Part of the urgency that animates the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI is the growing secularization that appears to be winning the battle for hearts and minds in many traditional Christian countries, including Western Europe and, increasingly, the United States.
For U.S. Catholic leaders, there are worrying signs: declining Mass attendance (now below 20 percent in Boston and Philadelphia), declining rates of sacramental practice, and an apparent willingness to ignore the teaching authority of the pope and bishops.
One might say there is really nothing new here. Another Pope Benedict — Pope Benedict XIV — in the 18th century, once said, “The pope orders, the cardinals do not obey, and the people do as they please.” In other words, and with apologies to Hilaire Belloc, Where e’re a Catholic sun doth shine, there’s likely to be much Catholic whine.
Pope Benedict XIV would never have imagined, however, that a majority of Catholics would freely ignore Church teaching on such issues as gay marriage, abortion and contraception.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that this alienation from official teaching is even impacting those who regularly attend Mass.
When it comes to abortion, 62 percent of Catholics who attend Mass weekly believe it should be illegal, for example, but 32 percent believe it should be legal. For those who attend Mass less often, only 27 percent believe it should be illegal, and 69 percent approve of its legalization.
For same-sex marriage, the percentage of weekly Massgoers who believe it should be legal has gone from 24 percent in 2003 to 39 percent in 2012. Those who attend Mass less often have gone from 46 percent approval to 63 percent.
In fact, self-identified Catholics as a whole tend to be slightly ahead of the general population in supporting same-sex marriage.
These numbers do suggest a certain allegiance among weekly Massgoers, but this majority is in a group that totals only about 25 percent of the entire self-identified Catholic population.
Gay marriage is not the only signpost on the road to secularization. The drop-off in sacramental marriage of the heterosexual variety, along with the impact of divorce on the religious affiliation and practice of parents and children, the sexual abuse scandal’s very real damage to the authority of Church leaders and — perhaps most significantly — the absolute lack of an adult understanding of what the Church teaches and why all contribute to this attention deficit.
There are many places where we could begin this adult education, but we might start with a report on the American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute: A majority of all Catholics (61 percent) and weekly Massgoers (51 percent) would prefer the Church to focus its public-policy statements “more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor, even if it means focusing less on issues like abortion.”
Catholics seem to have trouble understanding the unity of Catholic teaching. It is not just a series of “thou shalt nots,” nor is it two competing partisan ideologies. It is a moral ecosystem of interrelated principles that arise from the Gospel and reinforce each other.
Life issues are not the opposite of social justice issues; they are two sides of the same coin. And appreciating the value of sacramental marriage precedes an understanding of the Church’s teaching on same-sex marriage.
Maybe part of the New Evangelization is simply to understand better what we claim to believe.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.