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Going My Way?

It might be a small change, but it affects a lot of people. Almost ten years after the Vatican issued a directive to make an English language missal which was more in tune with the original Latin, some Catholics are “distraught” about the change and refusing to “learn the damn prayers.” The Washington Post has the story:

“It’s ridiculous. I’ve been a Catholic for 50 years, and why would they make such stupid changes? They’re word changes. They’re semantics,” [Maribeth Lynch] said.

“It’s confusion. All it’s doing is causing confusion,” she said. “You want to go to church and be confused?”

Semper eadem, always the same, was the old motto and the Roman Catholic Church has never taken change easily. For immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Iberia, Catholicism provided an outlet for holding on to the mother country in a foreign land predicated on change. It took centuries before the Protestant majority accepted that Roman Catholics weren’t secretly attempting to undermine democracy to institute a government that was Papal, feudalistic and backward.

But the American Catholic Church is experiencing more significant changes now than in many years and perhaps ever. It isn’t just the missals. The demographics are changing as well. The descendents of the Old Catholics, who grandparents and great grandparents came to America before the 1920s, are adapting to more conventional suburban lifestyles. Today, a suburbanite Italian American goes to the cubicle instead of the factory floor, attends a barbecue instead of the parish’s community pasta dinner and may go to the megachurch instead of the cathedral, or may just stay home.

The number of Catholics in America continues to rise, thanks largely to immigration, but immigrants from Central and Latin America aren’t even as reliably Catholic as they used to be. The fervent Pentecostalism that has won tens of millions of converts in Latin America is also found among Hispanic immigrants to the US.

The gradual loosening of ties between the pre-1923 immigrants and the Catholic Church has profound implications for the United States as well as for the Church.  This is about more than a shortage of priests; it is about one of the deepest spiritual and cultural changes taking place in the United States today.  Everything from voting behavior to family life is going to be affected by the success or failure of the Catholic Church in rebuilding its ties to a bigger share of its old base.  The abuse scandals accelerated the drift from the Church, but they did not cause them — and restoring public faith in the integrity of the priesthood will not bring the process to an end.

Via Meadia will be watching the unfolding story of American Catholicism, the largest church in the United States and one of the most integrated and widely dispersed institutions in the country, as we go forward.  The story of religion always has been and likely long will be crucial to the story of America; the turmoil in Catholicism is much more important for the future of this country than many of the superficial issues and controversies that keep so much of the media endlessly, pointlessly busy.

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  • Chase Crucil

    Hey Professor, since you’re so interested in religion, I’d like to hear your take on the decline of mainline protestant churches. While I am basically a non – believer, I am not hostile to religious people, and I spent some time in a Methodist church when I was a kid. I have worked with some believing Christians as well, and I thought they were great.

    A few years ago, however, I went to an evangelical funeral, and I found the whole thing to be a little tasteless. The folks that were running the service – which featured huge tvs and synthesizer music – kept trying to convert people who had come to pay there respects to the deceased.

    In contrast, the Methodist funerals I’ve attended were, to use a hackneyed phrase, a little “classier,” in the sense that the ceremony was more traditional and the minister did not seem like a high pressure salesman.

    That said, the numbers would seem to indicate that I am in the minority, as most Americans prefer the most modern services in what are called charismatic churches.

    Some people say that the decline of mainline protestantism is due to the fact that some of these churches have gone too far to the left. Others say that the problem lies in the fact that mainline protestants have always relied on the children of current members to fill the ranks of the future, with ethic heritage being the controlling factor in terms of which Church is chosen (i.e., Episcoalian for WASPS and Luthernism for German Americans) And since Americans of English descent, for example, do not a have a high fertility rate, they say that it shouldn’t be surprising that the ranks are declining.

    What do you think?

  • Matthew Toomey

    Hi Professor Mead,

    As an American Catholic I’d love to see a longer “Mead in Depth” essay expanding more on these changes in Catholicism and what it means for America.


  • Fred

    I can’t speak for Professor Mead, Chase, but I believe you’re right on both counts. The Northern European-American population is declining, but the mainline churches, IMHO are losing the fewer and fewer that are left because they offer those people little that the rest of our therapeutic, “spiritual-but-not-religious,” morally squishy culture doesn’t offer. People want guidance. They want to believe in an absolute (i.e. God) that transcends the confusion and constant change that surrounds us. They want clear moral distinctions. Fundamentalist and Evangelical churches offer that, as, to a degree, does Catholicism. Old school Protestantism no longer does.

  • Duncan Frissell

    Great quote from the woman. I’ve been a Catholic for 60 years. I felt a lot worse when Latin went away. Tantum Ergo Sacramentum…

    I “went down” to traditional Anglo Catholicism since the American Catholic Church became much too “low” for my tastes.

    As for the Mainline churches, there is also the issue of femanization. It seems apparent that when men can no longer dominate an institution, they leave. See the university par exemple.

    Even Catholicism has be affected since churchgoers will note that woman run all parts of Catholic churches other than transubstantiation.

  • Dennis

    “The abuse scandals accelerated the drift from the Church, but they did not cause them — and restoring public faith in the integrity of the priesthood will not bring the process to an end.”

    Exactly so…particularly in light of recent revelations about the Church’s role in saving Nazis–which makes the abuse scandals seem, at least to me, a whole lot tamer by comparison. Read Kevin Madigan’s “How the Catholic Church Sheltered Nazi War Criminals” in Commentary Magazine’s December issue. If the title of the piece sounds inflammatory, wait ’til you read the contents.

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