U.S. Catholic bishops quietly offer update on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the pews


The U.S. Catholic bishops just heard a major -- terrifying is a better word -- presentation on the doctrinal state of life in their pews, especially among the young. I realize that arguments about Pope Francis and politics are fun, and all that, but this new survey offered some really crucial stuff, folks, if you care about the future of the church (and the news that it makes).

Good luck trying to find this in the news today. Am I missing something? What are the magic search terms?

Meanwhile, sink your journalistic teeth into the Catholic News Agency story, which ran with this headline: "Agree to disagree: Why young Catholics pose a unique challenge for the Church."

For more than three years, a working group at the bishops’ conference has conducted research aimed at finding ways to more effectively communicate the Catholic faith.  The research examined “Catholics in the pew,” looking at why they accept or disregard Church teaching on various subjects.  ...

Many engaged parishioners, regular Mass attendees involved in parish life, demonstrate great pride in their faith and are deeply tied to their community, the study showed. However, they have a tendency to set aside rules that they do not understand, complain about the Church being involved in politics, and avoid causes that they see as “judgmental.”

And among the young?

That is where some really crucial information shows up, stated in terms that would even appeal to headline writers. The key bishop speaking is Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami:

... (While) all of the groups surveyed had their own motivations and challenges associated with being Catholic, the young adults stood out for their insistence upon being part of the Church while exhibiting a causal disregard for parts of its teaching. ... For instance, while other groups said that they had trouble understanding the Church’s “goofy” rules, the young adults surveyed “simply identified the rules as ‘to be nice to everyone, the Golden Rule’,” stated Archbishop Wenski.

If any Church teachings conflict with their own perceptions, young people simply “tune out” the teachings. “They agree to disagree with the Church,” the archbishop said.

Furthermore, young Catholics are sensitive to language that could imply judgment. “For them, language like ‘hate the sin love the sinner’ means ‘hate the sinner’,” Archbishop Wenski said.

Now, does this language sound familiar?

Call me idealistic, I would assume that journalists who have been following -- to any degree whatsoever -- survey work in the marketplace of American religion in recent years will have run into sociologist Christian Smith and the concept of "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." According to Smith and his research team, the doctrines of MTD can be summarized thusly: 

1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth."
2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions."
3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."
4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem."
5. "Good people go to heaven when they die." 

Now, does any of that sound like the key elements of the content of the report offered to the U.S. Catholic bishops? So where is the news story?

Let's jump back up, a bit, in that CNA story and look at one other very interesting detail, one with great importance to Catholic clergy who want to understand what is going on inside the heads and hearts of the people who are in their pews the most often. Get this:

Fervent Catholics -- frequent Mass attendees who are committed to evangelization, faithful to Church teaching, and see the real presence of the Eucharist as central -- tend to view Catholic doctrine as beautiful and freeing rather than as restrictive rules. This group, however, struggles with its own frustrations, including a belief that there is sometimes a lack of support within the parish, priests who are failing to teach and inspire, and an emphasis on activities over faith.

In other words, might there be a growing tension between cultural, MTD Catholics and the pro-Catechism Catholics, with the people in the latter group beginning to wonder if their own priests have the courage to help them defend the faith, perhaps even to their own children?

That sounds like a news story to me.

Stated in public-square terms, it also sounds like that interesting American Catholic typology that I heard, several years ago, described by a wise, older priest, a veteran of life inside the DC Beltway. Remember that? He proposed that there were four basic kinds of American Catholic voters:

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance (unless these ex-Catholics have converted, as many have, to conservative Protestant flocks)
* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter -- check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece -- depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.
* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.
* The “sweats the details” Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican on matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Now here is my question (as I try to get my hands on a copy of the study the bishops were discussing): Where would priests (or journalists, for that matter) start finding the MTD DNA in that typology? I would assume that the real battle ground is in the third camp -- the "Sunday-morning American Catholics."

And who are the people that, in this new U.S. survey, are growing upset with their clergy for their timid attempts to defend the faith? Looks like camp four.

Stay tuned.

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