When I was working as a chaplain at a Catholic high school, the parents of a ninth-grade boy made an appointment to see me. Jimmy was a bright, good-looking and popular student from a respectable Presbyterian family. Mother and father turned up on time, neatly dressed, and well-mannered. After some small talk, Jimmy’s mother expressed her concerns.
“Father, we’re very concerned about Jimmy…” She looks to husband here for moral support. “We’re worried. Aren’t we, dear?”
Husband nods dutifully.
“I see. What seems to be the problem?” I ask.
“We’re concerned about his spiritual life and think you may be able to help. Jimmy likes you and might listen to you.”
“Okay. I’ll do what I can. Can you tell me a bit more?”
“Jimmy has announced that he is not going to go to church anymore.” Mother begins to sniffle.
“You’re Presbyterians, correct?”
“That’s right, Father.”
“Does he say why he doesn’t want to go to church?”
Dad speaks up, “He says he can read the Bible and pray just as well at home in his room.”
“I see.” I’m thinking for a moment, and then I reply, “Well, Jimmy’s right, isn’t he?”
This is not the reply Mother wants. Father suddenly sits forward and is interested.
“What do you mean Father?” says Mother, quite flustered.
“What I mean to say is that Jimmy is right. He can sit at home just as well and read the Bible and pray. Let me ask you a question. Does your Church teach that you must attend church to get to heaven?”
“Well, no, not exactly,” hesitates Mother.
“I was brought up in your kind of religion, and as I remember it all you needed to do was get saved, right? You don’t have to go to church.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s right. But Jimmy really ought to come with us to church, shouldn’t he?”
“Don’t get me wrong. I do think it would be better for Jimmy to go to church than not go to church. But he’s a smart kid, and I think he has figured something out which is true. We Catholics have a different take on it. Would you like to hear about that?”
Now Father is really interested, and Mother sits back somewhat alarmed. Dad says, “Yes. What’s your take on it?”
“We say a Catholic has to go to church every Sunday because he or she is supposed to accept the Lord Jesus by participating in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and you can’t do that at home on your own. You need a priest. In John, chapter six, Jesus says, ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you do not have life within you.’ So to get to heaven you have to go to church. That’s why Catholics have a rule that you have to go.”
Dad leans forward, “That’s really interesting, Father. I’d like to know more!”
At this point, Mother terminates the conversation thanking me politely for my help, and if I remember correctly Jimmy was withdrawn from the school soon after.
I tell that story because there have been a good number of articles circulating about the post-Covid-19 Church. Most writers have predicted that many of the Christians—both Catholic and Protestant alike—who have got out of the habit of church-going are unlikely to return. I think they’re right about that. Covid-19 will have single-handedly brought about the leaner, smaller, more committed Church that Cardinal Ratzinger predicted some decades ago.
While I think this prediction is accurate, what many commentators have missed is the reason why it is accurate. Many Christians—both Catholic and Protestant—will have asked themselves the same question ninth-grade Jimmy asked and come up with the same answer. “Church? Why bother?”
The monster under the bed here is moralistic, therapeutic Deism. Across America for the last fifty or sixty years, Christian leaders have very quietly substituted a placebo religion for the vital, supernatural, revealed religion that is authentic Christianity. As others have observed, this counterfeit Christianity is all about rules for respectability, a bland moral code, and making the world a better place. It’s doubled with pragmatic advice on spirituality, relationships, and life, and all of it is backed with a vague belief in a benign sugar daddy in the sky who will make everything nice one day.
Because twenty-first-century Christianity has been reduced to this cotton candy, a multitude of ninth-grade Jimmys have concluded that you don’t have to go to church for that sort of religion. You can learn about being nice and respectable at the country club. You can make the world a better place if you feel inclined by volunteering at the soup kitchen, and you can feel spiritual about the great Spirit in the Sky by perhaps lighting a scented candle or watching a beautiful sunrise. Why get up early on a Sunday to drag yourself off to a dreary auditorium to sing religious Joan Baez songs or ersatz Broadway music about Jesus, and then listen to a mediocre pep talk by a fat, aging pastor?
I’m on Jimmy’s side.
Lurking behind the possible (and perhaps inevitable) post-Covid-19 crash in church attendance is a disastrous loss of faith. This is not simply a case of individuals losing their faith, but a whole Christian Church and Christian nation losing their faith by falling for a sentimental substitute—a rationalistic pablum of bromides, which is not only not Christianity, it’s not even a religion.
Religion at all times, and in all places, and for all people everywhere down through history, in whatever form it has taken, has been about mankind’s encounter with the divine. Whether it was Aztecs decapitating their victims or Buddhist monks meditating on a holy mountain, or whether it was a Jehovah’s Witness witnessing or an Amazonian smudging for Pachamama, religion was about our meeting with the other side. America will stop going to church because what they have been given is no longer religion, and people don’t like being sold a bill of goods. They don’t go to a steakhouse for a veggie burger.
The most distressing thing about this very bad news is my personal impression that the vast majority of American Catholics have also come to believe in this bogus version of Christianity. From the church life I have observed among Catholics—from the lamentable level of catechesis to the thick-headed modernism amongst clergy and academics—this same moralistic, therapeutic Deism has spread like a noxious cancer throughout the Church. It would be interesting to ask American Catholics why exactly they should go to church. How many would say, “Because only there can I receive the saving body and blood of my Lord Jesus Christ?”
What will survive of this debacle? I am convinced that Catholicism in the second half of the twenty-first century will be mystical, mythological, and miraculous, or it will be nothing at all. What will survive is authentic religion. Traditional worship will survive, but not because the priest wears a fiddleback chasuble and holds his hands just so, or the ladies wear veils to church. It will survive because traditionalists believe in the mystical, the mythological, and the miraculous. Charismatic religion from Africa and Asia will survive, too, but not because they sing in tongues, dance to the jungle drum, and have long sermons. It will survive because they believe in the mystical, the mythological, and the miraculous.
What will die out? Jimmy’s mother’s Church, with its bland respectability and self-righteous message of social justice. That’s the form of Christianity—both Catholic and Protestant—which is at the end of its lifespan. May it rest in peace.
[Photo credit: Getty Images]