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By Msgr. Charles Pope, Sept. 2, 2019

Many polls and surveys indicate the steady decline of belief in America and the West. But as we look to this group of “nones” or unbelievers, there is very little that unites them other than the fact that they do not believe or that they do not affiliate with us or any defined denomination. We are not therefore facing a single opponent, but a bewildering and complex hodgepodge of stances and ideas who disagree or are dissimilar with each other as much as with us.

This is important since there is a simplistic perception that believers are losing ground to a united group of “non-believers.” We are not. We are clearly losing ground, and that is terrible news since it means that huge numbers are no longer receiving Sacraments and clinging to the Church which is Christ’s Body and active presence in the world. But again we are not simply losing that ground to a unified and formidable opponent. Rather, we are losing members to a host of disconnected groups and trends: atheists, agnostics, “spiritual but not religious” nones,   those who embrace Eastern religions, or dabble in marital arts, yoga, reiki, and those who edge ever further to the darkness with Santeria, Wicca, Santa Muerte, or outright Satanism. Add to this the syncretists who blend what they like from many faiths, or the idolaters who imagine their own “god within” or “god of their own understanding.” And thus, you’ve got a real mishmash of confusing and very self-referential “movements” of often no more than one person. Some who have left us, left in anger and over specific issues and teachings, others just drifted. Some hate or oppose us intensely, others are just indifferent. Almost nothing unites these groups except that they do not believe or accept our faith to some degree, partial, significant or total.

This of course can both console us, and also make our task more difficult. The consolation comes from the fact that is this not some strong united force arrayed against us. If the seculars and others who have left Catholic and Protestant denominations at times have boasted “We now outnumber you!” The fuller truth is that there isn’t a lot of “we” going on in their supposed movement. There is little if anything that really serves to unite them except unbelief.

Melanie McDonagh writing in the Catholic Herald notes the decline in attendance in a secular movement in England meant to replicate and compete with Sunday religious services called “Sunday Assembly.” They would gather, have some songs, a secular talk of some sort and coffee and fellowship followed. However, she writes:

Yet now, it would seem, the difficulties in maintaining attendance turn out to be common to believers and unbelievers alike. According to Faith Hill, writing in The Atlantic, “Sunday Assembly has reported a significant loss in total attendees over the past few years – from about 5,000 monthly attendees in 2016 to about 3,500 in 2018….After a promising start, attendance declined, and nearly half the chapters have fizzled out …” If it’s hard getting people to come to Mass when there’s the Body and Blood of Christ on offer, it must be far harder when you’ve got an unanchored community whose only common point is the absence of belief. In fact, some Assembly members are agnostics and others are atheists, so even the absence of religion doesn’t mean unity.

So, it is not really us versus them. Rather it is more of an us versus something no more cohesive than a morning mist as the sun rises.

And while this may be consoling it also illustrates the difficulty of our response or strategy. Apologetics has always been many-faceted: Catholic vs. Atheist, Catholic vs. Agnostic, Catholic vs. Mainline Protestant, Catholic vs. Evangelical, and so on. But in the current quagmire of highly subjective denominations of one, it resembles more a death by a thousand cuts. And while certain commonalities may exist among the endless varieties of unbelief and the designer deities, it becomes clearer to me that the best thing we can do in response to this is to clearly and unambiguously be the Church, clear in our doctrine and self-identity as set forth by the Lord. St Paul says,

We do not lose heart….We do not practice deceit, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by open proclamation of the truth, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:1-2)

What we certainly do not want to do is to follow the example of the mainline Protestant denominations who have comprised every doctrine and moral teaching to adapt to the crowd and please man not God. Here too Melanie McDonagh in the same article rather artistically describes the Protestant sects:

….that slid from non-conformity to Unitarianism and eventually to mere political activism. Unitarianism, in fact, strikes me as the American way of doing agnosticism, or at least deism – a way of being religiously observant without having anything in particular to observe.

What could be more useless than for us to become the very thing we set out to convert? How do we convert the world by becoming the world? What distinguishes the Protestant denominations and their teachings on critical moral issues of our day regarding life, marriage, and sexuality? One might argue that they still stand against greed, and for social justice. But frankly those are not controversial stands in the liberal West which loves to trot out such things as a form of virtue signaling.

No, something tells me that the best and only way forward is to be fully, faithfully and joyfully Catholic. Arguments and apologetics still have their place. But in the era of competitive atheism and consumerized belief, being “happy customers” of the Lord Jesus and insisting on no cheap substitutes or imitation brands for our faith is our best way forward. This may seem bold or hard in an era of scandals and disappointments with our leaders. But those are examples of not being Catholic enough, or of living in outright contradiction to the Catholic Faith. Be joyfully Catholic. A quote attributed is St. Teresa of Calcutta says, “Joy is a net of love in which you can catch souls.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Being More Faithfully Catholic Is the Only Valid Response to Shrinking Numbers