The most important day of secular America’s calendar is fast approaching. I’m talking of course about Super Bowl Sunday—the highest holy day of our land. As a native of Cincinnati whose father had season tickets to Cincinnati Bengals games in the 1980’s, I’ve been more attuned to this year’s Super Bowl (featuring my hometown Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams) than most years.
For those unaware, the Bengals have been a dismal franchise over the past three decades. Yet even this historically awful team has its devoted followers, fans who attend the games week in and week out, in spite of the team’s mounting losses. After the team made the Super Bowl last week, I saw many images of grown men weeping, not over their sins, but because some guys wearing their favorite uniform won a game.
Most religious leaders would do anything to get followers this dedicated. For many people football has become a way of life, an identity in which one finds comfort and fulfillment. Attend any NFL game or enter a team’s subreddit and you’ll see what I mean.
Football isn’t the only cultural touchstone that attracts devoted followers. TV shows, other sports, hobbies, and political movements all spawn communities of passionate devotees obsessing over the details of their cause. Although this has been true for decades, the internet has accelerated the trend, allowing followers of even the most obscure interests to come together in Reddit groups, forums, and chat rooms. Someone in the 1980’s who loved 19th century English fashion might have felt all alone, but now she can unite with others to discuss and debate their common obsession endlessly.
It’s not that being a football fan or passionate about a hobby is immoral, but the zeal with which many embrace their recreational interests is disordered, replacing what should be the role of religion in their lives. Since 2000, when the internet really started becoming ubiquitous, religion (including Catholicism) has seen a dramatic drop in membership. I don’t think this is a coincidence.
People have an innate need for purpose and for community. Historically, religion was perfect at fulfilling those needs—which makes sense, since God made man to desire religion. It gave a clear purpose in life: usually some form of “follow the teachings of this religion and you will spend eternity in heaven.” It also provided a community—members who gathered together at least once a week, supported one another, and worked together for the cause of the church.
Sadly, in the Western world most religions have abandoned these functions. Consider the average American Catholic parish. It does little to incite passion in its members for its purpose. In fact, it so studiously avoids controversy or offending anyone that the message of the parish is essentially, “Be nice.” Such a message is not unifying; it engenders no community. To “be nice” doesn’t require showing up for religious services once a week, after all.
Contrast that with the community found rooting for a particular football team. Members find purpose in life by attaching themselves to the success of the team. They often make significant sacrifices in time and money to participate, and become life-long friends with others in the community. Fans often believe they have a direct role in the success or failure of the team (that they’re the “12th man”). They have passionate debates about which players are the best and why. Because they don’t have true religion in their lives, being part of this community gives them a replacement that seems like the real thing.
A few years ago I saw the stark contrast between parish life and other modern causes in the form of dueling posters. My daughter was playing in a softball tournament out of town, and I noticed a poster advertising a new girls travel team. It spoke of the intense commitment needed to be part of the team, as well as the talent needed to make the roster. But it promised rewards (in improving skills, winning games) for those who stuck with the commitment.
The next day we attended a parish nearby. On the bulletin board was a poster seeking altar servers. It emphasized that little commitment was needed, it was easy to learn, and anyone could do it.
Which do you think is more attractive to young people? The one promising camaraderie through the sacrifice of achieving a shared goal, or the one that clearly didn’t think its existence was very important?
This is a microcosm of the failure of religion in the 21st century. While moderns have a multitude of causes and interests to attract them, religion has been characterized as no big deal, as an add-on that one can take or leave.
How should Catholic parishes respond? I think they should look to why these groups attract such passionate followers. In fact, there is an example of this within the Catholic Church already: the traditional Latin Mass communities. While I don’t want to discount the real theological and liturgical reasons people are attracted to TLM parishes, it’s true that they also fulfill the real need for a clear and unifying purpose to gather around. TLM-goers recognize the seriousness with which the Faith is taken in these communities, a seriousness often sadly lacking in many regular Catholic parishes.
This clear unifying purpose also has a flip side: it’s exclusionary by its very nature. Anyone who is not supportive of the mission is outside the group, not part of the community. When two Bengals fans get together, they have a shared interest that separates them from the rest of the outside world. This increases their sense of belonging and commitment to the community. This is likewise true in TLM communities.
Many Catholics today might argue that this exclusionary nature contradicts the “All are welcome” message Catholic parishes should exude. That’s true, but that’s okay.
Although it’s ignored by many Church leaders today, being exclusionary has been part of Catholicism since the beginning. Our Lord spoke of the separation of the sheep and the goats (cf. Matthew 25:31-46), and Catholics have always understood Baptism to be a leaving of an old world to join a new one. You become part of a family, and that also means that all those who are not baptized are not part of that family.
But doesn’t “Catholic” mean “universal?” Yes, but that’s because everyone is invited to become part of God’s family; however, everyone is also free to reject being part of that family, free to be outside, to be excluded from the rewards (and commitments) of that family.
Catholic parishes, in other words, need to be distinctive. They need to separate themselves from the crowded marketplace by being clear about their mission—and by being clear about the demands of following that mission. Instead of preaching, “Be nice,” parishes need to preach, “Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15) and “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12).
Fortunately for parishes, Catholicism offers something no other group or interest can: the words of eternal life (cf. John 6:68). If people are willing to make great sacrifices for and find fulfillment in a football team or other earthly concern, then surely many will make even greater sacrifices and find deeper fulfillment in the One True Religion, if only it isn’t hidden under a bushel basket.
Yes, I want the Bengals to win this Sunday, but more importantly, I want the reign of Christ the King to be victorious in the world.
[Photo Credit: George Rose/Getty Images]