Troubling the Lex Vivendi: The Church at Prayer Amidst an Imperiled Home

Evangelization – announcing the Gospel’s call to conversion toward more abundant life in our time – is proving an ever-greater challenge in the conflicted context of US Catholic parish life. Press coverage of the upcoming Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, coupled with recent social-scientific data and some personal pastoral experience prompt the following concerns during the waning days of this year’s Season of Creation.

Back in mid- summer, reading about a conference of US Catholic pastoral ministers, teachers, scholars, clergy and laity committed to advancing the now four-year-old papal encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, the following paragraph arrested my attention:

According to a 2018 survey by Pew Research Center, 60 percent of Catholics acknowledge the world is warming mostly due to human activity. But a greater divide appears among those attending Mass weekly, who are least likely to view climate change as a serious problem or one requiring a moral response on their part, according to a 2017 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Dismayed (but not surprised, as I shall explain further below) to come across yet another indication of how dissonant the moral-ethical priorities of regular Mass-going US Catholics can be from the teaching of the church’s regular magisterium, I sought further details on the linked CARA Special Report. It includes the following summary:

Regardless of who is to blame for the Earth getting warmer, two-thirds of Catholics think that climate change is “a very” or “the most” important problem for the world today; only 11 percent say it is “a little” or “not at all” important. … those who attend Mass at least weekly are least likely to say it is “a very” or “the most” important problem.

It is clear that most people think climate change is an important problem, but who is responsible for the solution? Sixty-nine percent of Catholics believe that they have a moral responsibility personally to do what they can to combat climate change while only 16% believe that they do not. Catholics who agree that climate change is caused by humans are much more likely to say they have a moral responsibility to combat climate change; similarly those who believe God has not played a role in climate change are more likely to say they have a moral responsibility to combat it. Those who attend Mass at least weekly are, again, least likely to agree that they have a moral responsibility to combat climate change.

That such a strong majority of Catholics polled hold climate change among the gravest issues of our time, impelling practical ethical response, certainly is heartening. Still, the fact that weekly Mass participants comprise the significant minority holding the contrary position cannot but give pause. What is there about the actual practice of the lex orandi among weekly Sunday Mass participants, now fallen to just 21% of US Catholics, that makes them least in accord with teachings and exhortations on the ecology put forth by Popes John Paul, Benedict, and Francis?

My question might appear rhetorical. But such is not my intention. Perhaps my question is not adequately framed and should, rather, look to the demographics. The composition of US Catholics still going to Mass weekly strongly tilts to the oldest two generations (per CARA and Pew data). One would have to pursue research into the age differences in Catholic responses to the theoretical, informational, and ethical questions posed for such urgent societal questions as climate change. Put another way, the phenomenon of rejecting human responsibility concerning climate change (at least in the form of ethically responsive action) may have less (far less?) to do with the structure and content of the liturgy than with other sources weekly Mass participants value in forming their moral, social opinions.

Perhaps the lack of correlation between embracing the papal magisterium on the environmental crisis (texts spanning three decades) and weekly Mass attendance is indicative of a radically different way of imagining how the world – both natural and societal – works, and all of this in relation to the scripture and tradition. One of the well documented reasons for young people completely abandoning Catholicism is the dissonance they experience between science and religion. Another consistent factor is dissatisfaction with the content and quality of homiletic preaching.

Those latter factors strike me as crucial. The Liturgy of the Word is arguably the most radical element in the reform and renewal of the Mass of the Roman Rite. The Lectionary, both in its weekly proclamation of three biblical texts plus a psalm and the expectation of a genuine homily, coupled with its three-year cycle, has wrought a fundamental change in the structure, length, and tenor of the Sunday Mass. Whether and how people are capable and willing to proclaim and hear the word of God as speaking to the significantly changed and changing social, cultural, and environmental circumstances in which believers practice the faith is critical to the relevance and import of liturgical participation today.

I conclude with a personal pastoral experience that, frankly, continues to haunt my liturgical ministry. Four Decembers ago I found myself preaching the first Sunday of Advent in a parish I had recently begun serving most weekends. The Sunday inaugurated Lectionary Year C, the Lucan year, and so the Gospel was from “the apocalypse” of Luke (21:25-28, 34-36). A biblical-critically informed explanation of the cosmic, environmental disaster depicted, as well as the urgent purpose of such apocalyptic genre, was what I discerned the people could benefit from learning, so as to hear the divine word addressed to them in 2015. I turned to the ecological encyclical Pope Francis had issued just six months earlier, integrating the Lucan imagery with a few apposite passages from Laudato Si. My concluding point (an exhortation) was that the coming of Christ always demands a decision, and that throughout Christian history the cry Marantha! has for believers in particular circumstances been urgent. Does not the teaching of this pope, building on his predecessors, point to an urgency of a cosmic and societal scale like that in Luke 21, Mark 13 (First Sunday of Advent, Year B), and the Book of Revelation?

The Mass at which I delivered that homily was the Sunday evening one, at which the majority attending are young adults (along with a smaller number of teens with parents, plus other older adults). Greeting people in the front doorway after the liturgy I found myself confronted by a man, like me, in his fifties (although significantly taller, bigger). He shook my hand but continued to grip it strongly as he asked who I was and on what basis I had the audacity to preach such a sermon (his term). He dismissed my explanation that I am responsible to preach the Season (Advent, up to Dec. 17th, primarily anticipates Christ’s Second Coming) and the Lectionary texts. He accused me of promoting a “political agenda.” I asked him to release my hand and replied that the only current material I’d employed was a papal encyclical. As he stormed away, he turned to yell: “You’re not welcome here! And you’d better not come back!” Other people, heads down, kept making their way out around him.

My brief account here is, of course, anecdotal. Still, I convey it as an experience, not unrelated to others over these past few years, prompting my keener observation as to who actually are in the pews (versus the 80% of US Catholics not regularly there, plus the nearly 30 million self-identifying ex-Catholics) and what images and information primarily forms their moral, ethical convictions and commitments. What word of God do they anticipate, are they open to hearing, given the blunt fact that Christianity from its origins operates on a Gospel offering faith, hope, and love to people who, with all creation, groan for bodily redemption (Rom 8:19-23)?

4 comments

  1. I fear that your experience places you in a decades-old lineage. One of my clearest memories as an altar server in the mid-60s was coming into the sanctuary for Sunday Mass with the assistant pastor – a real civil rights advocate – and seeing people get up and walk out.

    A couple decades later, my moral theology prof (who was working with the bishops on “Economic Justice for All”) preached at all the weekend Masses and, again, people complained, wrote letters to the pastor, and a few even left the parish.

    More recently, I had people tell me/write to me that they really wished they could sing the refugee/immigrant hymn text I’d posted on Facebook, but they were afraid to use it in their parishes, for fear of reprisals by congregants and the clergy.

    All anecdotal, true, but I have a suspicion my experiences aren’t isolated ones.

    In the realm of technology, there is an arc of adopting/adapting to new things – the Church tends to be a slow adopter of technology (this isn’t just a 20th/21st c. reality). I fear that when new areas emerge in Dr. King’s arc of the moral universe, it is often the Church who, once again, is slow to adopt, or adapt to them.

  2. Bruce, I am saddened and dismayed to hear of the experience you described. I am sorry you had to go through that, but as Alan observed above, you surely are in good company. I salute you for having the courage to stand firm.

    The care for the environment should not be a partisan issue. But sadly I believe it has become one, through the ceaseless assault on the scientific consensus on climate change that is emanating from certain industries and their political supporters. This political space (or corner) is the one that most of our bishops feel most comfortable inhabiting and they have reinforced the denial of this problem tacitly by aligning themselves almost exclusively with people who think this way. (There are exceptions.) It therefore does not surprise me at all that regular Mass attendees care less about climate than other American Catholics. They are listening more seriously to political messaging that says “climate change is a hoax” than they are listening to Pope Francis, and their bishops are not challenging them on this.

    There is also active opposition. You may recall that Cardinal Pell disagreed with Francis in public and met with Steve Bannon in private immediately after Laudato Si’ came out, to strategize on how to find a way around the encyclical, because he did not believe in climate change.

    Looking on the bright side, increasingly, business and industry leaders have been coming around to see that they can play a role in averting a climate disaster (the meeting in Rome last year, and the statement about carbon tax, and other signs of hope are emerging). But if the people in the pews are still thinking this is all a hoax, and the bishops have not — for the most part — given it the focus it deserves, it remains difficult to change this perception on a broad scale. Thank you for trying.

  3. Bruce, I’m sorry you had to go through that experience but really glad you stood your ground. You aren’t wrong to preach as you did (I suspect you know that). Your experience is similar to mine in my gym recently. When talking with another person working out, he said he didn’t believe in climate change because “No one will take away my beef, guns or right to drive my car.” Putting aside the gross lack of political and scientific research behind this statement, I was struck by the fundamental narcissism that often seems to characterize our generation. I am 68 years old and observe the constant display of self-centered attitudes in our society. It is also apparent in the response you received from that parishioner. What gave him the right to forbid you to come back? Or the right to speak for the entire parish? I think the lowered heads of the other parishioners speaks volumes to their lack of agreement with him (and perhaps their unwillingness to engage with him as well). I don’t think it is ever wrong to provoke thought in another person. I welcome it, even when I disagree with their viewpoint. I only wish that more priests spoke on the current issues that are so important today. I believe there would be more lapsed and current Catholics at Mass if they did. By the way, one of the best sermons I ever heard was in Halifax, NS. The priest spoke on his parishioners who call themselves Christian but will give no quarter while racing to leave the parking lot after Mass. I have never seen before or since such a polite exodus after Mass as I did that day! Keep speaking out, Bruce. You don’t know who you reached who went away thinking and acting on what you brought to their attention.

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