The Catholic Church has always stressed to its members that the Faith needs to be practised, that is, that individual Catholics need to do certain regular and specific spiritual acts such as attend Holy Mass on Sundays. Those Catholics who cease to actively practise their faith are termed ‘lapsed’. The connotation of this word ‘lapse’ tends to suggest a ceasing to do something without perhaps any definite decision to stop – almost a carelessness that over time results in a gradual fading away.
This notion perhaps resonates with Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13: 1 – 9 and 18 – 23). This parable is unusual in that Jesus actually explains the parable to his disciples. Of the four possibilities of how the seed – the faith – turns out, two may have relevance to this phenomenon of lapsation:
~ some seed falls among rocks, and such people do not persevere because they have no depth to their belief;
~ some seed falls among thorns, and such people may have some depth to their belief but they allow the cares and busyness of life to choke any growth or commitment to their faith.
In terms of the first of these outcomes, who is really to blame if individuals “have no depth to their belief”? From my experience as a priest and a long standing practitioner of the Catholic faith I think the fault lies mainly with the Church itself. In my lifetime and in my personal experience ordinary Catholics were rarely given any formation or encouragement to deepen their faith. They were given a diet of pious exercises and instructed to attend services without being encouraged to actively participate. As such, it really was hit and miss if they managed to develop any depth of prayerfulness and therefore any vital relationship with God. Especially in my youth, churchgoing was largely a numbers game and a ‘going through the motions’. Perhaps no surprise then that so many just faded away from the life of the church, especially once social mores made churchgoing a minority activity?
In terms of the second outcome, the tendency for the cares and busyness of one’s life to smother any spiritual practice is a constant and universal issue. But again, if so many were given precious little formation and encouragement, and were not exposed to the radicality of Jesus’ good news then what chance that they would value their faith and strive to maintain it within the pressures of daily life?
What I’m saying here is that the Church cannot presume that Catholics who have ceased to practice their faith are all backsliders and even that such folk have decided to renege on their spiritual heritage. Again, Jesus’ parable of the treasure hidden in the field (Matthew 13: 44) is surely relevant here: in what way has the Church really communicated the ‘treasure’ of the Gospel? It’s almost as if each individual Catholic has to stumble across the treasure for themselves…
I’m not denying that there are folk who, regardless of how they are nurtured and supported, will never value the gift of faith in the God of Jesus, but I think it’s clear that many of the so called lapsed have been badly let down by a Church that just didn’t feed or challenge them to have a depth relationship with the living God. That said, I think there is another category of folk who have left the Church: those who have been alienated by the Church and may have either gone to another religion, not necessarily a Christian one, or likely just given up on any pretence of belief in God. Some commentators would claim that the huge rise in agnosticism and atheism in the western world is precisely down to the gross failings of the Christian churches.
In my time ministering as a priest I met many decent folk who felt rejected by the Catholic Church, typically because a first marriage had failed for whatever reason and had now found a second relationship that was much more positive, mature and life-enhancing. For them, the Church, while trying to remain faithful to Jesus’ teaching, had nonetheless been experienced as harsh, unbending and unforgiving, leaving them in a moral and spiritual black hole. Others had actually been abused and/or humiliated by priests and nuns who supposedly stood in the place of Jesus. Yet others had thought deeply about the Church’s dogma and rituals and had come to the conclusion that it was illogical and contrary to their honest insights.
God’s ways are strange indeed, and God seems content to allow His public relations team to be comprised of fallible, sinful people! As such, the living and true God often gets a bad press. The Church is both human and divine, and where the human exists there will surely be mistakes, wrong signals and downright evils. And if I criticize the Church I have to remember that I am part of the Church and I have a responsibility to make it into what it should be – the living body of Christ in the world. And it is precisely because it is His body that it matters. It does contain that priceless treasure but often seems to do a good job of hiding it in a field of dogma, piety and reactionary nonsense!
I truly love the Catholic Church and will never leave it – but that does not stop me from seeing it as it is, warts and all,