Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.'s KC connections
Is Abe Lincoln's theology still useful in today's America?

This is how to tell complicated religion stories carefully

Roman Catholicism is in a period of transition. Yes, I know. That sentence has been true of that religious tradition since its founding. But it seems to be in a time of change more noticeable and perhaps more important for its future than in most other periods of transition, including after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

Catholicism-GreevyHaving just buried a pope emeritus, for instance, the church is beginning to see on the horizon a time when Pope Francis will vacate the position, either by resigning, as did Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, or by dying.

A new book that I haven't yet had a chance to read deals with this era of change in Catholicism in what appears to be a scholarly, careful and understandable way. Which is why I'm giving you a link to this thoughtful review of that book in the current issue of The Atlantic.

The book is Catholicism: A Global History From the French Revolution to Pope Francis, by John T. McGreevy, who is provost of -- and teaches history at -- the University of Notre Dame.

Paul Elie, who reviewed the book for The Atlantic, writes that a couple of recent episodes "point up an incongruous recent development: the Catholic Church’s assertive presence in public life even as Catholic faith and practice recede in families, schools and neighborhoods in America and across Europe."

Elie writes that on the one hand, "signs that the Church has lost vitality are abundant. Europe has seen parish closures, shrinking numbers of priests, dwindling attendance at weekly Mass and steady departures from the faith. In the U.S., more than a third of people raised Catholic 'no longer identify as such.' The clerical sexual-abuse scandals have ravaged the Church’s credibility, cost it billions of dollars and put some of its leaders under criminal investigation."

And yet. And yet. Elie adds this: "At the same time, a rich variety of evidence suggests that Catholicism isn’t on the wane; it’s just changing. In recent decades, the pope — first John Paul II, then Benedict and now Francis — has become a ubiquitous global figure, made so through jet travel, mass media and a cult of personality. The view of 'human dignity' framed in the 1930s by the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain — and enshrined in a United Nations declaration in 1948 — has become a benchmark for international law and human-rights efforts.

"Africa, once seen as 'pagan' missionary territory, is now home to a sixth of the world’s Catholics — 230 million people — and 'high birth rates and high rates of adult conversion,' McGreevy writes, 'mean that African influence within the global church will continue to grow.' In the U.S., the recent arch-Catholic remaking of the high court is likely to shape public policy for decades."

One of the points to take away from this is to remember that any oversimplification of almost any trend story is sure to be misleading. Is religion declining in the U.S.? By many measures, yes. But there is no straight-line story here, whether we're talking about Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam or any other tradition.

The, uh, devil is in the details. As are the angels.

My wife recently bought McGreevy's book (so I've held it in my hands and flipped through it briefly) to give to a good friend. But even without having read much of it, I know that the author's approach to the story of Catholicism he tells -- an approach of seeing the details, the conflicting trends, the complicated nature of the story -- is one that we should keep in mind as we are tempted to pronounce sweeping conclusions about religion (or anything else) that can't bear up under scrutiny.

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Here's another bit of good news about religion in America. Even though religious affiliation has been declining for decades and even though the Covid pandemic has hurt such affiliation further, this Atlantic magazine piece says some things are looking up on the religious front: "(R)ather than asking how many people went to church last Sunday morning, we should ask, 'Where are Americans finding meaning in their lives? How are they marking the passing of sacred time? Where are they building pockets of vibrant communities? And what are they doing to answer the prophetic call, however it is that they hear it?' There have never been more ways to answer these questions, even if fewer and fewer people are stepping into a sanctuary." It's a good read. Have a look.


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