Talk to Catholics of a "certain age" -- typically between 30 and 50 years old -- and you're likely to hear similar stories. They will tell you they were never fully educated in the faith, that they don't really know the core teachings of the Church, that they can't pass their beliefs on to their children because they're not so sure of those beliefs themselves.
Our Sunday Visitor recently spoke with Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C., who is chairman of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, about this "lost generation" and what the Church has done to reconnect with these Catholics. Here is his take on the key issues.
How a generation of Catholics missed out on the core teachings of the faith:
Let's go back and take a look at what happened. In the late 1960s, '70s, even into the '80s, there was a desire to see if the faith could be made a more personal experience. So, an effort was made to try to engage people at the level of their experience, but what happened in all of that was the content of the faith was not emphasized. People could talk about being in a relationship with God. People could talk about caring and serving other people, but what was left out of the story was why. The "why" for how we live and for how we can conceivably relate to God is because God has come among us to tell us who he is, and that brings us into the whole world of revelation and, therefore, the teaching of the Church.
As we moved into the 1980s, the Church began to realize there was not an adequate grounding in the content of the faith. There was a lot of good will, but you can't with good will alone achieve the goal, which is communion with Christ in his Church and life everlasting.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church as corrective:
Out of that came, on the international level, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a source work for other catechetical texts that would be adapted by national conferences to groups of people. So, immediately the work began to see how to implement the Catechism of the Catholic Church and to take into account both the methodology of teaching and the content of the faith.
With the Catechism came the National Directory for Catechesis, which says you need to be aware when inviting someone into deepening their faith, you have to invite them into the community of the Church, you have to invite them into the sacramental life of the Church, you have to invite them into the sense of service that is part of the Church, but you have to invite them into knowing their faith so they can understand the creed. What does it mean to say, "I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit," and the Church and the sacraments? The directory says that you need to be engaging people but you need to be providing them content.
The influence of the current culture on Catholics:
Our Holy Father, during his recent visit here when he spoke to the bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Wed., April 16, reminded us that in our effort to teach the faith, in our effort to advance the new evangelization, we face three significant forces: We are challenged by secularism and the materialism around us, and the individualism that is so much a part of our culture.
So that while there is a genuinely religious spirit in our country, the influence of secularism can color the way people allow their faith to influence their behavior. We see that today where we're told your faith should be something personal, that it should be something private and shouldn't overflow into your public life, certainly not into your political life. The Holy Father is throwing a flag on that, but he's also telling us that a further obstacle to an encounter with the living God lies in the subtle influence of materialism, and we can too readily be focused on the here and now and not the bigger picture of transcendent reality.
And then finally, and this is something we're all familiar with, he says the emphasis on individualism can even affect members of the Church. We don't think of ourselves as a family of Christ, the body of Christ, the family of God. We don't think of ourselves as all a part of something that Christ created and established. People tend to think of themselves sometimes as one-on-one with God and that's enough. And so here we have a generation of people not well educated in their faith, not through any fault of their own, but they just haven't appropriated the faith, and now they're living in this heavy secular-, material- and individualistically-oriented world.
U.S. bishops respond to "doctrinal deficiencies":
Our own conference of bishops began to implement the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and, in doing that, invited publishers to submit their work to see if they were in conformity with the Catechism. That's where we found, over a number of years studying religious texts, that there are significant deficiencies, doctrinal deficiencies, and I think that accounts for what so many people are experiencing, a whole lost generation, people of good will who don't know the faith and because of that don't feel an allegiance to the Church.
The conformity of those texts with the Catechism -- and publishers readily worked with the bishops to see that there were series of texts for grades kindergarten through 12th -- now reflect the content of faith.
Then, in trying to reach that young adult group, the conference of bishops produced the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. What we tried to do there was do a book, a catechism of the faith, that would be inviting and informative but not encyclopedic. It was to invite those Catholics who simply don't know their faith well to look at this book. Each chapter can stand on its own, and each chapter is written to be an inviting reflection that gives you the heart of the teaching without trying to give you everything that can be said about it because you can always go back to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for more detail.
The trickle-down effect of poor catechesis:
We have a generation that hasn't understood well or hasn't been taught well, or at least hasn't appropriated well, the faith. Instead of seeing the Church as this great gift of God, with all the sacraments through which God touches us and makes us one as a family in Christ and one with himself, instead of seeing that, what they see is that as individuals they should be able to have a faith relationship that makes them feel good and comfortable, and wherever they can find that is good enough. I think one of the reasons why sometimes people may not come to Mass is because they haven't been taught that on that altar is the sacramental representation of the death and the resurrection of Christ.
Hope for the future:
I'm experiencing among many of these young adults who have drifted away or who were poorly catechized an openness to what the Church is saying, particularly when they're dealing with their children. They don't want their children to be as fuzzy about what really counts as they are admitting they are. So I think there's an openness now among many young adults to know a little bit more about what the Church really teaches, and maybe when they bring their kids for initiation into the sacramental life of the Church, it's a second chance for us to reach those adults.
The culture is not one that supports inviting people to believe. But on the other hand, the history and heritage of the United States is a history of faith and a heritage of belief, and so many, many of our people might be simply waiting for the invitation to come back.
Mary DeTurris-Poust is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.