People wonder why religion is in a state of quivering crisis, why the institutions who deliver a moral and life-guiding prospectus every week are beginning to exist in a chamber of increasingly resounding echoes. A proper answer to this would require pages and pages of disquisition, and I do not have such a luxury. I do have an anecdotal pressure point, though, one that exposes the rot inside facets of the Catholic church.
I myself went to a private Catholic high school, whose online abstract laid out the religious principles that guide the institution. But, like most private religious high schools in my view, the school is beginning to reflect the generation it serves, that of a generation in religious decline. The few religion courses required and the monthly school masses I saw as small irrelevancies, almost anachronisms, in an institution whose contemporary esteem comes from its intellectual rigor and citizenry. All this may be debated and contested by the religious whirlpools of the student body, but on the whole, many would agree the prevailing wind is one of secular academics bolstered by sensible and considerate morals. These notions may, one could argue, originate in “the religious,” but, in my experience, they are taught now by simple example, as a disposition in us to be revealed, not templates and doctrines harshly practiced. Despotic wrist-slapping and groveling piety no longer head human development.
Now, my younger sister is approaching the age where she will hopefully attend this same private school. Part of her application as a seventh-grader is to get a document signed by our local parish priest, vouching that we regularly attend church and are in good religious standing.
We do not regularly attend church. We are “chreasters,” those who attend mass on Christmas and Easter, with an occasional random appearance sprinkled in. This is not an unusual truancy among families at my alma mater. It is a trend, especially as people find new and more effective ways to reflect on their lives and engage with anxieties about being in the world.
When my mother went to church to get the document signed, something everyone has come to expect compliance with, the priest refused to sign it. His indignation was not, however, bound-up with our lack of attendance or religious earnestness. His reason was something out of a history textbook, it was something that was thought to be rooted out with Martin Luther and the selling of indulgences.
The priest refused to sign my twelve-year-old sister’s attendance authentication form because he says my family does not contribute enough money to the church. He claims that since my family has enough money to send my sister and I to a private school, we can donate more to the local church. Forget about source of income, implied lack of volition, the determinism the priest played with our bank account: it’s just flat-out bad marketing. Monetary contributions as a sort of breeze card to religious approval and institutional blessing were decided long ago to be areligious and amoral. The church as money-manager is the grandest of ironies, and at this point, proposal of such a banality is foolish and laughable. It is absurd. That any religious cabinet, local, national or international, would expound such ludicrous doctrine is, supposedly, a thing of the past.
I guess, and my God is this just a guess, part of the point is that it’s not absurd to think that these ideas still live within these institutions. It’s actually part of the reason young people do not even bother. It’s the sort of transparent sleaze and disingenuousness of a television evangelist that foments such a distaste for religion in youth culture. There are other outlets of moral and spiritual enrichment that are much more appealing like philosophy or literature, or even just the introspective human being, that don’t need the moral stage-hands of the church. I really don’t know what the church needs to spur change at this point. So many years have passed, so many parishioners have been estranged.
All I know is if we keep hearing anecdotes like mine, the church is going to run itself out of business.