Academic observers of contemporary religion have consistently noted the surprising lack of articulacy displayed by young American adults asked to describe their faith’s doctrinal tenets. Sociologist Christian Smith, who conducted a comprehensive, nation-wide survey of religiosity among this demographic, found that despite their nominal affiliation with a given religious tradition, young adults tend to be “spiritually indifferent, uninformed, and disengaged.” The trend was especially observable, said Smith, among Catholic youth.
This is not to say, of course, that there are no young people who demonstrate a thorough understanding of Catholic theology and practice. But the data certainly suggests that such individuals are few and far between.
What are we to make of this?
To be sure, decoding papal edicts and delineating the Vatican’s hierarchical structure are no easy tasks. But if an individual chooses to declare his or her adherence to a particular religion, especially a religion whose leadership claims a singular role in professing and promulgating moral truths, it seems to logically follow that such an individual should have at least a basic understanding of the pronouncements made by those who speak on behalf of the Church. The decision to forego any such inquiry represents an especially toxic brand of cognitive dissonance – and it should trouble us all.
Someone who is not so dismayed by this intellectual apathy might rightly point out that many turn to religion simply for a reliable social network, and thus an extensive knowledge of theology is not particularly necessary. That same person might also assert that the Catholic “label” is as much a source of cultural and familial identity as it is religious affiliation. No argument here – many of us are imbued with a sense of religious devotion from the earliest of ages, before we have developed even the faintest ability to comprehend what it is we are actually chanting from the pews. But cultural or familial ties, I would contend, are not good reason enough to retain a religious identification. If there is something in which we claim to believe, we should be able to develop reasoned arguments in favor of such belief. We should understand the implications of the endeavors undertaken by the institution to which we declare allegiance.
Treading along idly as a “Cafeteria Catholic” – a Catholic who picks and chooses bits of the religion he or she happens to find pleasant – might appear to be harmless at first glance. If it makes you happy, then what’s the problem?
Well, the problem is that your euphemistic neglect of Church doctrine constitutes serious intellectual apathy, and intellectual apathy indeed harms everyone. Without question, those apathetic in their apprehension of religion – which is of course supposed to inform (if not dictate) our views on law, ethics, and the very nature of the universe – are probably also apathetic in other aspects of life. Indeed, these same people comprise the voting electorate, and thus the absence of any analytical rigor in their thought processes does a disservice to the rest of us who must live with the politicians for whom they have cast their vote – and the policies implemented thereafter.
The Catholic Church’s recent direct engagement in New Jersey’s political affairs underscores this need for consistency and clarity. Those who identify as Catholics must take a serious look at what their religion’s spokespeople are saying and doing in the name of God, and decide whether they are content to be represented by these spokespeople in the cultural marketplace of ideas.
To start, on November 28, Catholic bishops from diocese across New Jersey issued a letter strongly denouncing same-sex marriage, and called on parishioners to pray that the bill legalizing such unions would fail to become law. Priests were instructed to read and distribute the letter during that weekend’s mass.
In the letter, the bishops bemoan “a broad cultural shift away from religion and social traditionalism and toward a belief in personal independence and tolerance for diverse life styles – otherwise known as ‘secular individualism.’” They allege that the legalization of same-sex marriage would “threaten [heterosexual] marriage and, in turn, children and the public good.”
“Though it is regulated by civil laws and church laws,” the bishops write, “[marriage] did not originate from either the church or state, but from God. Therefore, neither church nor state can alter the basic meaning and structure of marriage.”
This sort of hostile rhetoric is nothing new for the Catholic Church. In 2005, Pope John Paul II labeled homosexuality an “ideology of evil”; in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI called it “a destruction of God’s work.” That same year, a Vatican spokesperson decried homosexuality as a “a deviation, an irregularity, a wound,” and official Church catechism holds that it is a “disorder.”
On November 11, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. threatened to withhold charitable services for the impoverished if the city went ahead with a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage.
I must ask: as a Catholic, do you also regret the cultural shift towards personal independence and tolerance for diverse lifestyles? Are you in agreement with Church leadership that advocacy in favor of same-sex marriage is but a veiled attempt to corrupt the moral grounding of credulous children? Should the Catholic conception of God’s will be enough to dictate secular law in a pluralistic society? Is homosexuality evil, a disorder, or some combination of the two?
In a sense, we are fortunate that the debate over same-sex marriage has entered into the public sphere and forced “traditionalist” religious figures to take a firm stance on matters related to homosexuality. They are now obliged to be upfront with their illogical and hysterical condemnations, and are thereby exposed to a harsh reality: our generation is leaving them behind. More and more, we are willing to let them to wither in the tatters of discrimination, bigotry, and ultimately irrelevance.
Motivated apologists have gone to great lengths to couch their vilifications of homosexuality, offering friendly but deceptive qualifications. It is not the homosexual him or herself that deserves condemnation, they sometimes claim, but rather homosexual acts. As such, the sin committed by a homosexual is not so different than a sin committed by a heterosexual out of wedlock. Sin is sin, they say, regardless of sexual orientation.
But according to the Church, heterosexual acts are not inherently sinful. By contrast, as per Catholic doctrine, there are no circumstances under which two homosexuals could consummate their desire for physical intimacy without committing a sin. When a heterosexual commits the sin of lust, he or she does so only insofar as the act of lust is a sin.
But when a homosexual lusts, he or she is sinning both because the act of lust is a sin, and also because the object of his or her desires is a member of the same sex. By calling homosexual acts immoral, the next logical step is unavoidable: homosexuality, one must conclude, is intrinsically sinful. Let us not be fooled. John Paul II, inaccurately considered by some to represent a kinder, gentler pontificate, reaffirmed this principle on multiple occasions, and with considerable vigor. His successor, Benedict XVI, has followed suit.
What these homosexuals need, apologists often say, is compassion, understanding, and ultimately rehabilitation. Their innermost identities need to be changed; it is for their own good. How dreadfully insulting.
Do you, as a Catholic, agree with the pontiffs? And if not, are you aware that by disagreeing you are technically committing an act of heresy? The pope, after all, is supposed to be infallible.
Of course, let us not forget the various other Catholic teachings and practices that could be mildly described as morally repugnant. Charities that bear the Catholic name are forbidden from distributing condoms in AIDS-stricken Africa, because according to official Church policy, the need to prevent the moral scourge of contraception apparently outweighs the need to prevent the suffering of millions. Medical services that are provided typically come with strings attached: recipients must enroll in Bible-study classes and take oaths of abstinence before they are offered relief. The pope, of course, mandates these inane decrees from a lavish, anachronistic relic of a palace that more embodies the dark history of religious warfare in medieval Europe than it does a beacon of hope and compassion to the world.
Let us not forget that the Catholic Church stood by in deafening silence as the Jews were slaughtered, despite their claims of moral clairvoyance and certitude.
Let us not forget the shockingly rampant crimes of pedophilic rape committed by depraved priests who were entrusted with the most intimate of relationships with children. This revolting behavior, as we have learned, was not confined merely to a few ‘bad apples.’ Priests in parishes from Los Angeles to Dublin have been tried and convicted, and those only represent the incidents that have as of yet been reported. Countless more victims undoubtedly remain in the shadows. But perhaps even more grotesque than the crimes themselves was the subsequent systematic cover-up, which was ordered from the highest levels of Church hierarchy. For many, saving face was more important than saving the children.
Let us not forget the daily shame and torment that those who have been molested must endlessly endure. Only recently has Benedict offered even his most modest regrets – but he can just as well retract them. No scant words of conciliation will ever repair the torn psyches of the priests’ innumerable victims. And now, those same Church leaders whose inaction (and, in many cases, complicity) enabled interminable abuse have the audacity to attempt to set state-crafted social policy? This is appalling. This deserves our outrage.
Let us not forget that the Archdiocese of Portland, Maine had the audacity this fall to send around a second collection plate during Sunday mass to collect funds for the anti-same-sex marriage crusade in that state, ultimately pouring $550,000 into a duplicitous smear campaign marked by fear-mongering and bigotry. These tactics also proved tragically effective in New Jersey, where bishops killed marriage equality in Trenton by intimidating legislators and demonizing gays. Sen. Paul Sarlo, a Democrat who opposed the same-sex marriage bill, cited his Catholic upbringing in explaining his no vote. This opportunistic scapegoating needs to end.
Let us not forget that the bishops have held hostage the impoverished of Washington, D.C. in still another effort to stymie social progress. Thankfully, there they were unsuccessful, and same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.
Let us not, even if it hurts, shy away from an honest assessment. Are cultural and familial ties worth affiliation with this contemptible institution, especially if such affiliation allows for the legitimization of a loathsome and toxic political agenda? And further, would any non-religious organization with this abhorrent a track record be afforded the same respect and adulation that cultural etiquette supposedly mandates for the Church?
The decision is yours to make. But let us not pretend that intellectual apathy affects only the apathetic.