I was raised Catholic if being raised Catholic means that I was baptized as an infant and as an 8 year old, I received my first communion. I distinctly remember as a child going to Mass with Mom. I can remember darkened churches, high ceilings, the smells of incense, ladies in veils, reverence, holiness and awe.
Sadly, what I cannot recall is being taught much about the Eucharist, about the Saints, about Mother Mary or the Church Fathers, about the richness and depth of the faith, about God's mercy abounding through the Sacraments. All that which delineates Catholicism from the rest of Christianity.
As a result, I wandered, for a period of roughly 40 years, from the Church I now embrace fully, a wandering I've come to regret for the time lost in learning and then living the faith.
In a piece that touches initially on Mike Pence's Catholic upbringing and his own subsequent wandering, Sherry Weddell delves deeper into what has become a rite of passage for too many Catholics:
Mike Pence has a lot of company in the evangelical world. The Pew 2014 U.S. “Religious Landscape Survey” found that 13% of adults raised Catholic now consider themselves to be evangelicals (roughly 6 million people). And leaving the Church as an undergrad is all too normal. White college-age Millennials (ages 18-24) are 17 times more likely to leave the Catholic Church than to enter it. Young Catholic Millennials are also 10 times more likely to leave the faith of their childhood than a college-age white evangelical, according to the 2012 “Millennial Values Survey” sponsored by the Public Religion Research Institute.
But where Catholics proactively evangelize, there is real hope. A fascinating new finding is that 6% of American adults are cradle Catholics who now call themselves Protestants or “nones,” while still feeling at least partially Catholic. Pew has a term for adults who don’t think of themselves as Catholic in terms of religious practice but who do think of themselves as “partially Catholic” for other reasons: “cultural Catholics.”
While most committed cradle Catholics don’t have a mental category for “Bapticatholic” or “half-Catholic none,” many 21st-century spiritual wanderers do. It is no accident that Mike Pence called himself an “evangelical Catholic” for years.
What is both astonishing and hopeful is that 43%, or just over 6 million, of these cradle Catholics-turned “cultural Catholics” told Pew surveyors that they were open to the possibility of returning to the faith. They either feel connected to Catholic culture or to the Church through family, or they identify with certain Catholic beliefs or practices. As evangelizers, it is essential that we remember that those who do leave often retain significant emotional, spiritual and/or cultural connections or bridges to Catholicism over which they could return with our help.
Another reason that Mike Pence’s story causes many Catholics to feel consternation has to do with the most startling finding of the 2007 U.S. “Religious Landscape Survey.” It is this: Only 60% of Catholic adults believed in a personal God, and less than half were not certain that they could have a personal relationship with God. The survey also found that 78% of Catholics who eventually left for the evangelical-Protestant world said that their spiritual needs weren’t being met. According to the survey, teens who had been raised Catholic and later become Protestant as adults experienced a huge 49% growth in the “very strong” faith category. In fact, Catholic adults-turned-Protestant measured 25% higher in “very strong” faith than those raised Catholic who had retained their Catholic identity. Catholics who become Protestant also report 21% higher church attendance. It is a terrible irony that the best guarantee of regular adult church attendance at the moment among Americans raised Catholic is to become Protestant.
I have no problem at all believing that the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” had not been part of Mike Pence’s spiritual experience before he went away to college. That’s because the language of “personal relationship” with God sounds either odd or suspiciously Protestant to many Catholics. Since my book Forming Intentional Disciples was published four years ago, I have had many conversations with Catholic leaders — bishops, seminary faculty, priests, religious and lay leaders — who told me that they were not yet disciples when they began their ministry. A disciple is someone who is intentionally seeking to follow Jesus Christ as Lord in the midst of his Church. One man, who was in full-time ministry forming clergy, told me, “Until I read your book last month, I didn’t know it was possible to have a personal relationship with God.” When I recovered from my shock, I responded, “Help me understand why you think this came about.” He said that his parents were very faithful, practicing Catholics. “We never talked about [our] relationship with God,” he told me. “I just didn’t know.”
The wonderfully hopeful news is that I have seen an extraordinary change over the past four years. Catholic leaders at all levels are beginning to seriously deal with our failure to make disciples of our own, as the last four popes have asked us to do. Pastors and leadership in hundreds of American parishes and whole dioceses are deliberately breaking the cultural silence about having a personal relationship with Christ and banding together to make intentional disciples of the already baptized in parishes, campus ministries, families and schools. Increasingly, we get it.
In the 21st-century West, God has no grandchildren. Faith is not simply inherited, but personally chosen. Therefore, cultural Catholicism by itself is dead as a retention strategy. If we forget and fall back into maintenance mode, we now have Mike Pence as a living reminder that if we don’t make disciples of our own, someone else will do it for us.
We are pressured today, from every corner it seems, to keep our faith to ourselves, to not allow it to enter the public sphere. We are pressured externally certainly but also internally by the knowledge that as sinners, we make terrible witnesses. It becomes far too easy to be branded hypocrites or worse, to be charged with being judgmental, for merely speaking Catholic/Christian truth and so many of us decide being public about the faith isn't worth the price or we buy into the lie that keeping our faith to ourselves is what's best.
Sherry tells us things are changing and I pray she is correct... as I pray that I will change to bring about that wider change to which she speaks.