Fading Catholicity

Popular restaurant, Saturday night. That was the way it was several years ago when I was in Rome and invited two seminarians at the North American College from my home diocese of Nashville, Tennessee, to dinner.

We arrived. The restaurant was packed, but fairly soon we were shown to a table. The restaurant must have expected a crowd and set up more tables, because our table was hardly 6 inches away from the adjoining table where sat a man, maybe in his late 30s or early 40s.

The seminarians and I began to chat, nothing special. How are your classes? It was a cold winter at home, and so on. All three of us were wearing Roman collars. Soon, the man at the next table addressed us. He asked if we were priests. Saying that I was priest, I presented the others as students for the priesthood.

He said that he presumed that we were Americans. We said that we were and asked him his nationality. He said he was French, from Lyon, and an electrical engineer attending a meeting in Rome about modern issues in producing and transmitting electric power.

One of the seminarians asked the man if he were a Catholic. Emphatically, the man said that absolutely he was a Roman Catholic.

By this time, he was part of our group.

We started speaking about religious practices. Then, he said that he was an atheist. A seminarian, not surprisingly puzzled, asked how could he be a Catholic and an atheist at the same time?

“Of course I am Catholic!” he insisted. “I am French!”

No country in the world has a more brilliant Catholic history than does France. They call France the “eldest daughter of the Roman Church.” Its Catholicity traces back 1,900 years. The popes entitled it “the most Christian nation.”

He then described his own present situation, and by inference French Catholicism. He and his four siblings were baptized and attended Catholic schools. They had received their first Communions and had been confirmed, but none had darkened the door of a church in years.

This man is typical. Look at two prominent French people today, national leaders. The immediate past president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, still identifies himself as a Catholic, but says that he never attends Mass, and his private life is a problem from the Catholic standpoint. His successor, the incumbent, François Hollande, was reared in a practicing Catholic family and attended Catholic schools. Now, he lists himself as agnostic.

All across Europe traditional religion is being abandoned — with breathtaking speed and absolute finality.

A similar trend quite visibly is underway in this country. Fewer Catholics are not going to church. Many Catholic parents watch their children drift away from, or leave, the Church altogether, and see their grandchildren without any religion.

Historic, “mainline” Protestant churches in this country are losing people in droves but, interestingly, fundamentalist Protestant groups, often johnnys-come-lately in the historical sense, are attracting many new members. What is the message here?

Regardless, these realities make clear that in the future being Catholic will not depend on family background, or possibly on religious experience in childhood. It will not be about where someone came from, or what their grandparents or even parents believed.

It will mean deeply personal, individually chosen, convinced, mature commitment to Christ precisely as the Catholic Church presents Christ.

What to do? Give an example of true discipleship. Love the Church.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.