baptist Church and I could not tell the difference in style. All the hymns sung all seem to be coming form Hillsong at the moment.

  6. Stephen K says:

    There seems little doubt, to me, that numbers are important, principally those who attend Sunday mass when a proportion of the Church’s income is generated (apart from the rents and huge capital investment returns).

    But they’re important for another reason too, because if people go to Mass they remain exposed to the moral/doctrinal messages of the Church and get a weekly dose of “group identity” – even if no-one speaks to anybody before or after the service!

    Personally, I think the large number of non-attending/practising Catholics is a very important statistic: it means, I think, that the Church is simply not conveying or showing its relevance or importance to people’s lives. And why is that?

    A common charge is that people are morally degenerate or lazy or plain ignorant. I often think the Church suffers from a serious condition called chronic “nihilmalumnobiscumalgia” complicated by “solumnoshabemusDeum” syndrome. (These untreated illnesses prevent many in the Church from being open to the possibility that perhaps the real “church” is only co-existent with the interior conversion of each person and only co-existent with discrete gospel actions. In such a paradigm, numbers are unimportant.)

    I say this because if people mean, by better catechesis, or evangelisation, just more of the same only at higher volume or more subtle re-packaging, then I think they are chasing up the wrong tree. Many people just do not see how the Church(es) can keep on insisting on what seem to be fairy tales, and now see the “top-down” model as empty empire-building – due to the peccability of its ministers and bishops.

    Who are the Catholics who still manage to reach and touch the lives of the left, the departed, the non-religious, the secular? I observe that it is those – and mainly only those – who show they live the co-suffering life – try the SDVdeP volunteers, the base community or urban jungle Franciscans or Columbans….you get the message.

    The quality of liturgies can exert the pulling power of first attraction (like a handsome or pretty face) – but it only works for people who walk through the door. We’re talking about people who have “switched off”, or have left in sadness or anger or resentment; we’re talking about people who have never been or don’t go. In the hierarchy of gospel credibility for the people this post is concerned about, bells and incense rank way down.

    I’ve got to say: I think the most powerful message the official element of the Church could give would be to publically devolve – that is, de-imperialise. By all means have respectful liturgies within the walls of churches, but Mass over, the bishops absolutely have to get rid of the red soutane piping and titles and do a “Bob Ansett” and brick up the executive washroom. For starters.

    Of course, people might still not understand or accept all the doctrinal bits and pieces, but they might listen more.

    Just a few thoughts (couldn’t help myself!)

    • catherine says:

      Well said!

    • Gareth says:

      Hi Stephen,

      I think just about every Catholic in Australia would share your sentiment, BUT at the end of the day people have to make decisions for themselves and we have to recognise that for some people – if they truly want to attend Mass of a Sunday, we can’t hold them by the hand, they are going to have to make that decision themselves.

      I base this on numerous examples in my personal life of people that I really wanted to attend Mass and thought that would highly benefit from it, but I had to realise as bad as the state of the average parish is in Australia, only that person is responsible for getting themselves up and halling themself through the door each Sunday.

  7. PM says:

    A large part of the problem, it seems to me, is sheer ignorance. Among Catholics, this is a rlic of the Mao-chic in ‘progressive’ education that took hold in the late 60s, acccording to which nobody should ever teach anybody anything. Brian Coyne, for example, sets heroic teachers against the fascist hierarchy, but quotes approvingly a disaffected student who says ‘it’s all about some old guy in the sky’ – a sure sign that the student has never been exposed to a serious theological thought. Most of the objections to belief paraded by Dawkins, Hitchens etc are based on crude caricatures which bear no relation to informed faith. But we have produced two generations who couldn’t tell the difference. (Remember Richard Rymarz reporting a Year 12 student asking ‘Who’s this person Grace you keep talking about?’)

  8. Gareth says:

    There is a time for joking and time to be serious – and in all seriousness David, I would not listen to one word that comes from the mouth of Brian Coyne.

    I would even lose respect for anyone that takes anything he says seriously.

  9. Paul G says:

    I don’t think the distinction between “new sales” and “customer maintenance” (or evangelisation and catechesis if you want to be more Greek about it) is really a hard and fast separation. Most people go through a period of both in their lives. There is a difference between today and 50 years ago in that the default position is now staying away from church, whereas in the past it was to be an unwilling church-goer. Maybe the situation now is more honest than it was in the past.

    I teach some Scripture classes in state schools and about 80% of the class would not attend Mass regularly, yet their parents send them to Scripture classes. Are these new sales or routine maintenance?

    In 2 parishes I know about, there are about the same number of children in Catholic Scripture classes in state schools as there are in the local Catholic schools. I don’t think it is a fair or realistic assumption to say that the children in the Catholic schools are more committed to the faith than the children in state schools who make the choice for Catholic Scripture classes.

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