Sunday, September 6, 2009

The state of religion in America

The Bigger Picture
Published on June 11th in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
For this final column written during my most recent sojourn in America, I want to share some thoughts I have about the current “state of religion”, and more particularly the state of the Catholic Church, in the Americas.
To begin with, even though church attendance is also on the decline in the United States just as it is in Ireland and most other developed countries in Europe; I was nonetheless amazed at the number of large new churches that had been built in cities like Dallas and Atlanta during the past three years. But only a couple of these new churches were associated with the mainstream American Catholic and Protestant denominations that are reporting declines in their numbers. Rather, the vast majority of these new places of worship were built to serve the needs of non-denominational church congregations.
Given the explosive growth these relatively new non-denominational ministries have experienced, I am now more inclined to believe that overall church attendance in America hasn’t actually declined; rather it has shifted in favour of churches that lack the bureaucracy and hierarchy which characterizes the older mainstream religions. Members of these new non-denomination congregations consider themselves to be themselves Christians instead of Baptists, Presbyterians or Catholics. Instead of promoting their own version of religious doctrines like mainstream religions do, these new churches’ ministers focus on a single core religious doctrine; a belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God.
As a result, the social values and moral philosophies espoused by the ministers who lead these new religious congregations and their racial makeup can vary widely. A number of these congregations are predominately white but there are also many others that are predominately black or are very ethnically and racially diverse. Some of them are stridently anti-abortion and anti-gay rights while others strongly support the concepts of gay marriage and a woman’s right to reproductive choice. But no matter what their particular moral beliefs may be, what these new Christian non-denominational churches also have in common is the fact that their membership is growing, not declining.
In my discussions with members of these “new” Christian churches the reasons they cited for leaving the Baptist, Catholic or Episcopal Churches they had once been members of were strikingly similar. Most of them said they had gravitated to their new congregations because of their mainstream religious leaders’ insistence that in order to be a “good” member of those denominations one must believe in and adhere to all of that particular denomination’s religious doctrines. Because they didn’t necessarily agree with all of those religious doctrines, they said they also didn’t feel as spiritually connected to God as they now feel as members of these less doctrinaire non-denominational churches.
I could readily identify with many of the sentiments expressed by these non-denominational church goers because within my own family only I and one of my brothers are still practicing Catholics. Even though our other five siblings also attended Catholic schools and were raised by my parents to be “good” Catholics, all of them now worship regularly at one of these new non-denominational churches. Frankly speaking, I don’t blame them because I also take issue with many of the actions and moral positions taken by some members of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy.
A case in point would be the Catholic hierarchy’s insistence that only men can be ordained as priests and that those priests must also take a vow of celibacy. The Catholic Church hierarchy’s rigid insistence that this is “God’s will” conveniently ignores the fact that the New Testament implies that women presided at Eucharistic meals in the early church and that St. Peter and the disciples were married and fathered numerous children.
The fact that the Council of Laodecia in 352 AD said that women could no longer be ordained as priests tells me that women were ordained as priests in the early years of the Church. The fact that it wasn’t until 1054 AD that Pope Gregory VII said for anyone to be ordained they must pledge celibacy, tells me many priests were also married men. I contend that the Catholic Church’s rigidity on the subject of ordaining only celibate men as priests is also what led many members of the Catholic Church hierarchy to ignore and or cover-up sexual abuses perpetrated by the many pedophiles attracted to the priesthood.
But the truth is the Catholic Church has allowed married priests ever since 1980, when Pope John Paul II created an exception for Protestant priests seeking to convert. The church also looks the other way or imposes only mild punishments for priests who violate their vows of celibacy so it can retain as many priests as possible. Married or less than celibate priests are also quite common in developing nations in Africa and Latin America. In fact the current President of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, fathered three children by three different women while he was the Bishop of the Diocese of San Pedro.
I have come to the conclusion that it is this kind of hypocrisy on the part of mainstream Catholic and Protestant Church leaders that has been the single biggest factor responsible for the decline in Church attendance in America and Europe. What is different however is that unlike their counterparts in Ireland and Europe, in America disenchanted Catholics and Protestants have not stopped going to church. They have instead sought out different spiritual leaders and new places of worship which focus on spirituality instead of protecting outdated church rules and traditions. These non-denominational spiritual leaders don’t advise their congregations about which politicians they should vote for. Instead they ask members of their congregation to join them in helping the poor by contributing to the church’s community services efforts.
If mainstream religions here in Ireland and Europe want to become relevant again, then church leaders need to stop trying to influence government officials with pious public statements and start ministering to the poor. Young people are watching and actions speak much louder than words.

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