Out of Practice

Author: Lawrence Cunningham

Telling the person next to you on an airplane that you are a theologian is a guaranteed conversation starter. You get many different reactions and discuss a lot of interesting topics. One of the most prominent conversations, however, starts with those who tell you they are “bad Catholics,” then recite a familiar litany of reasons to explain their laxity.


The list is in some ways predictable and seemingly endless. Most anyone who has ever had a conversation about religion has heard people say they are not “practicing” Catholics because: They are divorced and remarried. They do not like the church’s teaching on birth control. They get nothing out of going to church. They have had bad experiences with clergy. They cannot stand the new liturgy. They think the church is too reactionary. The sermons, they say, are banal.


I soon will mark 30 years of university teaching, at Notre Dame and at state universities, and I have heard from parents with a similar list. They bring this lament to me: “We provided a solid Catholic environment for our son/daughter, then he/she goes off to school and ‘loses’ his/her faith.” The shift from practicing Catholic to being “inactive” is then blamed on liberal professors (or, if the parents are liberal, on conservative ones). Or blame is placed on the loose morals of the young, or on bad companions, and so on.


I cannot count the times parents have called me to ask about books that might get their offspring back into the pews or for the names of counselors who might argue them out of their indifference or hostility. I also hear each semester from students who tell me they are “ex-Catholics.”


So now I give talks about “lapsed” or “fallen away” or “inactive” or “nonpracticing” Catholics. When I present lectures to Notre Dame clubs around the country, I often begin by asking who in the audience has a close family member who is no longer active in the church. The forest of upraised arms dramatically underscores a point I can make with statistics.


My colleague at Notre Dame, sociologist Richard Lamanna, estimates, based on a national survey, that about one-third of the 60 million Catholics in the United States are not regular members of a parish. These 20 million people have not left the Catholic Church for another denomination. About half of them attend church infrequently and participate in the sacramental life sporadically; the rest have only the most minimal attachment to church life.


What this means is that, while Catholics form the largest religious denomination in America, there are more inactive Catholics in this country than the next largest Christian denomination (Southern Baptists). And this doesn’t even take into account those Catholics who have left the church for another Christian denomination or religion. But another 15 percent of U.S. Catholics will join another church, most often following a marriage partner who is more zealous in church practice.


What is one to make of all this? About 10 years ago I unburdened myself on this topic in a small book entitled Faith Rediscovered: Coming Home to Catholicism, which was commissioned by Paulist Press to provide a brief work to hand people returning to the practice of their faith. What I discovered as a teacher/theologian and parent trying to keep my own adolescents connected to church life was a variety of things.


First is that many people do not “lose” their faith; they simply give up a certain form of behavior in which they have been socialized. A young person may be “socialized” into certain forms of actions (going to mass, praying before meals) because that is what the family does. But, not having made any personal commitment to that form of life, they simply slough it off when they leave that environment…as easily as they stop participating in an organized sport or quit listening to a certain kind of music.


These young people have never really made an act of faith. They’ve simply followed a certain behavior pattern to which they have no personal or deep allegiance. Many, in short, become inactive during this stage in their lives and see it as “growing up.”


Second, others give up the practice of their faith because there is a dissonance between who they are or how they perceive themselves and what the demands of the church seem to indicate they ought to be. Thus, a fairly significant number of highly educated young women in this country find the church, rightly or wrongly, an oppressive institution. The disaffection of some professional women should be no secret; women who have had to struggle for their legitimate place, for example, in the professions are hardly likely to be comfortable in an institution which seems to them paternal or patronizing.


Married people may find the church’s teaching on birth control wildly at variance with their own experiences as parents. Still others have been injured by the actual experiences they have had with their local Catholic community. They find the church racist or uncaring or excessively moralistic.


Third, many people do not discover in their specific church the resources to nurture their desire for prayer or the paths to a deeper spirituality or the instruments to help them find contentment in their lives. The fact that many young inactive Catholics turn to the church at marriage or when having children or during a crisis indicates a deep residual belief or hope that the church does, in fact, have the resources to help them—even when they have not had this sense in the ordinary day-by-day experiences of life.


Active Catholics ought to meditate long and hard on the fact that “spiritual” writers attract enormous audiences. These readers hunger for some schema of nurturing spirituality, as authors like Scott Peck and Thomas Moore know (to the immense benefit of their financial well-being).


Finally, too many people think that one is expected primarily and fundamentally to have faith in the church when, in fact, our church teaches that primarily one is called to have faith in God as revealed in Christ though the power of the Holy Spirit.


For many people, to have faith in the church is analogous to having faith in a large corporation. The church as a visible institution just seems too vast, too complicated, too sinful and too burdened with its own dogmatism to resonate with ordinary life. Their inactivity might be rooted in disillusionment with an institution and not a loss of faith.


To those generalizations one could add a variety of specific grievances or explanations. Everyone has heard them in all of their painful specificity. Everyone also knows persons who would dearly love to be active in the church but experience a deep sense of alienation. Those who timidly ask about their status as a divorced person are part of this group. So are single people, who feel on the margins in family-oriented suburban parishes, to say nothing of those who “look” gay or different.


These are the people for whom we need feel a special responsibility because they are the ones who see themselves as victims of the Church. Their marginalization demands that we think more deeply about a theology of hospitality beginning, for example, with this simple question drawn from the Gospels: With whom did Jesus eat? And what is the significance to be found in the fact that one Gospel story condemns a rich man to hell precisely because he failed to extend hospitality to a poor beggar sitting at his gate? To think theologically about the inactive Catholic is to think theologically about the biblical issue of hospitality.


So what does one say about these nearly 20 million inactive Catholics, or, to make it more personal, what can we say to them?


We might begin with something so obvious that it should hardly need pointing out. Some years ago a national pastoral research center interviewed a large number of people who had come back to practice their faith. Nine of 10 said the reason they came back was because someone asked them to return. This invitation may have come from an individual or from a parish or diocesan outreach program. In my travels I have seen billboards inviting people to church during, for example, Lent.


I also know a pastor in the Southwest who invites people back to the church during his homilies at Christmas and Easter, times when inconsistent attenders are usually in the pews. For more than a decade he has been reconciling nearly 100 people a year by this simple strategy of inviting people back. All such programs indicate, at the very least, that some church people are aware of the problem and are doing something about it. That is a hope-filled sign in itself.


The crucial issue, of course, is what the person finds when he or she does come back, however haltingly, to church. We can also frame that issue in terms of a question: Will the returning Catholic find a hospitable community? Will the liturgy be a true act of corporate worship? Will the attitude of a parish community be one of friendship and acceptance? Will the resources of the Catholic tradition be present and available to nourish deep needs for prayer, worship and service?


A few years ago Catholic sociologist and author Andrew Greeley and his associates did some research on Catholics under age 35 who were active in their parishes. The single most significant factor which made a parish attractive to these active Catholics was the quality of the homilies. The desire for good preaching means a number of things: People want to hear something worthwhile; they are open to listening if something is said.


Another way of looking at it is this: How many people, businesses and institutions in this world would love to have a couple of hundred every week eager to hear some message they wanted to broadcast? The church has that opportunity and, alas, (to use the Gospel phrase) instead of bread, those people receive a stone.


The hospitality I have spoken about indicates an enormous pastoral problem for the church leadership. A few years ago the German hierarchy tried to devise a pastoral strategy to allow divorced and remarried Catholics under specific guidelines to receive the Eucharist. This initiative was turned down by Rome as unacceptable, much to the consternation of the German church. Without arguing the merits of the German proposal one way or another here, it’s clear that this initiative of the entire German hierarchy derived from their conviction that this is a huge pastoral problem for which there were some solutions. The German clergy’s initiative suggests how important it is for people to think long and hard about these problems.


Beyond the obvious need for basic hospitality, a further issue needs to be faced boldly. People often feel estranged from the church for reasons they see as essential but which, in reality, are not core issues of the Catholic faith. For people to be told, explicitly or implicitly, that they are not welcome in the church because they cannot accept the church’s teaching on an issue like contraception or because they are remarried or because they do not like the pope’s message about sexual norms is to miss the point wildly.


The far more mature and honest invitation should be something like this: Come back to the church, worship with us, pray, seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and be open to what the church says. Test yourself against a central criterion: Is my life or beliefs compatible with the Gospel way of life? When Saint Augustine said, “Love God and do what you will,” he was only pointing out a truism: If one has faith in the God of Jesus Christ, the right way to live will follow. It does not work the opposite way. That is why the prayer of the man in the Gospel is everyone’s prayer: “I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.”


I often recall the wise words of Karl Rahner, who said there is nothing deplorable in the fact that most ordinary Catholics do not live their lives with all of the decrees, conciliar documents of councils, and decrees of the magisterium crammed into their heads. After all, Rahner added, most catechisms have too much in them and too little that underscores what is essential about the faith.


And what is essential? At least this: As Christians we gather together to tell the saving story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and re-enact his mysteries so that we might love God with all our heart and love our neighbors as ourselves. From that all other things derive. All of this does not mean that there is something blissful about theological ignorance or anything desirable about skirting the “hard sayings” of the faith. What it does mean is that we need to accept people where they are and not reject them because of some rigid test of orthodoxy. Some self-described orthodox Catholic critics scorn what they call “cafeteria Catholicism” – that is, the picking and choosing of acceptable beliefs. I have often felt that such a metaphor is far wide of the mark for two reasons. First, one can get a decent meal at a cafeteria. More importantly, “cafeteria” Catholics still hold some allegiance to the believing community and that is a good thing. Those who say “accept it all or get out” seem to me to be more interested in authority than in nurturing faith.


Seen as an observable phenomenon, Catholicism seems like an extraordinarily complex reality. Seen up close, however, the church is a gathering of people who retell the saving story of the gospel and make Jesus Christ present in the breaking of the bread. The absolutely crucial pastoral and theological task is to do that right: Keep the word and sacrament alive everywhere. The Catholic Church teaches that where the gospel is preached fully and the sacraments are fully available and the local pastor or bishop is in communion with all other bishops and the bishop of Rome, there the church is fully Catholic. In that sense we can speak of the Catholic Church or Chicago or New York or Lima or Delhi.


The staggering number of inactive Catholics in this country is symptomatic of indifference or complacency in the church, a lack of pastoral zeal.

The conclusion is obvious: If we want to be a Catholic (James Joyce once said that Catholic means “here comes everybody”) Church, we need to create Catholic communities that are hospitable, forgiving and which take the Gospel and the sacramental life seriously. This creation, however, is not the task of the church “professionals” alone; it is the task of every person who is a loving member of the community. Because Catholicism is not a perfectionist sect but a universal church, it is bound to time and culture. The Catholic church is never better or more perfect than the local communities of which it is made up.


A dramatic way of saying that is to say that the church is as good or as bad as the local parish which you attend. Look around the parish and, fundamentally, you see the church. Is that parish an inviting place for a person who wishes to come home to the practice of the faith?


Finally, the church must recognize that it stands always in some tension with the culture. It cannot simply capitulate to the demands of the majority. In that sense, when the Holy Father speaks of the “culture of death” as characteristic of our era or the bishop argues against punishing the poor or scapegoating the immigrant, the church is doing no more than teasing out into practical the “hard sayings” of the Gospel. A hospitable church does not have to be a craven community within which all is okay. It must be a community that stands for something. What it must not do, however, is put its ethical teachings in a place separate from its Gospel message. The Catholic faith is not about birth control; in fact, for many people its entire teaching about sexuality is hardly credible unless one begins with its vision of what it means to be a human and how one lives humanly. To detach and isolate this or that belief or practice away from that whole is as pernicious in matters of faith as it is in matters of politics.


The staggering number of inactive Catholics in this country is symptomatic of indifference or complacency in the church, a lack of pastoral zeal. But it is time to ask difficult questions about our pastoral practices, the quality of our parish life, the vigor of our theology and the temperature of our missionary activity.


If, as Professor Lamanna has indicated in his research, the inactive Catholics are disproportionately male, under 35, single, divorced or separated, or minorities with annual incomes under $20,000, then we must ask how we have failed such people and why? Are we just too middle-class and indifferent? Are we guilty of what Flannery O’Connor called the besetting sin of Catholics – smugness? What does it say to us that the least educated and the highest educated are disproportionately unaffiliated? Are we doing something wrong at both ends of the spectrum? And always: the looming problem of the divorced, especially divorced men.


In the final analysis, the vast crowd of indifferent Catholics is a rebuke to all of us who, after all, are the church. We must all take some blame for the church’s seeming inability to keep people faithful.


The great Jewish scholar, the late Abraham Heschel, once wrote that there are no adequate proofs for the existence of the God of Abraham; there are only witnesses. The same could be said of faith. At the beginning of World War II, a French Communist once said to a Dominican theologian: “Don’t speak to me of Christianity. Just point out some Christians.”




Lawrence Cunningham was chair of Notre Dame’s theology department from 1992 to 1997.