The short and long view of the church
Writing on Religion
Bennington Banner, Oct. 2, 2010
The survey released on Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life provides strong proof that Americans aren't particularly knowledgeable about religion.
According to an article by Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll, "A new survey of Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons outperformed Protestants and Roman Catholics in answering questions about major religions, while many respondents could not correctly give the most basic tenets of their own faiths."
Some 3,412 people were asked 32 questions. These included the name of the Muslim holy book and what religion the Dalai Lama belongs to. Less than half of respondents knew that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist.
While the frequency of worship was a factor in how much people knew about religion, the survey found that the level of education was the best predictor of how well people answered the questions.
As a Catholic who unabashedly identifies with his faith despite all of the scandal and political turmoil and entanglement now enveloping the church hierarchy, I found the result that Catholics are least knowledgeable about religion disappointing but not surprising.
The survey also found that "(45) percent of Roman Catholics who participated in the study didn't know that, according to church teaching, the bread and wine used in Holy Communion is not just a symbol, but becomes the body and blood of Christ."
This is a central doctrine of the faith, and self-identified Catholics not knowing this is like a baseball fan not knowing that each team gets three outs per inning. This again is not surprising, however, as I remember a survey of Catholics almost 20 years ago that found about the same level of confusion on church doctrine about Communion.
On the political level, American ignorance about religion makes us susceptible to demagogues who for political advantage seek to whip up hysteria by misrepresenting other faiths. It has happened here in the past with Catholicism and Mormonism and is happening now with Islam.
A 15-question version of the quiz can be found at http://features.
pewforum. org/quiz/usreligious- knowledge.
The Sept. 24 issue of "Commonweal" magazine has an interesting article "Catholic Vermont," by Nicholas Clifford, who taught Chinese history for many years at Middlebury College.
It details the history of the Catholic Church in Vermont and the impact of growing secularization and the world-wide sexual abuse scandal. The Diocese of Burlington, which serves the whole state, recently sold its large headquarters near the shore of Lake Champlain to help pay for $20 million worth of claims from abuse suits in Vermont.
Clifford is not optimistic that a revival of Catholicism in Vermont is likely given current conditions. Talking about articles in the Diocese of Burlington magazine: "Only the sins of the flesh seem to count, and while there is talk of the need for evangel ization, one wonders if the language in which the good news is too often preached will be attractive and convincing to the unchurched, the young, or those driven away in disgust by the scandal."
He also wonders what the impact of the new English translations of the language of the Mass will be. I wrote about these in the March 20 Banner. The new Mass translations handed down from Rome, which will go into effect in the U.S. during Advent in 2011, are in general more wordy, inaccessible, and Latin-oriented than the version that has been used in the U.S. since 1973.
The recent elevation by the Catholic Church of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) to the status of blessed - one step short of being declared a saint - is more relevant to current times than at first apparent. An Englishman who converted while an Anglican priest to Catholicism, Newman was fully embroiled in the controversies of his time.
An article by the Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak in the same issue of "Commonweal" as the one about Catholicism in Vermont, quotes Newman in a thought that seems quite relevant today: "It is so ordered on high that in our day Holy Church should present just that aspect to my countrymen which is most consonant with their ingrained prejudices against her, most unpromising for their conversion."
Newman in many places clearly made distinctions "between the theological side of Roman teaching and its political and popular side." In our day, think of the contrast between the good news of faith, hope, love and eternal life, and the revelations of the sexual abuse scandal and members of the hierarchy all but telling Catholics how to vote.
On the other hand, Newman also wrote about what made Catholicism so attractive to many of his contemporaries: "they see in the Catholic Religion a great substance and earnest of truth; a depth, strength, coherence, elasticity, and life, a nobleness and grandeur, a power of sympathy and resource in view of the various ailments of the soul, and a suitableness to all classes and circumstances of mankind..."
In this time of turmoil and decline in the church, this is the view I choose to take. Eventually, the institutional church, scorched by scandal, decline of membership and loss of influence, will return to courageously following the Gospel. Then what matters and endures in Catholicism will rise to the surface.
Mark E. Rondeau is the religion editor of the Banner