The Gap: Third Verse, Same as the First Print
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 18 August 2009 07:13
This is a reply to some comments on the The Gap, Part Deux post below. Like Topsy, it just grewed till it was too big for the comment box.

Peter wrote:

"whether a "Catholic" to "Evangelicals" comparison is really statistically "apples to apples." Catholics tend to identify as Catholics long after they have left the Church. I don't think the same is true of evangelicals.

Actually, the Pew studies dealt with all religious groups (Catholics, main=line Protestants, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, etc.) in exactly the same way, distinguishing between those who still hold to the religious identity they were raised in and those who have abandoned it. It was the huge number of American adults from all backgrounds who have left the religion of childhood (53%! - only 9 % of which had eventually returned) that was the real discovery of the Pew study and which precipitated their 2009 follow-up Study, Faith in Flux in which they focused entirely on those who left the faith in which they were raised.

All religious groups in the US experience significant losses because it has essentially become normative for adults, raised in any religious tradition or none at all, to decide their religious affiliation for themselves upon reaching adulthood. Which is why the majority are left the religious tradition of their childhood at least once – even if they eventually return – and most don’t. This is one of the remarkable characteristics of our culture at present. What varies a great deal in this very fluid situation is how many “natives” leave a given faith vs. how many enter that faith from the outside.

Of course, for an evangelical, moving from Protestant denomination to denomination has little meaning because their focus is much more on the quality of the life of the local church (parish) rather than that church’s denominational ties. For an evangelical to leave Protestantism, however, is roughly equivalent to a Catholic leaving the Church.

32% of those raised Catholic no longer claim the identity while 29% of those raised non-denominational Protestant have either joined a non-Protestant faith or ceased to practice any faith at all. So slightly more Catholics raised in the faith abandon the identity than do non-denoms. (Which doesn’t begin to exhaust the number of evangelicals in this country but “non-denoms” nearly always fall into the evangelical camp and Pew looked at them as a unit.)

The big difference is in the numbers who enter. Nearly four times as many Catholics leave the Church as enter it while the numbers of non-denominational Protestants have tripled despite their considerable loses. Today there are three times as many non-denominational Protestant as were actually raised in that faith.

Summary: A higher percentage of our people leave the Catholic faith altogether and a vastly smaller number enter the faith than happens in the evangelical world.

What I think is really telling is the difference between self-identified Catholics and self-identified evangelicals in these three categories:

1) Those who are certain that God is a personal God and you can have a relationship with that God.
Catholics: 48% Evangelicals: 74%

2) Those who say religion is “very important”
Catholics: 56% Evangelicals: 79%

3) Weekly attendance
Catholics: 42% Evangelicals: 56%

We live in the same culture and are subject to the same pressures and realities. But there is clearly a significant difference across the board in evangelical responses to those pressures which cannot be simply dismissed with a “they are oranges and we are apples” wave of the hand.

Another commenter wrote:

“I grew up around Evangelicals, Baptists, et al, and they were great at motivation and desire, but I realized by the end of my teens that they had nothing more to offer than 'Jesus loves me this I know for the bible tells me so." It is ok, and it creates many spiritual babies, but there wasn't much more.”

I would agree – up to a point.

First, a little side meditation. The broadest and most misleading caricatures entertained by Catholics and evangelicals about one another that I have encountered amount to “Evangelicals are stupid, Catholics are dead”.

One thing that I find consistently bewildering is the number of Catholics (in general – this is not a reflection on those of you who have commented here) who seem to have very little sense of the enormous number of really mature, spiritually and intellectually impressive evangelicals about. There are easily as many mature evangelicals in this country as there are mature Catholics. I’ve had the privilege of living, studying, and working with many of them and they remain some of the most impressive Christians I have ever known – by any standards.

Over and over, Catholic bloggers who manifest very little in-depth knowledge of the evangelical world, describe evangelicals as emotion-driven spiritual bears-of-very-little-brain and no staying power. Which has about as much reality as the perspective of the young beauty school student who was working on the hair of a Catholic classmate and stopped in bewilderment. “Where are they?” she asked? “Where are what?” returned her puzzled Catholic friend. “Your horns”. Where are your horns?” Turns out she had always been told that Catholics had little horns hidden in their hair – a sign of their demonic allegiance. (True story – it happened to Mark Shea’s mother-in-law).

Do I have to point out the obvious? You don’t establish and support 270 graduate level academic institutions if you have no interest in or capacity for sustained thought. And you certainly don’t successfully buck the west’s intense cultural pressure to privatize faith and launch a globe circling missionary expansion if you have no staying power. If evangelicals were simply the pathetic, shallow, spiritual ditz’s that many Catholics loftily presume they are, they’d be no challenge to us at all.

The truth is, they bother us exceedingly because they are anything but stupid and they are strong in areas where we are weak – and that isn’t supposed to be the way this works.

Of course, the reverse is also true – we are strong in areas where they are weak. But increasingly, evangelicals are more than willing to acknowledge Catholic strengths and are more than a little dazzled by them. I attended a gathering of high powered evangelicals committed to spiritual formation in early July. They were talking and quoting Catholic authors almost exclusively: Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Green and referred a great deal to monastic practice. Their passion was a profound union with God and so naturally, they turned to the great mystics. I learned from them that many of the foremost evangelical universities in the country now have spiritual formation programs in place that are adopting the same approach.

But so many of their evangelical assumptions were still in place. One impressive missionary leader, who lives in St. Petersburg, was stunned when, in response to his questions, I had to explain to him that being a Christian and being a disciple weren’t the same thing in the Catholic tradition. One was sacramentally based and the other a personal response.

The bewildered look on his face said it all. There was no place in his spiritual worldview for such a distinction. After all, he was turning to historic Christianity for guidance in how to help immature disciples become mature disciples. It had not yet dawned upon him that a faith that produces such saints could simultaneously have large numbers of members who are not yet disciples at all. Who don’t even know that discipleship is possible. Many of whom don’t even have an imaginative category in their heads for discipleship. Because they have never heard anyone talk about it.

Yes, evangelicals produce lots of spiritual babies. They may only be one year old spiritually but at least they are crawling and/or beginning to take their first steps. While we are finding that our pews are filled with the spiritually pre-natal. Many still in the first trimester. And they've been in the first trimester for decades and are showing no signs of growth at all. (Which is scary since unborn babies that don't grow, eventually die.) There are days when I’d give anything for a room full of toddlers. For all of our pro-life rhetoric, our practice and our culture is seems to be firmly in favor of spiritual contraception.

Or to use another metaphor, Catholicism is the graduate school of the spiritual life. We have this enormous, gorgeous library, full of the riches of the ages and open 24/7 to anyone who wants to enter and peruse at their leisure.

But first you have to teach yourself to read and write. Cause we don’t have a public elementary school system and the majority of our people are illiterate. Now this works for some of our own who are especially gifted and persistent or have parents who tutored them privately or sent them to be educated by the emerging network of small, specialized private schools. But many, even the majority in our village don’t even know books exist. So our wonderful library is beginning to fill up with the graduates of hundreds of humble evangelical public elementary schools who know there is more and are hungry for it.

To continue with the metaphor: There is no reason at all that we could not establish our own public elementary "spiritual formation" system but when someone points out the need for such a system, the common responses seem to be:

1) We built the library and wrote most of the books in it!
(Hmmm? True indeed, but exactly how is that a meaningful response to a wide-spread lack of spiritual "literacy" (discipleship) which means few can read and understand those wonderful books?

2) Catholics don't do elementary schools. That's Protestant. The majority of our people have never been "spiritually literate".
Even if it is true - and it hasn't always been true everywhere - why does that make it ok? Especially since the founder of our library, gave us a very clear mandate: Go therefore and make disciples ("spiritual literates") of all nations . . .

3) We already have our own educational network and our people spend years in it!
Yes that is often the case, but we don't conduct tests to see what they have learned before they graduate. All the available evidence indicates that most of our pupils graduate still unable to read and write. (They never pick up a book and can't read our blogs for heaven's sake!) Shouldn't we ask ourselves: "is our existing educational system giving us the results that our founder clearly stated was the norm and our mission? If we keep doing what we are presently doing, we'll keep getting what we have gotten. Isn't it time to re-evaluate and revamp our "spiritual school" system?

Even if setting out to teach all our people to read and write smacks of Protestantism?