Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Serial Churchgoers: Something for Pew to Peruse

By Sister Mary Ann Walsh

The Pew Research Center’s report, “The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States: Nearly One-in-Four Latinos Are Former Catholics,” tells us what we already know: People, including Hispanics, are leaving churches. Surely society is sorrier for it.

This is a U.S. societal problem, made quite obvious when pollsters include “none” as a box people can check when it comes to religious affiliation. The rise of the “nones” should send shudders through every religious denomination in the United States. It would be good for Pew to analyze the trend toward “nones” and its implications. The influence of U.S. secularism in the rise of the “nones” is ignored by churches and even by society at their peril.

Research shows that the percentage of people who become unaffiliated from the Catholic Church equals that of many other denominations, but it seems more pronounced among Catholics given the size of the Catholic Church, which has more than 69 million people in the United States alone. If ten percent of U.S. Catholics do something, that’s about seven million people. That’s more than twice the population of Los Angeles and more than four times the population of Philadelphia.

Perhaps Pew might look at the “multiple switches” phenomenon, wherein a person leaves the church of one’s parents, tries out another, and still another, and finally becomes a “none.” This phenomenon, in which all churches are equal and you go where you feel most comfortable at the moment, waters down the faith. When what one believes means less than the emotions induced by a great preacher or rousing choir, the individual is shortchanged spiritually. The dropout rate as persons move from one church to another suggests a lack of sustaining religious experience in their new churches.

Research on religion requires a depth of understanding, which can be lacking among pollsters, who emphasize numbers over nuances. For example, are you Catholic if you pursue the church’s sacramental life, Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation, but go to a neighborhood evangelical church for a super preacher? Are you Catholic if you go to the Catholic Church only on Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Easter, Christmas and to get married?

A joke tells of a bishop asking a cabbie in Rome if he’s Catholic. “Of course!,” the cabbie replies. “Do you go to Mass every Sunday?” the churchman asks. “I’m Catolico, non fanatico!” goes the reply. In Italy, one study estimates that Sunday Mass attendance is at 15 percent. Clearly when it comes to self-defining oneself as Catholic, things can be relative.

Pew asks about Bible reading in measuring religiosity. But that is not the only thing to suggest religiosity. The Catholic Church has a rich history of understanding that our faith engages all of what it means to be human, including our intellect, our emotions and our active witness. Reading the Scriptures is important to understand one's religion and faith, but so is engaging in prayer, bringing “faith reminders” into one's home, such as home altars and images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, for Hispanics especially, and celebrating faith and life in ethnic traditions and customs. Pew may be reflecting an unintentional bias toward “white Protestantism” by not including these other indicators to measure people's engagement in their professed religion.

It would be great if Pew researched a new phenomenon: what happens when serial church goers sadly end up “nones.” The results of such a study could be a wakeup call to denominations individually and the nation as a whole.

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