Friday, December 31, 2010

A Proposal to Conduct Exit Interviews with "Fallen" Catholics: Critical Reflections

Here's what I find troubling about the idea of conducting exit interviews (and here) with "fallen-away" Catholics: if Würzburg bishop Friedhelm Hoffman is correct and "every single departure hurts and is one too many," then the focus of Catholic pastoral leaders (and apologists for them,* such as Michael Sean Winters), ought to be on finding ways to keep those "fallen" Catholics in the church.  Not on watching them walk away and then asking them why they've "fallen."

The notion (borrowed from the corporate business community) of conducting exit interviews to find why Catholics have left the church appears to assume what ought to be unthinkable for those who really understand the communitarian ethos of Catholicism: it appears to assume that religious affiliation is akin to consumer choice, to the choice to take this brand and not that one, among many other brands.  There is a philosophy of individualism hidden within the way in which many Catholics in the U.S.--including those who consider themselves most faithful and most responsive to the magisterium--deal with their brothers and sisters who are now absent from their midst.

It is clearly thinkable for many American Catholics, including powerful spokespersons of the American Catholic intellectual and media centers, to imagine church with more and more brother and sister Catholics simply gone.  No longer there.  Vanished.  As if they had never existed.

The Catholic ethos at its best finds this scenario impossible to imagine.  The Catholic ethos at its best finds it impossible to continue doing business as if church life mirrors the atomistic individualism of American culture in general, and the ruthless consumer individualism of American corporate culture in particular.  

Bishop Friedhelm Hoffman represents the authentic Catholic ethos, which finds the thought of even one absent brother or sister unthinkable.  Because I cannot exist, I cannot be me, without you.  My being me depends on your being you--and on your being there beside me.  And if I don't see you, if I don't recognize you and your humanity, if I don't talk to you and try to understand your worldview which will necessarily be different from my own, I radically diminish my own humanity.  And undercut my claim to have privileged knowledge of what it means to be Catholic.

I cannot worship with a clear conscience when I have allowed you to slip away, and have made no effort at all to talk to you, to find out why you have absented yourself, and how I might alter things such that you would feel more welcome in my parish or at the liturgies I attend.  I cannot pray, thanking God for my own fidelity, while I imagine that you have "fallen" due to your own weakness or your consumer preference for a glitzier brand of faith.  A attitude of self-righteousness would taint every prayer I might seek to utter, if I imagined anything of the sort.  

The American Catholic church is a curious place, I've found.  In key respects, many American Catholics--including, and perhaps in particular, the intellectual and media elites of American Catholicism--appear far more swayed by the philosophy of American individualism than by the authentic Catholic ethos of communitarianism.  If many of those who are leaving the church could articulate their deepest instinct about what prompted them to leave, I suspect we'd hear something like the following: many Catholics, even (or especially) those who are loudest in their profession of faith, never quite make room for many of their inconvenient brothers and sisters.  Many American Catholics manage to communicate very effectively to their brothers and sisters who have left that they are "fallen," and that they have fallen of their own accord--and that their fall has nothing to do with those who remain.

If the Catholic church in the U.S. wishes to staunch the flow of faithful Catholics from the church, it needs to begin the talking and listening process well before those faithful brothers and sisters leave.  And it needs to stop congratulating itself on its own fidelity by tagging these marginalized brothers and sisters as fallen.

(*"Ex opere operato and all that," indeed: it's patently nonsensical to maintain that the notion of ex opere operato constrains faithful Catholics to speak respectfully of bishops.  That theological notion is about the effectiveness of the sacraments, regardless of the personal worthiness of their celebrants.  It's not about maintaining an attitude of respect for any and all bishops.  To use this phrase as a broad foundation for keeping at bay criticism of bishops who fail to image the all-embracing love of Christ is to abuse the idea of ex opere operato, and to apply it to church-political realities to which it has no pertinence at all.)

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