"For many decades, the Church had a strong influence over U.S. culture," said Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston, describing a "Catholic ghetto" that included its own schools, sports leagues, unions, health systems and newspapers.
However, due to assimilation, the "glue" that bound people to the Church became weak, he continued. Today, it is easy to leave the Church, and people do so for a wide variety of reasons.
The result has been a movement "from cultural Catholicism to intentional Catholicism." When being Catholic is no longer supported by the culture, it requires a conscious decision to remain in the Church, and those who do so are strengthened in their faith, he said.
Now, the cardinal said, the Church must help those Catholics become "missionary disciples" in order to evangelize those who have fallen away.
Cardinal O'Malley spoke Nov. 18 at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City during a conference entitled "Our Lady of Guadalupe, Star of the New Evangelization on the American Continent."
Sponsored by the basilica, the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, the Knights of Columbus, and the Higher Institute of Guadalupan Studies, the four-day conference drew bishops, priests, religious and lay leaders from across the Americas to consider the role and mission of the Church throughout the region, giving particular attention to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
"The transition from a strong cultural Catholicism to an intentional Catholicism urgently requires a new type of evangelization and a new apologetics that will respond to the questions that people have," Cardinal O'Malley said. "To continue to do things as we have in the past simply no longer works."
While the Church in the U.S. was very strong in the past, it was also very clerical, he observed. But now, it must work with, and rely on, the laity.
In addition, the Church should make renewed efforts at ecumenical and inter-religious outreach, he said. The polarity between Catholics and Protestants has been replaced by polarity between believers and non-believers, as the secular culture becomes increasingly hostile to our values, and we find new opportunities to engage members of other faiths.
He referenced the recent fight against physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts, in which he asked assistance from his evangelical, Muslim, and Mormon brothers and sisters, something that would never have happened decades ago.
The cardinal also discussed the tragedy of sexual abuse in the U.S., as well as lessons that the Church has learned and new strategies to emphasize the priority of protecting children.
He spoke of the need to "rescue marriage," a task he described as "an enormous challenge" due to cultural factors that have weakened the institution, including divorce, premarital sex and a push to redefine marriage.
Furthermore, the Church in the U.S. should work with Churches in Latin America on immigration issues, recognizing that "most Catholics in the U.S. will soon be Hispanic."
Cardinal José Robles Ortega, Archbishop of Guadalajara, also commented on the intersection of faith and culture, explaining that faith must create a culture in order to be complete.
When complex changes come to a society, the Church must find new ways to create culture.
It is the task of the Church to interpret the current atmosphere and the profound changes that have transformed society, leaving fragmentation in their wake, he said.
In the past, intergenerational solidarity has been one of the most important vehicles in transmitting the faith, he said. Now, however, the relationships between generations are often not as strong.
Modernity brings with it a distrust of institutions and standards, as well as a lack of shared values, and this must be addressed by the evangelists of today, the cardinal said.
Another challenge in transmitting the faith is the fact that many young people have a new sense of religiosity that explores, moving from one religion to another, with a consumer attitude seeking personal satisfaction. This is often coupled with new age ideas and an emphasis on aesthetics.
However, this attempt to "order religion off a menu" lacks a personal encounter with God, he said, charging catechists to "embrace all that is human, with the exception of sin, to be able to impress on the youth the importance of Christ, the faith as it is lived and experienced."
Cardinal Robles also warned against the common pitfalls of viewing religion as simply a moral code or set of cultural traditions.
We must recover religion as a movement towards an encounter with Christ, he said, noting that we are not following a teacher or “miracle worker from the past,” but a living person whom we can encounter.
If faith is reduced to merely ethical values, it loses its attractiveness, he added. Before we can focus on moral teaching, we must first announce the tenderness and compassion of the risen Christ.
This does not mean morals are irrelevant, he clarified. Rather, they are a manifestation of our new life in Christ.
We must begin with the experience of mercy, allowing Christ to transform us, and then we can use our freedom to align our lives with God's plan, the cardinal explained.
Similarly, when is faith reduced to mere customs or cultural practices, "its vitality is soon lost amongst the people of our era," he said, stressing the importance of encountering Christ.
“Jesus Christ is a person, not a concept.”
Prominent Church leaders from the Americas encouraged the faithful to consider the intersection of faith and culture, so as to respond to radical and fundamental changes in society.
Cardinal O'Malley, Cardinal Robles