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Converting the Average Catholic

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 28, 2008

In his outstanding book Render unto Caesar, Archbishop Charles Chaput describes the utterly miserable state of Catholic life in the United States: “By our actions, many of us witness a kind of practical atheism: paying lip service to God, but living as if he didn’t exist. Many of us don’t really believe we need a savior. In fact, we don’t see anything we need to be saved from.”

This is certainly true; it is even more true because our culture has carefully taught Catholics to appear as mainstream as possible if they want to get ahead; and, in any case, such problems are typical of the affluent, who so often substitute material acquisition for spiritual growth. But lest you think this is a new problem, consider the telling quotation Archbishop Chaput has found from Fr. John Hugo, a retreat master writing in 1947:

…even in the case of those who are wholly faithful to the external obligations of religion, there is often little evidence, aside from their devotions, that they are living Christian lives. Large areas of their lives are wholly unilluminated by their faith. Their ideas, their attitudes, their views on current affairs, their pleasure and recreations, their tastes in reading and entertainment, their love of luxury, comfort and bodily ease, their devotion to success, their desire of money, their social snobbishness, racial consciousness, nationalistic narrowness and prejudice, their bourgeois complacency and contempt of the poor: In all these things they are indistinguishable from the huge sickly mass of paganism which surrounds them.

Few people would deny, I think, that the average self-described American Catholic continues to be largely indistinguishable from his non-Catholic and even pagan neighbors. Statistics on both the public and private behavior of Catholics as a group—voting patterns, divorce, abortion, contraception—amply bear this out. Worse still, to some degree, this problem has always existed. Apparently it does not take much superficial comfort to dissuade the human person from thinking hard about moral and spiritual realities. Whenever we’re too comfortable or can otherwise distract ourselves, it becomes easy to imagine that everything is just fine. Even sin doesn’t seem particularly problematic. Why stir up trouble?

So the average American Catholic is far too content with his mediocre life. And that’s also true of the average European Catholic, the average Asian Catholic, the average Latin American Catholic, the average African Catholic, and every other average Catholic. This problem is endemic to human nature, and there is not a single thing we can do about it. For it is utterly impossible to reach the “average Catholic” anywhere or at any time. The average Catholic is well on his way to Hell in a hand basket. It is beyond difficult to formulate a strategy to head him off at the pass. It is impossible.

On the other hand, there is no sense despairing over our inability to convert a fiction. For the average Catholic does not exist. We may cheerfully abandon the average Catholic to his equally non-existent average fate and instead take a hard look at the spiritual impact of our words, actions, habits and lives on the few real and unique Catholics (and others) whom God has placed us in a position to influence. I don’t say that this will make us more comfortable. Personally, I much prefer excusing myself (with unassailable logic) for my inability to do anything whatsoever about the “average Catholic”. But a proper focus on real persons makes one huge difference: Even if we feel worse, there is something we can do about it.

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