The Catholic Church has the potential to change the world. Are we squandering it?
Forgive the assumption, but if you are reading this, you likely identify as belonging to the church. Or, at the very least, you are curious about conversations involving religious traditions. You are probably also aware that these days, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated persons in the United States (often called “nones”) is now larger than the number of Catholics and is growing at a much faster rate. Young people, especially, are walking away.
But even those of us who call ourselves Catholic have our doubts. A 2020 report called “The State of Religion & Young People,” published by the Springtide Research Institute, reveals that over half of young people who identify as religiously affiliated report low levels of trust in religious institutions. According to truly sobering data from the Public Religion Research Institute’s “2022 Health of Congregations Survey,” among those who have switched from their childhood religion to “none,” 39 percent were Catholic. As they leave, these former Catholics are heartbreakingly but accurately often referred to as “dones.”
As multiple studies also show, many of these nones or dones continue to wrestle with pressing questions about the meaning of life. They express a desire to relate to the world in ways that are expansive and compassionate; they just find no link between their concerns and religious faith. At a talk I gave recently, I asked hundreds of Latino Catholics for a show of hands if the issue of the ecology and the papal encyclical “Laudato Si’” had been engaged in their parishes. I counted the positive responses on one hand. And yet, we know from recent surveys that climate change is a major source of concern for young people. Pope Francis knows the importance of ecological awareness and activism, encourages it and nurtures this planetary attentiveness. The majority of our U.S. parishes apparently do not. When we fail to connect faith and action, the reign of God seems very far indeed.
The Response of Mercy
What this (admittedly oversimplified) picture reveals is that we who are still active members of the church must do our best to connect the Gospel message with our everyday lives; we must live out that message authentically and lovingly. And, as part of this effort, we are called to respond to those who have left (or are struggling to remain) with mercy. The Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino defines mercy as “a reaction in the face of the suffering of another, which one has interiorized.” If we attune our hearts to our present reality, we must grieve with those who have left the church or are trying to find a reason to remain in the church. Their experiences require our attention, and it is crucial that we respond not with temporary bandages but by asking fundamental questions.
There are many lessons to be learned from those on the margins.
The heart of these efforts is not about filling the pews, but about learning to be a better church precisely because we dare feel the sting of the collective loss we are experiencing. There are many lessons to be learned from those on the margins. In exhorting the church to go out to the peripheries, Pope Francis offers the central insight that “to embrace the margins is to expand our horizons, for we see more clearly and broadly from the edges of society.” This holds not just for the broader society but for our church, too.
To take seriously what is being revealed from our peripheries and beyond them is good for the life of the church. First, it helps us define why we even want to be church. Second, it helps us see our present moment with more clarity. And third, it reveals new possibilities.
Why Be Church?
In his insightful book Who Is Jesus? An Introduction to Christology, the theologian Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., issues a warning: “Catholics move too quickly from Jesus to the Church.” He cautions that such facile identification ignores the historical circumstances of Jesus’ life and the real human communities that formed as a response. When we read Jesus through post-resurrection lenses, we too often jump to an assumption that the way the church operates now was the way it always has been. But if we also take the time to read ourselves today through the context of Jesus’ historical experience, we may get back to why any of us even bother to belong to this faith, to be a part of an institution.
First, what we call the community of the church has always been in flux. Our church is not a phenomenon outside of history but a community dynamically enmeshed in the demands of history. As Father Sobrino stresses, the constant revelation of what is real in the world (la realidad) requires our response, and for him this response is an act of faith. “Spirituality,” he tells us, “is the spirit with which we confront the concrete history in which we live with all its complexity.”
Jesus and his friends lived during difficult times, politically, religiously and economically. So do we.
Jesus and his friends lived during difficult times, politically, religiously and economically. So do we. Their world, for all its difficulties, was quite small, and most scholars agree that Jesus was centered on renewing his Jewish religious community. Jesus confronted the reality of suffering not in generalities but in particular circumstances; and he did so primarily by expressing God’s being as pure unconditional love. Is that a reason to be church? Are we here to form a community that can effectively confront the accelerating chaos of history with the spirit of constant love? What about the difficult demands this makes? Are people leaving the church because we, as church, seem intent on looking away from the stark brokenness of our moment? Or worse yet, because we have a hand in amplifying the pain through our divisiveness and judgment?
Second, Jesus invited those who were moved by the vision of God’s abundance he presented to experience it flowing through him and then to share in his work. The feeding, the healing, the welcoming, the serving, the teaching—this was work to be done by all who knew him. Being sent meant doing something specific that made God’s love constantly present in the world. With great intention, Jesus did not keep his ministry and authority all to himself. He shared it, he guided, he empowered.
Father Rausch stresses that the community that “Jesus founded when he appointed the Twelve, was not the Church but the eschatological people of God.” Everyone who shares in his work becomes a living sign that God’s reign is arriving. Are we called to be church so that God’s abundance for us may flow into the world multiplied by our hands? Are people walking away because we hide behind layers of exclusionary rules (something Jesus also bristled against) rather than inviting them to become the gifts for others God needs them to be?
Remarkably, the “Health of Congregations Survey” also points to a group for whom Christian faith continues to be the most important influence in their lives. This group asserts that the church should offer the community guidance on social concerns, and unlike other U.S. groups, a sizable majority affirm that “Congregations should get involved in social issues, even if that means having challenging conversations about politics.” This group is Black Protestants, Christians who understand that addressing painful issues by the light of faith is essential to the very faith they profess.
As Father Sobrino exhorts, “the mystery of God” becomes “present in concrete reality."
As Father Sobrino exhorts, “the mystery of God” becomes “present in concrete reality. Transcendence becomes present in history.” The Black church carries the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s skillful linking of the love expressed in the Christian Gospel to the demands of human rights. And they continue this vibrant work with social movements like the Poor People’s Campaign, a national movement “rooted in a moral analysis based on our deepest religious and constitutional values that demand justice for all.” Christianity is intensely alive in this community because Jesus accompanies their struggles and the Spirit inspires them. As Dr. King insisted, to work against racism was not his idea but was faithfulness to God’s vision for reality.
Why Be Church Now?
In a conversation recorded almost a century ago, Mahatma Gandhi said: “I like your Christ, but not your Christianity. I believe in the teachings of Christ, but you on the other side of the world do not. I read the Bible faithfully and see little in Christendom that those who profess faith pretend to see.” He said these words in 1927. With the horrors of the First World War still fresh and World War II not yet on the horizon, Gandhi described Christians as “the most warlike people” of the world and connected this to insatiable greed.
So let us imagine Jesus and his friends actually in our midst right now. What would their reaction be to our current era? Would their hearts break because we are running out of clean water? Jesus Christ, Water of Life, have mercy on us.
Would they knock over the tables of our skyscraper temples to profit? Would they be scandalized that rather than feeding the 5,000 (Mt 14:13-21), some of us hoard every fish and loaf of bread, while the 4,999 starve? Jesus Christ, Bread of Life, have mercy on us.
How loudly might they weep for the millions without access to health care, or education, or a living wage? Jesus Christ, Light of the World, have mercy on us.
How could they make sense of a world where we seem willing to give up our freedom to think, make moral judgments and create so that something we call artificial intelligence can do the work for us? Where bombs rain down on the innocent, children are gunned down in schools, and strangers are turned away in their suffering? Jesus Christ, Wisdom of God, grant us peace.
So many young people in our world are longing for an invitation to go into the streets ready to right these wrongs.
So many young people in our world are longing for an invitation to go into the streets ready to right these wrongs. In this desire, aren’t they sharing in Jesus’ ministry and enacting Christ’s power-for-others? Does our collective inaction in the face of so much suffering communicate that, as a church, we don’t know who this Christ we proclaim really is? That we have not taken this message to heart?
If we did, who would not want to be part of that?
This is Christianity’s largely unrealized potential; the world-transforming power Gandhi saw squandered. This is the truth that Dr. King, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day and many women and men before and since have understood. God is love; when love is denied to one another and to our fragile common home, we have denied God (1Jn 4:7-9). Our God has died and continues to die by our hand, repeating over and over again that fateful day at Calvary.
Where to Begin?
Jon Sobrino tells us that if we look with honesty at what is happening around us and respond with mercy, we will realize that “love and hope mean helping to bring to light the better, the more humane, presently gestating in the womb of reality.” The confrontation with the loss of so many of our kin (both in lives lost before their time and as they leave our faith) must break our hearts enough for mercy to flow into action.
As Pope Francis explains in Let Us Dream, the sacred Scriptures are full of stories revealing “that crisis is a time of purification. [These stories] bring us to the same place, to a shaming of our arrogance and a trusting in God.” In this sense, to open our eyes to the pain of those who are leaving our communities requires us to listen to the promptings of the Spirit. Through the pain of this communal wound brought by the loss of so many people of good will, we are invited to a creative and fearless commitment to what Jesus wants us to know: The reign of God is breaking in and the reign of God needs us. It needs us now.
In our exceptionally complicated time, what does the reign of God require? In The Garden of God, the theologian and physicist Alejandro García-Rivera answers this with simplicity: “The church must expand its cosmic awareness.” Inspired by another scientist/theologian, the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, García-Rivera writes:
As we run out of room for an ever-growing population, as the polar caps melt into the sea and the weather becomes more unpredictable and hostile, as we continue to consume ourselves into extinction, can theology not see their eschatological import?... Why doesn’t [the church] see itself not only as one, holy, catholic and apostolic but also as cosmic?
García-Rivera wrote this almost two decades ago, anticipating that the church would have to “turn to cosmology as a way to address the grave crisis we are experiencing today.” I believe that in many ways Pope Francis has been pointing us in the same direction. With their help, let me suggest some of the contours of what this cosmic thrust for the church may mean.
We must reckon with the tragedy that humans, creatures made in God’s image, are the same ones mercilessly destroying everything God so lovingly made.
Both Ancient and New. First, a cosmic awareness in Christianity is not new. García-Rivera argues that the cosmic dimension, which is not myopically only about humans but about creation writ large as Creation, permeates the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and the writings of the early church. Second, the cosmic dimension of the church entails recovering the link between the melting ice caps and the “cosmic Christ through whom all things were made.” Third, the Holy Spirit’s work in the world is to orient and nurture creation continually toward the God of life and beauty. Nothing is more opposed to both life and beauty, as Pope Francis repeatedly points out, than the joint cry of the earth and the poor. Fourth, we must reckon with the tragedy that humans, creatures made in God’s image—which means having the responsibility to image God in reality—are the same ones mercilessly destroying everything God so lovingly made. A cosmic mark for the church means that our relationship to the cosmos, to the entirety of the gift that has come from God’s hands, has to be redefined.
The Human and the Cosmos.One of Teilhard’s key insights is that as part of nature, human beings are ultimately disclosive of creation’s purposes. As creatures evolve, consciousness becomes self-consciousness; humans grow to be able to contemplate and reflect back nature, transformed through a process of creativity. As Pope John Paul II put it in his “Letter to Artists” in 1999, it is in the process of being creative that human beings appear “more than ever ‘in the image of God.’”
As humans discover their potential for creativity, they unleash a process of a cosmos that is self-aware. It is this role we need to take up again guided by the Spirit. García-Rivera stresses the church’s cosmic dimension as a bridge between the mysteries of the cosmos (heaven) and the needs of creation (earth). He also insists these are not two different realities, but one open and dynamic system.
Yet we know ourselves capable of betraying all God has made in ways our ancestors could never imagine. Our sacred Scriptures do not know humans will pour deadly sludge into the seas and poison our air. Our early church did not know we would crack the mystery of the atom and build the deadliest weapon imaginable. Our ancestors from just a couple of centuries ago could not foretell that today we would be ready to give up the human gift to think, reflect and imagine so that machines will do it for us in a wholesale revocation of our humanity we euphemistically call “artificial intelligence.” Teilhard thought we were better than this. García-Rivera feared for us. He writes, “At stake is God’s integrity. In the openness of God’s own cosmic creativity, a frail creature was allowed to possess an extremely dangerous creativity.”
The Frail and Dangerous Creature That Is Us. In our greed, in the lack of patience needed so that we might reflect on the consequences of our actions, in our misguided quest for autonomy and individuality and in our thirst for power, what Teilhard called “the human phenomenon” has turned on creation. Rather than building a bridge toward a deeper unity with God that builds God’s reign, we are busy destroying it. Those who leave Christianity are a potent sign that we, as church, are failing our cosmos. The Christian story, with all its difficult demands of selflessness, service, kinship and community, must be harnessed in defense of God’s cosmic gift. Beyond the global awareness forced upon us by the 20th century, in this 21st century we must cultivate a truly fearless cosmic wakefulness. García-Rivera provides a key to what this means: “We are to find in our frailty, the strength of the Lord.”
The Cosmic Enigma.What is this strength the cosmic church is called to? García-Rivera insists that the church must shift our emphasis from the idea of time to focus on place. A cosmos is not just a collection of data, but a gift. God’s reign is not in some far-off future; it is groaning to become here. More enigmatically, this connection is understood by creatures because it is beautiful, because “beauty is a sign of abundant life known only by being enjoyed.” Beauty ties the human heart to God. Scientists and artists are recognizing this, as environmental awareness sparks movements bringing together scientific data and art. Some of the practitioners of this science and art collaboration, motivated by the affective depth and connection to the natural world that beauty engenders, recognize its potential.
Theologically, to join data with art makes our world paradoxically both more mysterious and more intelligible. We know it better, but we are also confronted by our human limitations to know it fully. Or, as C. S. Lewis put it, we are surprised by a deep longing that transcends us.
One recent art and science collaboration, which premiered at the South by Southwest EDU conference in Austin, Tex., involved a performance by a flutist. The notes she played were generated by a process developed by a scientist that turned particle physics into data. The data then became musical notes, and all of this was performed live. As the musician read and performed the notes, the composition was being generated by our planet, which was revealing itself in the movements of tectonic plates beneath Yellowstone.
I can imagine how excited García-Rivera, who died in 2010, would have been by this project. It would have proved his hypothesis that “although God transcends the cosmos, God created the cosmos with an immanent rationality that allows the cosmos to be known out of its own natural processes.” The project speaks with a reverence for all that God has made that many “people of faith” have forgotten. As reported by NPR, the artists and scientists involved “say they’re driven by a desire to deepen our understanding of the world and to give people a way to appreciate the beauty all around us, even if it’s underground, underwater or [in the case of tectonic plates] unimaginably far away.”
As surveys proliferate telling us Christianity is in deep trouble, let us open our eyes and see: Yes, it really is. But there is much we can do in response. I want to give the last word to Teilhard, whose spirit of confronting reality in mercy hoped that “The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.”