Catholicism‚Äôs Cultural Glass: Half Empty or Half Full?
During the celebration of Holy Mass on Easter Sunday morning, as a torrential rain pummeled St. Peter‚Äôs Square, Benedict XVI looked out at the sea of umbrellas and soaking pilgrims and urged the people not to let the wet weather dampen their spirits, but rather to consider how much good the rainfall would do for the earth.
The pope‚Äôs resolutely positive interpretation of the deluge reminded me of the different ways people can see the same quantity of water and of the old question that is supposed to reveal how someone sees the world: is the glass half empty or half full? (In this case, of course, seeing St. Peter‚Äôs Square as half full of water would have been the negative view ‚Äì accurate but negative.)
And now, on the eve of the pope‚Äôs trip to the United States, it is easy to imagine that, just as he gazed out at the rain-drenched Square, the pope must also be looking out upon the world and, more specifically in these days, the United States. What does he see? Is the glass half empty or half full?
On one hand, the recent study by the Pew Forum tells us that a third of those who are born Catholic in the U.S. eventually leave the Church. As a result, it is estimated that the current U.S. population is about 10 percent ex-Catholic. Naturally, it is difficult to know whether those who have left the Church had merely been baptized or had received a serious Catholic education, but the numbers are certainly not encouraging.
On the other hand, the RCIA (ie., the Roman Catholic Initiation for Adults program) welcomed more than 150,000 new Catholics this year ‚Äì as it has every year for as long as I can remember. And, while a baptized Catholic may be, in some sense, a Catholic in name only, an adult who goes through the RCIA program is clearly making a free choice after a long period of education.
Looking beyond the U.S. and descending to particulars, we note that, among those recently received into the Church have been Britain‚Äôs former prime minister Tony Blair and the Egyptian-Muslim journalist Magdi Allam, a major figure in Italian journalism. Both of these conversions have raised questions: Blair‚Äôs because it is not clear how his newly-professed faith squares with his un-Catholic policy decisions, Allam‚Äôs because his baptism by the pope during the Easter vigil was deemed by some (though not, I think, by anyone living under 24-hour police protection for fear of assassination) to be an unnecessary afront to Islamic fundamentalists. At the end of the day, however, the fact remains: in the last year, a British prime minister and a prominent Muslim journalist have asked to enter the Roman Catholic Church. In the U.S., three Episcopalian bishops became Catholics last year, and thousands of Episcopalians are knocking on the door.
Returning to our cultural glass, we see, on one hand, that the number of Christians in Europe is declining. In traditionally Catholic countries like Italy and Spain, Catholics are not replacing themselves. The number of Muslims in England‚Äôs mosques on Friday is about equal to the number of Anglicans attending church services on Sunday.
On the other hand, the Christianity of the Old World is becoming more Catholic. Before the imposition of Communism, among the Christians of Eastern Germany, the Protestants outnumbered the Catholics by a ratio of about 80 to 1. The ratio today is closer to 3 to 1. England too is now, once again, in practice, a Catholic country. More generally, while it is true that Christians are not replacing themselves, neither are secularists. In fact, the secularists are having even fewer children than the Christians. We frequently hear about the decline of European Christianity, but we will soon be hearing more about the suicide of modern European secularism.
On one hand, we have seen an absurd, anti-Christian novel, The Da Vinci Code, sell over 40 million copies. That the book was taken seriously by anyone is an embarrassment to educators everywhere. On the other hand, Christianity seems to have survived, and we have seen the extraordinary success of Mel Gibson‚Äôs film, The Passion of the Christ, and the similar enthusiasm that greeted the film version of Tolkein‚Äôs The Lord of the Rings and the first cinematic installment of C.S. Lewis‚Äôs Chronicles of Narnia (two of the most popular literary works of the last century, both by ardent Christian intellectuals). At the same time, the atheistic propaganda of Philip Pullman‚Äôs The Golden Compass turned out to be fool‚Äôs gold at the box office.
In the last year, at least three major books were published attacking God. Yet, as many have observed, in the broader scheme of things, these books ‚Äì mostly regurgitations of hoary arguments from the 1700s – are little more than atheistic hissy fits, written by authors who didn‚Äôt get what they wanted: the decline and fall of the belief in God. The books have swayed few readers. At the risk of offending the authors, it must be admitted that these books are preaching to the converted at its worst.
On the moral front, after 35 years, abortion is still legal in the United States. This is a undoubtedly a tragedy. And yet, the issue has not faded away. Legal abortion has not become part of the woodwork. Even in a Hollywood culture that is neither pro-life nor Christian, there are signs of growing unease with abortion. Within the last year, we have seen three popular films (two of them written by women) about difficult pregnancies in which mothers decide to keep their babies: Juno, Waitress, and Knocked Up. None of these films is an ‚Äúorthodox‚Äù pro-life movie, like Bella, but none of them ‚Äì with their insistent portrayals (at least in the latter two) of the developing child in the womb – support the phony it‚Äôs-just-a-blob-of-tissue line of the abortion lobby. In every one of these films, there is no question that a human life, a baby, is at stake. Even the remake of Dr. Suess‚Äôs Horton Hears a Who – with its famous message: a person is a person no matter how small! – can hardly give comfort to the abortion lobby. The legal status of abortion remains in the hands of the Supreme Court, and one can‚Äôt help but notice that 5 of the 9 justices – a far greater percentage than in the population as a whole – are Roman Catholics.
On one hand, the pope has stirred up protests, because of his speech at Regensburg, his invitation to speak at the Sapienza University in Rome, and his baptism of Magdi Allam. He has been threatened by Osama bin Laden. These are, perhaps, unfortunate incidents and evidence of a lack of respect for the Holy Father. On the other hand, they are not the kind of things that happen to people whose words and ideas do not matter. A century ago, the papacy may have seemed a vestige of medieval times, marked for extinction in the modern world. This week, the pope of Rome will celebrate his 81st birthday by visiting the White House, and as he stands next to President Bush, there is little question who will be perceived as the man of greater stature. A few days later, in New York City, he will address the general assembly of the United Nations.
So, as the pope looks at the world today and prepares to address its representatives, does he see a glass that is half empty or half full? The answer is what it has always been: ‚Äúyes.‚Äù The glass is both half empty and half full. But how much does it matter? As Christians, we cannot place our hope in such analyses. Nor can we be discouraged by them. The things that seem good can get worse. The things that seem bad can improve. The ‚Äúsinners‚Äù can be converted. The ‚Äúvirtuous‚Äù can sin. Everyone must always decide anew. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins may yet follow the footsteps of Tony Blair and Magdi Allam.
In the end, the glass that we contemplate as we look at the world calls us not so much to an analysis of a static situation (the supposed ‚Äúpluses‚Äù and ‚Äúminuses‚Äù mentioned above), but, above all, to personal conversion, prayer, apostolate and our daily work. Whether things are going well or poorly depends on us.
In the section of his encyclical letter Spe Salvi entitled ‚ÄúThe True Shape of Christian Hope‚Äù, the pope notes that in the realm of ethics and moral decisions ‚Äì that is, in the affairs of free human beings ‚Äì there is no such thing as the kind of incremental progress one observes in the material sciences and technology ‚Äúfor the simple fact that a human being‚Äôs freedom is always new and one must always take one‚Äôs decisions anew.‚Äù Despite all that has happened, we are always, in some sense, beginners.
When he was elected pope, in one of his first Masses, Benedict XVI looked out at the huge crowds and said ‚Äì and for anyone who was there, the words rang absolutely true ‚Äì ‚ÄúThe Church is alive. The Church is young.‚Äù That has always been true, and in many ways it is even truer of that part of the Church that Benedict is about to visit: with all its evident problems and defects, the Church in the U.S. is alive, and it is young.
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