M.T.D. and C.A.P.E. Catholics

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.
  • Source: Wikipedia

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.


  1. Interesting thought, Fritz! To put it another way, though: maybe they come on those days, “saturated with the great themes,” because that’s when they’re not getting M.T.D. *from us*. Before we get too critical of this operative faith of our society’s youth, we as a church might ask how we have been complicit in creating it. Judging from a lot of homilies, hymns and general intercessions (!), one might get the impression that it’s all about telling people what to do, rather than the Paschal Mystery.

    Or maybe the C.A.P.E. phenomenon is a twist on Baumstark’s second law: at these more solemn times, one “archaic” way we celebrate is that everyone shows up. 🙂

    1. @Christian McConnell – comment #1:

      My initial thought was to take your point further and ask whether we’re not also giving them MTD on those days, as well. The rites speak with a certain force of their own, but my own experience in many different churches has been that homilists often do their darndest to blunt the ritual message with insipid preaching. For instance, on more than one Christmas I have heard messages that bypassed explications of the mystery of the God-Man or His rehabilitation of human nature by taking it upon Himself in order to tell me, essentially, “The Incarnation shows us that it is good to help out as soup kitchens and other charitable endeavors.” I’m not saying that a homily is a poor place to encourage corporal works of mercy; I am saying that I could easily have been forgiven for missing the cosmic drama that is supposed to unfold in celebrations of the Nativity. And considering that the Christmas and Easter (day) liturgies are very little different from other Sunday or holy day Masses throughout the year, I suspect that the C.E. Catholics (whose biannual attendance seems more common than the quatrannual C.A.P.E.s) are not receiving anything more challenging than they would on the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

      1. @Aaron Sanders – comment #4:
        Agreed…I’ve heard plenty of C.A.P.E. sermons that are heavy on M.T.D. or something other than a clear initial proclamation.

        In general, I wonder if we might be over-thinking or romanticizing the situation. Wouldn’t cultural Catholicism or cultural self-identity be the most likely and basic reasons C.A.P.E. attendees exist in such numbers? [I say that without cynicism or meanness in any way…I think we can realistically acknowledge the force of culture without taking a cynical approach.]

      2. @Colleen Vermeulen – comment #11:
        My remark about cynicism was more in regard to the idea that they come “to get something” than to the idea that at least on C and E there are cultural factors at play. I also agree with Alan that the C and E folks are a much larger group that the C.A.P.E.ers. But this is in part why the latter are of particular interest to me: they seem drawn to celebrations for which there is little cultural pressure and which seem to embody themes quite different from M.T.D. (whether or not such a thing actually exists).

  2. It’s easy to dismiss the CAPE Catholics (a great term) as shallow or selfish with their time, too busy going out for brunch, to the mall, or watching football to attend Mass on Sunday. But I know individuals who are very thoughtful about their faith, with strongly-held convictions, who have made a conscious decision to stop going to church except for a few times a year when they are drawn to return. Many of them have left for specific reasons. Some have theological or moral conflicts, others have issues with the particular pastor of their church. Some say they “don’t get anything out of it” perhaps with legitimacy if every week the homily is pointless, the music sags, and people are cold and unwelcoming.

    In many cases, our “Come Back to Church!” campaigns just remind them of why they left in the first place. I am interested to hear when parishes make an intentional effort to talk to fallen-away Catholics to try to address their underlying issues. But far more often we settle for a bumper sticker slogan of Come Home while not offering any opportunity to go deeper.

  3. I have taught undergraduates in a large, public university for over 30 years–Baruch College of CUNY. I have taught an overview of Christianity and of the NT, courses on religion in American history and society, as well as on important Christian figures in our time and the search of writers for spiritual meaning. My school has over 100 languages represented by students and faculty, many immigrants, international students, students from every imaginable religious tradition as well as those from absolutely no religious upbringing and practice. While I encounter students of deep faith, some with unbelievable suffering and challenges in their lives, as well as those with serious religious abuse and thus animosity towards institutional religion, I cannot say I have encountered many, if any, MTDs. I was trained by Peter L. Berger in the sociology of religion, have a great deal of theological training and have served in the ordained ministry for decades in parishes. My experience of young adults in the last 30 years is not of smug, superficial or amoral individuals but rather, of serious students, both unwilling and unable to accept much of the religious irrelevance and abuse that were were taught to endure and overlook–I am in my 60s. There is good data to suggest that while as many as 20% of millenials are “religious nones,” that this does NOT mean they have no beliefs or strong ethical positions. It’s easy to be misled by that small group of indulged and indolent young people who can be found on any campus, from church related to the most secular of institutions. I have found much religious searching among my students and am writing about it in my forthcoming “Uncommon Prayer,” an examination of prayer in everyday experience.

  4. At an adult faith formation meeting in an Hispanic parish, I asked why there were so so SO-O-O-O many coming to church on Ash Wednesday to receive ashes. I got many answers, but the stunner was: “Father, it’s the one time in church that we don’t have to be ‘good enough’ to stand in line.”. That Lent we began asking people to come forward in the Communion line if they wished to receive a blessing.

  5. Thanks for these thoughts, Fritz. The swelling attendance on these days–Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday–as well as Christmas and Easter, also suggests the continual power and importance of embodiment, of ritual experiences, and even “sacramentals,” in conveying the reality of God.

    In a highly technological and electronic world, what a contrast to think that there’s something incredibly compelling about objects as simple as dirt…and leaves pulled off a tree.

  6. It’s often overlooked that Palm Sunday is about the Passion, and Ash Wednesday is about sin.

    In short, the dark realities continue to call to people.

    We live in such a bright and sunny culture, with all dark realities airbrushed out. At some level people know they are there in life, however, and need to be acknowledged. And that this is where the felt need for God arises.

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #9: What then does that final paragraph say about the Liturgy the rest of the year? What is or is not happening on Sundays to make them not come?
      My take, at least on Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday, is much more rooted in the ordinary: you come, you get something, and you get to take it home on you/with you.

  7. I’m struck by the different feel of the liturgy on CAPE when compared with other days in the liturgical year.

    Grander attention to art and decoration and the visual and the non-verbal:
    – trees with lights/decorations, candles, poinsettias, banners;
    – ashes, draped crosses;
    – palms;
    – lilies, unveiled crosses

    A strong connection to a well-told story
    – the birth in a stable
    – brokenness of sinners looking for hope
    – triumphal entry to betrayal to trial to crucifixion
    – Christ is risen!

    Grander use of music (both congregational song and choir/instrumental pieces), tying the story and the visual together
    – an abundance of carols
    – quiet, reflective, somber penitential music
    – triumphal to somber, reflecting the shifting tone of the story
    – pull-out-all-the-stops-on-the-organ, trumpets and timpani and more, with joyous Alleluias ringing out every time to turn to a new song.

    On most Sundays, the visual and musical are present but in the background; on CAPE they take center stage.

    Look at it this way: when was the last time you heard someone say “It just wouldn’t be the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost if we didn’t sing X”?

    Or this way: at Christmas, even people who don’t like to sing sing. It doesn’t happen because they save up all their inner music for one night a year, but because the visual and the musical and the power of the story of that night calls the song out of them in ways that do not happen on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost.

    Worship is not an intellectual exercise where we seek to understand God; it is an event where we come to experience God. On far too many ordinary Sundays, worship tends toward teaching. On CAPE, worship is truly an experience that engages the whole person.

  8. We spend a lot of time asking young adults, millennials, and so on, why they aren’t coming.
    To turn it around, what do we have to tell them in regard to WHY they should be coming-especially to Mass? “Hope of heaven and fear of hell” doesn’t hold much water when they believe that their Buddhist/Muslim/Atheist friends are going to heaven along with them. Is it REALLY the only place they can encounter God? “Real presence” when the TV/media-savvy evangelicals clearly have a real and personal relationship with Jesus? A social network of like-minded and value-driven peers or potential mates? Match.com or ChristianMingle. I would have to agree, in part, with Colleen that what drives C(AP)E attendance is some remnant of cultural Catholicism. I’m also not sure that we can truly identify the A-P folks with the C-E folks. There may be some overlap, but – with a few exceptions – parishes aren’t scheduling overflow Masses for Ash Wednesday or Palm Sunday. Most often the church building can still comfortably hold who’s showing up for those.
    I’m not trying to say that we need to despair and all hope is lost, but in a surrounding culture in which day-after-day our individual tastes, desires, and schedules are relentlessly accommodated, what really convincing thing do we have to tell young adults or ANYBODY as to why they need to be coming to join us at a prescribed time in a prescribed place to do a prescribed activity?

  9. I try to be very conscious of not making any comments about CAPE folks, even to other clergy and parish staff, and correct myself and them when such comments are made. I also try to do really, really good homilies for those days, knowing that we have a number of people who don’t come on a regular basis. Whatever they may be there to “get,” I hope it is a good proclamation about why their presence there is so important.

  10. I think it’s far past time for us to abandon the notion that a higher percentage of young people or any aged Catholics should be found at Mass more frequently. Jesus died that all might live, but all do not choose to follow the one who is life itself. All are welcome to the banquet of life, but all do not choose to garb themselves for eating and drinking. When the Eucharist is celebrated well and when someone with the gift of preaching the gospel of joy proclaims the Word, it poses a challenge that many are not ready to embrace. A vibrant faith community should not be measured by attendees but by the way they give glory to God by the lives they lead.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #16:
      I respectfully disagree. Jesus commands us to go forth and make disciples of all nations, all peoples. This command is incompatible with the idea that we’ll reach the ones who show up and not worry too much about the others.

      I also think numbers matter, I embrace that. There’s a whole book of the Bible that counts things called Numbers! Numbers are people, God’s people, and I’d rather my parish reach 1001 instead of 1000 next weekend.

      1. @Scott Pluff – comment #18:
        “Jesus commands us to go forth and make disciples of all nations, all peoples. This command is incompatible with the idea that we’ll reach the ones who show up and not worry too much about the others.” Yes! Preach that sense of urgency, Amen. 🙂

  11. Part of the phenomenon of CAPE attendance has to do with attendance patterns. Many people, particularly busy families with school-aged children, attend Sunday Mass on a semi-regular basis. My own wife and kids try to go to Mass every week, though sometimes the busy-ness of life gets in the way. They probably attend Mass about three times per month. Some friends of ours attend Mass once or twice a month. So on any given weekend, there is some significant portion of your “regular” attendees not there, or perhaps attending a different church that day. But most all of your “regular” attendees plan in advance for Mass on the big days of the year.

    I have noticed a pattern throughout the year. Summer attendance is low tide, very low. It starts to pick up in September, more in October, and starts to climb from Advent to Christmas Eve. Then a lot of people take a break and stay home until Ash Wednesday. Some of our highest attendance of the year is between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, then the bottom falls out again until the next fall. There’s more going on than C&E or CAPE.

  12. I think it’s far past time for us to abandon the notion that a lower percentage of young people or any Americans should be using methamphetamine. Methamphetamine is ruinous, but all do not choose to live a drug-free life.

    Sounds like solid reasoning to jettison anti-drug programs and education, no? Since some people will choose to use drugs no matter what we say or do, it’s not worth our effort (and it may be offensive to the drug users?) to encourage anybody not to use drugs.

  13. Sorry you guys didn’t get my point. All should be called, invited, and welcomed. All will not respond for a variety of reasons one of which is the challenge of being a disciple. It’s easy enough to be a church-ian though.

    1. Sorry you guys didn’t get my point. All should be called, invited, and welcomed.

      We got your point. What you said was that, when people choose not to go to Mass, we should “abandon the notion that [they] should be found at Mass more frequently.” In other words, you said that if people don’t go, then they oughtn’t go. And why should we invite people to Mass who shouldn’t be there? (I suspect you’re worried that we risk offending them.)

  14. Isn’t there a difference between the CAPE people and the MTD teenagers of the original comment? I think many of the CAPEs are older than 25, who come for various reasons. Sometimes they are accompanied by teens but often not. The majority of “Christmas visitors” are not teens or twenty-somethings in my experience.
    I believe these are two somewhat different groups, both of whom need attention, but who are not regular participants for different reasons.

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