The pope and the machine

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., now Pope Francis, has been on St. Peter’s chair for nine months. Many of us in the progressive Catholic movement still wonder who he is.

He refuses ornate vestments. He drives himself sans chauffeur in a fixed-up rust bucket. He has claimed a permanent room in a guesthouse. He has appointed a reform advisory committee. He gives candid interviews to one journalist after another. He reputedly slips out of the Vatican at night to minister with the poor. He sternly takes the rich to task in the first teaching document, Evangelii Gaudium, for which he is the principal author. (Francis’ now-retired neighbor, Benedict XVI, did most of the work for Lumen Fidei.)

Yet Francis declares women’s ordination a closed book. And, as is relentlessly and justly pointed out, neither the Catechism nor canon law have changed, with every “t” still crossed and every “i” yet dotted. Some suspect a P.R. machine is snowing them and they have said so. Is he style, they ask, or is he substance?

But perhaps a more fruitful question is: what can a pope do and what can’t a pope do? I don’t mean what a pope morally or theologically ought to do. I mean practically speaking.

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The Reality of American Catholicism

On June 23, The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life released its second set of findings of its 25 year U.S. Religious landscape survey. When the first part of this report was released in February, it received a substantial amount of press coverage in the media, and the June report created the same result with National Catholic Reporter offering a good summary on Catholic findings.

When the first half of the report was released in February, it forced me to reevaluate my work as a parish minister and give great consideration to the future of the Catholic Church among the laity. Most amazing and concerning is the huge drop off in numbers of American Catholics. The actual number of Catholics in the U.S. has remained the same for the past 25 years because of the many, primarily Latin American, immigrants to the U.S. who have retained their Catholic identity in their adopted homeland. Among U.S. born Catholics, however, the Church is witnessing drop out rates comparable to the Reformation. Ten percent of the U.S. Population (1 in every 10 Americans), was raised Catholic but no longer practice or considers themselves Catholic. These are not the many people who only show up to church for big occasions, for they are still counted as practicing Catholics, but 10% of the entire U.S. population has chosen to leave the Church of their family and childhood. Only 2-3% of the 10% have left to join other religions (primarily Evangelical/Fundamentalist churches), and the other 7-8% are unaffiliated Christians, agnostics or atheists. Among all religions in the U.S., the Catholic Church demonstrated the greatest loss by a very wide margin.

The June report also confirmed that 68% of Catholic and mainline Protestant Americans say that their churches should adjust traditional practices in light of new circumstances or adopted norms. Of great interest to me as a professional catechetical leader, though not necessarily surprising given my experiences in parish ministry, is that the knowledge and acceptance of Catholic teachings, even as basic of beliefs as those of the Eucharist or a non-literalist reading of the Bible is barely different from the overall American population. This means that past religious education/faith formation either did a poor job and/or Catholics prefer to look to pop culture for their understanding of faith and religious practices. In fact, 52% say that they look most to practical experience and common sense rather than Church teachings and beliefs for their life’s decisions.

What amazes me even more than these numbers is the utter lack of concern and active response from the Catholic hierarchy. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement following the June 23 findings that could not have expressed more disinterest. It ends by saying that we must keep doing what we’ve been doing: “In the face of any measure, the steady and ongoing response of the Church is an ever renewed commitment to robust catechetical efforts.” Are they serious? I’m dumbfounded! Dioceses across the country have either filed or are close to filing bankruptcy, diocesan offices, parishes, and Catholic schools are barely staying open for lack of funds and support (the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, for example, now has ONE person in charge of catechesis—both child and youth for the entire diocese where 20 years ago there were 15 people), and droves of Catholics are leaving the church for countless reasons. Still the bishops chose to remain blind and not do anything to help Christ’s church remain vibrant and present on earth as Christ’s greatest Sacrament.

For the past 25 years, the buzz word in the Catholic Church has been “evangelization,” yet instead of growing and bringing new members into our communities, those initiated in infancy refuse to stay. From my wide eyed and optimistic perspective, using these research findings to reevaluate parish and diocesan structure, activities, ministries, outreach, and faith formation could bring about a wonderful and vibrant renewal in the Church, one that could meet our society’s growing thirst for community and a sense of belonging, yet our leaders seem committed to doing what their brothers in Europe have done…let our church buildings become museums and watch our faith community move towards extinction.

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.