The Depressing Pew Forum Study

Photography by Andy Coan

The Catholic Church is suffering mightily today from two self-inflicted wounds. The first is the clerical sex abuse scandal, involving the gross violation of the most vulnerable members of the community by some priests and the countenancing or enabling of this crime by some bishops. This outrage has been the perfect storm. Not only has it deeply wounded young people; it has also compromised the work of the church in almost every way, since it has undermined so thoroughly the credibility that the church requires in order to teach, preach, catechize, and evangelize. If you had asked me twenty years ago what the worst moment in American Catholic history was, I would have identified the mid nineteenth century, when anti-Catholic bigots were burning down convents, attacking priests, and organizing political parties whose purpose was the elimination of Catholicism on these shores. But now I would say that we are living, right now, through the worst moment in American Catholic history.

The other self-inflicted wound occurred many years ago but has had, perhaps, just as devastating an impact as the sex-abuse crisis. In the years immediately following Vatican II, many Catholic leaders felt that the primary mission of the church was to embrace the modern world and accordingly, they threw off much of the philosophy, art, poetry, and theology that made Catholicism counter-cultural, distinctive, unique. As the slogan of the 1960’s had it, “the world sets the agenda for the church.” The conditions for the possibility of this approach were both an extraordinary under-appreciation for the genius of the Catholic tradition, and an equally extraordinary over-appreciation of modern culture. The consequence was what I have termed a “beige Catholicism”—bland, accommodating, hyper-apologetic, unsure of itself. The beige church certainly went running after modernity, but modernity continued to run away, indifferent to its ardent pursuer. And then, in the wake of the events of September 11th, elements of that modern culture turned aggressively round on the church and accused it of irrationality, superstition, and violence. The “new” atheists—Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and others—have been characterizing the very idea of God as ridiculous and attacking the institutions of religion as corrupt and backward-looking. And confronted with this enemy, the church has found itself defenseless, having jettisoned much of its own rich intellectual tradition. The beigification of Catholicism has, therefore, also crucially compromised the church’s ability to evangelize.

All of this came to mind when I read the results of the recent Pew Forum Study on religious knowledge among Americans. The surveyors asked a representative sample of Americans a series of 35 questions dealing mostly with Christianity but also with the other great world religions. They discovered that, of all the groups who were questioned, atheists and agnostics performed best of all. They were followed by Mormons and Jews, with mainstream Protestants and Catholics considerably back in the pack. Distressingly, the worst performers of all were Hispanic Catholics. Apparently the enemies of the faith know it best, while the supposed defenders of the faith are rather confused about it. Not surprisingly, the atheists have seized on the results of this survey with a certain glee, arguing that to know religion is to hate it and, by implication, not to know it very well is the condition for the possibility of falling for it. This is, obviously, a sorry state of affairs for us believers, and it has been produced, in large part, by the accommodating, beige attitudes I described above. If the program is primarily dialogue with the culture, why bother reverencing and passing on the intellectual and cultural heritage of the Catholic Church? If all that really matters is “being a nice person,” then why bother learning the faith?

The good news is that this trend can be reversed; the bad (or at least challenging) news is that it will require a lot of work. Catholicism is a smart and beautiful tradition. It includes the varied and complex texts of the Bible, the systematic theology of St. Irenaeus, the Platonizing theology of Origen and Augustine, the sermons of John Chrysostom, the exquisitely articulated arguments of Thomas Aquinas, soul-stirring Gregorian chant, the life-changing poetry of Dante, the mysticism of Bernard, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross, the stained glass of Chartres Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, the soaring polyphony of Palestrina, Mozart’s “Requiem,” John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s stunningly rich theological vision, and John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor. We need a new army of priests, sisters, teachers, and catechists who love this tradition enough to know it inside and out—and who have the passion to pass it on. As I have argued before, we have instructors in our Catholic high schools, who are willing and able to communicate “Hamlet” and Virgil’s “Aeneid” to young people. Why not some masters willing and able to pass on Aquinas and Dante?

That the atheists know this faith of ours better than we is, quite frankly, pathetic. But it is also a call to arms. Let us reclaim our great heritage.

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About the Author

Father Robert Barron is an author, speaker and theologian. He is also the founder of the global media ministry Word On Fire, which reaches millions of people by utilizing the tools of new media to draw people into or back to the Catholic Faith.

Father Barron is the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, award winning documentary series about the Catholic Faith. The series has aired across the country on PBS and EWTN, and has been seen and broadcast in parishes, universities, schools and media outlets throughout the world. The documentary received a Christopher Award for excellence. Father Barron and Word on Fire also released the documentary "CATHOLICISM: The New Evangelization" in 2013.

Father Barron currently serves as the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary University of St. Mary of the Lake. He was appointed to the theological faculty of Mundelein Seminary in 1992, and has also served as a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame and at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was twice scholar in residence at the Pontifical North American College at the Vatican.

Ordained in 1986, he is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Father Barron received a Master's Degree in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America in 1982 and a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1992.

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6 Comments

  1. Sorry, but that is the most ludicrous use of a September 11th link there has ever been. There are many reasons for the present state of the Church but the 4 aircraft hijackings in 2001 are not amongst them

  2. I believe you may be missing Fr. Barron’s point.

    Fr. Barron wrote: >> And then, in the wake of the events of September 11th, elements of that modern culture turned aggressively round on the church and accused it of irrationality, superstition, and violence. The “new” atheists—Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and others—have been characterizing the very idea of God as ridiculous and attacking the institutions of religion as corrupt and backward-looking.<< I find nothing at all ludicrous about this reference to 9/11. There has indeed been an uptick in opposition to religion since those events and the Church has been one recipient of that opposition. In any event, Fr. Barron identified as a cause of the suffering of the Church today, two "self-inflicted wounds". One is the sex-abuse crisis and the other is the discarding of "the philosophy, art, poetry, and theology that made Catholicism counter-cultural, distinctive, unique." He did not identify the four hijackings as the cause. Deacon Mike

  3. Deacon Mike.

    Dawkins and his ilk have been around for many years. Their criticism of the Church has been intense and has intensified in more recent years because of the sex abuse scandal. It was no connection whatsoever to September 11. Even Dawkins is sane enough to acknowledge that the terrorist attacks on the US bore no relation to Islam in the same way that the IRA’s attacks on Great Britain bore no relation to Catholicism.

  4. However, Dawkins appears to believe that religion is the genesis or accelerant that makes a 9/11 possible. Go to his website and search for his “Imagine No Religion” article. He “imagines” there would be no persecution of Jews if there were no Jews (if for instance in the absense of religion they would have intermarried and had lost the Jewish identity).

    What Fr. Barron is suggesting is that due to the two self-inflicted wounds (which have nothing to do with the atheists), the Church is today less effectively able to answer their negative challenges arising from and in relation to the terrorist attacks.

  5. I have the greatest respect for Father Barron – what a great thinker and preacher!

    After having looked for depth of religion in the Presbyterian Church, in the Southern Baptist Church, in the Charismatic movement, and a few others, I found a rich and beautiful belief system and a hierarchy that can be trusted, in the Roman Catholic Church 12 years ago when I was 57. I feel very fortunate to have been led through the “beigeness” into the beauty of the Church. I am thankful to be living in Atlanta, in the fastest growing Diocese in the United States. I am proud that over 2000 people chose to become Catholic, here, this year.

    I’ve spent the last 12 years engulfing myself in “the varied and complex texts of the Bible, the systematic theology of St. Irenaeus, the Platonizing theology of Origen and Augustine, the sermons of John Chrysostom, the exquisitely articulated arguments of Thomas Aquinas, soul-stirring Gregorian chant, the life-changing poetry of Dante, the mysticism of Bernard, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross, the stained glass of Chartres Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, the soaring polyphony of Palestrina, Mozart’s “Requiem,” John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s stunningly rich theological vision, and John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor”, although I’ve only just begun to take all this in.

    Certainly, THE INTEGRATED CATHOLIC LIFE has been a part of my growth.

    What a joy it is to be Roman Catholic. I see no beige religion from my vantage point.

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