I’m a Catholic.
Sounds like a simple enough statement. Yet in today’s America, this phrase invokes a complicated mix of family history, social class, ethnicity, geographic origin and worldview. A Catholic identity is more than simply a religious affiliation because it encompasses a variety of experiences, beliefs and facets of life.
When Americans say that they are Catholic, they can be describing a wide variety of identities that can generally be boiled down into three archetypes: the “orthodox Catholic,” the “cafeteria Catholic,” and the “cultural” or “lapsed Catholic.”
According to a 2011 survey conducted by The National Catholic Reporter, 31 percent of American Catholics attend weekly Mass. Generally speaking, these weekly Mass attendees make up the “orthodox” Catholics — Catholics who believe in Church doctrine, send their children to Catholic schools and may hold leadership roles in their local parishes. They are ardently pro-life and generally less open to same-sex marriage. While it’s commonly believed that this group is rapidly shrinking, the influx in the past few decades of Catholic immigrants, particularly from Latin America, has reinvigorated this group’s numbers.
“Cafeteria Catholics” are often the butt of jokes about the state of the Catholic Church in the United States today. While they believe in God and pray every once in a while, they also like to “pick and choose.” We’ve all heard people say that they are Catholic, but those same people may also be pro-choice or not truly believe in transubstantiation — the process of bread and wine turning to the body and blood of Jesus during communion.
Perhaps most controversial are those who were raised Catholic but no longer actively participate in the Church. “Cultural” or “lapsed Catholics” might attend midnight Mass, have a big family brunch for Easter or even baptize their children within the Catholic Church. But these Catholics do not actually believe in the main doctrines of Catholicism or even in the existence of God.
Even so, they are just as important for the health and growth of the Church.
In a recent Pew survey outlining some of the reasons why many have left the Church in previous decades, researchers found that these Catholics stopped believing in the teachings of the Church, specifically those concerning abortion , homosexuality, birth control, the treatment of women and divorce and remarriage.
Like any large organization, the Catholic Church is resistant to change and even more repulsed by criticism. If the Pew survey is to be believed, these lapsed Catholics are definitely critical of the Church and support the possibility of change.
While not every criticism or change should be made, it would do the Church some good to reach out and listen to lapsed Catholics.
Although these Catholics are not traditionally thought of as stakeholders in the future of Catholicism, they represent crucial factions that the Church has ignored. By actively welcoming these cultural Catholics into a dialogue, the Church could have an opportunity to change its tone without altering its direction. Discussion can offer the chance to build a Church that remains relevant in the lives of modern Catholics while continuing to protect, maintain and promote a faith that for two millennia has fed the spiritual hunger of billions of people around the world.
In light of the Obamacare contraception controversy, the growth of the gay rights movement and the Catholic Church’s reactions to both over the past year, there have been a slew of articles by priests and laypeople calling for the liberal elements of the Catholic Church to stay or go.
Yet those who call on liberals to stay and those who call on liberals to leave the Church are missing the point. Instead of isolating a significant number of Catholics, Church leaders and laypeople must remember the necessity of creating a community that actively welcomes all people, regardless of their political beliefs or the strength of their faith.
The Church must be a place where people can meet God where they are, not a place reserved for only the most pious. Not even St. Ignatius was always the most perfect of Christians.
Pat Gavin and Alex Honjiyo are seniors in the College and School of Foreign Service, respectively.AGGIORNAMENTO appears every other Tuesday.