David S. Koonce, LC
(ZENIT News / Rome, 12.22.2022).- A few years ago, I was speaking with a woman who was concerned by her nieces’ and nephews’ apparent lack of Catholic identity. The worried aunt confided: “It bothers me that it doesn’t bother them”, namely, that the most significant life choices of her Millennial relatives were in no way influenced by Catholic teaching.
As a theology professor, I have often pondered the implications of this conversation. I dedicate a significant portion of my time to teaching Fundamental Theology, a discipline which is called upon to address issues regarding ecumenism, non-Christian religions, and atheism, as well as other currents of contemporary culture. Could it be that the greatest challenge to faith today is not atheism but religious indifference?
Census data in both the United States and Europe provide statistical support to this intuition. According to the findings of the 2020 Census of American Religion, published by the Public Religion Research Institute, 23% of Americans now identify as having no religious affiliation. The growth of the “nones”, however, has been greatest in the younger age groups. In 1986, only 10% of people ages 18-29 identified as religiously unaffiliated; in 2020, that percentage had grown to 36%.
Trends in Europe are similar but even more pronounced. On November 29th of this year, the Office for National Statistics in the United Kingdom released the results of the 2021 census of England and Wales. For the first time ever, less than half the population of each country identified as Christian.
What is behind the rise of religious disaffiliation? Is it atheism, indifference, or something else? The data, on its own, does not provide sufficient insight. Hence, on Friday, December 2, 2022, The Guardian published a selection of testimonies from readers responding to the census findings of England and Wales. The headline reads “‘I couldn’t pretend any more’: readers on why they left the Christian faith”. The article draws upon four testimonies representing a cross-section of Christianity in England and Wales: fundamentalist Christian, Church of England, Roman Catholic, and even a Mormon, for good measure.
While the evidence is anecdotal, if this small sampling is at all representative, then religious indifference is not the problem; at least, not initially. In each case, someone brought up in a religious household began searching for answers to life’s existential questions; in each case, their received theology and religious practice was judged to be inadequate. For one, fundamentalist approaches to predestination, creationism, and a misguided trust in faith-healing led to disbelief in the God of her upbringing. For another, the perceived conflict between God’s omniscience and human freedom led him to consider his Christian upbringing as merely a comforting fairytale used to control the masses. The third became convinced that Catholic teaching on homosexuality was based on hatefulness, and thus conflicted with her values. The last one abandoned his religious practice during the lockdown, and in doing so, began to feel free from a religious experience centered on guilt, hurt, and alienation.
As a Catholic theologian, I feel no obligation to defend the theologies of Christian fundamentalism, of the Church of England, and much less, that of Mormonism. As a priest though, I cannot help but empathize at a great human and religious tragedy: for each one of the questions that resulted in the abandonment of Christianity, better answers were available! For two millennia, Catholic theology has been grappling with the existential questions at the heart of human life. Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is the meaning of suffering? Does God know me? Does God love me? What does it really mean to love?
These are questions that no one can avoid for long. They lie just beneath the surface, yearning for answers. If people today are dissociated from Christianity, it is not because they are indifferent; they are disillusioned. All too often, deep, ardent searching has been met with superficial, lukewarm answers, or worse, no answer at all. The New Evangelization calls for a rediscovery, by professors, by students, and by all who love theology, that a truly pastoral theology will not neglect but fully embrace and engage the existential questions that shape the lives of cultures and of every individual.
Article originally published in L’Osservatore Romano. The author is a professor of fundamental theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome.