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Hello? Anybody out there?

Draw yourself an organization chart representing the Catholic Church. What you’ll get is a sketch of an ecclesiastical institution that on paper looks like a genuine world class internal communication machine.

Those boxes and lines could lead the beholder to suppose that if the Pope says something on Monday morning, then by the following Sunday evening a billion or so Catholics around the world will have a pretty clear notion of what he’s said. The Church’s network of dioceses, parishes, organizations, institutions, and media all but guarantees that happy result.

The same is true of other communications by other communicators all up and down the line in the Church. Messages constantly flowing, messages constantly being received. Correct?

Sorry, my friend, but if you think it really works like that, all I can say is: dream on. People who’ve spent some time in communication in and around the Catholic Church can tell you the reality is vastly different.

I was reminded of this by news of a study showing only 16% of American Catholics recall even hearing about the most recent of the “political responsibility” statement published quadrennially by the American bishops. And three-quarters of those who’d heard of it said it had “no influence at all” how they voted in 2008.

Yes, a small number of professional church watchers have argued about these documents ever since the bishops’ conference began publishing them in 1976. They have been, and to some extent still are, a big bone of contention between liberal and conservative activists. Whether that will be true of the version forthcoming for next year’s election—which, the bishops say, will simply be the 2007 text, with an introduction added—remains to be seen.

But hold that argument for another day. The point here is that, except for the activists, few Catholics have read or heeded these much-discussed documents.

It’s no surprise. As somebody who drafted many bishops’statements some years ago and did media relations on behalf of many others, I have no hesitation saying it’s been this way a long time. Not just with bishops’ documents either. The same is true of documents from the Pope and Roman Curia. Catholics by and large don’t read them or know what they say. 

There are several reasons. Church documents tend to be long and difficult for people without much practice reading them. These days they’re readily available on the internet, but people still must make a small effort to access them—and they don’t. Priests rarely preach on them, and while Catholic papers faithfully report on them, many Catholics can’t be bothered to read the Catholic press to find out what’s going on.

Thus, what many Catholics know about the Church and the teaching of the Magisterium comes to them largely (if it comes at all) from the reporting of the secular media. And secular media generally do a better job covering high school field hockey than reporting important statements by the bishops and the Pope.

As suggested, though, the largest part of the problem lies elsewhere—with the lethargy and indifference of the numerous Catholics who know little about their Church and won’t make the effort it would take to know more.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. No one has to read an encyclical or a bishops’ statement to go to heaven. But at a time when the faith is commonly either ignored or misrepresented by secular purveyors of information and opinion, you’d think more Catholics would make that effort. Or am I the one who’s dreaming?


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C.


  • Tarheel

    No you are not dreaming. In a Matthew Kelly’s book “Rediscover Catholicism” he points out how complacent and lethargic many Catholics are.

    When I “discovered” the Church (I’m a convert) I became jealous of Catholics. They had this wonderful “thing” and wasn’t telling anyone about it. Now years later I can see that the reason many don’t tell anyone is that they don’t have a good understanding of our faith.

    For 11 years now I have been teaching CCD. One thing is evident about the young people I teach. Over 50% of them are poorly or are not catechized at home. They expect us (CCD teachers) to do it all for them.

    Just the past year I had a student of mine that was confirmed. I quote, “Great! Confirmation is done finally. This has been a long day. I now know all I need to know about the Catholic Church. Sure feels good to be done with all that learning stuff.” Somehow I feel in the short school year I taught this young man I failed. But then again I don’t see him at Mass anymore either.

    • HomeschoolNfpDad

      Tarheel, I don’t think that CCD is the only place where modern youth fail. One need only examine any report about the Wall Street protests to note that they also fail (and that miserably) in even a basic understanding of economics. There is, of course, a problem with parents failing to accept their duty to educate their children, but this problems goes well beyond the purview of religious education. Parents expect other people to provide all, or nearly all, of the education their parents will receive anywhere. Forget CCD for just a moment. Think on the last secular story you read about, say, the reading preparation of children entering Kindergarten or first grade. In all likelihood, half the class of 5- and 6-year-olds won’t know how to read yet. That is entirely the fault of the parents — and it would not have happened just a generation or two ago.

      One great irony about the lack of parental involvement in their children’s education these days is well captured by the article. “The Church’s network of dioceses, parishes, organizations, institutions, and media all but guarantees that happy result.” Today, it easier than ever to access information about the teaching of the Church — and yet fewer and fewer people have anything other than a vague notion what those teachings are. The same is true of all educational resources. A generation or two ago, the most widely available free reading resources were probably second-hand newspapers or (where they existed) public libraries. Parents who couldn’t afford to purchase lots of books could always access these resources to teach their kids to ready. And a great many did. Today, you can get free books — and good ones at that — on the Gutenberg web site — and this is just one example of millions. And still, many parents don’t teach their kids to read.

      Like so many things today, the institutions aren’t failing so much due to lack of leadership. Leadership is, of course, better in some places and worse in others. Rather, institutions — schools, parishes, dioceses, governments — are failing due to widespread lack of interest on the part of the people who are supposed to be those most interested in their upkeep.

  • Last year I was a teacher’s aide in RE for a group of 7th-grade boys. I was surprised at how little they knew about their faith at the age of 12 or 13; one kid asked, “What’s Mass?”; kids didn’t know how to go to confession; they struggled to explain even the most basic concepts. One day I was asked to teach the lesson as the teacher hadn’t had the time to prepare. The lesson was to be on the importance of symbols to our faith.

    I led the boys into the church, and we stopped at the statues, the stained glass windows, the Stations, and the baptistry. I explained to them what a symbol is and the reasons we have these things in church. In front of Our Lady of Guadalupe I told them the story of St. Juan Diego. We got to the main altar and I told them the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac on an altar. The kids were spellbound when I told them that Isaac would have been about their age and his Dad was ready to do it.

    We finished in the Adoration chapel, where I explained that the Host in the monstrance was no symbol, it was the real thing. Again it was clear they had heard nothing like this before.

    I got a lot of positive feedback from the parents and the RE director about that night. The lesson for me was, give kids solid food and they’ll respond. It’s a crime that children are not being taught their faith, and I lay the blame squarely at the feet of the parents. At a minimum they should know what is being taught in their parish RE program so that they can prepare the kids and fill in the gaps at home. And in this day and age, they should investigate to make sure the program is soundly Catholic, and if not, teach the kids themselves or send them elsewhere. It’s their responsibility and no one else’s.

  • Tarheel

    Is it really lack of interest in most cases or a combination of numerous things. In defense of parents we live in a society/economy that in a majority of cases requires both parents to work to make ends meet. In these cases all to often mom and dad are too busy to really pay attention to their child’s educational process. Plus I blame the educational system also. I hear way too much about damaging a child’s self esteem if that child is told they are not performing up to standards. Liberals have taken over public education and want to make sure everyone graduates or passes because it looks good on paper. Schools get recognition (money) for pass rates which leads to “softer” standards.

    As for CCD and other Catholic issues. This is something we can change. Based on your comments gentlemen we all have seen problems/failures in cathetical programs. Do we fault the children? Do we fault the catechist? Do we fault the parents? I believe most parish religious educations programs make the best of time and materials. But these are directed towards children. In our parishes what are we doing to increase and improve the knowledge about our faith to adults?

  • So true. The coverage of the Pope’s remarks on condoms for Peter Seewald’s interview book was a perfect example of the secular media doing a terrible job reporting important statements by the bishops/the Pope. Same for the coverage of Bishop Olmsted’s issue with St. Joseph’s Hospital, its Catholic status, and abortion to save the mother’s life.