Church in transition Pardon our dust

We live in a messy time of transition in the Catholic Church. Sociologist Bryan T. Froehle offers four tools to help us through the renovation.

During Lent we often try to focus on changing some part of ourselves. And sometimes, by the grace of God, we are actually successful. But change usually takes human beings longer than 40 days. Machines can be altered by changing a part; computer software can be completely redirected with a new program. But transitions take us a little longer.

We do as we were taught and live by our memories. Our patterns of seeing the world and of responding to it were developed in family and cultural settings over many years, and we therefore resist taking on new habits or dropping old ones—even when we know better. Many of us still fight the battles we first fought years ago, whether with our parents, our siblings—or our church. Although the apparent transition to a post-Vatican II church could seem as fast as changing the Mass from Latin to English, we are only now experiencing what it means to be a church in transition. New generations are growing up within the church, and older ones are passing from the scene. Our society, economy, and world have changed—and the church reflects those changes.

Based on my sociological research, I would like to suggest four signs, or tools, for those of us living in a church in transition, although they are hardly the only ones.

Nostalgia is a dead end
Picture yourself around a family campfire telling stories about generations past and present. You know these stories and what they say about you and your values. Now picture a great big Catholic campfire. You’ll hear stories about how we came as an immigrant people from Europe to a new land where we were discriminated against and worked in factories. Also that we built schools, beautiful churches, hospitals, and a whole infrastructure from scratch, and rose within a few short generations to positions of acceptance and accomplishment—success through sacrifice and communal values.

This Catholic campfire story has hit the limit of its usefulness. Young Catholics of European descent no longer know those immigrant ancestors for the most part and are far removed from anything other than their relative affluence. Models of sacrifice and communal values are no longer as clear when one’s grandparents are baby boomers rather than children of the Great Depression. Most of all, today only about half of Catholic teens are Euro-Americans.

Today we need to incorporate stories tied to the horror and terrible dislocations of slavery. (There are more Black Catholics in the United States than members of the United Church of Christ—the church that came over with the Pilgrims to settle New England.)

In the case of Hispanic Catholics, we need to understand what it means to be a conquered people. Half of what once was Mexico sits within U.S. territory today, Puerto Rico was also conquered by the United States, and Latin America has experienced frequent military and economic interventions from its neighbor to the north over the years.

One thing is clear: The old Catholic campfire story, itself a way of understanding numerous different experiences, no longer speaks as it once did.

One clear mistake is a turn toward nostalgia. Holding onto a past that is gone or trying to relive a dead past carries huge costs in lost opportunities. Perhaps the best way to destroy the values that sustain our Catholic institutions today is to maintain them with the least possible change.

To maintain Catholic schools without rethinking funding patterns, parish relationships, and structural, cultural, and community issues is to move toward a situation where more and more schools close for lack of funding, and the only Catholic elementary schools become those associated with large, wealthy parishes—hardly the values on which Catholic schools were founded.

To maintain Catholic parishes without rethinking community—based less on territory and more on chosen affiliation growing out of work, culture, age, and socioeconomic or other ties—is to move toward parishes that are sacrament factories, all alike on the outside and lacking a true community life on the inside.

In both cases it is possible to sustain Catholic schools and parishes with a turn toward nostalgia—but they will be far fewer in number and based on high levels of commitment from the declining numbers of Catholics who have an affinity or social background that connects to these older, exhausted models.

If nostalgia is fundamentally a dead end, what works? How about reflecting on how our Catholic parishes and schools and dioceses and families and people of the 20th century came to be what they were—and aren’t any longer, since that time is passed and they cannot be what they once were. Let’s remember that these once-flourishing realities, now largely gone, were developed by creative, individualistic, pioneering pastoral leaders, bishops, priests, sisters, laypeople—who did not necessarily know where things were headed but knew that they had to build something new for a new time.

Giving the past and nostalgia about the past the Christian burial it deserves might be a good place to start. Retrieving the kind of energy, enthusiasm, and evangelical spirit that builds community and shares the faith might be a good next step. This kind of thing cannot be done once and for all, of course. As with all in human life, it is perhaps best seen as something that needs to be done in a thousand baby steps.

Culture is our friend
“Modernity” ended sometime in the last decade or so, though arguably was on its way out just when it was at its peak during the 1950s and 1960s. Today we live in “postmodern” times, where there is no single universally accepted truth, no single dominant discourse or culture, no “last word” to which all must accommodate or assimilate. This can be confusing and dispiriting—but it can also be a time of great hope. While neither Catholicism nor Christianity is socially recognized today as having an authoritative claim to be the sole form of truth, neither is any other truth claim so recognized, giving Catholicism space to put itself forth today.

Still it might seem that everything was easier for Catholic leaders and church life in the modern period. In the 1950s people attended church regularly (as high as 75 percent of all Catholics in the United States, compared to 25 to 33 percent today). They knew their catechism and shared a common culture. Uniformity was very much a trademark of modern culture, both inside and outside the Catholic Church.

But do we remember the struggles the church experienced in the modern period? We tend to remember only when the modern age and the church were a good fit. But this fit was hardly perfect, and it was never preordained. It took leaders and ordinary folk to connect church life and the gospel to their lives as Catholics. We are living in a time of transition today, and pastoral leaders and ordinary folk alike are called to create a new way of linking the gospel to culture, parish faith communities to everyday life.

The present is a great time for the Catholic Church, full of opportunities no less than losses and declines. But when we start to circle the wagons around those whom we identify as highly committed or somehow more pure in the faith, we become sectarian and move away from being church. A church engages the culture, accepts the culture, even embraces the culture because only in that embrace can the church perform its mission of transformation. And this simply reflects the everyday truth that we are deeply, inescapably marked by our culture.

We are inextricably tied to the reality of our bodies and simply cannot be disembodied persons. Neither can we be persons or a church outside of our culture. And why would we want to? The strengths we find in our culture will give us the strength to build up our church, here and now. Our culture values achievement, prizes individual freedom, and constantly builds voluntary social ties. Things we might reject in our culture come from those same values—from their shadow sides or an unbalanced application of those values. Perhaps instead of rejecting culture and trying to stand outside of it, we might instead identify the values and behaviors we find within our culture. Many of them can be very gospel-affirming values indeed.

Take this consideration about culture further. If pastors, priests, and parishes themselves are fundamentally in the worship business, then culture is the key to pastoral success. Worship that is successful—whether it echoes beautiful organ strains of Bach or the latest jazz motif, the extraordinary prayerfulness of Gregorian chant or a powerfully exuberant Pentecostal style—all draw on cultural expectations and understandings in exceptional ways. Worship that is less engaging is precisely less engaging in terms of cultural connectivity.

There is nothing about an organ that is especially Catholic, nor about an electric guitar or keyboard that would make them any less suited for Catholic worship. There is nothing intrinsically non-Catholic in using styles of worship developed originally by non-Catholics. In fact, that is what Catholics are especially good at—whether in the case of ancient Greek and Roman societies or of contemporary African or Asian societies.

This is why worship that truly engages the 4:30 p.m. Saturday crowd is different from the 8 a.m. Sunday experience or the young adult Mass on Sunday evening. These are all different cultures. This is also why worship in different parts of town and different parts of the country works differently, and why different kinds of preaching is received differently.

It is about connecting to culture and about strategically identifying and using specific cultural resources. There is no one common denominator, no one “culture” or historical moment to accept or reject. Rather there are multiple cultures with which one must connect if preaching and worship is to truly engage and the missalette and hymnal are to truly come alive.

Adults only
Have you ever been on an airplane when they’ve said that adults should take care of themselves first, then the children that they are with? We are sometimes uncomfortable when we hear this, but there is a great deal of truth in it.

Catholics today give a disproportional amount of their energy to forming children in the faith, and yet we virtually ignore God’s call to adults. Compared with Protestants, Catholics have a proportionately stronger presence in children’s education programs and a much weaker presence in adult faith formation, prayer groups, and the like.

Today, however, engaging children works best within a community that reaches out to the adults and models the development of adult disciples at the same time as it passes on the faith to young people.

In the 1950s Catholics placed an overriding value on raising children who were obedient. By the 1980s, as the sociologist Duane Alwin shows, Catholics most valued children who could think for themselves. In the 1950s working for a large organization meant obedience to those in authority and respect for the institution. Today we move from job to job in an information-based economy organized more like the Internet than a traditional corporate or government bureaucracy. And we all know we don’t have jobs for life and that our employers and the government do not necessarily have an unshakable loyalty to us or even respect our needs.

So we’ve come to raise children to think on their own, to be creative, not to rely on others, and not to be especially obedient. No wonder we can’t seem to figure out how to keep teens, young adults, and so many others attending church regularly. We’re still assuming that they are obedient and would act as if they have great institutional loyalty—in other words as if they were raised in the 1950s. This worldview long ago lost its social foundation, is not found in the current generation, and is unlikely to be found in the future.

On the other hand, we can certainly make the case that children are children precisely because they are dependent and can thus be forced to be obedient—at least up to a point. Perhaps we could also say that as a church we have a hidden, unspoken desire that parishioners be a little more obedient in terms of their commitment and attendance.

However, if we want to actually raise up and keep the next generation of Catholic adults, then pastoral life is going to need to speak to those who think for themselves. It is going to need to be a community of adult disciples.

Faith communities today cannot be based so much on communal ties as on associational ones. What is the difference? Communal ties tend to be ones inherited as children rather than chosen as adults. Associational ties lead to faith communities with a strong emphasis on adult faith formation and adult discipleship—where children are welcome and treasured guests but not the be-all and end-all of the community. Rather, adults model adult-style commitments to church—ones that children and teens will be expected to undertake themselves if they, in fact, choose to continue in the practice of their faith.

Today Catholics quite rightly socialize their young people to think for themselves rather than be obedient. Being creative and thinking for oneself is essential for success in our culture and our economy, and being obedient is not a very functional value for people who need to live and act independently in a society marked by individualism and choice. Our Catholic faith communities would do well to keep up with this trend by putting adults first. This does not entail putting children down—just challenging adults to witness to their faith and giving them space to do so.

There is another reason to focus on adults, and it has to do with a social shift many of us have hardly noticed. Today 75 percent of households in the United States have no school-age children. Thirty years ago it was just the opposite. At that time an overwhelming majority of households had school-age children to be formed and raised. So it was not surprising that Catholic parishes could unite around the needs of the Catholic school and CCD program. A large number of households with children had something in common. Parishes focused on “doing something for the kids,” and it worked, often simultaneously engaging the adults. And such a model, based on very high proportions of Catholics with school-age children, could succeed with relatively limited adult leadership. The overriding need and the structures required were obvious; everything grew up organically, in a taken-for-granted style around a common need.

Nothing could be more different today. At a time when most households no longer have school-age children, people bring a diversity of needs that often overwhelm parishes and pastoral leaders in their sheer number and complexity. Having a large number of households without children means that these households effectively have little in common as a whole. Pastoral leaders need to make hard decisions: What common interests are to be a central focus? Circumstances will not decide.

We may therefore see very good reasons to embrace the emergence of increasingly specialized parishes—some focused on youth, others oriented toward young adults, some with a strong focus on certain kinds of musical styles.

The simple truth is that a number of ministry needs cost money and valuable talent. Parishes have limited funds and can only invest strongly in some areas. Logically this situation would lead either to a mediocre parish life that tries to be all things to all people, or specialized parishes that do some well-chosen and very specific things especially well.

Distinctively Catholic, 21st-century style
The years since the close of the Second Vatican Council have been conflicted and somewhat messy, in contrast to the experience of Catholicism that had preceded it. However the Second Vatican Council did not so much destroy what had gone on before as to recognize its passing. Today Catholicism has moved from a one-size-fits-all model to a range of models fit for distinct groups, particular communities, and individual commitments.

Catholicism is as vital as ever, but in new and far more diverse ways, befitting a truly global church. Think of today’s thriving parishes around the world. Catholic faith communities in various countries flourish to the extent to which gospel values and the sacramental vision of Catholicism are successfully woven into the needs, aspirations, and social and cultural realities of the communities they serve, whether in terms of the smallest units of Catholic life or the largest.

Over the next several decades we will see many more closings and consolidations of parishes in Europe, North America, and Australia. In these same areas, the big parishes will get bigger, and the vast majority of Catholics will be found in these very large, vital parishes. At the same time an already pastorally diverse developing-world Catholicism will become even more diverse. There is simply no one right way, no one model that a “truly Catholic” or “successful” parish follows. Instead the leadership and members of a faith community have to understand themselves and develop their own hybrid model.

If Catholicism can be described, as James Joyce famously put it, as “Here comes everybody,” then we must truly live with everybody in various states and understandings, as pilgrims along the way.

There are many more signs along the way, of course, but what’s most interesting is that we don’t always pay attention to the signs right before us—even when they might be flashing. Perhaps it is best not to see this as a list of signs but of challenges—challenges to which all of us as church need to respond during this time of transition, together.

Bryan T. Froehle is director of the Siena Center and associate professor of sociology at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.

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