By Teresa Tomeo
By now you most likely have heard at least something about the startling survey about religion in America recently released by the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life. The "Religious Landscape Survey" questioned 35,000 people from a variety of religious affiliations and came up with some pretty bad news, especially regarding the state of the Catholic Church in America. Probably the toughest statistic to swallow was the figure showing that one in 10 adult Americans are ex-Catholics.
Prominent Catholics, including clergy and members of the laity who study or work in evangelization and Catholic communications, say the report is yet another reminder that "Houston, we indeed have a problem," and now more than ever we need to really do something about what many are calling the "Catholic exodus."
Phil Lawler, editor of online news service Catholic World News and author of the recently released book "The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture" (Encounter, $25.95), says the Pew survey confirms that "there is a massive exodus from the Catholic Church in America."
"This is not just a problem; it is the problem facing the Church. By nature, the Church is an evangelical community -- a missionary institute. If we are not growing, something is wrong. In light of the spectacular advantages that we have in the field of communications -- as compared with the original apostles -- it's shocking that we are not more effective in conveying the Good News," Lawler said.
Lawler says there's no one factor or issue that can be cited as the main cause of the current crisis. But he does point to the lack of solid teaching that has occurred over the past few decades combined with the negative and overwhelming impact of the mass media and the entertainment industry.
"Our faith should shape our culture; instead, we have allowed the culture to shape our faith. The influence always runs in both directions, of course, but on balance, faith should change culture, not vice versa," he said.
In an effort to battle this trend, Bishop Robert J. Carlson of Saginaw, Mich., in January published a pastoral letter on evangelization. He told Our Sunday Visitor his concerns were supported by the Pew data.
"I find the information to be significant. It matches what I am seeing in many dioceses. Some places seem to be more free of the various influences, but not many," Bishop Carlson said.
In his pastoral letter, Bishop Carlson called on Catholics to stop following the culture and start following the Lord. He laments a widespread lack of knowledge of the faith as well as the lack of a commitment regarding a real relationship with Jesus.
"For a long time, I have spoken to people about the challenge of living in a culture which does not support basic Christian values like the family and marriage; and have challenged people not to give into a culture of various 'isms' -- materialism, rugged individualism, relativism, etc.," the bishop said.
So what's the answer to the $64,000 question of how to reach lapsed Catholics? Bishop Carlson said his letter doesn't provide a top-10-action-items list or a magic formula to address the need for evangelization. He really believes it starts with getting people to get serious about their relationship with God.
The Pew report did not take into account the pockets of Catholic evangelization that are springing up around the country. Dozens of orthodox Catholic men's and women's conferences continue to attract hundreds and even thousands of faithful Catholics. Catholic media, especially Catholic radio and Catholic forums on the Internet, continue to see phenomenal growth. There are also numerous lay apostolates that are answering the call to the new evangelization called for by Pope John Paul II.
But still these are not enough to counteract the exodus from the Church. Father John Riccardo, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in suburban Detroit and a Catholic radio host with the Ave Maria Radio Network, says programs like these can help us become stronger in our faith, making us better witnesses.
"I think what is a good start is we need to live out our lives as Catholics with great joy and with great holiness. [Pope] John Paul II would often say that the world is tired of hearing our words. They want to see saints. They want to see the faith lived out well. Just the other day I was thanking God for the witness of my mother and father when I was growing up, as well as the witness of my siblings, who are older than I. Their lives were so obviously more happy than mine when I was not following the Lord, and it left an incredible impression in my mind. Because of them I knew that sooner or later I needed to live the way they were living if I ever truly wanted to be happy," he said.
"This is how we all need to live. If we can do that, if we can live our lives in an attractive way, then that will stand out in this culture," Father Riccardo said.
Lawler says this is no time to lose hope or to lose heart. He is actually optimistic about the future.
"The Church has been going through a period of purification, with the sex abuse scandal -- which is not over -- as a sort of peak or a nadir, if you will. When we emerge we will have a better sense of what it means to be an apostolic institution -- a better focus, more self-discipline, more rigor and more ability to communicate the essentials of the Gospel message," he said.
"Not everything in our culture is hostile to the values of the Gospel. But at the same time, the list of contradictions could be multiplied. Let's get right to the bottom line: if we can't point to a number of issues on which the values we live by differ from the values of our culture, then we have to wonder about the depth of our commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ."
Quotes from Bishop Robert J. Carlson's pastoral letter on evangelization. To read the letter in its entirety, visit the Web at saginaw.org/images/Pastoral_Evangelization_010608.pdf
"The Church today, like the early Church, needs people who are ready for martyrdom --people who are willing to let their words and deeds bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, people who are willing to make sacrifice so that the truth of the Gospel can be heard, our culture challenged, and our world transformed."
Teresa Tomeo writes from Michigan.
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