Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Some numbers on Catholicism

First published: Monday, April 17, 2006

The reason I've become so interested in the state of the Catholic Church is that I recently found a small church that offers a traditional Latin Mass.

So? Well, for years I just wasn't interested in being a Catholic anymore. You have to understand, I was born Catholic, and attended parochial school for 9 years. I loved my school, was was a devoted little Catholic - I had some visions of being a nun at one point - and remained faithful even through those tough high school years.

But by 1969, when I was in college, and things started to fall apart in the church, I was feeling pretty betrayed, and of course it was a vulnerable time for religiosity anyway (both in terms of my age, and the era).

So, I stopped going to church and for the most part, did not return until I found what had been missing.

It's easy to dismiss my disappointments as mostly cosmetic. Ok, they changed the altar to face the congregation. Ok, they stopped the Latin Mass. They took all the beautiful music and shelved it. No more bells, incense, candles. Even the Host was moved to the side and downplayed. The priest was as likely to wear sandals as a chasuble. In fact, everything beautiful, mystical, spiritual and God-directed had disappeared. And yes, I definitely felt it on an aesthetic level.

But it was far more than that. It was a total change in orientation, and complete about-shift in meaning. And I have been gratified lately, as I read and learn more and more about the disaster than was Vatican II, to learn that my instinctive reactions to these changes is reflected in the more educated views of many who write on this subject.

When I was young, the Mass was oriented toward God. It was an unbloody sacrifice, re-enacted and offer TO God, of His Son, who died for us so that our sins could be forgiven. As such, it was offered, appropriately, toward the altar, toward God. We all stood behind the priest as he, in his role of Christ on earth, presided at the sacrifice. Ok, that all made sense to me. Since it was a re-enactment of an ancient rite, it seemed appropriate that it not be offered in common, every day language, or costume, or style. It should be "other." Moreover, it always seemed to me that in setting religion apart from everyday life, making it beautiful and terrible and powerful, the Church was on to something.

Part of it, of course, was that that was the nature of Catholicism. Religion was about the after life - not about this one. It was not about good deeds, it was about faith. And repentence. But more than that, the ceremony, the style, they prayers, the language - they all pulled you out of yourself, and into another realm. (Funny, it's ok to chant mantras in Hindi to invoke another state of mind, but we frown upon the same formula when reciting the Rosary.)

So for me, Mass had been a short vacation from my everyday life, and brief trip into the numinous - a glimpse of something more, something other than this day to day life.

I was recently at a Novus Ordo Mass. And it was everything, and less, than I remembered. And I remembered why I stopped attending church. The priest did not speak til more than halfway through the "celebration." The church itself was bare and bright. The prayers were not Catholic - or at least, not especially so. Any Protestant church congregation might have said them. There is no particular reverence for the host. There are subtle shifts in wording that render the meaning something other than what I recall. (Especially the sops to angry feminists who insist that God is not a father but androgynous.) The music is execrable. Oddly, every single person on the stage (I can't even call it an altar) with the celebrant was a woman. All in all, I had the feeling I was attending a not-very-good local theatre musical. Bad acting, bad singing, cheesey costumes, and a spare-parts set. How sad.

In fact, a Catholic "leader" recently wrote about the church and verified my worst fears: it is his belief that Christianity is about good works, political involvement, activism. It is not about actively converting souls, but about do-goodism. (Which I am not denigrating, it is very important to do good - I jsut always believed the church was more concerned about the health of the soul than of the body.) The focus is on the congregation, not on God. The priest is playing to the people, not to the Kingdom of Heaven. The mass is a communion on with Jesus, but with one another.

Statistically, the resuls are disastrous. The number of Catholic priests has fallen from 58,000 to 45,000. By 2020 there will be 31,000 and half will be over the age of 70. In 1965, 1,575 new priests were ordained, but in 2002, the number fell to 450. At present, some 3,000 parishes are without priests. Between 1965 and 2002, the number of seminarians fell from 49,999 to 4,700, a decline of over 90 percent. Since 1965 two thirds of seminaries opened have closed their doors. (A look at the reasons for the steep decline of priests will come later in this article.) The number of Catholic nuns, 180,000 in 1965, has fallen by 60 percent. Since the close of Vatican II the number of teaching nuns has fallen 94 percent. Their resolute obedience to orthodoxy and recognition of their vital role in educating Catholics has been replaced by mostly lay people, some of whom are not even Catholic. When one sees a nun today, if one even recognizes a nun, the impression one is more likely to get is that of a professional businesswoman. About half the Catholic high schools open in 1965 have closed. Almost half of the 4.5 million students in those schools in the mid-1960s are gone. A great treasure has been lost. Now, only 10 percent of lay religious teachers accept the Church's teaching on contraception, 53 percent think a Catholic woman can get an abortion and remain a good Catholic, 65 percent say Catholics have the right to divorce and remarry, and a New York poll reported that 70 percent of Catholics aged 18 to 54 believe that the Holy Eucharist is just a "symbolic reminder" of Jesus. Only one in four Catholics attends Mass on Sunday today, while in 1958 three out of every four Catholics did so.

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