Last week, all the parishes in the diocese were notified that there was a protest recently at one of our parishes. The notification told us to be prepared. I have to confess that I am not prepared for protests. I might even go further and say that I might find myself sympathetic if protesters showed up here. After all, there are many things about the Catholic Church that one might find unsatisfactory. I mention this because it might provide a helpful perspective from which to understand today’s Gospel reading.
This lament by Jesus that the people “were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk. 6:34), is easy to understand. Many of the religious leaders of the time practiced a very stringent version of religion that excluded the vast majority of people. As they were ignored by the religious leadership, the people had nowhere to turn for legitimate guidance about religious and moral matters. The Gospels provide quite a bit of detail about Jesus’ dissatisfaction with the religious leaders in Jerusalem; his lament in today’s reading was yet another indictment of the self-righteousness and elitism of those religious professionals. I think, however, that it is a mistake to understand Jesus’ words as being solely about the religious leadership.
All human societies take on the personality of their leadership. This principle is visible in large corporations; the founder of a large corporation continues to exert an influence over the corporation, even after her or his retirement or death. The principle is true in families, as well. The person in any family group who is in the position of leadership shapes the structure of the family. This principle is visible in small businesses, nations, cities, and religions, as well.
During Jesus’ lifetime, the religious leaders practiced a form of religion that was exclusive and self-serving; it was unavoidable that these attitudes would trickle down to the people who observed the actions of the religious leaders. Some people during Jesus’ lifetime imitated the self-righteousness of the religious leaders and other people rejected the self-righteousness of the religious leaders. All the people, however, were like sheep without a shepherd because their choices and actions were so heavily influenced by inadequate religious leadership. Jesus’ lament was an indictment of the people just as much as an indictment of the leaders. I think the same judgment can be made about the Catholic Church today.
There are many lamentable things about the Catholic Church. One of the most notable is the ongoing decline in participation at Sunday Mass. Statistics about church attendance in the United States indicate a steady decline that dates to the period between the two world wars, if not before. The pandemic has probably accelerated this trend in the same way that it has accelerated other ongoing social trends.
There are many contributing factors to the decline in church participation among Catholics. There is, for example, a widespread cultural suspicion of all large organizations, including the Church. This suspicion is the result of social factors unrelated to church attendance; as a result, there is little that the Church can do to alter it. Some of the factors that contribute to the decline in church participation, however, can be changed; I’d like to address one of those.
For a very long time in Catholicism, there has been a widespread attitude that, for lack of a better term, I call “at least ethics.”
“At least” ethics is a combination of reductionism and consumerism. You might not use these words in your daily conversations, but you are sufficiently familiar with their meaning. Reductionism is the tendency to reduce or compromise standards of behavior in response to growing disinterest in those standards. Consumerism is the tendency to treat everything (including persons) as nothing more than commodities that exist solely to serve one’s desires. Everyone is familiar with these tendencies but, perhaps, a few examples of “at least” ethics might be better than an explanation.
There is a certain segment of the Catholic population which finds it unbearably burdensome to attend an entire Mass, from start to finish. On previous occasions, I’ve described these as the ones who leave Mass early in order to make up for having arrived late. They justify their chronic tardiness by saying to themselves, “At least I was here long enough to receive Communion.” Their logic would be inarguable if Sunday Mass existed for the purpose of satisfying their consumer desires.
If you think I’m being too judgmental, please ask yourself where you would draw the line that determines the bare minimum required to call oneself a Catholic; then, explain to me why God deserves no more than the bare minimum from God’s People.
Would you be favorably impressed by someone who proclaimed, “I’m extremely dishonest. I’m a racist. I steal from neighbors and retailers every chance I get but, at least I’m not a murderer.”? How far would you be willing to go in your approval of such behavior? If it’s justifiable to be a horrible person who hasn’t killed anyone, is it justifiable to be a murderer who has killed only once? Having approved of a single murder, where would you draw the line after that? At serial killing? Genocide? Destroying all life on the planet?
Would any sane person say to themselves, “My spouse is lazy, uncaring, uncommunicative, unreliable, and dishonest but, at least they show up to meals when they’re hungry.”?
I think that you probably now understand what I mean by “at least ethics.” It is the habit of making excuses for not doing oneself what one expects others to do without fail.
There is quite a lot of “at least ethics” practiced by Catholics. “At least ethics” is the standard justification for immoral behavior and faithlessness when one knows that one will never make a legitimate effort at reform. I have a friend who has quit smoking so many times that her husband quit counting her feigned attempts at change. In a like manner, the Catholic Church is full of people who happily commit sin while comforting themselves with the thought that, at least there is someone else in the world who’s worse than they are.
What does any of this have to do with the decline in church attendance? I say it has everything to do with the ongoing decline. If those who profess faith in God live as if God is deaf, blind, and absent-minded, then no decent person will believe that profession of faith. As long as church-goers practice “at least ethics” only the untrustworthy will be interested in church attendance.
The Catholic Church has many failings. Some of them might be worthy of protest. It is not possible for us to remediate all those failings, but it is possible for us to make meaningful, positive change.
If we want the unchurched and the half-hearted to be attracted to church attendance, then we are obliged to give a credible witness about the positive value of church attendance. Saying to oneself, “I am lazy, self-concerned, greedy, gluttonous, and untrustworthy, but at least I go to church” falls far short of being a credible example to be imitated.
You are probably familiar with the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth), but I hope you are not too familiar with their practice. It is insufficient to be able to say, “At least, I’ve avoided the seven deadly sins recently.” To say so is an insufficiently compelling witness to entice anyone to attend church. For this reason, Catholicism says that there is a necessary counterweight to the seven deadly sins. The seven cardinal virtues are not mere suggestions; they are requisites.
If you want to encourage others to return to the practice of religion, it’s not enough to avoid chronic mortal sin; it is required that you practice the virtues of humility, charity, chastity, gratitude, temperance, patience, and diligence.
Admittedly, this is a very ambitious goal; it is, in fact, so ambitious that no one can accomplish it perfectly and consistently. It is, however, a much more convincing witness to the value of religious practice than saying, “At least, I’m not as bad as a notorious criminal.”
If we want to give a credible witness about the value of religious practice, we are better off failing to reach a very lofty goal than settling for the ethics of “at least.”