Numerous surveys have documented the steady decline of religious belief in the U.S. and the rest of the Western world. The category of people known as “nones” consists of atheists, agnostics, and those who state that they are not affiliated with any particular religious denomination. There is little that unites them other than this lack of belief. In trying to bring others to the Catholic faith, we are not facing people with a single mindset but rather a bewildering and complex hodgepodge of stances and ideas; the “nones” disagree with one another as much as they do with us Catholics.
There is a simplistic perception that believers are losing ground to a united group of non-believers; this is not the case. We are losing ground, but to a host of disconnected groups/trends: atheists, agnostics, and the “spiritual but not religious,” as well as those who embrace Eastern religions, yoga, reiki, Wicca, Santeria, Wicca, Santa Muerte, and Satanism. There are also people who follow a syncretic religion, incorporating aspects of two or more different religions into a unique new one. The people we are trying to convert represent a mishmash of confusing and self-referential “movements,” some of which have a single member! Some who abandoned the Catholic faith did so in anger over a specific issue or teaching; others just drifted. Some oppose us intensely while others are merely indifferent. Almost nothing unites these groups except that none of them accept our faith.
This can be consoling, but it can also make our task more difficult. The consolation comes from the fact that is this not some strong, united force arrayed against us. If anyone in this non-believing “group” boasts, “We now outnumber you,” I would point out that there isn’t a lot of “we” going on in their supposed movement! Little if anything unites them besides unbelief.
Melanie McDonagh, writing in the Catholic Herald, describes a recent secular movement in England centered around the “Sunday Assembly.” In many ways this assembly mimics Sunday religious services: people sing songs, listen to a secular talk, and share coffee and fellowship afterwards. It turns out, though, that even this group is seeing a substantial decline in attendance. McDonagh writes,
Yet now, it would seem, the difficulties in maintaining attendance turn out to be common to believers and unbelievers alike. According to Faith Hill, writing in The Atlantic, “Sunday Assembly has reported a significant loss in total attendees over the past few years—from about 5,000 monthly attendees in 2016 to about 3,500 in 2018. … After a promising start, attendance declined, and nearly half the chapters have fizzled out ….” If it’s hard getting people to come to Mass when there’s the Body and Blood of Christ on offer, it must be far harder when you’ve got an unanchored community with nearly nothing in common. In fact, some Assembly members are agnostics and others are atheists, so even the absence of religion doesn’t mean unity.
So, it is not really a case of “us versus them.” Rather, it is more that we are against something no more cohesive than a morning mist as the sun rises.
While this may be consoling it also illustrates the difficulty of our response or strategy. Apologetics has always been multi-faceted: Catholic vs. Atheist, Catholic vs. Agnostic, Catholic vs. Mainline Protestant, Catholic vs. Evangelical, and so on. In the current quagmire of highly subjective denominations, the decline in belief resembles more a death by a thousand cuts. While certain commonalities may exist among the myriad varieties of unbelief and designer deities, it has become clear to me that the best thing we can do in response is to be the Church, clearly and unambiguously; we must be clear in our doctrine and identify ourselves as Catholics to others. St. Paul says,
We do not lose heart …. We do not practice deceit, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by open proclamation of the truth, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor 4:1-2).
What we certainly do not want to do is to follow the example of the mainline Protestant denominations, who have comprised nearly every doctrine and moral teaching to please the world rather than God. In the same article, Ms. McDonagh memorably describes some Protestant sects
… [they] slid from non-conformity to Unitarianism and eventually to mere political activism. Unitarianism, in fact, strikes me as the American way of doing agnosticism, or at least deism—a way of being religiously observant without having anything in particular to observe.
What could be more useless than to become the very thing we set out to convert? How can we convert the world by becoming the world? What distinguishes the Protestant denominations and their teachings on moral issues like sexuality, marriage, and the value of life? One might argue that they stand against greed and for social justice. Those are not controversial stands in the liberal West, which loves to trot out such things as a form of virtue signaling.
No, I think that the best and only way forward is being fully, faithfully, and joyfully Catholic. There is still a place for arguments and apologetics, but in the era of competitive atheism and consumerized belief, being “happy customers” of the Lord Jesus and insisting on no cheap substitutes or imitation brands is our best way forward. This may seem bold or hard in an age of never-ending scandal and disappointment with our leaders. However, those are examples of not being Catholic enough or of living in outright contradiction to the Catholic faith. Be Catholic, joyfully. St. Teresa of Calcutta is purported to have said, “Joy is a net of love in which you can catch souls.”
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Being More Faithfully Catholic Is the Only Valid Response to Shrinking Numbers