Trying to interpret the significance of statistical evidence – and (even more) attempting to draw conclusions from that evidence – is as accurate a science as reading tea leaves. Yes, I can see each tea leaf, and yes, I can see how many there are and how they are positioned in relation to other tea leaves, but what it means for my future is anyone’s guess.
I know that this (Thomas Reese on “The Hidden Exodus” – please ignore the pop up request – do not on any account send money) came out ages ago – ie. a fortnight! – but I didn’t have time to deal with it in the middle of Holy Week. A number of other commentators have offered their thoughts on the piece.
I have just three to offer:
1) The statistics are for America. We cannot assume that they work for Australia as well. My guess is that there are similarities, but we have to make allowances for a lower level of religious practice in Australia general.
2) The conclusions that Fr Reese offers are a long jump (maybe even a hop-skip-and-a-jump) from the statistical evidence, and (surprise, surprise) displays his own particular bias despite his apparent attempt to play even handedly to “liberals” and “conservatives” in the statistical overview. (Full disclosure: I am also biased, and this commentary is also affected by my particular opinions).
3) Blowing the trumpet for either the Protestant team or the Catholic team will be missing the point here. On the one hand there is something called “receptive ecumenism” – which seeks to recognise the particular gifts that traditions can receive from others; and on the other hand there is something called “evangelisation” (or “evangelism” for Protestants reading this) – which is the task of every Christian community (which is not the same thing as what used to be called – rather quaintly – “sheep stealing”).
All that being said, Reese’s conclusions – his “lessons from the data” (aka “reading the tea leaves”) contain a number of “non sequiturs”. One by one:
First, those who are leaving the church for Protestant churches are more interested in spiritual nourishment than doctrinal issues. Tinkering with the wording of the creed at Mass is not going to help. No one except the Vatican and the bishops cares whether Jesus is “one in being” with the Father or “consubstantial” with the Father. That the hierarchy thinks this is important shows how out of it they are.
The first sentence is true. That’s just a description of the tea leaves. The second sentence does not follow from the first. For a start, the liturgical changes are precisely about “spiritual nourishment” rather than “doctrinal issues”. Secondly, quite a few people other than “the Vatican and the bishops” care about whether Jesus is “one in being” or “consubstantial” with the Father. Thirdly, no one has pretended that the liturgical changes will single-handedly stem the “exodus” from the Church. In fact, there’s no reason to draw the new translation of the mass into this argument. At most it will be a tool which could be used for deeper faith formation and in that “more” that we need in our Catholic liturgical practice. On the other hand, attitudes like that of Fr Reese’s in this piece will miss even this small opportunity for doing something positive.
From my own perspectives, the tea leaves in this survey show that what Catholics are looking for when they become protestant is a combination of deeper faith formation and more… – I can’t quite grasp the noun I’m looking for here – …in worship. But it isn’t, as Fr Reese suggests, that “more creativity with the liturgy is needed”. No. Bunging in a liturgical dance here or a “meaningful symbolic action” there isn’t going to make much difference. The more that is needed is something about the gravitas of worship – taking the sacredness of the liturgical action seriously in such a way that it truly serves to bring the worshipper into connection with the divine. We could go on about that. But more “creativity”? I don’t think so…
Father Reese’s second conclusion:
Second, thanks to Pope Pius XII, Catholic scripture scholars have had decades to produce the best thinking on scripture in the world. That Catholics are leaving to join evangelical churches because of the church teaching on the Bible is a disgrace. Too few homilists explain the scriptures to their people. Few Catholics read the Bible.
I think he meant to write that “the church’s teaching OF the bible is a disgrace” – because the Churches teaching ON the bible is in fact exactly that of the evangelical protestants: it is the fully inspired, infallible Word of God as a whole and in all its parts. As the Second Vatican Council said in Dei Verbum 9 “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit”. I know that some Evangelicals have a more fundamentalistic interpretation of the Scriptures than the Catholic Church, but I don’t think Fr Reese is suggesting that this is “a disgrace” for the Church. No, I think he is quite right about the need for better and more scriptural homilies and more bible reading (aka lectio divina). But this is teaching OF the bible, not teaching ON the bible.
And he is certainly wrong on his next statement that “The church needs to acknowledge that understanding the Bible is more important than memorizing the catechism.” No it isn’t. The two are not contradictory. You can effectively teach the bible through teaching the catechism and vice versa. Just look at the index of bible passages in the back of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I’d actually like to see a Catholic edition of the bible with references in the Catechism in the side margins or footnotes. When I teach at Anima Education, I insist that my students bring along the two foundational text books: the Holy Scriptures and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. By rejecting the teaching of the Catechism, Reese is here rejecting a fundamental source for learning the Scriptures and deepening spiritual formation.
And now for his final prgnostication on the tea-leaf statistics:
Finally, the Pew data shows that two-thirds of Catholics who become Protestants do so before they reach the age of 24. The church must make a preferential option for teenagers and young adults or it will continue to bleed. Programs and liturgies that cater to their needs must take precedence over the complaints of fuddy-duddies and rubrical purists.
Okay, again the first two sentences are unobjectionable. The first is what the statistics show. Actually, my guess is that when we talk of Catholics becoming Protestants “before they reach the age of 24” we are actually talking about people who were baptised Catholic but not actually formed as Catholics finding faith for the first time in Protestant Churches during their teens and early twenties. This is a story that is repeated many times by guests on EWTN’s “Journey Home” program. Ad infinitum. By God’s grace, some of these folk do find their way back into the Catholic Church later in life in their search for truth.
And so too, I have no complaint about the second sentence. By all means, let’s have a “preferential option” for under 35’s. There’s a real place for programs there, but a greater place for direct engagement on a personal level, especially from priests and significant lay role models and mentors. But we don’t “design” liturgies to cater for the “needs” of any particular group in the Church. The liturgy is “designed” for the worship of God and to enable us mortals to do that effectively. (I guess that is a “need”). The quip about “fuddy duddies” and “rubrical purists” at the end was unnecessary. They are not, for a start, the same thing, nor are they, secondly, confined to the ranks of those who are Fr Reese’s age. Many young people are quite capable of knowing when rubrics are being mucked up by the old fuddy-duddies who are being “creative” with the liturgy.
So, lots to learn from the statistics of the Pew Forum survey. Just what the lessons are, however, will depend on who is reading the tea-leaves.