As religious practice and identity diminish in Western Culture, Pope Francis could take a cue from President Trump by appealing to his base instead of alienating it.
If you heard the title of this post without seeing it in print, you might imagine at first that rebels from an order of sisters are launching a coup in Rome or Washington. Clarity is important here. I am writing about “Nones,” not “nuns.”
You may have read biased media commentary about the crises facing the Catholic Church. Accounts of the impending doom of Catholic identity, fidelity, and practice are greatly exaggerated and misunderstood. As usual, the media is shining a spotlight on a crisis in the Catholic Church and seeing causes that are really symptoms. What is needed now is a floodlight.
Few of our crises are specifically Catholic crises. The truth is that all traditional religious identity in America and throughout Western Culture is under siege. Another truth is that Catholicism has experienced significantly less decline in membership and practice than most other faiths.
In the decade between 2005 and 2015, those who self-identify as Catholics declined in America by slightly under three percent. In that same period, those who identify as members of the mainline Protestant sects declined by nearly three times that figure.
An August 2019 Wall Street Journal / NBC News poll reported that only 29 percent of Americans across all age groups now attend religious services at least once per week. In 2000, that figure was 41 percent. In the same time period, the share of Americans who report never attending any religious services has risen from 14 percent to 26 percent. They are politically called the “Nones.”
It seems the further left a nation moves, the more diminished its peoples’ life of faith becomes. In Canada and most of the European Union, weekly participation in religious observance is now well under ten percent. The one striking exception is Poland where Catholic identity and fidelity remain high.
Rising secular identity and practice is highest among younger Americans as many dismayed parents will confirm. In the 18-to-34 age range, those who are not adhering to or believing in any faith at all has more than doubled over the last twenty years from 16 percent to 36 percent. In the same 2019 WSJ / NBC News poll, only 30 percent of Americans under age 39 report that religion and belief in God are important. For adults age 39 to 54, that figure jumps to 52 percent, and 67 percent for those over age 54.
But religious decline and apathy are not a Catholic problem. It applies across the board with Catholic identity and practice actually still faring significantly better than in Protestant denominations, especially the more liberal ones. Of interest, Jews and Muslims have each long represented a stable one-percent of the American population, and there is little evidence of any generational decline in identity as Jews or Muslims.
I have written a number of posts about what this means for the practice of Catholicism, and I will link to some at the end of this post. I think the most important of these is one that begins with an example of the bizarre times in which we live. It is, “The Once and Future Catholic Church.”
Strangely, that post has found a new audience in the most unlikely of places. According to our TSW stats reports, readers by the hundreds have been flocking to that post from Beijing and Shanghai, China, a nation where Pope Francis has capitulated to religious suppression by signing a controversial concordat that allows the Communist Chinese government to choose the nation’s Catholic bishops. The story of the Church in China is hopefully an upcoming post on These Stone Walls.
PRESIDENT TRUMP AND THE “KING CYRUS” EFFECT
The religious decline in our culture has had political fallout as well. In a presidential campaign debate, before dropping out of the race, Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke called for an end to tax exemptions for all churches that do not fall in line with same-sex marriage or LGBTQ political agendas and mandates. There was little expression of shock, and even less of open disagreement, among other candidates.
I at one time considered myself to be a liberal Boston Democrat – a “Kennedy Democrat” – but today. It comes as no surprise to learn from the WSJ/NBC News poll that 36 percent of Republicans attend weekly religious services compared with 23 percent of Democrats. More striking is the fact that in the 2016 election, those who reported attending religious services weekly voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a whopping 59 to 29 percent margin.
President Trump’s opponents often trump (no pun intended) the fact that he is not known for an emphasis on human rights nor is he an exemplar of personal moral values. Infidelity and other moral wreckage in his past in the form of multiple marriages and extra-marital affairs (the Stormy Daniels fiasco) cause wonder why Evangelical support is still intact. This is a marked difference from the affairs of the 1960s Kennedy era when everyone knew and no one cared.
Mr Trump does not fit easily as a puzzle-piece into the moral ideals of Catholics or Evangelical Christians. I am no promoter of the cause of Donald Trump, nor am I either a Republican or Democrat, but I cannot forget the sordid affairs of 2016 as the left’s plans for Catholicism in America were revealed in “Wikileaks Found Catholics in the Basket of Deplorables.”
And yet as much as his own moral decline is bared for all to see, the Trump enigma continues. In late September, 2019, he became the first U.S. president to convene a meeting at the United Nations on the sole topic of religious liberty. Some of the mainstream media suppressed this story, but the American President kicked off the 2019 U.N. General Assembly with a “Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom.” He actually sounded presidential when he asserted:
- “No right is more fundamental to a peaceful, prosperous, flourishing society than religious freedom, yet it is rare around the world. As we speak, many people of faith are being jailed, murdered, often at the hands of their own governments.”
Mr. Trump is scheduled to hold additional meetings with world leaders – including the President of Egypt and the Prime Minister of Pakistan – to address violations of human rights against religious minorities, including Christians. Over the past two years, the Trump Administration has indicated that religious liberty is now America’s top human rights priority. Recently, Trump launched the International Religious Freedom Alliance, the first international body devoted to advancing religious freedom.
This may be history repeating itself. In 538 B.C., fifty years after Babylonians captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and sent the Jews into exile, and two years after the Northern Kingdom of Judah fell to Babylonian invaders, a king named Cyrus united the Medes and Persians (modern day Iran) to form the Babylonian Empire.
King Cyrus was anything but a friend of religion in his demeanor and personal life. He adhered to no faith recognizable to the Jews and exhibited a personal value system that seemed deplorable to them. And yet he single-handedly restored the Kingdom of Israel, rebuilt the City of Jerusalem and the Temple, returned the Jews to the Promised Land, and then left them alone to live in peace while setting down edicts to guard their religious liberty.
What is happening now seems very much like what happened then. Kelsey Zorzi, president of the United Nations NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion, penned an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal entitled “Trump Stands Up for Religious Freedom” (Sep 24, 2019). Her conclusion was that “this president champions the issue at the U.N. more vigorously than any of his predecessors.”
Mr. Trump’s judicial appointments reflect his commitment to religious liberty and the cause of life at a time when both are under siege in our culture. His restoration of the American Embassy in Israel to the ancient spiritual city of Jerusalem was the most Cyrus-like moment of his presidency. This is not a pro-Trump defense for I do not have one. It is just a simple truth.
The American President is appealing to his base.
A PLEA FOR POPE FRANCIS
I know that I am on shaky ground here. I do not at all draw a comparison between the President and the Pope. The photograph atop this post would lead anyone to see that no such comparison is possible. I also do not suggest that our pope is primarily a politician though he must be one at times if we understand the meaning of the term. I know he is not subject to popular vote or impeachment. He is the holder of and presides over the Petrine ministry, a truth unlike anything so simple as political office.
I do not at all have the hubris to believe that I can or should instruct Pope Francis, but I do have a sort of wish list. This would still be a good time for him to appeal to his base with some form of affirmation. President Trump’s base consists of those who are of like mind with him (God help us!) but also those alarmed by the culture of death and the diminishment of traditional religious faith treated so callously by the political left but guarded so vigorously by the current president.
I find myself in that latter group. Adherence to faith and respect for life are declining dramatically. The Catholic Church is not falling or failing, but the reality is that it is well on its way to becoming much diminished. This is not a result of any scandal. There is actually much hope for our faith and the life of the Church in the modern world, even if diminished. I outlined why I have such hope in “The Once and Future Catholic Church.”
So how exactly could Pope Francis identify and appeal to his base? My knee-jerk answer might be that he could start by refraining from ensconcing pagan symbols in the Vatican. The recent affair over his gesture of reverence for the so-called “Pachamama” (Portuguese for Mother of the Earth) from the Amazon Synod is an example. Such gestures leave faithful Catholics shaken and Pope Francis seems to have no objection to shaking them.
But it also hurts them in a way that a father should not hurt his children. We all know that faith is challenged in this culture. Faithful Catholics need to be affirmed for having the courage to live their faith. Pope Francis likes to hold up the Parable of the Prodigal Son as a model for his personal ethos. The father in that parable challenges but never mocks his older son, the one who has always been steadfast and faithful, the one who never left.
The “Pachamama” affair felt more like ridicule even if that was never intended. It is an abomination that a father would mock the faith of his children. It is no mystery why someone got ahold of the controversial image and threw it into the Tiber.
The political equivalent of that might be to get ahold of the American President’s Twitter device – which seems to have taken on an aura of idolatry – and throwing it into the Potomac. I admit to having fantasies about doing just that. I suppose I would be charged with the crime of “Tweeticide,” but I could make a case for patriotic self-defense.
RATZINGER v BERGOGLIO
Writing in the November 2019 issue of First Things, Editor R.R. Reno had an interesting column on the current controversies entitled, “Church Strife Under Pope Francis.” He placed them in historical context.
- “[T]oward the end of the pontificate of John Paul II, a group primarily of Northern European cardinals, the “St Gallen Group’ met to strategize about how to elect someone to reverse the Polish pope’s agenda. They wanted a pope who held their own view that Vatican II had inaugurated a liberalizing new spring for the Church – and that this new spring had been suppressed for three decades by John Paul II and his ally, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The St Gallen cardinals settled on Jorge Bergoglio as their candidate. Support for Ratzinger was too strong in 2005. In the most recent election, however, Bergoglio won.”
The St Gallen Group took its name from St Gallen, Switzerland where the progressive cardinals’ first meetings were held. In the conclave of 2005, following the death of John Paul II, the first ballot yielded 47 votes for Cardinal Ratzinger with Bergoglio the highest runner up with ten. The progressive reformers of St Gallen conspired to raise support for Bergoglio to at least 39 votes to block Cardinal Ratzinger.
They attempted to manipulate the conclave through an alliance of European and North American “reformers” and some Latin Americans. The St Gallen cardinals managed to raise Bergoglio’s vote total to 35 with Ratzinger at 65. This meant that the future Pope Benedict could not attain the two-thirds needed for election and Bergoglio would have a stronger chance of ultimately succeeding.
But the success would be that of the St Gallen reformers and not Cardinal Bergoglio. In his book The Great Reformer: The Making of a Radical Pope, Austen Ivereigh described what happened next:
- “Bergoglio at this point pulled the plug. What happened is not described by the [conclave] diarist but another source says Bergoglio begged the other cardinals, almost in tears, to vote for Ratzinger. That afternoon, Bergoglio dropped to twenty and Ratzinger was elected with eighty-four votes.” (Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer, p 284)
Austen Ivereigh reported that Cardinal Bergoglio was so perturbed because he resented being “used” by the progressive cardinals who had misread him. Says writer, George Weigel in “The First American Pope” in National Review Online (2013):
- “Bergoglio was very much a part of the pro-Ratzinger coalition and doubtless appalled by the whole exercise… Bergoglio esteemed and liked the future Pope Benedict XVI and thought he should be pope.”
And that is the only point I wish to make. This esteem for Pope Benedict XVI – especially if there were signs that Benedict’s sense of the faith was esteemed as well – would be one dramatic way that Pope Francis could assure his base – those faithful, honorable, orthodox true believers whose faith endures every storm on the Sea of Galilee.
Signs of respect for them and the depth of their faith and loyalty to the Church have not been clear. It would not take much. Pope Francis could leave the Pachamama in the Tiber and bring clarity to his support and paternal respect for the Prodigal Son’s older brother.
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