It seems to me that atheism is not a particular danger for the church. Although it is a growing population and the ideas of the new atheists (Dawkins, Harris, et. al.) are in vogue, the overall numbers of atheists remain small. Yes, it is a movement and a position with which to dialogue. But, I do not think it is as big a threat to the Catholic faith as irrelevance. From my tiny perspective, I see people not being engaged by the faith. I see many of us in the church – at all levels of involvement – not taking God seriously. In short, I see the faith in danger of being totally irrelevant.
Now, an irrelevant faith is the experience of many today. It is surely one among many reasons people don’t participate in the Sunday Eucharist (Mass) as much. But, more to the point, irrelevance makes the faith incredible and marginal to life. Thus, we can have a phenomenon like church as one more activity to do every week rather than the all-encompassing orientation of life that determines all else.
Why is the faith becoming irrelevant today? There are, of course, many theological, philosophical, cultural, and personal reasons for this trend. But I offer a few problems on the church’s side, rather than out-right blaming society (although society does have its issues!). So, in no particular order, here are some of the things the church is doing to make the faith less relevant:
1. Not prioritizing prayer and teaching it. Being a Catholic starts, continues, and ends with a living relationship with God. How much do we encourage this and also teach it?
2. Boring liturgies. Now, we do not have to bow to modern culture’s obsessive need for entertainment. But, there is a place for good music and good preaching. We can tell by the success of parishes like the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland. Good preaching and good music draw people in.
3. Narrow-minded-ness. I think this takes at least two forms: legalism and moralism. We can get bogged down in the minutiae of rules and codes and rubrics. We can also get bogged down in condemning those we deem as not living up to the codes, rubrics, and rules. Today, increasingly, people will just write this off and never come back to church.
4. Over- and under-education. This is a curious phenomenon. We uphold the value of education in the faith and yet so few of our people really know the faith. And those that do can give the impression that one needs a high degree to really live out the Gospel.
These are just some quick and dirty reasons as I see them. You may disagree. And, there are definitely others – I would love to hear them! But, perhaps we can all agree that we need to do something to save the faith from being irrelevant.