The National Catholic Review


Please Don’t Go: Why Giving up Catholicism for Lent is a Bad Idea

Guest blog by Kevin Ahern

I read with interest the New York Times opinion piece by Paul Elie, “Give Up Your Pew for Lent.” Elie’s article comes a day after another provocative op-ed in thesame paper by Hans Küng, one of the last active theological experts of Vatican II who explores the possibility of “A Vatican Spring.”

Elie’s public call for Catholics to abstain from going to Catholic Mass for Lent as a way of getting the attention of church leadership and clarifying why one remains Catholic is sure to ruffle some feathers. According to Elie:

 “if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time… It would let us begin to figure out what in Catholicism we can take and what we can and ought to leave. It might even get the attention of the cardinals who will meet behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel and elect a pope in circumstances that one hopes would augur a time of change.”

While I certainly share Elie’s concerns that Catholics should have a better sense of why they go to Mass; that we should have a greater appreciation for other faiths; and that our Catholic leadership ought to pay more attention to the sense of the faithful, I find his proposal to give up Mass for Lent flawed in a number of ways.

First, Elie seems to make the Eucharist more about himself than Christ. Though it is tempting to see the Eucharist through the lens of our consumerist culture, the Mass is not something we can boycott like an unjust product. The Eucharist is not primarily about cardinals or popes, nor is it about me and what I want in church leadership. Rather the Eucharist is about transformation and conversion as we are united to Christ and the people of God in radical ways. Abstaining from the Eucharist, in other words, is not purely an individualistic choice. It has an impact on the rest of us.

Secondly, even if you could get a large enough number of Catholics to boycott Mass, I am doubtful that it would have any significant impact. Despite the attention being paid to the “new evangelization,” the loss of huge numbers of Catholics gets far too little attention in the continued fallout of the abuse crisis.

Among those who do notice, some commentators like William Donahue of the Catholic League welcome the exodus of those Catholics disenfranchised from the church. In his 2012 book Why Catholicism Matters, Donahue echoes a statement from Cardinal Ratzinger that “that maybe a smaller church would be a better church.” 

Unfortunately, the exodus of Catholics, as Hans Küng points out is too often masked by a very vocal and visible minority who get excited about everything popes and bishops do:

One shouldn’t be misled by the media hype of grandly staged papal mass events or by the wild applause of conservative Catholic youth groups. Behind the façade, the whole house is crumbling.

If the cardinals meeting in Rome can’t see past this façade to the large numbers of Catholic leaving, as Küng and others suggest, then would a boycott of a few Catholics in the United States really lead to the “time of change” that Elie hopes for? I’m doubtful.

Lent, however, is not just about fasting. It's also about proactive action aimed at personal and social conversion. What if instead of fasting from Mass for Lent, we intensified our ecclesial participation and prayers for conversion? Instead of going to another church on a Sunday, what if we spent a few hours writing letters to our bishops and meeting with them to express our concerns in a positive way? Maybe instead of giving up a pew for a few weeks, we should, like the pioneering lay movements leading up to Vatican II, develop a strategic plan to engage those church leaders who are open to dialogue. And with the help of grace, we may be surprised by what we can do.  

Kevin Ahern is a doctoral student in theological ethics at Boston College


Mary Sweeney | 3/4/2013 - 10:11am

Actually a very good reflection for those in Conclave: "Skyfall". It is very prophetic at this time.
It is time to "face the music", time for repentace, time to begin anew with the Holy Spirit that She may fall upon us and purify and shake things up.

Beth Cioffoletti | 3/4/2013 - 2:59pm

Once I said to a friend: If I really believe that the Eucharist is the Body of Christ that I can take into my mouth and my body, how can I stay away from Mass? I mean, if this is a special gift from God to us, how can any of us refuse? Why are we not there every day en masse?

This is an ongoing problem for me. I’m sacramental. This life, this earth, is holy – suffused with God everywhere. I was raised Catholic. Life was first presented to me as sacramental, and that sense of sacredness has stayed with me. I love joining the Trappist monks at their Mass, which is said very slowly and can go on for over 2 hours. And I will often stop in on a weekly Mass somewhere - usually off the beaten path, like in a university or hospital chapel. I even seek these places out.

But I am not a regular. Several years ago I stopped attending my local parish Church on a weekly basis. Why? I don’t know that I have a good reason, other than that I come away feeling sad, drained, un-fed. Like I am going to an assembly that is no longer relevant to me. Or trying to fit into a club to which I no longer belong. Every now and then I try again. Maybe some day it will click.

I still identify myself as a Catholic, though I suppose that many would describe me as “lapsed”. And though I love exploring the mystical and contemplative aspects of other religions, most of the spiritual writers that I read are Catholic. There is no issue of faith that I know of that I disagree with.

A few months ago I was hospitalized and a woman brought me communion. I was very sick and I welcomed the bread with a kind of hunger and need, even if I found the prayers and gestures surrounding this event to be confusing and disturbing. Something about it felt hokey. The woman wanted to stay and talk Jesus with me,and I had to politely tell her that I needed to sleep.

I wonder about this. Perhaps I don’t believe anymore that the Eucharist is really the Body and Blood of Christ. Or that it can be made manifest and real only by certain people, rules and rituals. Then why do I love going to the monks’ Masses?

As for Paul Elie’s article in the NY Times, I liked it. I agreed with it. I don’t understand why so many people are offended and upset by it. Maybe like Paul Elie, I’m standing on some strange margin of the Church. Not exactly mainstream, but still passionately being fed and loved and led.

Thomas Merton once responded that he wasn’t “that kind of Catholic” when criticized in the Louisville archdiocesan newspaper. Some of the more dogmatic priests of the diocese used to sneak through the woods around his hermitage hoping that they might find him and straighten him out.

Maybe there are many different kinds of Catholics these days, and we are not all on the same page at the same time. It's good to know from Paul Elie and Merton and others that I'm not the only one who is supposedly out of step.

Christine McCarthy | 3/4/2013 - 2:01pm

Beth, you may find my blog reflection in response to this post a kindred reading, from

My Facebook feed was filled Friday with frustrated status updates: theologians, priests, and concerned Catholics are uproarious over Paul Elie’s New York Times Op-Ed piece, “Give Up Your Pew for Lent.” Elie, the reputable author of the excellent The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage and, most recently, Reinventing Bach, provocatively suggests that Catholics consider temporarily vacating their parishes today to visit another tradition’s house of worship. In so doing, Elie hopes Catholics take the opportunity to reassess their relationships to their faith tradition as a way of forcing themselves out of the resignation so many North American Catholics feel in an age marked by the sex abuse crisis, financial corruption, the mismanagement of the Curia, a host of condemnatory statements on the status of homosexuality and female priesthood in the Church, and so on. As an added bonus, the cardinals preparing for the conclave in Rome might take notice were American Catholics to leave church en masse in search of the Spirit elsewhere and elect a pope who is ready, willing and able to respond to the desolation felt by the faithful.

The overwhelming response (according to my FB feed and shared blog posts) has been largely understanding yet ultimately slamming: most see Elie as well-intentioned but misguided while some see his proposal as worse than Garry Will’s recent thesis, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition and Frank Bruni’s sweeping condemnation of the celibate priesthood (see here for Jim Martin’s piercing response). Dan Horan at cautions that Elie misunderstands the sacramentality of church and Eucharist and encourages not just individualism but a “self-excommunication”:

He is absolutely correct about the need to ask “what is true in our faith,” but the beginning and end of the search does not take place in spiritual lone rangers exploring on their own. The source and goal is the community, is relationship, is Body of Christ. What is most true about our faith is the radicality of relationship: with God, with others, with all of creation.

Kevin Ahern also takes issue with Elie’s proposal, calling it a boycott of the Eucharist, and while that is, de facto, what it amounts to, a boycott of the sacrament is not Elie’s intention. He is simply asking American Catholics who feel resigned about the direction of their church to act on it, to shake themselves and their faith lives up, by worshiping God elsewhere for one Sunday. Elie’s spiritual sensitivity is clear when he writes that “I hope and expect to return to the Oratory church the following Sunday. But I can’t be sure. To some degree, it’s out of my hands, a response to a calling.” A calling of the spirit–that is what he’s asking each Catholic to look for, not because we should be spiritual lone rangers, but because everyone’s faith journey must walk the line between self and community and it’s okay and sometimes necessary to retreat every once in a while from what is still beloved and comfortable no matter how resigned one may feel towards the beloved. Elie reminds Catholics that they have a choice and a say in their church, but the call of the spirit does not occur by magic. We as Catholics need to seek the spirit out, to pray on it, intend to be guided by it and trust in it–and that total trust in the spirit means that we can’t know for sure where it will lead us and that that place towards which we are led may be outside of the familiar trappings of one’s own parish or tradition altogether and we ought to be open to that. Essentially, while not explicitly stated, Elie is asking each Catholic to engage in a benign form of self-care that is open to God’s self-communication and to not to be too attached to the ways in which that self-communication makes its way to us, not to “put God in a box” as it were, even if that box were the holy sacrament of Eucharist. An openness to the spirit and attention to one’s own relationship to self, God and church is absolutely necessary because if we are to be truly radically engaged with God, others and creation we must first know who we are and that sort of knowledge is never static but always changing and needing attention, reflection, and love.

Ultimately, I disagree with Ahern’s statement that Elie “seems to make the Eucharist more about himself than Christ” and I rather think that Elie’s understanding of Eucharist is more relation- than act-centered: we are the body of Christ no matter where we are because Christ is not only in the Eucharist nor will Christ be wholly absent from our lives should we give up one Sunday Mass to become students of the way God’s light shines in other faiths. Having said that, did I seriously consider not going to Mass today? No, not in the least. In fact, I had an almost childish inner reaction in that I really did not want to give it up because I love it so much and that alone made me consider how wise and fruitful Elie’s proposal might be: that our resignation can also take the form of attachment. Paul and I are fortunate to attend the same wonderful parish, Oratory of Saint Boniface, and it is a place that makes my little Catholic heart swell with joy and consolation at the beauty of the service, the nourishment of the homilies, and the realization of an honest-to-goodness faith community the kind of which I never had growing up. Truth be told, the state of my childhood parish life was so depressing, with homilies consisting purely of jokes and personal anecdotes that were in no way connected to a life of faith and only meant to make the congregation feel entertained but not enriched or connected to one another or God, that I know I would not have remained a practicing Catholic if I had not gone to Boston College as undergraduate. Which is why I know that so many Catholics really are resigned about the state of their church: despite the fact that as a doctoral candidate in theology at a Jesuit university and my commitment to a lay community puts me in circles where I know so many Catholics who could not be further from being resigned, I am well aware that there are many Catholics who have given up on a church that meets them where they are because, differences on church teachings aside, not all parishes are created equal and some show their dissatisfaction by voting with their feet. The exodus from the church sometimes comes after much frustrated soul-searching but also at other times because parishioners can simply no longer identify with it or do not feel heard, needed or wanted, as is the case with so much of today’s youth, particularly young women. So, thank you, Paul Elie, for inviting Catholics who may or may not have been considering to skip Mass and worship elsewhere to do so. Maybe in this Lent and in this interregnum period between popes, it will be a well-needed push for some to seek the holy spirit and become pilgrims again, knowing that the journey ahead needs attention to ourselves and our own personal relationships to God and to our church as much as being in communion as the pilgrim church on earth. It reminds us that we get to be, and do not merely have to be, Catholic.

Disclaimer: I am personally (albeit barely) acquainted with Paul Elie through shared membership in parish life and as members of the Community of Sant’Egidio. Elie has no prior knowledge of or input in this post.

Beth Cioffoletti | 3/4/2013 - 4:08pm

Thanks Christine. An excellent response, and the only one that I've seen that is not critical of the Elie article. I have come to expect broader, more nuanced, responses in America magazine and was disappointed to see this one (as well as the criticism of Gary Wills). If there is a disagreement, I want to see it hashed out in a theological context. Tell me precisely what is offensive and why. These criticisms imply that some line has been crossed but that boundary is never clearly explained to me.

Anne Chapman | 3/4/2013 - 9:25am

Beth, you speak for many, as does Paul Elie.

Kevin - "Instead of going to another church on a Sunday, what if we spent a few hours writing letters to our bishops and meeting with them to express our concerns in a positive way?"

It is my experience and that of many other Catholics I know that writing letters to bishops is as effective as putting them in the trash can. There is no response and you have wasted a lot of time, some paper, and the cost of postage.

Meeting with them to express our concerns?

If you are not a "professional" in the church (preferably a male cleric) or you are not a wealthy and/or powerful member of the laity, your chances of meeting with your bishop to express concerns are between zero and none.

John Barbieri | 3/4/2013 - 1:17pm

Well said!
If I'm not mistaken, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. once said: "money is money." The hierarchy and their wannabes appear to have taken his sage comment to heart.

Vince Killoran | 3/3/2013 - 6:16pm

If you don't know about "sensus fidelium" you can easily read up on it. I don't need to be your tutor.

The state of the Catholic Church in the USA is not good, e.g., if you exclude the newly arrived who are replenishing our ranks, the numbers are dropping, as is Mass attendance. Roughly 10% of Americans are former Catholics. Serious stuff. Stop blaming newspapers and commentators and examine the Church itself, starting at the top.

Tim O'Leary | 3/3/2013 - 9:32pm

Vince, I wasn't asking you for the Church's definition of "sensus fidelium" (the one in Lumen Gentium), but YOUR definition, the core belief that you arrogantly claim the Catholic Bishops have abandoned. In any case, you can't even be eligible to be a tutor if you're not able to give definitions of the terms you use, as when you think size is not critical to the definition of "sample size", or when you think "faithful" is not the key component in the definition of the "sense of the faithful." You make these definitional mistakes all the time, even in your last comment. You state that "10% of Americans are former Catholics" That could well be correct. But, they would be former or Ex-Catholics (by your own use), so the media (and you) should not be including them as Catholics in polls.

Pope Benedict on Dec 7, 102, to the International Theological Commission, said "Today, however, it is particularly important to clarify the criteria used to distinguish the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeits. In fact, it is not some kind of public opinion of the Church, and it is unthinkable to mention it in order to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, this because the sensus fidei cannot grow authentically in the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to her Magisterium.” - this is exactly what Vatican II's Lumen Gentium holds (see Nos. 12 & 18).

Vince Killoran | 3/3/2013 - 10:06pm

They (and I) aren't including the 10% in their polling of Catholics.

Re. "sensus fidelium": B.XVI attempted to narrow its meaning just as he was engaging in "creeping infallibility. I refer you to our (too) many disagreements over its meaning: e.g.,

Tim O'Leary | 3/3/2013 - 11:15pm

But the polls get a sizable portion of self-identifying "Catholics" who say they rarely or never attend mass, or even who say they do not believe in God! How do you know they are not in the 10% of former Catholics? In the PewForum poll you cite above, self-identifying Catholics included 12% who never and 16% who seldom attend mass (and an additional 19% who only go a few times a year). Do you include these 47% non-practicing Catholics in your definition of the sensus fidelium?

Do you not have a succinct definition of the sensus fedelium that works for you? You never mention one in the links you give. Specifically, does the sensus fidelium require some degree of fidelity, in terms of belief and practice, or is it just some self-identification? How is it determined - by opinion poll, by comments on a blog, by the editorial page of the NYT? In Lumen Gentium, the sensus fidelium refers to a totality (all) of faithful, practicing Catholics in communion with the Magisterium. Now, I suppose you will say Vatican II made an error as well. Fine. But, why are you unable to define it and show how it works for you?

Vince Killoran | 3/4/2013 - 1:35pm

Oh jeez, Tim, just re-read the links were we hash out the meaning of "sensus fidelium." If you want to re-run our debates over the meaning (alongside that of infallibility) e-mail me and we can save readers the time.

There are those who self-identify as "former Catholics" and those who self-identify as Catholic (with varying levels of Mass attendance). They are two distinct groups.You are squirming about looking for a way to deny that there are disaffected Catholics out there. In fact, there are many as well as their children who are increasingly leaving a faith that is dominated by a pinched version of what it means to be a Christian. I was struck by your concession to Patricia that the Church has problems, but it was telling that you cited only a lack of "organizational discipline." I don't find anywhere in the New Testament where Jesus uses this kind of language.

Tim O'Leary | 3/4/2013 - 2:06pm

Vince why would you want to go to an email to send a definition of sensus fidelium. Is it because it will appear hollow to the audience here? This is not a joint exercise. Never once did you define sensus fidelium where you explain what fidelium means.

Now you have turned to a fundamentalist reading of Scripture (Jesus didn't use the words Trinity or Incarnation or Mass either). But, apart from the actual pedophile or homosexual abusers (of adults - like Cardinal O'Brien), hasn't there also been a lax disciplinary attitude (slow to investigate, prosecute, remove, etc.) at the heart of the current critique of some Bishops (Mahony, Law, etc.)?

To others in the complaining camp on the left, is there anyone on this blog who can provide a succinct practical definition of sensus fidelium that the Bishops supposedly have abandoned?

Vince Killoran | 3/4/2013 - 3:55pm

Few people engage w/you on this website because you offer the same tired points again & again. They are heavily larded with insult. Take your most recent reply: you accuse me of being afraid to debate with you on this thread ("Is it because it will appear hollow to the audience here?"); then you move on to your favorite insult, i.e., attack those with whom you disagree as not being Catholic, and usually with being anti-Catholic ("You have turned to a fundamentalist reading of Scripture"); finally you pack it all up with a cheesy political label ("[T]he complaining camp on the left"). Seriously Tim, you do not study or play well with others.

There is a rich debate about the meaning of "sensus fideilium" (e.g., Please review the links I sent you. Perhaps you did not read them thoroughly earlier today.

As for me, I think I'll take a break from responding to your posts. When you are done with a particular thread you haven't moved off of your initial point and that gets boring. Let's see who jumps in and takes my place.

Tim O'Leary | 3/4/2013 - 4:53pm

Vince - it may please you that I agree with every quote from the International Theological Commission raised by Robert McClory in Commonweal, if not by his interpretation (and certainly not his disparagement of the Bishops). Here is a link to the full document (from Origins).

There is a definion of sorts in the document, which builds on 1 Thes 2:13 and Lumen Gentium (#33) in paragraph #34: “The nature and location of the sensus fidei or sensus fidelium must be properly understood. The sensus fidelium does not simply mean the majority opinion in a given time or culture, nor is it only a secondary affirmation of what is first taught by the magisterium. The sensus fidelium is the sensus fidei of the people of God as a whole who are obedient to the word of God and are led in the ways of faith by their pastors.”

Note the "whole" (LG says "all"), and the role of pasters and the Magisterium. McClory refers to these themes as well. To pass on some of his quotes: "The sensus fidelium is of great importance. It is not only an object of attention and respect, it is also a base and locus for their work. Theologians depend on the sensus fidelium because the faith that they explore and explain lives in the people of God ... Theologians help to clarify and articulate the content of the sensus fidelium, recognizing and demonstrating that issues relating to the truth of the faith can be complex and that investigation of them must be precise.” And “the magisterium is an integral factor in the theological enterprise itself, since theology receives its object from God through the Church, whose faith is interpreted by the living office of the church alone, that is by the magisterium of the pope and bishops." And “While dissent toward the magisterium has no place in Catholic theology, investigation and questioning is justified and even necessary if theology is to fulfill its task."

As regards insults, read your own comments above. Some of them are clever, but not all.

Patricia Bergeron | 3/4/2013 - 7:07am

Tim -- Your assertion that "those who dissent from Catholic teaching are also those who miss Mass most weeks of the year" is not true. I can cite myself and most of the people in my family, as well as colleagues and friends, as examples of believers who attend Mass, cherish the Eucharist, and yet yearn for more inclusiveness, equality, and transparency in the Church. Sadly, our voices are unheeded, and so many of our children and grandchildren are abandoning the faith. Suggesting that those leaving are atheistic, hedonistic, or any other disparaging term is short-sighted and defensive. The Church, as it currently exists, has been a disappointment to these people and to many of the rest of us. Recall yesterday's Gospel about the barren fig tree. We and the powers-that-be in Rome had better pray that the Holy Spirit sends us a competent gardener.

Tim O'Leary | 3/4/2013 - 9:09am

Patricia - you (and Vince) are obviously not in the 47% the poll refers to, but the vast majority of those who dissent on teaching are in the 47% (those who are openly in favor of abortion and homosexuality or who deny the efficacy of the sacraments). I also note that many who left the Church during the Protestant apostasy were not atheistic or hedonistic, but they left because they were scandalized by the lack of holiness in many self-identifying Catholics (like the Donatists of the 4th century), by an anti-clericalism (in many ways understandable but still false), and by a sense that doctrinal truth is an individualistic thing.

There are of course many problems in the current Church, and my pet concern is the lack or organizational discipline that has exacerbated both the sex abuse and dissent crises. But, the holiness of the recent popes and the doctrinal stability through Vatican II are real rocks that (to me anyway) demonstrate the True Church. I too pray with you that the Holy Spirit brings in a good gardener who gets to work quickly.

Fran Rossi Szpylczyn | 3/3/2013 - 12:13pm

Thank you for this wise and thoughtful response, to a piece that has left a bad taste in my mouth since I read it. By bringing the essential conversation about the Eucharist, and what the Eucharist is about, to the forefront is so important. After all, it is about what transforms all of us, which is why walking away is never an easy option.

Bill Mazzella | 3/3/2013 - 10:39am

First of all Ellie is making a point. Not abandoning the Eucharist. Benedict XVI has had serious difficulties as pope. His siding with the right wing of the church seems to have blown up in his face. The budding progressive theologian who went right after students took the podium away from him now seems to turn away from the right who betrayed him and left him in confusion. His inability to steer the church shows that his approach did not work.

Tim O'Leary | 3/2/2013 - 8:22pm

I would agree with Kevin that if liberal "Catholics" stopped showing up at Mass, it would not be noticed in the pews, though for different reasons than Kevin suggests.

First, writing your call for a boycott of the Mass in the anti-Catholic New York Times, where (per Neuhaus) "the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic," is unlikely to reach the faithful.

Second, most polls suggest that those who dissent from Catholic teaching are also those who miss Mass most weeks of the year anyway. Being faithful is already not such a big deal for them.

Third, given the judgmentalistic vitriol of someone like Paul Elie ("all bad news, all the time" - referring to Pope Benedict's papacy) or the lack of charity of Hans Kung (who, on the edge himself at best - disapproves outreach to the other dissenters in SSPX) or the non-believers in the sacraments like Gary Wills, or the homosexually active Frank Bruni casting stones at heterosexual celibacy, - who would really want to be in a Church with these characters? Their presence would not "strengthen the brethren" (Lk 22:32).

Vince Killoran | 3/2/2013 - 9:50pm

It's always somebody or something else, isn't it? It's the NYT, Paul Elie, and Hans Kung--not the hierarchy's cover-up of the sexual abuse scandal, its turning away from Vatican II, its ham-handed lobbying, its rejection of core aspects of our faith, e.g., sensus fidelium.

"[M]ost polls suggest that those who dissent from Catholic teaching are also those who miss Mass most weeks of the year anyway."

Given your animosity to polls on Catholics I'd love to know which ones you refer. In any case, the recent Pew one indicates that 35% of those who attend at least weekly want significant change to the Church and all of it in the progressive direction. You might notice if 1 out of 3 of those sitting next to you in the pews went away followed to those that attend less regularly. Then there would just be the chosen few huddled together in a cult-like cocoon. Good luck paying the heating bills.

Tim O'Leary | 3/2/2013 - 10:32pm

That didn't take long, Vince. So, infallible You can emphatically state that the bishops have rejected core aspects of "our" faith. Wow. Not to try to match your authority, but I guess the "our" means the Church of Vince. Because if it meant the Catholic Church, then the latter would obviously be a false Church. Your logic is astounding!

What exactly does the "sense of the faithful" doctrine mean to you? Does it exclude all the Catholics and Bishops who in your eyes have rejected "core aspects" of the faith? Or does it include all Christians, or the editorial board of the NYT? I suppose the Church of Vince would think that Hans and Paul and Gary form part of the "faithful." Let's see if this happy band of New Agers outlasts the Roman Catholic Church. I will also see if attendance drops in my Church this Lent.

ed gleason | 3/4/2013 - 2:15pm

Tim O'L 17000 parishes with 1000 attendees on Sunday would be 17 million Catholics..Gee.. mine has no where near a 1000 on Sunday Masses.. Yours must be packed..

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