American Catholic Church trying to overcome ‘opt-out’ ethos
Oct 05, 2006
In the early 1960s, the future Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick was a young priest earning a doctorate in sociology at The Catholic University of America in Washington.
WASHINGTON (CNS, 9/25/2006) – Some societal trends from that decade still resonate in the country and in the church nearly five decades later, Washington's retired archbishop said at a Sept. 20 conference on "The Catholic Church in America: 2006."
Cardinal McCarrick traced a decline in American Catholics living out and understanding their faith to the "ethos of the 1960s, which we have not yet overcome." In that era, he said, people adopted an attitude of being "open to everything," and people "opted out" of traditional morals and ideas about family life, society and their faith.
"What happened when we all started to 'opt out'? We became a contraceptive society," the cardinal said. That mind-set, he said, has had terrible effects on marriages and family life and led to many having an abortion mentality on life issues.
It has led people to lose a sense of commitment to marriage, to God, to the priesthood and religious life, and to workplace ethics, Cardinal McCarrick said.
The cardinal was a keynote speaker at the two-day conference, organized by Catholic University's Life Cycle Institute, which analyzes current issues from the perspective of Catholic social teachings. Panels examined Catholic identity, parish life today, new movements in the church and the church's presence in public life.
Cardinal McCarrick said the nation's 67 million Catholics seem to fall in one of four groups: those who know and follow church teaching; those who do not understand the faith; "cafeteria Catholics," who choose what to follow; and inactive Catholics who have decided not to belong to the church at this time.
The cardinal said the church's greatest challenge is helping people know and follow the faith, at a time when most Catholics who are polled do not understand key teachings such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
He said that the 1960s' mind-set of questioning traditional morals affected people's attitudes toward the Second Vatican Council, which was unfolding at the same time. "The church was saying all the right things, and the vast majority of (Catholics) were not reading" the council documents," he said.
And he faulted some "in Catholic education, people we counted on to tell us what the Second Vatican Council was all about, (who instead) told us what they wanted it to be about." That resulted in a "crisis in higher education ... (and) many Catholic institutions lost the core values of what we were about," he said, also noting that a period of dissent from church teaching followed the council.
Cardinal McCarrick said that too often Catholic schools and religious education programs declined in the decades that followed the council, "becoming touchy-feely rather than (about) doctrine, matter and form."
And fewer young people chose to pursue vocations, he said. "(They were) not getting the impetus of what Catholic life should be, a life of service and a life of sacrifice."
A decline in pastoral practice, in Mass attendance, in vocations and in people understanding and following the faith has occurred in the Catholic Church, as morals have weakened in society as a whole, the cardinal said, noting the church also had to deal with the effects of the "sex scandal of the clergy."
Acknowledging he was painting a "bleak picture," the cardinal said, "it's important we see the difficulties the church faces today."
But in the second half of his lecture, Cardinal McCarrick addressed signs of hope he sees in the Catholic Church in the United States today. "There's so much hope in the Second Vatican Council. This really brought in the age of the laity," he said.
Cardinal McCarrick said that members of the laity have taken on more responsibility, from serving on pontifical councils to leading archdiocesan offices to staffing parishes and serving on parish councils and financial advisory boards.
The late Pope John Paul II with his canonizations "made so clear that laypeople are called to holiness," he said.
And the cardinal said that Vatican II's call to ecumenism has enriched the Catholic Church, because "we have learned to look beyond ourselves."
The new U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults issued by the nation's bishops is another sign of hope for the church, he said, noting that there seems to be "a new frontier in Catholic education" to help people learn what the church really teaches.
Cardinal McCarrick also praised the growing popularity of movements in the church such as the Neocatechumenal Way, Focolare and Communion and Liberation.
"These movements are bringing life to parishes and life to the church," he said. "The movements have also given us a new openness to life, to family life and vocations."
The cardinal also said the growing Hispanic presence in the Catholic Church in the United States "is another sign of hope," as those newcomers offer an inspiring witness to the importance of faith and families in their lives.