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)?