Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an urgent warning about six major outbreaks of measles in the U.S. and several more major outbreaks worldwide. You can be easily forgiven if you don’t recognize the word “measles;” measles is a highly contagious viral disease that was all but eliminated world-wide by a vaccine developed in the 1960’s. The infection is making a resurgence now because decreasing numbers of parents have had their children vaccinated.
The reason for the CDC’s warning is the way in which vaccines control the spread of disease. A vaccination both protects the recipient from infection and prevents the recipient from becoming a source of contagion for others. This dual effect depends entirely on a critical percentage of the population receiving the vaccination (the critical percentage varies between 80% and 95%, depending on the virulence of the particular disease). If the percentage of vaccinated people falls below the effective level, there is the potential for an epidemic of new infections.
It is widely recognized that Church attendance is falling. Numerous causes for the on-going decline have been proposed. Some blame the reforms of Vatican II; others blame the series of clergy misconduct scandals. Statistics collected by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops indicate that none of these events are the cause of the decline in church attendance in this country. At least since the 1930’s, church attendance among Catholics in the United States has been falling at a consistent rate of about 3% annually. The decline did not accelerate after the Second Vatican Council or the clergy misconduct scandals; nor did it slow after John Paul II’s repeal of the Council’s reforms.
There is a critical percentage at which vaccines have the desired effects of preventing both individual infection and the spread of infection. I’d like to suggest that there is also a critical percentage of faithfulness at which the Church community will either grow or decline in numbers. I don’t know precisely what that percent number equals, but it is apparent from the statistics that the Church in the United States fell below that critical percentage long ago. Further, I’d like to suggest that there is an individual-cum-social effect of faith (and faithlessness) that mirrors the dual effect of a vaccine. Just as a vaccine protects an individual from infection and prevents the individual from infecting others, faith (or faithlessness) has a private effect in the lives of individuals and a social effect on the whole Church community. Believers attract new believers to the Faith; the faithless discourage others from embracing the Faith.
Unlike the case of vaccines against infectious diseases, it is not wider society that is the cause of growth or decline in the Church’s spiritual health; rather, it is the Church’s own membership that contributes either to its decline or growth. Specifically, it is the presence or absence of faith in the Church’s leadership and membership that causes participation numbers to increase or decrease.
In today’s second reading, Paul refutes the beliefs of a small but virulent group among the Church members at Corinth. Some members of the congregation had adopted the false belief that their reception of Baptism and Eucharist prevented them permanently from falling into sin and placed them irrevocably in God’s presence. Paul cites the example of the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert; he says that despite the fact that all the People were “baptized into Moses” (1 Cor 10:2) and all “ate the same spiritual food” (1 Cor. 10:3), some “were struck down in the desert.” (1 Cor 10:5) Paul demonstrates that participation in the rituals of the Covenant does not guarantee righteousness. Rather, participation in the Covenant rituals ought to serve as a warning against a faithless lifestyle. (1 Cor 10:11)
Paul’s warning to the community at Corinth ought to be a warning to us, as well. Every Sunday, throughout the United States, Catholics form a lumbering parade to Mass. They follow the crowd to receive Communion, and many follow the crowd who hurry home as soon as they’ve gotten what they came for. They attend Mass and receive Holy Communion based on the superstitious belief that uninspired participation of religious ritual suffices for righteousness. It is this faithlessness that is the cause of the on-going decline in the Church’s spiritual health.
At some point in the distant past, the Church fell below a critical percentage of baptized people who live according to the vows of their Baptism (sacred vows that Eucharist intends to renew and strengthen). The effects of this contagion of faithlessness are clearly visible. The current trend of declining Mass attendance will not be reversed until the cause of the decline is remedied. As St. Paul points out, participation in Baptism and Eucharist is no guarantee of salvation; rather, it is a promise of God’s instruction about how to grow into holiness of life.
There is an effective remedy for the Church’s ill health. Healing medicine for the soul is available in Baptism and Eucharist, but only to those who heed the warning issued by Baptism and Eucharist. All of us have been baptized in the same water and fed with the same spiritual food, but not all of us have pleased God. (1 Cor 10:2-5) Reception of Baptism and Eucharist is not a guarantee of holiness. Rather, Baptism and Eucharist mediate holiness only to those who heed God’s Word.
The comedian Woody Allen is attributed with the saying, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” This might be true in comedy or theatre, but it is not true in religion or relationships. In religious practice, showing up counts for very little; success in the life of faith is the result of showing up at church with a lifelong history of following God’s will on a daily basis.