Despite the attention and fanfare attendant the reign of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church seems mired in a perennial crisis that has uncovered, not only indifference toward many of its teachings but a loss of global relevance and a steep decline in religious vocations, especially in the United States.
It is my belief that if they took a poll on all the major Catholic campuses about religious ignorance and apathy, I wouldn’t be surprised if more than 75 percent of the respondents would say they did not know or care anything about apathy on their campus.
While this fictitious poll is just a joke, Catholic apathy is not funny. Too many Catholics appear uninterested or unprepared to explain or defend their faith.
Many have probably already lost their faith and are merely going through the motions. They can be called cultural Catholics. Other Catholics have bought into the prominent notion of universal salvation. If everyone goes to heaven, there is no need to worry about Church teachings. These ideas have led many to conclude that it really didn’t matter what you believed because all churches were essentially the same. This is called religious indifferentism and was considered a heresy 100 years ago.
While it is a relatively bloodless crisis in the Catholic Church in America, the words of Thomas Paine might serve as an inspiration to buck the trend and fathom the waves of apathy.
Thomas Paine was an English-American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary. Virtually every colonial rebel read or heard his powerful pamphlet Common Sense (1776), which crystallized the colonials’ demand for independence from Great Britain. It was so influential that John Adams said, without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.
In his The American Crisis series (1776–83) Paine juxtaposed the conflict between the good American devoted to civic virtue and the selfish provincial man. To inspire his soldiers, General George Washington had an excerpt from the first Crisis pamphlet read to his troops.
These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country…
Sunshine Catholics are likened to Paine fair-weather patriots, in that they only bask in the favorable times and teachings of the Church like social justice and love of the poor. When controversy and criticism abound they are nowhere to be seen.
There are identifiable historical origins of this kind of Catholic indifference. The nation’s history has been tainted with anti-Catholic prejudice that predates the Constitution. Its frequent appearance has been characterized by a loose mixture of Bible Protestants, freethinkers and atheists influenced by the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution. These bigots instinctively distrust all revealed religions and undemocratic authorities.
Since those bleak days, Catholics have longed for the day when they would be accepted by American culture. With the presidential election of John Kennedy in 1960, Catholics no longer had to sit in the back pew.
But membership in mainstream America came at an enormous cost. It required Catholics to check their religious principles at the country club door. As a result, many Catholics regarded themselves as Americans first and Catholics somewhere lower on their list.
Again, it falls back to John F. Kennedy. As a candidate he danced a secular jig around the religious question. On the campaign trail, he promised the voters that Church teachings would never interfere with his presidential duties — as if there was an inherent conflict.
President Kennedy’s religious indifferentism later inspired a legion of Catholic senators and congressmen who put their faith in what historian Michael Burleigh has called a political religion. Their defiance of Church doctrine, especially on abortion, makes a sorry comparison to St. Thomas More, who was beheaded in 1535 for choosing God over king.
As in the case of St. Thomas, there can be another, more threatening, side to apathy. Cartoonist Gary Larson’s Far Side once portrayed a herd of deer gathered around one of their number with an unfortunate bull’s eye on his chest. Another deer remarked that it was a bummer of a birthmark.
Catholics are like that deer. They have an indelible bull’s eye over their hearts because of their assent — or fiat — to Jesus Christ and the teachings of his Church. Most apathetic Catholics make certain that it is securely hidden anytime they go out into the public square.
Unfortunately, many other Catholics are uninvolved with the faith that they remain unaware of this subtle form of persecution. They are likened to the poor frog in the fable, slowly being steeped in a simmering pot of hot water. Their enemies in the media, government and the universities are slowly boiling their faith to death while most Catholics think they are in a hot tub.
To combat this guileful persecution, the Church needs more little platoons of knowledgeable and committed apologists like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and G.K. Chesterton to make its public defense. At this point in our history I see few that are of the stature of these defenders of the faith.
As for the remaining Catholics in the pews, they must run the risk of being personally attacked and vilified. They must be willing to defend and explain the Faith against a virulent secularism that rests on a popular foundation of false information about the Church’s doctrine, its popes and its history.
The choice is there for all Catholics. Do they want to remain in their closets or wear their birthmarks proudly in all kinds of violent and inclement weather?