Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Future of the Church


Pope Francis is in Brazil for World Youth Day. According to USA Today part of the Pope’s mission is to help stop Catholics from abandoning the Church in favor of evangelical and often Pentecostal Protestant churches.

What is fueling the shift from Catholicism to Protestantism? According to the paper many Catholics prefer the ecstatic worship style of charismatic and Pentecostal churches, and find the message delivered there to be more relevant to their lives.

I asked an Hispanic pastor I know why this might be so. He said that people want to tap into something greater than themselves, and the ecstasy generated in some charismatic churches may do just that, while the more introspective nature of the Catholic Mass doesn’t.

As for the message Protestant churches offer and the Catholic Church lacks, he suggests it the Protestant focus on the individual: Jesus wants you to succeed and be wealthy, and will support you if you join the capitalist entrepreneurial cause. The Catholic message, he says, is more focused on helping the poor through social justice than it is on helping you out of poverty by faithfully embracing capitalism.

I have no way of testing these ideas, but I would love to hear from you on this. If you are Catholic, help us understand the challenges your church is facing, and why you think Catholics in Latin America are trending Protestant. If you made the change yourself, tell us why. If you are a life-long Protestant, tell us what you think is lacking in the Catholic Church and why Protestantism, especially in its charismatic and Pentecostal forms is so enticing to people.

Let’s see if we can learn from one another.

9 comments:

Charles Kinnaird said...

I am a Christian who loves ecumenical dialogue with other non- Christian faiths and in my own practice have been involved with traditional “mainline” Protestantism, Charismatic , Episcopalian and Catholic. I think each faith expression has something to offer to seekers. They each appeal to different people because we are all on a continuum of faith practice. Sometimes an exuberant impetuous youth can be drawn to the excitement of the Pentecostal or Charismatic brand of faith. That same person later in life, if he or she continues in faith practice, may need something more staid and established.

Back in 2001 when I was in the process of entering into the Roman Catholic Church, I wrote this brief essay about my experience:

Writing in the Margins
by Charles Kinnaird

Not long ago I read a commentary by Roger Rosenblatt in an old Newsweek Magazine. The title of the article was “Marginalia.” The article talked about the common practice of writing comments in the margins of books that one is reading. In some cases, the author pointed out, it is annoying, in other cases interesting to read the comments someone has made in the margins of a book. At any rate, Rosenblatt points out that marginalia alters the nature of the book. What was set in print with the idea of being permanent, becomes dialogue and perhaps impermanent with the reader’s comments, either questioning or affirming the printed text.

Since I am in the process of converting to the Roman Catholic Church, it occurred to me that Protestantism has served as marginalia to Catholicism. Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church would not be what it is today without having had to respond to the comments and questions of Protestantism. Catholicism has had to make itself accountable for its teachings and practices. As a result, it seems to me that the Catholic Church, while remaining constant, is not as stodgy, not as ethnic, not as unbending as in the past. Vatican II is a great example of the Church responding the world around it. Consequently, it is more universal, more relevant, and more dynamic.

Looking back at my pilgrimage from Baptist to Episcopalian to Catholic, I have never felt that I was turning away from anything. Rather, I have been moving toward faith. I have been responding to that same faith that was nurtured from the beginning in my parents’ home. All of my major moves in life (including school, marriage, and career changes) have come with the sensation of stepping into a broader place -- a sense of opening up to wider views and greater possibilities. It is the same with the process of coming into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. I am tempted to say that I am moving from the marginalia of Protestantism to the complete text of Catholicism, but in the whole scheme of things, I know that it is all marginalia.

Mordechai Ben Nathan said...

It was Martin Luther who spoke of solo fidelis (only faith). I am wondering why you left the Baptists if faith was your goal. Protestantism stresses faith above all else. What was there about Catholicism that attracted you?

Mordechai Ben Nathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Kinnaird said...

Mordecai, My trek has been less about finding some “true faith” (you cannot say that any one expression is right to the exclusion of all others) and more about finding that place that resonates most given my spirituality and temperament. I don’t want to make this all about my own journey – I hope others will post about their own experiences. If former Catholics were a denomination, it would be the second largest in the country, so maybe some of them will share as well. I wrote extensively to some of my evangelical friends to try to “explain myself” to them. Believe it or not, what follows is the condensed version:

My first bridge to Catholicism came in seminary (Southern Baptist) when studying Church History where I discovered the mystics. I found that I resonated more with those spiritual pilgrims than I did with Baptists or Charismatics, who had been among my spiritual guides. Catholics had access to that whole mystic tradition that I used to say Protestants threw out along with Purgatory and indulgences. Also while in seminary, I discovered two other things Catholic: Patristic Theology and Thomas Merton. I was quite surprised to find that Patristic theology was one of the most exciting classes I had in seminary. Then when I started reading Thomas Merton, I found that was the kind of spiritual writing that I had needed.

The next bridge was when I met the dean of St. John's Cathedral in Hong Kong. He had been an American Baptist before converting to the Anglican Church and had a particular interest in Christian mysticism. We talked mainly about spirituality and Jungian psychology, but in the mean time, I was getting a glimpse of Anglo-Catholic liturgy.

Back in the USA, I found great affinity with the liturgy I experienced in an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal Church. It was a safe place for me to learn since, in addition to being "Catholic" it was also Protestant, so I didn't have to make too great a leap. I was able to experience a tradition that was very old, but new to me. I looked at it as learning a new language for worship. As with learning any new language, one makes adjustments and one learns new insights.

Later, my wife and I attended an enquirers class at a local Roman Catholic church and found it to be what we needed at the time. I am still learning what it is to be Catholic, and I have decided to proudly wear the label, "cafeteria Catholic," which some disparage. I like being able to think for myself and to choose what I like about Catholic faith and practice. There is a wide variety within the Catholic Church. There are liberal intellectuals, and there are extreme conservatives. There are social and political activists and there are spiritual seekers (I have to say that I am more at home with the liberal Jesuits at America Magazine that I am with the conservative EWTN cable network).

One thing I realize is that there is nothing anywhere in Protestantism that cannot also be found in Catholicism. Each sect within Protestantism -- whether it be Pentecostal, Evangelical, or mainstream Protestant -- has taken one aspect of the Gospel and run with it, often to the exclusion of many other things. Catholicism is broad enough to include all those aspects of the Gospel.

I am not evangelistic about the Roman Catholic Church, however. I would never say that Catholicism is for everyone. There has to be room for many expressions of faith and practice so that everyone can find a meaningful place. I sometimes call myself an "ecumaniac" and I am at home with universalist concepts.

The Catholic Church is more about community, whereas Protestants are more about the individual. I personally like the sense of community and the sense of history that I find in Catholicism. I must also throw in the caveat that I am much happier with the Catholic Church’s stand on peace and justice issues that I am with their stand on matters of sexuality and the pro-life/pro-choice debate. There is no perfect institution, and any institution will be a source of tension for the thinking pilgrim.

Len said...

As a cradle Catholic, although somewhat aged (68), I might have something to contribute to your original question, Rabbi.

Vatican II happened when I was roughly 17 to 20 (I won't bother to look up the dates). I went to a deeply conservative, almost ultra-conservative elementary and high school and was given an elite, insider`s education in all things Catholic.

Before Vatican II, the Mass was not "introspective." Nor is it now. I know what you mean, but that's not quite the right word. It was other-wordly. It was a direct link between you and God. It was un-social. Even in a congregation of several hundred, it was between you and God. Or perhaps more correctly it was: you -> priest -> God.
Vatican II tried to turn the mass into a communal event. The theology was (and is) great, but somehow, it just didn't take.

The Council Fathers were ahead of their public? It was done too top-down? It was done in the same authoritative way as the old stuff had been done? (The old way was, Thou shalt do it that way. The new way was, Thou shalt do it this way. Instead of, Let's talk together about possible new ways of doing things.) I don't know.

The elephant in the closet is that it's not called "Roman" Catholic Church for nothing. "Roman" in the cultural, historical sense carries with it a suggestion of severe restraint, an emotional economy, an almost utilitarian approach to life. The classical, ancient Romans, out of whom the church grew, were not known for their flamboyance. They detested outward shows of emotion. They loved rationality. They detested any hint of ecstasy (too Greek or "Oriental"). Think Roman law, or the verbal stinginess of Latin literature.

That was the matrix of the Roman church. And it bears that stamp to this day. I'm not sure whether it can ever divest itself of that. It's almost a personality type.

The 20th and 21st centuries are taking a different path. Everywhere. My sons are much more expressive, ecstatic, "outward" than I ever was. It's part of what the drug culture was/is about. No one will find this kind of emotionalism or expressiveness in the RC church as it is today.

As one commenter pointed out, the church before and after Martin Luther was quite different, even though it bore the same name and would have denied any change. The same thing will probably happen now (or not).

Mordechai Ben Nathan said...

Thank you Charles. I am a fan of Merton as well. He was also a convert. Yes i see your point about mysticism. I had been very interested in Meister Eckhardt. He died in the nick of time. The inquisitors were yapping at his heels.

MichAL said...

Thank you for your article on the state of the Catholic Chruch (I keep typing the word "chruch" as in crutch, hmmm could this be rather subconscious?) Anyway, I was raised Catholic way before the Vatican II Council, aka the old Catholic faith. Having started a masters degree in religious studies at a Detroit Jesuit institution years ago, I found my mind gravitating toward the scholarly side of religion. That venue tool me on a long journey toward the realization that what I was worshipping as a child (a rather fearful child at that..anyone raised Catholic back in the 1950's will know of what I speak)..what I was worshipping was not a Divine Healer, or the "second person of the Trinity" or any verbiage one wishes to apply, but in fact I was worshipping an institution, a monarchy of sorts, a political organization. I wish I could have known the Jesus of the first century AD instead of what is preached and professed in church buildings now. All this revelation to me has turned me to Judaism, Buddhism at times, and to other non-denominational faiths wherein people demonstrate their concern for each other rather than the constant drive for money, hiding one religious/sexual scandal after another, dictating how my body will or will not conceive, using political clout to control the flow of money in the Vatican Bank to influence the politics of other nations, and so on. As someone once said "If Jesus came back to earth right now, it is doubtful He would even recognize what has developed in His Name."

Rabbi Rami said...

Thank you all so much for the thoughtful comments. I imagine lots of readers benefited from this exchange. I certainly know I did.

Fraser said...

Trying to stop people abandoning the church seems to me to be a wasted energy. I can see why but I don't think it works.
I have a friend who was a Presbyterian minister for years and in the end he had to say "if it wants to die then let it". They tried to make it all more relevant and make the music funkier etc etc but in the end some mysterious process was saying "no'.
I have moved into reading and learning from mostly catholic theologians such as those already mentioned... Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhardt, Richard Rohr etc. They seem to have maintained a connection to the much earlier mystical roots of Christianity which was more open to the divine spark being in everything and everyone. The problem I see with the pentecostal form is that it is utterly closed in that regard. That is why I don't go to church any more. Friends often tell me that it is essential to be part of a community of faith but there is no way I can do it. The moment you go through the door it is all us and them. We got it all right and all the others are going to burn. The reason I have followed the people I have is that there is actual love in the works. I have been searching for a way to be in relationship with the divine and broadly hold the world at large as ok in it's myriad forms and religious expressions. This is very NOT ok in any stripe of Pentecostal religion I've come across.
The question as to why catholics are heading in that direction could have many aspects. A lot of people want certainty from religion so that they feel secure in some way in the face of death and life's anxieties. Perhaps the moral crisis in the Catholic institution is depleting the certain security of young catholics and they can see something in other churches they crave? I'm not sure.
The suggestion that Jesus wants you to succeed and be wealthy is worthy of considerable investigation. There is a real section of the church that thinks this way and it is nearly always pentecostal. I can't see anything in the christian sacred literature that would back this up. Kenosis, according to modern scholars such as Cynthia Bourgeault, is the Jesus way. Self emptying into being a conduit for a greater life flowing through us. Doesn't sound like a recipe for glorious riches to me?
Institution is a massive problem for all stripes of religion I think. I think an ever deepening fidelity to a particular path is vital but I have felt strongly that one of the meanings of Jesus' body broken and blood spilled was that he took meaning from the institution and vested it in the larger mystical body again.