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