Here’s my theory: The shrinking number of American Catholics isn’t just about the hierarchy’s anachronistic politics. It’s also about Catholics seeking, and not finding, an experience of the holy and transcendent — of God — in their Church.
Without that, who could be surprised when the Pew Center this month found the Church losing adherents faster than any other religion save mainline Protestantism, where numbers have been declining for years?
For decades now, the Catholic hierarchy has declared unworthy those of us who are female, divorced, divorced and remarried, or users of dastardly birth control. Those of us who are gay, no matter what Ireland just voted, can forget about embrace. Disordered, says the Church.
But constant rejection isn’t the only problem.
“Catholics just don’t have a vocabulary for transcendence,” says a highly devout lawyer friend of mine.
He’s so right. Transcendence is not something we hear much about at Mass or read about in the bulletin. It’s not where modern Catholicism’s emphasis lies, although it’s there if we look hard enough.
Beyond Pope Francis’ refusal to scold us all is his focus on exactly that: the intimacy and joy of a relationship with Jesus Christ. In his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” he wrote the word “joy” 28 times in the first four pages, plus seven “rejoices.”
“The quiet joy of (God’s) love.’’
“The joy brought by the lord.”
“The joy which we experience daily, amid the little things of life, as a response to the loving invitation of God.”
Here’s Pope Francis’ very first paragraph:
“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. These who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness.”
Sounds terrific, no? What he’s talking about, again, is an “encounter” with Jesus, an actual experience of God, which changes everything.
A relationship with the divine is central as well to the Gospels, including these famous lines from John:
“Live in me, and I will live in you.”
“Abide in me.”
“Remain in me.”
“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
Perhaps we Catholics aren’t paying attention or studying up enough. Or trying. Pew reports that only 58 percent of Catholics pray daily, though some regular spiritual practice is considered crucial to faith life. Yet 78 percent of evangelicals pray daily, and they’re doing better at holding their faithful. Among evangelicals 79 percent also believe in a personal God, or a person with whom they can have a relationship and experience the divine. Only 60 percent of Catholics do.
When evangelicals talk about listening to God and hearing God, lots of us scoff. (Recall fundamentalist Sarah Palin claiming she consulted God on her White House run).
Yet such intimacy, though hard to describe and explain, is at the center of a powerful faith that sustains.
“The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.” So said the famed Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, who looks brilliantly prescient now that the ranks of Christians are in free fall. He clearly recognized that dogma and dryness aren’t enough, that no religion can survive without those occasional glimpses of God.
What exactly is a mystic? Someone who has experienced those glimpses and believes they’ve had direct communion with God. To many of us that sounds crazy, delusional, or like the exalted territory of the holiest holies. Yet mystics need not be great saints, like Catherine of Siena, who spoke of God as “the food that never satiates.” They need not be great leaders, like Martin Luther King, who famously wrote of his encounter with Christ, “the voice of Jesus” soothing and reassuring him at his kitchen table.
A mystic, I have learned, can also be a regular, work-a-day Jane or Joe, like Catholics I’ve met in prayer groups and on retreats or my lawyer friend quoted above. They just don’t use the off-putting word: mystic. My lawyer friend surely sounds like one. Once a hard-charging skeptic, it took him years of trying — plus a masters degree of theology — before he could move beyond his “guardedness,” let go of his “armor,” and open himself up to “feel the presence” of Christ, as he put it. Now, like Pope Francis, he knows the overwhelming joy and peace that comes with such presence.
Every single human soul has the capacity to know that presence as well, wrote Evelyn Underhill in her classic and practical study, “Mysticism.” And the mystics, she wrote, have tried to tell others what they have known and how they got there. It is surely not because God loved them more. It is, instead, because they loved and attended more to God. And so, eventually, he transformed them.
Every year the Pew Center does massive studies on the state of religion here and around the world. Last year, a chief finding was that Catholics who leave the Church complain not just about politics, but also that their spiritual needs were not met. They yearned for a closer relationship to God, didn’t find it in the faith of their birth, and searched elsewhere.
Some joined the fast-growing “spiritual but not religious” set, starting mindfulness training or Buddhist meditation or some other practice. Their faith in the Church may have been gone; their longing for the transcendent was not. Catholicism might have fed that longing. The saints, the New and Old Testament, the great spiritual writers all provide instruction. Yet the Church itself — defined too often now by dull Masses, uninspired preaching, and a tone of nasty judgment — may have worn them out, and these exhausted Catholics just gave up.