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Can Catholicism be passed on without Catholic culture?

A generation ago we bemoaned the many uncatechized Catholics sitting in the pews. Many of the children of that generation are now Millennials who have wandered beyond uncatechized to unchurched. They rarely attend Mass, if ever, and neither do their young children. The statistics identify these parents among the least religious groups in American history. The Catholic Faith is as vague a notion to them as quantum physics or calculus.

Is Catholicism in America doomed when the vast majority of the baptized—the 80% who stay home on Sunday—are unchurched?

In former generations, handing on the Faith occurred through a confluence of factors. The primary two were liturgical—the Mass, celebrations of saints, May crownings, Eucharistic processions—and educational—direct instruction in the Faith in school, often by men and women religious. Enhancing these weekly or periodic happenings was a Catholic culture, that is, a Catholic way of living in the world, that included family prayer, crucifixes in the home, meatless Fridays, Lenten penances, rosaries, Saturday confession, bingo in the church basement, and living among other Catholics in a particular neighborhood.

“Christian culture,” writes Christopher Dawson in The Crisis of Western Education (1961), “is the embodiment of Christianity in social institutions and patterns of life and behavior.” Hence, for most Catholics, this culture was caught, rather than taught, and it served as the cement foundation for Catholics’ beliefs. In Dawson’s telling, “[a]rchitecture and painting and sculpture, music and poetry were all enlisted in [Christian culture’s] service, and no one was too poor or too uneducated to share in its mysteries.” In America, before Vatican II, Catholics were very much aware that their culture was distinct from the broader American Protestant culture that dominated the nation.

Today, all the cultural edifices that buttressed the liturgy and education in handing on the Faith are gone. Secularity permeates all aspects of American life, while actions once condemned as immoral masquerade as normal. A distinctly Catholic way of living disappeared with meatless Fridays; devotions are the purview of the elderly; processions have ceased. Catholic art and architecture were deliberately wrecked and the parish has long ceased to be the locus of activity for Catholic families. Now, on Sunday mornings, Millennial parents drive their children not to church but to the athletic field, and precious few are shuffling into the 5:00 p.m. Mass at day’s end.

I have been observing how marginal Catholics live without the support of Catholic culture in two years of teaching baptism preparation in my parish. Almost none of the new parents, ranging in age from the early thirties to the early forties, who attend the singular mandatory session practices the Faith. While there is enough spiritual residue within them to seek baptism for their children, they have no connections to the institutional Church and a tenuous one to my parish. Almost all of them are relatively new to town and have yet to attend a Mass, or they are out-of-towners with a faint natal connection to the parish. When we enter the church, no one genuflects; regularly, a new dad continues to wear his baseball cap.

Read more at Catholic World Report 

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