Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Over One Billion Served

A recent report from the Catholic News Service draws attention to the fact that, whereas the number of Roman Catholics in the United States continues to grow, the number of baptisms, weddings, and first Communions is shrinking. Further evidence, if more were needed, that there are more people calling themselves “Catholic” than really are such, I suppose, except for the fact that I run into so many people who are not Catholic, don’t call themselves such, and yet somehow manage to find access to the Sacraments anyway. This is even more of a problem for other denominations, I think. I have a colleague who had his freshly adopted infant baptized in the local Episcopal church, even though both he and his wife are atheists. The new mom's parents, however, are Episcopalian, so to please them....

There have probably always been folks who have abused the Sacraments in one way or another. Even in St Augustine's day we find folks entering the Church primarily for political reasons (especially in the large urban centers, like Rome). These folks often did not seek Baptism right away, though putting off Baptism was actually fairly common anyway. St Augustine himself mentions the delay of his own Baptism in his Confessions. These days, in addition to folks like my colleague, for whom "membership" in the Church is meaningless, but a ritual like Baptism can play an important social role, we also find folks who do think of themselves as "members" of the Church in some sense, and for whom such membership appears to be meaningful, but the meaning that it has for them is entirely outside what the Church herself wishes to be understood by the conception of membership in the Mystical Body of Christ. In my parish there are a lot of folks who do not believe in the Real Presence, the reality of the Resurrection, and a whole host of other teachings that they proclaim that they do believe every time they publicly recite the Creed--but for these people even the public recitation of the Creed is merely a social act, a means of expressing a kind of "solidarity" with a certain community. This would appear to be just the thing that Ms. Mathewes-Green, whom I mentioned in an earlier post, thinks is the problem with the principle of unity as found in the Roman Catholic Church.

Though I do not agree with Ms. Mathewes-Green about this as evidence for a kind of unity in diversity, this is nevertheless a troubling trend. There is still a core of believers, of course, folks who take the Magisterium seriously and at its word. But these folks are getting harder and harder to pick out in a crowd. There was a time when the Church stood out from the rest of society--believers were easy to recognize. Now, instead of pointing to the Church as standing out from Pagan society we find ourselves trying to find the real members of the Church who will stand out from the other "members". This is not the first time in the history of the Church that this has been the case nor, in all probability, will it be the last. But it is a difficult time, in some ways, since the human spirit naturally craves a community of like-minded folk, and this is particularly true of those humans in whom the Spirit rests.

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