Vol 42 No 3
A new Catholic narrative
A DOMINANT discourse in contemporary Catholicism has told the story of a transition in Catholic identity. Such stories have a personal focus looking at the faith journey of individuals. Their basic premise is a variation on moving away from an intense, socially constructed religious belief to a more personal idiosyncratic view which places a high value on morality but has a far weaker transcendent edge, at least in the traditional Christian sense. Another key aspect of these stories is their unease with the official teachings of the denomination. These official teachings are often seen as backward and in need of serious updating. These narratives, then, have a certain power and interest as they chronicle often profound human experiences. They speak to a generation which still tends to monopolize the popular expression of religious belief and identity due to their seniority. What I intend to explore is the place of these narratives in some type of historical context, using Jewish experiences of emancipation as an analogy, and I shall argue that a new narrative needs to emerge, one which has not been shaped by the powerful impact of transition and one which is reflective of a greater engagement with the transcendental.
Leaving the Ghetto: A Transition Narrative
Many Catholics, now well into their fifties and beyond, have experienced a profound change in the nature and expression of their religious beliefs. The catalyst has unquestionably been the Second Vatican Council. There is no need to emphasise the enormity of the changes that were initiated by the Council. It was a watershed in the modern history of the Church. No other event has created such a clear delineation between eras. We can speak of pre-conciliar and post-conciliar generations but also of the many Catholics who were profoundly affected by the transition from one generation to the other. The change in worldviews was a seminal and intensely personal experience. It was also extremely common and was often likened to the walls of a ghetto coming down. This is described by Edmund Campion:
Catholics in Australia created their own sub-culture…so they created for themselves a sort of ghetto…the Catholic Bushwalking Club, the Catholic Business College, the Catholic Club, the Catholic Family Planning Service ... Our generation was unhappy about this. Not only were we moving out of the ghetto, we were absorbing the liberal propositions of our society and finding them good.
There are numerous instances in contemporary Catholicism of a discourse which draws heavily on the contrast between the pre- and post-conciliar eras. To select one example, consider the pedagogical approach taken with parents whose children are to be taken through the sacramental programs in primary schools. I am unaware of any published study which has systematically examined these presentations and will rely only on personal experience. Held in the evening, information sessions give parents a general introduction to the sacrament. In the case of the sacrament of penance a common strategy is to contrast confession before the Council and now. There are at least two problems here. Parents who in 2008 have children in grades three or four can in most part be assumed to have had little or no experience of the pre-conciliar Church. In the future this lack of experience will only become more acute. It should be realized that all references to the Church before the Council may make an impression on older Catholics but for those typically sitting in the school or parish hall in 2008 and beyond, this is an era of receding historical interest only. The tail end of the pre-conciliar period is, after all, now close to fifty years past. Secondly, the religious socialization of these parents and their children has, on the whole, been weak and this is unlikely to change in the future. Most parents will have had only a limited experience of the sacrament of penance. To contrast confession before and after the Council is to miss on both scores.
Whilst not discounting the importance of the tensions and changes that emerged after the Second Vatican Council, for indeed these issues have great resonance for older population cohorts, younger generations are not part of this conversation as their formative experiences were quite different and much more diffuse, exposed as they were to a heterogeneous religious culture. Instead of assuming much ‘baggage’ on the part of parents with children in Catholic schools, for example, it may be sounder to try to recognize a new narrative that arises from a community that does not have, amongst other things, a strong sacramental sense in either a cognitive or affective dimension. A less backward looking tone may be in order, one which highlights what the tradition is offering.
In developing a new narrative a number of parallels can be drawn here with Jewish reactions to the Enlightenment. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, and escalating in the post Napoleonic era, there emerged Jews who harboured strongly ambivalent feelings about their religious heritage. They rejected, in particular, a strong communal identity and were more content with a personal and private religious expression, one which sat well with the cultural milieu they now either inhabited or aspired to. The emergence of this group can be directly related to the sudden and dramatic change in the circumstances of Jews living in Western Europe. Ghettos, which had for centuries insulated Jews from wider culture, began to breakdown, initially and most importantly in the city states of what is now Germany. Although the barriers of prejudice were far from being removed, the new era allowed Jews to live, work and perhaps most significantly, engage with wider culture. This lead to a reconceptualization of what it meant to be a Jew.
A seminal figure at this time was Moses Mendelssohn. He sought to develop an expression of Jewish belief and culture that was faithful to the historic sense of Judaism but which was also reconcilable with modern rationalist European philosophy, especially the Kantian conception of the Enlightenment as a time when people freed themselves from immaturity and superstition. Whilst most Jews remained contained to ghettoes, Mendelssohn’s thinking was largely speculative. When the walls literally came down, however, the first reactions, as anticipated, were to achieve a greater harmony between the newly emancipated Jewish world and the wider culture.
Some of the strategies that were adopted include making worship more in keeping with current cultural mores. The educated Jew was seen as being able to engage with the wider culture rather than being merely fixated on an encyclopedic knowledge of the Talmud. Some Jews became so assimilated that they were uncomfortable even acknowledging their association with a group which they saw as rooted in a primitive form of Judaism, with its overtones of suspicion and magic, one that may have sustained a people in less enlightened times but was now acutely embarrassing. To return to the ways of the ghetto was, of course, unthinkable and needed to be fought against with vigor and persistence.
A heuristic principle for many Catholics is to distance themselves from the totems of preconciliar times which tend to grate with many who seek to be integrated into the wider community. For instance, devotions such as that to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the like often do not sit well with those who see themselves as having moved beyond this type of popular practice. I am suggesting here an echo of those assimilated Jews of the nineteenth century who were disturbed by the piety of their brethren who remained unreconstructed. Some thorny issues remained, though, for those Catholics who, to some degree, saw themselves as being newly emancipated. Chief among them was what can be described as a type of sociological dissonance. Whilst becoming involved in the wider culture they were also expected, more obliquely, to retain dedication and affiliation to Church teaching and practice. Many of them resolved this tension by situating themselves firmly in the new emancipated world, and their stories tell of their journeys to this position.
The Shape of a New Narrative
The metaphorical ghetto of preconciliar Catholicism with its strong religious socialization has, however, had little impact on younger Catholics and the stories of those who were shaped by it will have less and less traction as it recedes even further into historical memory. Post-conciliar Catholics were never shaped by a ghetto-like religious formation, much less by the experience of being challenged by the collapse of this conditioned worldview. Rather, they can be described as a tough market in that they like to keep their options open and are unlikely to commit to something if they cannot see some tangible benefits arising. They are also aware of the range of choices that are available to them, including the option to select to have some low-level allegiance to a number of positions. D’Antonio and his colleagues have suggested that one way of conceptualising youth and young adults today is to regard them as shoppers or consumers. The idea of the contemporary young person as a consumer is one that is gaining increasing currency. Mason and his colleagues, for example, express this as a movement from obligation to consumption, and present data on the religious affiliation of Gen Y supports this notion.
Generations of Catholics born after the Council have not embraced in any significant way Catholic belief and practice. Amongst Protestant denominations the disassociation of young adults is even stronger. Callum Brown has chronicled the decline of what he calls Christian Britain by noting the dramatic decrease in religious affiliation of those born in recent decades. One way of looking at the disengagement of young adults is to examine the analogical power of what is being offered to them. Andrew Greeley has called the present configuration of Catholicism in the United States, beige Catholicism: ‘beige Catholicism – Catholicism stripped of much of its beauty, its rainforest of metaphors denuded, in a manic and thoughtless effort to be just like everyone else’. It is for many a staid and uninspiring faith that does not engage or excite either the intellect or the imagination. Part of the reason for this is that it has lost some of the supernatural edge which gave the tradition an identity and distinctiveness against what could be found in wider culture.
This parallels the Jewish experience in Western Europe in the nineteenth century. The result of the post enlightenment emancipation of Jews in France and Germany was not a renaissance of high-minded Judaism, negotiating successfully a path between the fervent and all-embracing belief of the ghetto and the new rational thought of the salons, but a sudden haemorrhaging of the vitality of Jewish life. The new generations, those who were born outside the ghetto but did not embrace Mendelssohn’s, and his heirs, albeit brilliant but somewhat sterile conception of faith and practice, found themselves increasingly attracted to positions which extended rationalist principles to their natural conclusion. To many a completely secular standpoint seemed a more attractive option than a Judaism which borrowed heavily from its principles but could not stand on its own. In the emancipated world one did not need to remain Jewish only as a protective measure against a hostile world. A pertinent question then became: What did Judaism have to offer?
In a similar vein some contemporary Christian discourse has placed great stress on naturalistic interpretations of religious belief, seeing this as a way of engaging with contemporary culture. Just as many Reform Jews were sceptical of the claims surrounding Moses and Mt Sinai, so also a Christian reformist sentiment, encouraged by what was seen as a mandate for greater integration and coupled with much theological scholarship, took an ambivalent stand towards some of the central Christian dogmas. In effect these strategies replicated the Reform Movements’ premium on updating religious practice in order to better appeal to what they saw as the spirit of the age. In practice this often results in the removal or relegation of the supernatural elements of religion both in terms of belief and expression and their replacement with ethical systems or with some type of philosophically derived values. The price to pay, however, is a blurring of the boundaries between Christians and other groups, many of which subscribe to similar values. If a group has no or very low boundaries or distinguishing features then it loses sociological validity.
I am unaware of critically reviewed studies which show that Catholics, taken as an undifferentiated whole, display different values from other groups once factors such as socio-economic background have been controlled for. On a conceptual level it is hard to see why they should. The search for a set of values that distinguishes Catholics from others is also based on an assumption that these values define all Catholics. As Greeley has remarked though, ‘every generalization about values that begins with the word Catholic is likely to be misleading, if not erroneous, precisely because the generalization will mask substantial differences in values that exist among Catholic subpopulations’.
As the nineteenth-century Jewish story cautions us, once religious groups lose their characteristic beliefs and practices the vitality of the tradition is imperilled. The Reform Movement in France and Germany by the middle of the nineteenth century was faced with the prospect of overseeing the large-scale assimilation of Jews. Outside the ghetto Jews had far more options available to them. In the light of this greater competition a correction was needed. Many of the leaders of the Reform began to rethink the interaction between the religious and the wider culture, with a greater emphasis on measures to promote Jewish identity as something which transcended the experience of living in and then coming out of the ghetto.
The Orthodox Movement as embodied by Raphael Hirsch took an even stronger stand and insisted that without a substantive link with key religious beliefs and a ready expression of these then Judaism had no future. Jews needed to provide a cogent case for religious commitment in an era when nominal affiliation was an acceptable option. Along with this they needed to provide a strong sense of community which provided formative experiences. The exchange with the wider culture also needed to be carefully monitored lest the dialogue become too one-sided.
This was a reflection of a more sombre assessment of the ability of a religious community to integrate with a post-enlightenment secular culture that is not overly inimical to religious views, but which is largely indifferent. A culture which opposes and overtly criticizes a religious view is in some ways a more obvious opponent than one which is indifferent to religious groups.
I think there is something in all of this for contemporary Catholicism. The desire to dilute a strong metaphysical reading of belief and practice and, to use Greeley’s term ‘to be like everyone else’, does in the short-term lead to certain confidence and busy-ness. It the long run it may simply relegate religion to being just one social player among many. That many young people find this unappealing should not be a surprise. Why should a young person, especially a young Catholic, persist in any type of tangible religious commitment when they have a range of options available to them? If the faith community is indistinguishable from other groups which often make far lower demands on the individuals, why be a part of it?
The narrative which looks back to the past and moves on the premise that we are no longer like that has little appeal to those who have no connection with that era. A narrative which may be more compelling will chronicle what is a changed religious landscape. These stories are more likely to centre on themes such as Christians establishing and maintaining a religious identity in a culture which is saturated with choice. The core message here is to recognize secularising influences and to negotiate a place which synthesizes heritage and the demands of living in contemporary culture. Bouma expresses both the challenge and potential of this new type of religious narrative when he writes about:
A cohort of religiously articulate young people who will have a much more developed sense of their spirituality than previous generations. They will be more demanding and sophisticated consumers in the religious marketplace. The religious organizations that rise to this challenge will grow; those that keep insulting their market—as is the case for much of what passes for mainstream Christianity—will not.
Dr Richard Rymarz holds the Peter and Doris Kule Chair in Catholic Religious Education at St Joseph’s College, University of Alberta and is a Visiting Research Professor at Australian Catholic University.
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Bouma, G. Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the 21st Century, (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 86.
Brown, C. (2006). Religion and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain, (Harlow, England: Pearson Longman).
Campion, E. 1982, Rockchoppers: Growing Up Catholic in Australia (Melbourne: Penguin), 17.
Greeley, A. The American Catholic: A Social Portrait, (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 252.
Greeley, A. (2004). The Catholic Revolution and the Second Vatican Council: New Wine, Old Wineskins, (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 2004), 134.
Mason, M., Singleton, A. and Webber, R. The Spirit of Generation Y: Young People’s Spirituality in a Changing Australia (Melbourne: John Garrett Publishing, 2007).
Sachar, H. (1997) The Course of Modern Jewish History (New York: Dell Publishing).
Rudavsky, D (1967) Modern Jewish Movements: A History of Emancipation and Adjustment (New York Behrman House).