As Hispanics Depart: Does Catholicism Ask Too Little of Us?
It is striking to consider that while some in the church are suggesting that we need to require less of people, we are losing members to religions that are perceived to require “more” of them — particularly as pertains to prayer and fasting, and even to what people wear. Hispanic women assert that the head coverings or “temple garments” they wear in obedience tend to give them a sense of “self-respect” that impacts how they behave, and how others regard them.
Perhaps it also gives a sense a sense of belonging to something “other” — something greater than themselves, and forthrightly outside of the prevailing culture.
“When people see you with the hijab, they respect you first. Second, it’s the emotion you feel because you are different. You believe in something. It’s amazing.”
Submitting to disciplines, particularly when their theological values are made clear, is something people actually want to do. Why? Because it helps define us to ourselves and to others; religious discipline helps bring meaning and stability to our lives amid a society that is always capricious and trendy.
The defined parameters of religious disciplines are paradoxical avenues to freedom. As long as one is following the disciplined way — the way of the disciple — one is assured of being on the right track, and is therefore free to fully give oneself over to the pursuit of wholeness.
The aspects of discipline which bring delight to these converts are interesting. There is, first, the obligation to pray, every day. The Muslim converts like bringing their bodies and minds into conformity to a schedule of prayer — five times a day — that breaks into “the world of 10,000 things” and reclaims their focus God-ward. Did any of these converts practice praying the Hours as Catholics? None of them mention having done so. Very likely they were not even aware that the Liturgy of the Hours exists, or that it is prayer open to lay people.
Had they known of the Hours, though, I wonder if they would participated? Except among clergy and vowed religious there is no obligation to pray them, and obligation is, again and again, mentioned as attractive to these Hispanic converts and others.
This seems strange, given that Catholics are obligated to attend Mass every Sunday and on certain Holy Days, and yet only about 30% of them do so regularly. Hispanic participation at Mass his higher than the average, but their church involvement outside of mass is negligible.
Most of the Hispanics Catholics quoted in these articles were not regular participants at Mass, and those who were had no solid sense of why, and to what purpose:
We would go and, you know, they would never explain to us, you know, why we have to go to church. They would never explain to us – they would just say, you know, you just have to do it because our grandparents told us to do it. You know, they told us like a generation thing that they had. So okay, but I never had a purpose of, like, okay, why am I kneeling, you know? Or why am I putting my hands together? Why am I exalting the image that I have in front of me?
When people are obligated to do something without getting a sense of what it’s about, they don’t do it; they will stop doing it, or search for meaning elsewhere, particularly if involvement in a parish community is also lacking.
It’s about community and unity, you know. Everywhere we go we carry this strong passion. . .
Muslims and Mormons have particular times of obligatory fasting which they take very seriously. I once spoke with a Muslim who marveled at Catholic “fasting” on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, — one average meal and two smaller ones, with dispensations for age and health considerations — which she thought of as almost comical compared to the all-in fasts of Ramadan, where not even a glass of water is permitted from sunup to sundown.
We Catholics barely discuss our fasting, and we make it as easy as we can — “nothing harsh or burdensome” — and yet Muslim converts seem awestruck by the difficulty of the fast, and humbled to be able to participate it in it as they grow in awareness of their smallness, and in identification with the less fortunate.
The first day was so difficult. It was probably one of the hardest things that I did. It really hit home why fasting is prescribed: So that you can feel empathy for those who don’t have, and also to be closer — I felt — I never felt so spiritually close to God in my life.
Obligations to prayer and fasting; instructions on appropriate dress, and even to ablutions and food preparation. People seem to want it.
I like something that I do every day. I like something that has a physical component to it. It’s physical and spiritual at the same time; one bows physically, and you bow internally as well. The prayer requires that I stop so many times a day for a couple of minutes and really check out of my daily, temporal existence, just long enough to remember that there is an element to life which is closer to the absolute, which is closer to a spiritual element in life.
Perhaps our society is so free that people find themselves with too many choices — so many that they are overwhelmed, distracted and unable to connect to anything.
There is a scene in the film Moscow on the Hudson, where the Russian immigrant protagonist goes to the market to buy coffee and becomes unnerved by the size of the selection; it’s too much. All of those choices before him make him anxious; the anxiety begins to suffocate him, until he passes out.
He just wanted coffee; he was confronted with a galaxy of it — a vast universe of caffeinated, decaf, French-roasted, hickory-imbued, instant, whole-bean, fine-grind…to infinity and beyond!
Perhaps something like that — the sense of being untethered amid the universe of limitless choices to which we are constantly exposed — is behind people seeking out religions that will just spell it out for them. We want to be happy; we want to be at peace. We want to know God. How do we do this in a crazy world telling us to be this, buy that, eat here, look-like-her, slouch-like-him, tattoo-you, vacation there, don’t-miss-this-next-big-thing?
“It defines their world on a clear grid of what’s permitted or ‘halal,’ and what’s prohibited which is ‘haram’. So they know exactly where they stand. So the Qur’an becomes this guidebook that tells you exactly what to wear, what to eat, how to wash, how to behave, when to pray.”
That’s very different from what has become a Catholic mindset of knowing God on our own terms, while submitting to as few hard-and-fast rules and disciplines as we can, and seeking “mercy” reprieves from those that we find difficult or outside of our comfort zone.
One of the reasons so many were repelled by Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to change the “discipline” attached to our doctrine on marriage and divorce (a change that seems to find annulment reform oddly irrelevant to the question) is because his proposed changes would essentially grind down the doctrine, itself; it would bring us a doctrine with no teeth, and a mushy discipline, suitable for a sickly church nearing its end.
So, what are the failings of Catholicism, here? Why are Latino men and women moving toward Mormonism and Islam, and away from the church?
“As a Latina, you are raised, if you got it, to show it, to flaunt it as much as possible,” says Ismail, 44, raised in a Puerto Rican Catholic family. Now she shows very little of her skin. Instead she wears the hijab, the Islamic veil or headscarf.
This is not true only of the Latino culture. One need only go to Mass in the summer, or to a Catholic wedding, to get an eyeful of how conformed Catholics have become to the culture of the curve. Both Islam and Mormonism are “patriarchal” and yet both make specific direction to rights and respect for women. In these articles, many women speak of feeling respected and also “safe” because the men have their roles; the women have theirs and they tend to see complementarity within them and accept it, in ways that Catholic women of the West can not or will not.
“There are a lot of injustices, and when I started learning about Islam and the rights of women it definitely helped me liberate and, of course, caused chaos in my house,” she said in an interview at the Islamic Center of N.Y.U. in Manhattan. She was dressed in a long royal blue skirt and a black blouse, her face and neck veiled by a niqab, which covers everything but her eyes. Her family in Chicago doesn’t know yet she covers her face.[...] Eventually, she decided to look closer, even though she wasn’t thinking about leaving her Catholic faith…In particular, the rights of women in Islam caught her attention. S.A. says she was surprised to find out that men are asked to help women in the daily household chores. She was also pleased to learn that she had no obligation to share her salary with her father or any other male relative as mentioned in Islam.
This speaks directly to a cultural understanding within some Hispanic communities, but how sad is it that Catholicism has apparently not made it sufficiently clear to woman that they are free-in-Christ and not slaves to men? Why does the church do such a poor job of mentioning how consistently the Church has given women their own heads and encouraged their ‘self-actualization in Christ’, right from its beginnings? Beyond all of this, there is the strange reality that neither Mormons or Muslims in the West have to take guff from their own co-religionists. The ideological in-fighting so rampant among Western Catholics as to almost overshadow its teachings is not a featured component of Mormonism or Islam, and some may find that attractive, particularly those who are sick of ducking the sniping when all they want is to worship God without having to endure sneers for wearing pants or, conversely, for wearing a chapel veil. While we are going full culture-warrior on each other, these religions are quietly attracting our members. There is much to ponder in all of this. Does Catholicism ask too little of its people, or does it simply do a very poor job of teaching all the ways in which deeper participation in prayer, fasting, devotions, parish life — undertaken not as obligation but as free gift — enrich us, and are made more valuable precisely because they are freely-made offerings to God? We need to do a much better job of teaching the faith at every level, and of offering continuing instruction after Confirmation, when faith formation, such as it is, simply ends. Catholicism has always been — rather like the USCCB website — a sort of “well, you’re here; feel free to find your own way amid these strictures, hagiographies and devotions” sort of church, and some people (myself included) rather enjoy that. But these people are saying that they specifically want to be told when and how to pray, what to eat, how to dress, when and how to fast, and they are not afraid to be challenged. The Second Vatican Council had an idea that Catholics needed and wanted to be treated as adults, able to make their own way, decide on their own “more meaningful” sacrifices than those proscribed by the church. That was part of the thinking behind the end of “meatless Fridays.” But those Fridays already were meaningful; the fast was an offering and connection to the Crucifixion. It was also a cultural and community marker; a sign of unity.
. . .on Fridays we were all taking cozily meatless meals. If my mother was heating up cans of tuna and cream of mushroom soup, my neighbors were having home-made pizza or scrambled eggs. There was something comforting about these less-than-formal suppers where the modesty of the meal meant that food became incidental to the companionship and conversation which was brought to the fore. If company was coming, all the better — the sense of unity was broadened as our guest dug into the same simple fare as the rest of us.
Theologically, the meatless Fridays were like the beginning of a weekly, somewhat truncated Triduum: the fasts of Friday, the desert of repentance and confession on Saturday, all leading to the Resurrection of Sunday. The “relaxations” of the counsel, poorly implemented and largely untaught, replaced all of that with a nebulous sort of “do your own thing, make it meaningful for you, and we’ll see you on Sunday, then,” and that came up empty. Rather than making things “personally meaningful” for people, the church strangely gutted itself. Having lost a very stable structure, people were left feeling unsure of boundaries, bereft of their place. Untethered in the large universe of infinite spiritual sensibilities and choices, they either either chose poorly or passed out. Parents know that children need and want boundaries; they need and want disciplines that make life sensible and orderly and safe. More and more I’m convinced that ending meatless Fridays took away something sensible and orderly — and culturally and communally unifying, which brings its own safety — and replaced it, essentially, with nothing, because when you leave people to find something “personally meaningful” to do, they often settle for what is new or capricious or vapid, or all three. Or they do the easiest thing of all, which is nothing. Perhaps that has a great deal to do with why the strictures and obligations of Islam are Mormonism are now attractive to some who have been raised Catholic, but catechized poorly and left unsure as to what any of it means, from the kneeling, to the Crucifix, to the Trinity, and the Communion of Saints. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the worry was that Catholics were rote-bound, existing within the church but only shallowly nourished within the inauthentic constraints of duty and obligation. In light of these conversions, perhaps those lines were absolutely necessary, in order to help focus us and free us. We are more inclined to cast ourselves out into the deep, after all, when we know our we are well-tethered to the barque.