Friday, May 28, 2010

The Center Can Not Hold Because It's Disappearing

It' getting harder and harder to find a Catholic parish whose priest doesn't have a comb-over. Not true with coffee.

How church shopping is polarizing the country
By Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, Special to CNN

A report this month on who gets abortions showed some surprising results: Catholic women are about as likely as any other woman to terminate a pregnancy. Then again, the striking thing about American Catholics is that they look almost exactly like the average American.
According to the Pew Research Center, for example, Catholics supported Obama in the 2008 election by 1 percentage point more than the general public. Even when it comes to abortion, which the Catholic Church strongly opposes, American Catholics are only 2 percent more likely than the general public to favor making it illegal.

What explains the divergence between church teaching and political poll responses? A large part of it is the difference between those who check a religious box in a public opinion poll and those who show up at a church on Sunday. If we look at only white Catholics who attend church at least once a week, they favor making abortion illegal by 76 to 27 percent.

The figures underlie a striking change in the characteristics of American churches of all denominations: in the '60s, those showing up in church on Sunday might have represented a cross-section of American viewpoints; today, they are more likely to reflect traditionalist views, further driving modernists away from religion altogether - and intensifying what some have called the “devotional divide” in American politics. (The traditionalist mind would never agree that they were 'driving' others from churches. The 'others' are choosing to leave on their own because they have fallen prey to secular relativism.)

The difference in viewpoints between traditionalists and modernists is profound - and has dramatic effects on today’s culture wars. David Campbell, a Notre Dame political scientist, explains that traditionalists believe in an eternal and transcendent authority that “tells us what is good, what is true, how we should live, and who we are." (Personally I prefer the stages of spirituality to explain this gulf of which the need for an eternal and transcendent authority is part of stage I.)

Modernists, on the other hand, would redefine historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life. They are less dogmatic, more tolerant, more open to change. Both might prefer that their 17-year-old daughters not sleep with their high school boyfriends. Modernists, however, would have an easier time saying, “But if you do, be sure you use a condom.” (Or come up with something more convincing than "You will go to hell.")

In the era following World War II, both groups attended the same churches. They were likely to subscribe to their parents’ religion, to attend the church down the street, to include their children in community activities the church sponsored. Today, we are more likely to shop for churches that express our individual values, and traditionalists - those searching for “an eternal and transcendent authority” - are much more likely to attend church at all.

The result, according to journalist Bill Bishop, is the “collapse of the middle” in American church life. Mainline Protestant churches, which tended to be more moderate and inclusive, have been losing membership for decades. The churches that have shown the greatest growth have been the large-scale megachurches, where eight in 10 are traditionalist.

During the same period, Catholics have become more likely to choose parishes on the basis of something other than geography, and 72 percent said that “the traditional or conservative nature of the church” was an important or very important reason for choosing their parish.

In the meantime, modernists, who are less comfortable with churches dominated by traditionalists, have become less likely to attend church at all. During the '90s, the number of Americans reporting “no religion” doubled, and sociologists believe the shift reflected the desire of many Americans to distance themselves from the increasingly close association between organized religion and conservative politics.

That association is the result of a set of reinforcing factors. Traditionalists are much more likely to attend church. The Republican Party has adopted more traditionalist rhetoric and policies, locking in the political support of those most in search of fixed rules and uncompromising principles. The association between religion and conservative politics and policies alienate the modernists, who distance themselves from religion. This leaves church attendees talking to the converted - those who share both their religious and political beliefs. (Unfortunately one of the other trends is they talk to the converted consistently about the sins committed by the unconverted. Hence one hears far more sermons on the evils of abortionsamesexmarriage than on the evils of adultery.)

Studies of group psychology show that when people with similar views talk to one another, they end up at even more extreme positions. The very ability to choose - neighborhoods, cable TV stations, websites, churches - increases the risk that we will hear only those with whom we already agree.

As a result, the middle may be dropping out of American politics the same way it did from Protestant churches. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that those who attend religious services more than once per week voted Republican more than those who never attend religious services at all.

Notre Dame’s Campbell adds that, in interpreting these results, traditionalism may matter even more than church attendance. In 2004, for example, only 24 percent of the top quartile of modernists voted for Bush, compared to 84 percent of the highest quartile of traditionalists. Campbell concludes that in explaining the devotional divide “it is clearly traditionalism that makes the difference.”

Catholics as a group may accordingly be quite capable of reaching consensus views. The traditionalists who dominate Sunday mass and the modernists who have become less likely to attend church at all, however, are increasingly unlikely to talk to each other.


I promised myself I would spend a lot of time this week thinking about this gulf between traditionalists and progressives. One of the common denominators in the pre Vatican II Church was that progressive questioning thinkers and traditionalist believers were pretty much placed in the same boat--"We were all going to hell". Hardly a one of us hadn't eaten meat on Friday or missed Mass on Sunday and so all those other buzz sins of today didn't hold anyone's attention. Didn't much matter how one earned their ticket to hell, it seemed we all had that ticket in common. That might have generated more camaraderie amongst us in that we were all equal in that going to hell respect.

I maintain we still are equal in that respect. I might not believe we are all going to hell, but I certainly believe we all have a ton of personal shadow stuff we haven't dealt with and that makes us all equal. I'd love to hear one bishop give a sermon on the truth about spiritual/psychological maturation. Here's the short version of that truth. Some people can find their security and faith in a very straight line, while others take a very circular path and can still return to find themselves behaving in a similar straight line--albeit for different reasons. It doesn't make those different reasons less Catholic than those reasons which appeal to the straight line types.

We used to have a Church that understood that. I don't know where that Catholicism went. It's no longer enough to practice Catholicism in union. Now it has to be practiced with the same mind set as if we all had the same experiences, education, family structure, natal culture, and language. Sadly, that's exactly the kind of Church Catholicism is becoming in the West. The numbers are reflecting this. Once the last of the centrists leave or, depending on one's point of view, forced out, the numbers will stabilize around 15% of the baptised Catholic population.

There's little question left that Benedict is counting on that remnant to take Catholicism into the future in the West and sustain the Church in the developing world. That's a heavy yoke. It also flies directly in the face of human progress which is relentlessly marching towards an understanding of our connectedness, not our separateness. In my estimation, this program of Benedict's is not Christ like. It is highly manipulative. It does not value the traditional mindset so much as it panders to it, in order to use it. And for some people, that works both ways.

This process is usually far more obvious in our current politics--see Republican party or Rahm Emanuel --than it is in our religious institutions, but that might be changing as well. I find it difficult to believe that even the most traditional of traditionalists thinks Eucharistic Adoration is an adequate form of Vatican repentance for the clerical sexual abuse scandal. (Sure is a lot cheaper though) Perhaps the Vatican has forgotten all those words from Jesus about not approaching the altar if one is not reconciled with one's accusers. Even John McCain understands he can't go forward without old enemy Mitt Romney.


  1. Colleen -

    One major problem, which factors into 'church shopping' is the search for the politically correct....and not God. And it is irrelevant whether that PC is Right, Left, or Centrist.

    The extremes of both Left AND Right lead ppl away from God into some manner of fanaticism. Some balance, hence something Centrist is theoretically best.

    The extreme dogmatism, elitism, & disdain for the poor & oppressed of many of the Right, is obviously incoherent with the Gospel.

    Yet while the Left seems to have a lot more in common with the Gospel (and it does!), there are dangers there too. The most obvious being that the political BECOMES the replacement for the Dogmatism of the Right. It becomes the Credo. Thus with the potential for devolving into Fanaticism....of the Left.

    The extremes of Left & Right happen due to the absense of (or the ignoring of....) the Holy Spirit. One would not fall into these excesses if one had a solid relationship with a friend. Where one holds His hand, depending upon him as a child of its mother. Taking all our questions, problems to Him. Asking the Holy Spirit's aid to discern truth - and to not be deceived by what SEEMS to be good, but which is not.

    I accuse the Roman Catholic Church organization & its Administrators of (intentionally) inducing s type of 'Splitting' in ppl. Only Vanilla or Chocolate. Black or white. Never a third...or sixteenth choice or point of view.

    As you are trained in mental health issues, you know very well what the potential & very real results of 'Splitting' are......

    We know that there is ONLY a choice between serving God or Satan. Not other options exist. If you are not serving God, you are serving the Other Guy by default. BUT...there are many ways to serve God, and for each soul there is a different path to the Father.

    Taking away free choice, inquiry, intellectual creativity & substituting the type of 'Splitting' which the Vatican is so good at.....destroys souls.

    Anon Y. Mouse

  2. Welcome back Colleen,

    I think we should think about the parable of the prodigal son.

    In my youth, somewhat influenced by my birth order (first) I related best to the faithful and righteous, yet prideful and judgmental son who cannot conceive of himself as a sinner.

    Only later did I come to understand we all must consider the teaching from the point of view of all three characters. Who loves? Who forgives? Who has faith?

    Who is tried?

    Traditionalist Catholics, or "orthodox" as they prefer, clearly read this parable only from the point of view of the eldest son.

    They've got to grow up.


  3. Hi Colleen,
    So glad you've returned.
    The following is a bit of an e-mail conversation with someone who has just returned to the Church and who is deciding whether to leave after hearing about several excommunications, especially wondering how some of the sister will be able to survive. Here was my reply to him:
    Hi Tim,
    Thanks for the interesting article. As I've become more involved with the progressive wing of the Church, I think I understand a little better how these things pan out.
    1. I met a sister who had been excommunicated by her Bishop in St. Louis for attending an ordination in WomenChurch. She went for a time to live with her mother and went to Church with her. When it came time for Communion, they knew that if the priest (who was sympathetic to her) gave her the Eucharist, he could be in trouble (maybe excommunicated also) because she knew she was being watched by conservative groups. So she helped her mother up the aisle - the mother received the Eucharist and then turned around and shared it with her daughter! Great solution, huh?
    2. Another nun who was excommunicated was not allowed to live in her community by order of Rome. She was then taken in by another community which is not under Rome's purview and lives with them while she continues her work.
    3. We have a song we sing sometimes in our community. It goes something like, "Make some room, lean on over, make a way where there is no way."
    Seems like we've been operating on that for a long time - maybe it makes no sense and we should all leave, but I'm staying as long as the heroes are staying!
    P.S. Not telling you that you need to stay, though I think the Church needs you. Mary

  4. I have more and more begun to understand something I was taught a couple of years ago which gets to some of the points made in all three of these comments.

    The elder teaching this lesson talked about how dualistic thinking puts the passionate who hold differing opinions in competition with each other, or at worst at literal war with each other. He told us the trick was to learn to think in triangles, not lines. He felt the spiritual person strove to hold the position at the top of the triangle because that was the leading edge and that point sat above the other two--transcended the other two, kept their tension in balance, recognized both, and still gave direction----a completely different direction which honored each individually and both together.

    The father in the prodgigal son parable honors both his sons in his love for the younger. The elder son just can't see that he too is honored in his father's actions towards his brother.

    The solutions to the two excommunicated sisters shows the same kind of solution. Each solution honors both sides of the excommunication duality by introducing a third point of reference.

    And of course a triangle does not split sides, it unites them to form a new shape....

  5. colkoch,
    You've had a great teacher. Hegel's dialectic (identical to your triangular thinking) wasn't original but inspired by the great tradition of German mysticism - people like Jakob Boeheme

    Yes, this dialectics isn't some modern failure of spirituality, but an insight into the spirit. Slavoj Zizek calls the oppositional force of the dialectic not the "antithesis" and says that both "thesis' and "antithesis" are equally in separation from The One. He calls this the Parallax View, that both thesis and antithesis anticipate the same thing as best they can - we, as a species are coming closer and closer to the One, the view of which creates this parallax.

  6. This comment is in 2 parts - as I have exceeded the limit!

    First a quote from Colleen's post:

    "traditionalists believe in an eternal and transcendent authority..."

    I'll stop right there in the quote. What strikes me is that traditionalists view God as "out there" or "up there" - giving down commandments from "on high" which are immutable and unbending. Tough to follow - except for the elect, who band together and castigate the rest of us.

    And yes, there is no doubt that going to a Mass or church service where people are "into" that kind of thinking really turns me off. I feel excluded and I feel that to "join in" would require me to also start being "exclusive". This is the kind of situation where I tend to "shake the dust" from my sandals and walk away.

    This reminds me of Jean Pierre de Caussade, who coined the term "the sacrament of the present moment" to describe a type of spirituality where you seek the presence of God in the events of your daily life. And one thing he wrote, that has always stuck with me, pertains, I think, to this "split" you're addressing, Colleen. He wrote:

    "There is a time when the soul lives in God and a time when God lives in the soul."

    And he proscribes two different types of spirituality for each stage. In the first stage a person looks for external markers of how to behave or pray or whatever. But when God lives in the soul or you could say, when one has begun to live from one's "deep heart" - then one looks inward for the promptings of God - in terms of morality or one's spiritual path, its twists and turns.

    From Caussade's writing (1675-1751) it is clear that those whom he counseled had "trouble" once they moved to the more inward type of spirituality, for others might castigate them for not following the laid out methods of prayer or behavior, or perhaps even their own consciences might trouble them - causing them to feel guilty for moving beyond the tried and true methods they had previously followed.

    In any case this suggests to me, and I think we can see this across all faith traditions, that this divide we are seeing is not really new. But it may be that the "traditionalists" of today are becoming more militant as they witness more people seeking God "within" rather than "without" - and of course I'm not excluding a transcendent God here - just discussing a transition where one has found God's Presence within - even in spite of or maybe along with a huge awareness of how miserably we all fail to live as our heart prompts us to do.

  7. What I find among the Eastern Orthodox (as opposed to those who fling the term "orthodox" around in an exclusionary manner) is a call to all the faithful to see God within - to pray intensely and seek to "place the mind in the heart" - to find that deep inner peace where one seeks God's mercy even as one becomes more deeply aware of one's crying NEED for that mercy. Along with corporate worship which respects individual needs - witness the coming and going of persons in an Orthodox Liturgy - the different behaviors even in the common worship, for example. I can't speak for the whole tradition or all people who follow it. But I do find a merging of beautiful liturgy and a deep personal prayer life, with an understanding that somehow one can balance both the personal and the corporate worship.

    I think we need to beware of dualism. To realize that spirituality is a developmental process. Not to cast stones in either direction. But to realize God's call is to each of us - very personally. Some may need the more traditional path for a life time. (sadly in my view... but ok, if that's what they feel more comfortable with) Most of us who read and post here have moved beyond that or at least are seeking to do so, however we may fail in that regard.

    Any faith tradition should have room for all levels of spirituality to flourish. But when a faith "faction" has closed all the doors and anterooms and confines itself to a long, narrow hallway with only one entrance - a hallway lined with stations of the cross and decades of the rosary etc. and a huge monstrance at the end toward which one must endlessly travel... then that "faith faction" appears to be on a dead-end course. God, of course, is free to work - thank God! But many people will refuse to enter that narrow hallway - calling itself the "true church".

    I personally don't think we should aim for "either-or" - but should work for inclusiveness, tolerance. The throwing of stones is the problem here. Let the one without sin cast that stone said Jesus.

    Here's a hopeful thought to end on:

  8. Colleen, I want to pick up on the point you made about adultery. You are right, right, right, that adultery is, if not THE elephant in the room, is AN elephant all the same. And is manifestly not dealt with by the churches. Its also a problem common in across all partnered relationships.

    I guess that, if you added together every remotely tolerable reason for a couple to separate, you might get 10%, maybe even 15% of couples separating by years 7 - 10. Instead we have 50% and more. That is not good for the partners involved, whatever kids they may have, extended family & society.

    Easy questions to ask and not to answer are:

    * Why is this happening?

    * Can it be fixed?

    * If it can be fixed, how?

  9. @ Butterfly,

    My comment in two parts... Beau tiful !


  10. There us a great deal of food for thought in these comments. TheraP you should do an article with these thoughts. Even your comments which, if you're like me, are written fast and off the top of my head, are cogent and brilliantly stated.

    I've always been struck with Native ceremony that it does seem to make a real effort to incorporate both personal and communal insight. A sweat lodge ceremony has one prayer round devoted to personal insight and the ceremony usually ends with a round devoted to communal prayer. It's often found that the final communal round becomes a synthesis of the prior personal round because some individual will have had a personal insight which resonates with everyone participating in the sweat. The only way this works is because people leave their personal political agendas at the sweat lodge door, principally I suspect, because they know they will have their opportunity to be heard--and there is no sermon and no single authoritative speaker. The Sweat Lodge leader is more of a ceremonial facillitator, the keeper of the community's ceremonial traditions, not it's owner. Come to think of it, ownership is not an idea one associates with Native American spiritual practice. Christ tried to teach the same thing but apparently we have gotten that notion yet.

    Mark I have a sneaking suspicion you will understand the following thought. I have always looked at the gay marriage issue as an affirmation of the importance of the teaching on adultery. If there was one group of people who were given the freedom to jump relationships it was gays. The fact that gays are the ones begging for affirmation of the sanctity of their relationhships is a huge message about the importance of long term stable relationhships. It flies directly in the face of the current predilection for serial monogamy amongst straights.

    Rather than seeing gay marriage as a threat to the traditional family, the Church should see it as an affirmation of humanity's long term understanding about the importance of committed relationships.

    It is in relationship with others that we really begin to develop as people. For this reason it does happen that people will grow at different speeds and that can result in the break up of a relationship. I can understand divorce in these situations.

    My biggest concern is with the children of these break ups. When one has children this is not just a right of a heterosexual relationship, it is also a fundamental responsibility. Current divorce law is too much about partner rights and not enough about parental responsibilities. You never hear about that from the pulpit either, except in the case of women and abortion.

  11. Instead of doing an article myself, Colleen, I will recommend a 2-part article by someone I've come to know a bit, whose very articles I'm about to recommend deal in great depth with how liturgy and mysticism do not contradict one another, indeed how "our deep heart" is the "altar" upon which the inner prayer meets the outer Liturgy.

    What I'm about to provide is a website that includes the 2 pdf's of the one article by Alexander Golitzin (an Orthodox monk and priest who is a professor of theology at Marquette). When you arrive at the website, scroll down to THEME 1. Download Liturgy and Mysticism Parts I and II. I've read these articles 3 or 4 times in the past 6 months. Each time I find myself understanding things at a deeper level. (It's dense, rich reading! And he writes so well!)

    Here's the link:

    Thank you, Colleen, for you kind and laudatory words. For now, I am better doing comments when I feel prompted. I hope this article is helpful for anyone who takes the time and effort required to really "get" what it's talking about. A huge number of quotes from early Fathers and a marvelous thesis by the writer constitute nearly a course in spirituality. And it goes way, way beyond what I have written - and yes.... I do write these comments pretty quickly!

  12. @TheraP,

    I write too quickly that two part comment earlier was meant for you. It was a beautiful comment.


    Oops, I was in the wrong thread. Your comments are fabulous, beautiful too.


  13. The only thing I can think of that holds anything together in union is love. If oneself is the "center" of the universe that dictates what it wants or needs, at the expense of others wants or needs, great division will occur in relationships, a walking away from others instead of trying to build unity. Unity becomes impossible for the tyrant who believes its dogma is the "center" and forgets where its true center should be, Christ-centered.

    A great division took place when Jesus was sentenced to death (love was put to death - God was put to death). Barabbas was set free - representing a desire to war against one's neighbor, instead of uniting with God and love.

    What divides us from love, being loving, acting out in a way that demonstrates we know what love is (have an understanding of the true essence & nature of God) and can share that view with others?

    It seems to me that being "centered" in Christ is what all stages of faith thirst for. Yet historically the trend has been division, and more division, wars, a mayhem of religious deterioration. Religion becomes like a huge oil spill that cannot mix with the water and it kills and destroys all that is living in its path.

    My brain hurts.

  14. "Love" in this time & place tends to mean "romantic love." I don't think that's what Jesus was or is talking about.

    Love also can't be limited to an idea or a theory. Or a feeling. I'm thinking of the difference between happiness & joy. It is possible to be unhappy but remain joyful.

    ITTR that the Eastern Orthodox wedding liturgy has the married couple "crowned." Those are the crowns of matyrdom (sic), not royal power.

  15. "It is possible to be unhappy but remain joyful."

    That was demonstrated in Haiti by the people praising the Lord, despite their suffering and tremendous losses.

    Romantic love has its good qualities but only to a point and then it can easily disappear.

  16. p2p: I gathered you meant me. :-)

    I've made many an error myself! ;0

    Mark: marriage as "martyrdom" - not far off the mark! (accidental pun...)