By Robert Capehert
SHORTLY after the election of Pope Francis I, American journalists offered non-religious advice to a religious institution about it’s cultural appurtenant.
Ironic, considering the newspaper business, comprising American journalism, is wilted on the vine; yet believes it has something to say about the relevancy of filling church membership dockets.
Michael Barone, a non-Catholic, wrote a National Review Online column worth attention,
The Catholic Church, the journalists said, should open up the priesthood to women and allow priests to marry. It should abandon its ban on contraception and endorse same-sex marriage. It should stop being so dogmatic about its dogmas.
As a non-Catholic, I wouldn’t presume to offer any advice.
The Church has managed to exist for nearly 2,000 years without my counsel. But I do have some observations. The journalists’ advice is based on the premise that the Church will lose members if it continues to adhere to what these journalists think are outmoded rules. And it risks antagonising moderates who may admire its ritual and share some of its beliefs but want it to be more in line with contemporary thinking.
Barone concluded with a worthy history lesson,
In the religious sphere, however, history soundly refutes the idea that watering down your beliefs strengthens your appeal and attracts new converts. Sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark tell the story in their book The Churching of America, 1776–1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy.
As they note, Americans inherited a free market in religion from our colonial beginnings. The religious settlement following Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 maintained an established church, funded by taxpayers, but allowed for free religious practice by other Protestants and by Catholics and Jews as well. The religious marketplace was especially free in the North American colonies, whose founders included Anglicans, Calvinist Puritans, Roman Catholics, and Dutch Reformers.
The Founding Fathers took note of this diversity. In the Constitution, they specified that there be no religious test for public office. In the Bill of Rights, they barred Congress from passing any law regarding an establishment of religion. Note that they didn’t bar states from having taxpayer-funded established churches. Massachusetts had one until 1833.
But churches and clergymen (and clergywomen) were free to compete for Americans’ allegiance. And they did so vigorously, with interesting results. One is that church membership rose enormously, from surprisingly low levels in the colonial period. Another is the rapid rise of new denominations. In the 19th century, Methodists and Baptists — Finke and Stark call them “the upstart Protestants” — outnumbered previously more numerous Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians.
The Catholic Church grew not only thanks to Catholic immigrants but also by making converts. Black Americans formed their own churches, which have thrived to this day. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Assemblies of God, both American creations, have attracted millions of followers here and around the world.
The 20th century saw the rise of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Recent decades have seen huge rises in membership among such churches and continuing decline in the rolls of mainline Protestant denominations. Surveying this history, Finke and Stark conclude “religious organizations can thrive only to the extent that they have a theology that can comfort souls and motivate sacrifice.”
Churches that make strong demands, in doctrine and in service, tend to grow. Churches that water down doctrine tend to decline.
Not much more can be said—or needs to be.
If someone is looking for another reason to dismiss the mainstream press, Barone’s erudite analysis helps. But it should be obvious.
Religious institutions thrive when they are religious—true or false. Anyone surprised?
Demand of religion to lose its religious character in order to be relevant (relevant as defined by the media) is an audacious and crude characteristic of American journalism. Not much wisdom comes from the mainstream media.
They are more—or less, a full commode slopping over.
Could it be Rome’s membership problems amount to a need for the Roman Catholic Church to be more Biblical—thus even more counter-cultural where theological dogma warrants? Given the Roman Catholic Church’s dogmatic teachings, it might have served the media to remember the health and relevancy of the Church is not based upon men.
But of God.
Furthermore, the idiota of the mainstream press should drive religious conservatives in America to greater appreciation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment—the decoupling of the state from the church.
Religious conservatives in America often decry the separation of church and state. But the election of Pope Francis I and attendant media frenzy over Rome’s moral dogmas should enlighten all religious peoples.
Be it said: the American conception of a separation of Church and state is not a non-believing giveaway—but a protection to the Church of Jesus Christ in which relevancy cannot be measured by the whim of men and women—or cultural considerations.
Do Christian saints really want a bunch of non-religious folks deciding religious matters?