Like Reading Tea Leaves

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.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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25 Responses to Like Reading Tea Leaves

  1. Marco says:

    I thought, for a second, that the title of the post was a reference to a sermon I heard you preach. I think it was at Sem in your final year!

  2. Hannah says:

    “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”

    And what happens when these teenagers and young adults grow up or are they going to remain teenagers and young adults all their lives? Do we then create new liturgies so that these of the “preferential” lot continue in their own style of liturgy or how are they to be intergrated into the liturgy of the universal church?
    My simple understanding is that liturgy is what we do to worship God. We do this in the most beautiful ways that we can and that includes the visual, tonal, word, actions etc. and in this we find eternal constancy and not fad like behaviour.
    Explanations for children and teenagers and others is left to catechists and parents but liturgy in all its beautiful meaning is for all. (from a fuddie duddie)

    • Schütz says:

      Good observation, Hannah. This is a problem when we do “children’s liturgies” (I mean “liturgies designed for children”, not the mini-Sunday-School during Mass on Sunday morning) which are dumbed down versions of the real thing, and teach them “children’s songs” instead of the songs of the Church’s tradition. They get stuck on this infantile form of religion – the “milk” if you will – and never move on to the meat. Better to start feeding them a full balanced diet from the beginning.

      • Hannah says:

        Amen to that David.

        Perhaps its the dumbed down liturgies that really lead to later not understanding of readings, liturgy, music etc. and disrespect. I also think that with toned down or dumbed dumb explanations, children are not introduced to the Holiness of God. They get the Jesus of pastoralle but not the Holiness of God. It of course later becomes difficult to see Jesus as the Son of the most high God.
        It also becomes difficult for children to see Holiness in the Blessed Sacrament, in the Tabernacle because a sense of awe has not been instilled slowly and gently but surely into them.

    • David Parkhurst says:

      What is often missed in these discussions is the fact that traditional liturgy, and tradition in general, can be a tremendous draw on youth who have never experienced it. During my college days in Seattle, I would attend Complines every Sunday night at St. Mark’s Cathedral (Episcopal). To get a seat you had to arrive at least a half hour early, if not earlier; the place was packed with teenagers. Many had to be turned away. And if I’m not mistaken, Seattle is the least churched city in the States.

      Granted, the article is on those who have been raised in the Catholic Church. However, I would not discount the draw that reverent liturgy could have on even them. How many young people have been driven out of the Church by banal liturgies, vacuous music, ugly architecture, and “kumbaya” youth ministry, even though they are not conscious of that reason?

      • Hannah says:

        Indeed David, within all of us is written a need for God and to worship God and this is done deep within our hearts with love. Expecially in today’s noisy and clamorous clime I think the reverence and holiness of a beautiful liturgy would draw in rather than usher out those caught in the milieu of noise.
        Seeing a young person deeply entranced in the silence and adoration before the blessed sacrament should give a clue that this is what will bid rather than repel. Most often i cringe at the thoughtless loud chatter and lack of reverence within the walls of a church knowing that Jesus stands there (tabernacle) waiting for someone to speak with Him. Or even to acknowledge the sacrifice which takes place there. This again a sign of loss of reverence for the Holy.

    • Matthias says:

      The church I currently attend -Baptist-has a habit of using only younger people in the services for leading those services. Myself and a friend-a former Youth pastor in the UCA-put our names down to participate in services ,when there was a notice for helpers wanted. The response- mine was acknowledged but nothing else,my friend helps in setting up before the service but that ‘s all. This was two years ago. My friend and his wife are leaving in February to work in an orphanage in the Phillipines for the rest of their lives -they hope. I will be leaving to join the Eastern Catholics. I do not think we will be missed

      • Hannah says:

        Matthias perhaps the Lord God is calling you to a deeper understanding of Him in the place where you are going and this understanding was not possible where you were. Neither you nor your friends thrived in the Lord and in His ministry where you were. Perhaps this is a call to both of you to really hear His true call for your lives.

        • Matthias says:

          I believe that you are right Hannah.

          • Hannah says:

            Be happy Matthias you have really heard Him call your name that’s why you and your friends have been invisible where you are now.
            It is so clear the voice.
            Perhaps in the clamour of high visibility none of you would have heard the call.
            I am reminded of Song of Songs, second poem. Look it up its beautiful.

  3. An Liaig says:

    There are a number of problems with surveys and analyses of this type. One fundamental problem is that you can not force a response – so in your respondents you have a self selecting sample. When the survety rersults say 20%, 30% , 70% etc., they mean that percentage of those who responded. This immediately introduces a problem of potential bias in your data. For example, it is certainly possible that only people who were active and involved in their new church could be bothered filling out any sort of church survey, hence high participation rates and emphasis on spiritual nourishment. If the responses sof those who could not be bothered filling out the survey could have been included the numbers could be very different. This is why it is always important to know the response rate in any such survey.

    The second problem is that there is no real control here. What are these people being cpmpoared to? To Catholics who remain active in the Church? The comparisons are necissarily limited. A better comparison would be with those who leave mainline and evangelical protestant churches. Again as an example of what I mean, if, as I kinda suspect, similar issues come up in this group, then the whole problem changes.

    • Schütz says:

      Good observations, Doctor! Worth keeping in mind when interpreting the data that was volunteered.

    • Peter says:

      Top shelf comments from everyone,paticularly Hannah.I would not argue with anything anyone said.
      Personally I felt that even before reading the article,it had a credibility problem-(1)It was written by a Jesuit and (2)It appeared in the National Catholic Fishwrap (as Fr.Z would say).

  4. Paul G says:

    I don’t know what the statistics really mean, I suspect not much.
    However, I think there is some truth in the cry for help behind this article. In my experience, the local Protestant churches are much more enthusiastic about outreach than Catholic parishes. I think this has something to do with the fact that Catholic parishes are used to doing everything through parish schools. But around here, there are as many children in Catholic Scripture classes in public schools as in the parish schools. I know a lot of them go to youth groups at the local, Evangelical Anglican church, who (God bless them) provide active groups. The children can’t go to Catholic activities because there aren’t any.
    In my opinion, some examples of Catholic apathy are:

    -most parishes don’t employ a youth worker. The only paid workers are usually the secretary, a choir leader/organist, a gardener and a cleaner. The priest is very busy with the Sacraments (as he should be) and has little time to organise other activities.

    -before Christmas, there were no Advent prayer groups. In Lent, there were a few groups preparing for Easter, but they were very small and not actively promoted. I only found out by accident that there was a group meeting near me.

    -World Youth Day in Madrid was mentioned for the first time a few weeks ago. There are about 100 days to go and it will now be a race against time to find people who can go to Madrid and to organise visas and flights. There will be no time for the prayerful preparation that should be done. The same was the case before WYD in Sydney. I am in no way a youth anymore, but I haven’t heard of any outreach or activities that followed WYD in Sydney. We should now be preparing for WYD2013 in Rio, not Madrid in 12 week’s time.

    I think there is a real issue with the level of enthusiasm in many Catholic parishes.

    • Dan says:

      Is the next WYD going to be in Rio!! How’d you find that out?
      I know they expressed interest in hosting this years one, but I didn’t know they’re keen on doing the next one.

      I think it’s Rio that’s hosting the 2016 Olympic Games. I which case, the government might be supportive, because it would be good practice for them, in terms of security and all. On the other hand, they may not be supportive, because they want to save their money (they are developing country after all) for 2016.

      • Gareth says:

        Dan, I googled it and found a website by the Cathedral of Saint Thomas More Youth Ministry from Virginia in the U.S that was unofficially annoucing it, so it must be a pretty strong rumour.

        We will have to wait to the official announcement, but I guess that would not be on the website if it did not have a strong subtance to it.

  5. Gareth says:

    Generally speaking I have to agree with the sentiment of Father Reese’s that Catholics are pretty briandead when it comes to scripture.

    I am not sure if I remember the last time I heard a Sermon by a priest that actually goes through the Biblical verse for the week and opens it up sentence by sentence.

    Seriously sad that Vatican II called us to be Biblical people but the average Catholic whilst remembering a few Gospel passages, wouldnt really know much else.

    • Schütz says:

      The style of preaching you are referring to is called “expository” preaching. It can be a bit useless as a homily on Sunday morning – it is the kind of teaching that works best in a class or bible study setting. Nevertheless, the homily should at least have a strong basis in the text, a basis that is exegetically defensible and not merely arrived at by the method of thought association.

  6. Gareth says:

    Paul G We should now be preparing for WYD2013 in Rio, not Madrid in 12 week’s time

    Is that official is it?

    • Paul G says:

      Hello Gareth,
      I read it somewhere on the internet, so it must be true. At WYD Sydney, there were “rumours” that the next one was going to be in Spain, and there was a group of Spaniards ready to celebrate when it was announced at WYD itself. With 100 days to go, it is likely that the location of WYD 2013 has already been decided, and Rio sounds credible, on the basis of the Asia – Europe – Americas sequence. And Rio seems to be in the mood to spend money, having the Olympics and (I think) the Soccer World Cup.

      • Peter says:

        Yes Paul,Brazil is the host for the 2014 Soccer World Cup.
        If it was to get the next WYD it would mean that it would be hosting the 3 biggest events in the world in the space of a couple of years.I am not convinced that this will happen.

  7. Gareth says:

    some U.S youth minitsy based websites are already announcing it as Brazil.

    Me thinks the officials in the Vatican that would be privy to such knowledge and seem to leak it everytime are not very good at keeping it a secret.

    I think it is a good choice.

  8. Sharon says:

    Msgr Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington has some interesting comments on
    “The Hidden Exodus” see link below and scroll down to “Why Catholics Leave”

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