Mike Pence and Why God Has No Grandchildren Part 2 – A Spiritual Reflection
Last week I introduced you to Sherry Weddell, co-founder of the Catherine of Siena Institute, creator of the institute’s “Called & Gifted” discernment process and the author of Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus. Sherry reflected on Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence’s comments concerning his Roman Catholic faith, how his Catholic faith is informed by his Catholic experience and how the Catherine of Siena “Institute” (and I for that matter) are working together to energize parishes like St. Monica.
Where Catholics proactively evangelize, there is real hope. A fascinating new finding is that 6% of American adults are cradle Catholics who now call themselves Protestants or “nones,” while still feeling at least partially Catholic. Pew has a term for adults who don’t think of themselves as Catholic in terms of religious practice but who do think of themselves as “partially Catholic” for other reasons: “cultural Catholics.”
While most committed cradle Catholics don’t have a mental category for “Bapti-catholic” or “half-Catholic none,” many 21st-century spiritual wanderers do. It is no accident that Mike Pence called himself an “evangelical Catholic” for years.
What is both astonishing and hopeful is that 43%, or just over 6 million, of these cradle Catholics-turned “cultural Catholics” told Pew surveyors that they were open to the possibility of returning to the faith. They either feel connected to Catholic culture or to the Church through family, or they identify with certain Catholic beliefs or practices. As evangelizers, it is essential that we remember that those who do leave often retain significant emotional, spiritual and/or cultural connections or bridges to Catholicism over which they could return with our help.
Another reason that Mike Pence’s story causes many Catholics to feel consternation has to do with the most startling finding of the 2007 U.S. “Religious Landscape Survey.” It is this: Only 60% of Catholic adults believed in a personal God, and less than half were not certain that they could have a personal relationship with God. The survey also found that 78% of Catholics who eventually left for the evangelical-Protestant world said that their spiritual needs weren’t being met. According to the survey, teens who had been raised Catholic and later become Protestant as adults experienced a huge 49% growth in the “very strong” faith category. In fact, Catholic adults-turned-Protestant measured 25% higher in “very strong” faith than those raised Catholic who had retained their Catholic identity. Catholics who become Protestant also report 21% higher church attendance. It is a terrible irony that the best guarantee of regular adult church attendance at the moment among Americans raised Catholic is to become Protestant.
I have no problem at all believing that the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” had not been part of Mike Pence’s spiritual experience before he went away to college. That’s because the language of “personal relationship” with God sounds either odd or suspiciously Protestant to many Catholics. Since my book Forming Intentional Disciples was published four years ago, I have had many conversations with Catholic leaders — bishops, seminary faculty, priests, religious and lay leaders — who told me that they were not yet disciples when they began their ministry. A disciple is someone who is intentionally seeking to follow Jesus Christ as Lord in the midst of his Church. One man, who was in full-time ministry forming clergy, told me, “Until I read your book last month, I didn’t know it was possible to have a personal relationship with God.” When I recovered from my shock, I responded, “Help me understand why you think this came about.” He said that his parents were very faithful, practicing Catholics. “We never talked about [our] relationship with God,” he told me. “I just didn’t know.”
The wonderfully hopeful news is that I have seen an extraordinary change over the past four years. Catholic leaders at all levels are beginning to seriously deal with our failure to make disciples of our own, as the last four popes have asked us to do. Pastors and leadership in hundreds of American parishes and whole dioceses are deliberately breaking the cultural silence about having a personal relationship with Christ and banding together to make intentional disciples of the already baptized in parishes, campus ministries, families and schools. Increasingly, we get it.
In the 21st-century West, God has no grandchildren. Faith is not simply inherited, but personally chosen. Therefore, cultural Catholicism by itself is dead as a retention strategy. If we forget and fall back into maintenance mode, we now have Mike Pence as a living reminder that if we don’t make disciples of our own, someone else will do it for us.