I think many of us are familiar with the data — 33 percent of U.S. citizens who were born or later became Catholic no longer consider themselves to be Catholic (Pew Research Center, June 13, 2008). This represents 10 percent of the U.S. population or 3.12 million people — one of the largest "religious groups" in the country (US News and World Report, Dec. 30, 2011).
There is no doubt a number of factors responsible for those who have left Catholicism. Among them are the lingering sex abuse scandal and the Church's resistance to significant socio-cultural trends in this country. One other factor that seems to be contributing to this Catholic out-flux is a failure within our parishes to accurately teach and reflect the authentic truth of Christianity.
Recently, a Christian researcher coined the phrase Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as a way of describing this inauthentic, "niced-down" form of Christianity (Christian Smith, National Study of Youth and Religion, 2010). According to an article on wikipedia.com, MTD is defined by a combination of several moral statutes not exclusive to any of the major world religions. They are:
A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
Good people go to heaven when they die.
The principles of MTD don't seem to be patently immoral. They even seem to be a decent alternative to someone who might otherwise be an atheist or agnostic. However, they fall woefully short of the standard for anyone professing Catholic Christianity. Specifically, MTD fails to define the identity we have as human beings in relationship with God. According to MTD, we bear no responsibility for what we do with our lives and the only accountability is the reward of heaven if we are "good." MTD's central goal, "to be happy and feel good about oneself," while sounding innocuous, is deeply disoriented.
Our Catholic teachings and traditions give us a solution to MTD and its effects. If our faith communities, including our families and parishes, will focus their efforts on developing authentic disciples of Christ and good stewards, we can nullify MTD and begin to restore our Catholic identity. We can start by teaching and encouraging everyone in our parishes to see themselves as stewards of God.
The drive to be disciples of Christ and stewards of God is something to which we must constantly rededicate ourselves. The culture around us is not always supportive — but this has been the case throughout the history of Christianity.
This may not make us as popular as MTD might, but if the faith that we profess is inauthentic, does it matter how popular it is? If we are not challenging people to live as disciples of Christ and good Christian stewards, can we even say we are building the kingdom?
I don't think people turn away from Catholicism because our truth is too difficult. They turn away because we fail to proclaim the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed. We owe it to ourselves to be authentic Roman Catholic Christians, and we owe it to the world to live lives that give testimony to the light of Christ's love. Amen.
(Walt Sears is a lay ecclesial minister in Oakland.)
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