A few years back, the sociologist Christian Smith coined the phrase “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” to describe the religion of teenagers in America, a religion distinct from traditional Christianity. The basic tenets of M.T.D. are:
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Among those of us who teach young adults, there has been much discussion of M.T.D. Many recognize this as more or less the set of beliefs that most students—whatever their religious background—bring with them into the classroom. They seem uninterested in traditional Christian themes of sin and atonement, grace and penitence, death and resurrection. The one Bible verse they seem to be able to quote is “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” It is a perfect religion for the pluralistic civil society of the secular West.
At the same time, many see that there is more going on in the lives of their students than the tenets of M.T.D. While this may be how they articulate what they believe, their behavior sometimes hints at something a bit deeper.
This was on my mind when I came across a new acronym: C.A.P.E. Catholics—those who attend church primarily on Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, and Easter. We are all familiar with how attendance swells on these days. Some cynically say that people come on Christmas and Easter because of cultural forces and on Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday because those are the days when you “get something.” But perhaps something more profound is going on.
Whatever people are getting from Church on those days, it is certainly not M.T.D. If one were to base one’s understanding of Christianity on what is said and done of those four days, it would be an understanding saturated with the great themes of incarnation, sin, penitence, death, and resurrection. If M.T.D. is really the religion of the young, why is it these four days that draw them to church?
I suspect that people who do not have much time for church otherwise are drawn on these days precisely because these are the celebrations that most thoroughly challenge the sufficiency of M.T.D. as a framework of meaning. On these days, the church offers something that M.T.D. cannot give: a story of divine nearness, of betrayal and redemption, of final victory over death. It is this story for which the world hungers.
So rather than scowl at the crowds of C.A.P.E. Catholics who fill our pews four days a year (as we every-Sunday Catholics can tend to do), perhaps we need to learn what they have to teach us about the power of the Gospel, even if what they have to teach us is something that they themselves are not fully aware of.