In a recent study of religious knowledge conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Catholics came out at the bottom of the stack behind Atheists and Agnostics, Mormons, Jews, and White Evangelical Protestants. The study was wide ranging and covered elements of various religions as well as the Bible, atheism and religion in public life.
What is interesting is that atheists and agnostics outscored all denominational groups with Jews and Mormons close behind. What is disturbing is that four out of ten Catholics did not know that the Church believes that Christ is truly present in the Holy Eucharist. Only a third of the Catholics could name the four Gospels.
There are other indicators that for many Catholics, faith is cultural rather than doctrinal. Cultural Catholicism is marked by a greater emphasis on conduct and practices (orthopraxis) than on the content of faith (orthodoxy). Thus one is a Catholic because one belongs to a Catholic family and does what the family does. There is no personal commitment to Christ. One is a Catholic by compulsion rather than by conversion or conviction.
The danger is that for cultural Catholics actions or causes become the touchstone of Catholicism rather than belief in the continuing saving presence of Jesus in the world in His Body, the Church. In 1950 Pope Pius XII pointed out that external action does not insure salvation (Menti Nostrae, ¶61). We would look rather silly if as adults we tried to put on our First Communion suits or dresses, yet many of us are still wearing our First Communion faith.
We are not called to be sedentary Christians, we are called to be dynamic Christians with our energy coming from our deep commitment to Jesus. We have a mission to proclaim the Good News. But enthusiasm alone is not enough. Our marching orders and our charge was given to us by the American bishops in “Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us, A Pastoral Plan for Adult Faith Formation:
“ Every disciple of the Lord Jesus shares in this mission. To do their part, adult Catholics must be mature in faith and well equipped to share the Gospel, promoting it in every family circle, in every church gathering, in every place of work, and in every public forum. They must be women and men of prayer whose faith is alive and vital, grounded in a deep commitment to the person and message of Jesus”(¶2).
In this important document the bishops call “the Church in our country to a renewed commitment to adult faith formation, positioning it at the heart of our catechetical vision and practice.” Responding to this call is essential today when so many Catholic adults are merely skating on the surface of their faith.
The wick is smoldering. We must fan it into flame.
Therefore here in the Diocese of Dallas I propose to continue to make Adult Faith Formation a top priority. We have begun a program to address the fact that many of our volunteer religious educators are enthusiastic but not well prepared for their important work. Enthusiasm alone is not enough. All religious education, adult, children and youth, requires two additional elements; substance, that is solid doctrine, and witness. It must be more than “just another class.”
For this reason I strongly support the School of Ministry of the University of Dallas that is doing an outstanding job of providing the professionals we will need to upgrade our faith formation programs to the level necessary to meet the needs of the Church today.
Especially important in this effort is the annual Ministries Conference co-sponsored by the Dioceses of Dallas and Fort Worth with the School of Ministry. The conference to be held Oct. 22-23 at the Dallas Convention Cener, should be attended by every professional teacher and volunteer catechist, and by every Catholic interested in enriching his or her faith.
Faith formation never ends. It is a lifelong experience of growth in our relationship with Jesus Christ as a member of His Body, the Church.