Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

Disintegrating Worldviews and the Future of Catholic Education: Addressing the Deep Roots of Catholic Disaffiliation

Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

Disintegrating Worldviews and the Future of Catholic Education: Addressing the Deep Roots of Catholic Disaffiliation

Article excerpt

Thomas was the brightest student in the freshman Confirmation class I taught several years ago. His knowledge of Catholic teaching exceeded that of all his peers, yet he found these teachings incommensurate with the world as he experienced it. He understood well the Catholic belief that the world was created by a loving, omniscient, omnipotent God. However, Thomas could not reconcile these beliefs with scientific accounts of an evolving universe or the endless reports of natural disasters and human-initiated violence around the world. Faced with these seemingly contradictory visions of reality, he found himself unable to affirm the Christian account and the vision of discipleship that follows from it. Thomas honored his promise to his mother to complete the two-year Confirmation program, but immediately thereafter he stopped attending parish functions and declined to receive the sacrament.

Thomas's experience would have been virtually unfathomable in ages past, but it is common in our own. The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging members. Nearly 13% of all Americans describe themselves as "former Catholics" (Pew, 2015a). Catholic schools have seen a net loss of 3.3 million students since peak enrollment in the 1960s (NCEA, 2016). These declining numbers have resulted in the shuttering of nearly 20% of the nation's Catholic schools in the past decade (NCEA, 2016). It is evident that Catholic schools and the American Church as a whole are facing a major problem. However, it is hard to identify with precision what the cause or causes may be. According to the Pew Forum (2011), large-scale Catholic disaffiliation cannot be attributed primarily to discontent with Church teachings, clergy sex abuse scandals, or the society-wide liberalization of traditional values.

Why, then, do these former Catholics say they left? Most (71%) of these now unaffiliated former Catholics--and, in fact, most Christians of any denomination--say they "just gradually drifted away" (Pew, 2011, p. 6). Catholic educators seeking solutions to enrollment woes will no doubt find this answer unsatisfying. However, if so many disaffected Catholics are unable to articulate more precisely the factors that eroded their attachment to the Church, that is perhaps because the forces precipitating their disaffiliation are not confined to their personal life experiences but rather span several centuries and continents. Such is the argument of renowned Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, which I examine below. Taylor (2007) and others (e.g., Greeley, 1985, 1989) give us reason to believe that Catholic drift is one consequence of a gradual shift in the way that many Christians (in the Western world especially) view reality. Like a sink hole gradually, imperceptibly widening beneath a house until it suddenly swallows it whole, a vacuum has been silently expanding in Christians' imaginations for centuries, the devastating consequences of which are only just now coming to light.

Why should Catholic educators who have their hands full with enrollment problems, curriculum mapping, and ever more rigorous standards of professional development care about issues as seemingly abstract as changes in the ways people imagine reality? Because Catholic schools purport not only to provide an excellent education but also to initiate students into the fullness of Christian life (USCCB, 2005), the cultural and psychological factors influencing how people view and live their lives are of vital concern for Catholic educators. The work of shaping Christian imaginations and identities bears upon every aspect of the operations of Catholic schools--the school culture that promotes holistic integration of faith in students' lives, the faculty who provide flesh-and-blood models of what it means to be a Christian disciple, the curriculum that challenges students to cultivate the mental habits required to consciously maintain a Christian worldview in the face of an unrelenting media and marketing blitzkrieg. …

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