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Alumni event offers wide-ranging discussion of the Church’s challenges
At the start of his November 6 lecture sponsored by the Boston College Alumni Association, Mark Massa, SJ, dean of Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry (STM), listed the four largest religious groupings in the United States. First among these, he said, is the evangelical Protestants. Second is Catholics, followed by what Massa related as “former Catholics,” a classification that includes those who no longer practice the faith but might still identify themselves as Catholic, as well as those who have gone over to non-Catholic denominations or given up on religion altogether. The fourth largest category is mainline Protestants (the name-brand varieties including Episcopalian, Lutheran, Congregationalist). But this group too involves flocks of ex-Catholics. According to Massa, one-third of all congregants in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, for instance, were baptized as Catholics. Drawing what sounded like nervous chuckles in the atrium of the Brighton Campus’s Cadigan Alumni Center, Massa raised his voice and said: “We have what NASA in Houston would call a situation on our hands.”
The dean, wearing an olive sport jacket over a clerical black shirt and collar, addressed more than 100 alumni, faculty, students, parents, and others who turned up for the Wednesday evening talk titled, “Five Things the Catholic Church Must Face Today.” The event was part of the Alumni Association’s two-year-old Deans Series, which features lectures by heads of schools at Boston College, on topics reflecting their areas of academic expertise.
Massa—whose books include, most recently, The American Catholic Revolution: How the Sixties Changed the Church Forever (2010), a study of the post-Vatican II era—came to STM three and a half years ago from his endowed professorship at Fordham University. First on his list of five challenges before the Church was “passing on the faith to young people.”
Acknowledging efforts in recent decades by catechists and other religious educators, Massa gave the Church a grade of B-minus on this score. He also gave his audience a reading assignment—”strongly” recommending Soul Searching, a 2005 book by Christian Smith, with Melinda Lundquist Denton. The two sociologists studied the lives of 267 teenagers of various faiths for several years and found that Mormon, evangelical Protestant, and religiously observant Jewish teenagers were most likely to be familiar with and able to explain their religious beliefs. Catholic teenagers were least likely. Ironically, their Church runs “more institutions for passing on its faith to its young people than all of the other religious groups put together,” Massa said, alluding to the ubiquitous parish religious education programs and the Catholic grade schools constituting the nation’s largest private-school system.
The second challenge discussed by Massa was “the very large and very neuralgic issue of women’s roles within the Church.”
He threw light on the French social historians of the Annales School, whose studies have led them to, among other sources, parish records in Europe. The historians found that, for as long as the Catholic Church has been keeping such records (since the mid-16th century), a resounding majority of churchgoers have been women; Church historians in North America have noticed the pattern as well, going back generations. Massa pointed out that Catholic parishioners today would be able to make the same observation, which prompted his question: “Why do so many Catholic women,” if they predominate in congregations, “feel excluded from the Church?” Instead of answering broadly, the Jesuit mentioned three gestures that could instantly “create good will” among Catholic women: using gender-inclusive language in liturgies (as have the Canadian bishops, whose guidelines avoid referring to God as “him”); appointing women as cardinals to lead Vatican congregations or departments (which would require only minor tweaking of canon law, he suggested); and allowing women to become permanent deacons, a ministry currently open only to men, married as well as single. (Massa noted that from the New Testament we know of women deacons in the early Church by name—Lydia and Dorcas in the Acts of the Apostles, Phoebe in Romans.)
Third up in Massa’s order of urgency was the priesthood. He reeled off data points—for instance, the number of U.S. priests ordained annually has dropped by roughly half (to a little less than 500) since 1965, even though there are 22 million more American Catholics now than there were then—and familiar explanations, including the clergy sexual abuse scandals and the overall disappearance of celibacy from the Catholic imagination. (“Celibacy as a prized virtue has gone into eclipse in our culture,” he noted, “and many mothers want grandchildren more than priests in the family.”) He said the bishops have pursued a short-term solution, recruiting priests from Africa, Asia, and India for stints in American parishes, but they need to seek longer-range strategies, in collaboration with the laity. He did not venture a prediction as to the outcome of such collaboration.
Fourth item: “the alienation of many of the faithful from the institutional Church.”
Massa returned to the subject of former Catholics—among them his own sister, living in Columbus, Ohio (where he grew up during the 1950s and 1960s). A University of Notre Dame graduate, she served as organist and choir director of a large Catholic parish there, and one Sunday morning, the priest berated her in front of several hundred people at Mass, for letting the communion hymn go on too long (“How are we supposed to get all the cars out of the parking lot in time for the next Mass?” he is reported to have barked). Massa said his sister, an unsalaried music minister for 10 years, decided, “That’s enough,” and left the choir, the parish, and Roman Catholicism. Massa’s lesson: “If you don’t treat people well, they will go someplace else.” That someplace for his sister was a neighboring Episcopal church.
Massa’s last item had to do with the growing tendency among Catholics to affix ideological labels to one another—”liberal,” “conservative,” “orthodox,” “progressive,” and the like. He called on Catholics to lose the labels, often wielded as rhetorical weapons. This won’t stem the polarization that has plagued much recent Catholic discourse, but it would be “an excellent first step toward a genuine listening to others,” he submitted.
After speaking for more than half an hour, Massa stepped away from the podium to engage the audience less formally in conversation for about as much time. The lecture-goers were a mix of young and old, men and women, seated on chairs assembled in the atrium, and more than 15 of them stood to ask questions or share experiences of life in the pews. A middle-aged woman in a purple suit asked about inclusive language, and Massa gave a colorful rendering of traditional Catholic and biblical thought—”God is not a he. God does not have testicles.” A middle-aged man in a gray suit asked about women priests, to which Massa replied somewhat neutrally, “I don’t know if I’ll see women’s ordination.”
A twenty-something woman, whom Massa addressed by first name and who recently graduated from STM, drew a sharp contrast between her relationships with priests at the school (both students and teachers), which, she said, were highly collegial, and her current interactions with parish priests, which are not. (She teaches at a Boston-area Catholic school.) Massa suggested that she was encountering “clericalism,” a less collaborative mode of ministry, and for good measure he invoked St. Thomas Aquinas on how “the argument from authority”—do it because I told you so—is the weakest of arguments.
A young woman wearing blue jeans said she and many other young people “have no parish.” She has wandered recently from one parish to another without feeling “welcome.” Massa encouraged her to keep “shopping around” for the right parish and told her, “See me after. I’ll give you a list.” At that point, a young man wearing a gray fleece sweater spoke up: “I feel it’s our responsibility as young people to be that first welcoming person” for other young people at a parish.
After the Q&A, conversations continued in small groups over hors d’oeuvres, and Massa was heard to say more than once, “I love that guy,” referring to his fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis. “I think it’s going to be a long conversation,” he had said of broader discussions about the future Church, during the Q&A, “but I want it to be a conversation. I don’t want it to be battles.”
Read more by William Bole