After years of crisis, Catholics must reclaim identity, says Catholic publisher

The first crisis of contemporary Catholicism is not sex-abuse scandals or voting blocs, “but a fundamental loss of Catholic identity,” said Greg Erlandson, publisher of the national Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor. His talk Oct. 5 on the challenge of being American and Catholic was part of the Archdiocese of Denver’s fall lecture series.

“The intellectual muddle that has led us to this state of affairs is why I view the current crisis as an opportunity,” said Erlandson, referring to the controversy surrounding the personal beliefs and public advocacy position for abortion of presidential candidate Senator John Kerry.

Erlandson demonstrated the extent of the “muddle” when he cited a recent Pew poll, which reported that 72 percent of Catholics disagree that bishops should deny Communion to Catholic pro-abortion politicians, 75 percent do not consider same-sex marriage to be very important, and 55 percent support embryonic stem-cell research.

“It should come as little surprise then, that pollster John Zogby reported earlier this year that there was no longer a significant Catholic vote,” the Catholic publisher said.

“The issue of who will win the White House or be elected to any legislative office is less important for the Church than whether it will address the confusion that now exists about being Catholic and American,” he said.

“And if this moment is seized – not to make a political point or to press a legislative agenda, but to recall our Church from its crisis of identity and belief – then it will have been a watershed moment,” he stated.

Erlandson explained that the Catholic identity crisis began in the 1960s with Catholics’ large-scale assimilation into American culture. “The Catholic ghetto blew up,” he said, with “the clash of secular and religious cultures over such issues as human sexuality, feminism, theological speculation and the significance for traditional religious beliefs of a century's worth of scientific discoveries and theories.”

In addition, many Catholics misunderstood the documents and conclusions of the Second Vatican Council, which were published at the same time, interpreting them to mean that Catholics “could pretty much do what they want to do, so long as they think it's OK to do it,” said Erlandson.

And Catholic assimilation continues today, Erlandson added. Inundated by the culture’s values in American music and media, “Catholics draw most of their information even about the Church not from self-consciously Catholic sources, but from secular ones,” he noted.

Erlandson observed the shrinking role that Catholic media plays in the continuing education of America's Catholics, and pointed out that currently Our Sunday Visitor and the National Catholic Register have a circulation of barely 100,000 households combined.

“Is it, then, any wonder, that when it comes to the most dramatic issues of the day – abortion, same-sex unions, embryonic stem-cell research, the death penalty, the clergy sex crisis, war, aid to the poor – Catholics are more likely to judge the Church by the world's values than vice versa? And can it be a surprise that many Catholics are more at ease following Evangelium Oprah than Evangelium Vitae?” he asked.

He called on Catholics to change the way they relate to and interact with the world and “to see the world through the eyes of faith.” He also called on them to re-establish the centrality of the Eucharist in their every day lives.

If “Americans are to live their faith fully in the public square, then they must understand and embrace the centrality of their faith [the Eucharist] and live it every day, not just paying lip service to it on Sundays, or treating its liturgy and tenets like so much ethnic nostalgia,” he said.

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