In Pope Francis’s 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he expressed his desire for a renewed missionary impulse throughout the entire Church. Francis called for the Church to become more mission-oriented by making “ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth, and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship” (EG 27). This call from Francis extends to every lay minister, vowed religious, priest, and bishop. Francis even includes himself in this call to conversion, saying the pope must be open to suggestions (ref. EG 32).
In light of this call, Catholics must realize that we are responsible for creating an ecclesial environment that reflects authentic Christian faith. He points out that the bishops of the Church have a unique responsibility to lead by example. “For it is the duty of all bishops to promote and to safeguard the unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole Church, to instruct the faithful to love for the whole mystical body of Christ” (Lumen Gentium 23).
It is vital that our bishops—both collectively, as deliberative bodies, and as individual diocesan leaders—take this call seriously. In recent years, many seem to be more concerned with critiquing cultural and political issues than addressing the structural issues the plague the Church, especially in the US. While the wider culture needs critiquing from time to time, the US bishops have gone about this in a way that has created scandal. This has had a negative impact on the U.S. Church, affecting Catholics with strong and weak faith alike.
I have encountered many people who have said the USCCB vote on the document for Eucharistic Coherence was the final straw and that they were planning to leave the Church. The actual purpose of this document was unclear to many Catholics because bishops and commentators sent mixed messages about what it would say. The bishops have a responsibility to not be inept in their public relations, and the discussion during their virtual June meeting suggests that the bishops themselves have conflicting ideas of what this proposed document is about. “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” (Luke 12:48). To put it simply this is a sin. Furthermore, this failure to understand what it means to live in the world as a disciple of Christ within the U.S. Church extends from the bishops all the way down to our pastoral ministers.
In the synoptic Gospels there is a passage where Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Mt 18:6). While the context differs slightly between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, when we look at the meaning of “little ones” in the original Greek we uncover the extent of Jesus’ message here. “Little ones” does not indicate those under a certain age, but it refers to the members of the faith community whose faith is weaker. Jesus makes explicit that disciples need to live their lives in a manner that does not place stumbling blocks before these “little ones.” Here Jesus is not explicitly speaking of causing those of little faith to “sin” (harmartano, ἁμαρτάνω in Greek) in the way we typically understand sinning; Jesus is referring to scandalizing (skandalizo, σκανδαλίζω in Greek) those of little faith.
How does this passage apply to the Church today, especially concerning those who leave because they are scandalized by the Church’s failures? Whether they leave because of clerical abuse, hyper-politicization of the faith, blatant hypocrisy, or the inability of Church leaders to communicate the faith effectively, quite frequently the reason is because Catholics have created stumbling blocks for those of little faith. Jesus tells us that it is the obligation of the stronger disciples to ensure that weaker ones are not scandalized. It’s undeniable that Jesus was pretty serious about this, given his statement that being drowned would be a better option. With all the focus they give to matters of policy and the focus they place on political leaders, do the bishops have any sense of why ordinary Catholics are losing faith and drifting away from the Church?
I have many friends who have, in one way or another, been scandalized by the Church and subsequently left. For example, one of my best friends grew up in the Church, attending Mass every Sunday with his family and going to CCD or youth group every week. Yet today my friend says he is an atheist. In our conversations, he revealed that the key moment that led to his loss of faith was his youth minister’s failure to provide him with satisfactory answers to his biggest questions.
My friend described how he was beginning to have serious questions about the Eucharist. He explained to me that when he was an altar server, he would watch intently during the consecration at Mass to see if he could “see” the change happening. By high school, he began to ask his youth minister serious questions about the Eucharist. He told me that a physical change occurring did not make sense, given what he had learned in his chemistry class. His youth minister was unable to give a better explanation than something to the effect of, “the bread and wine turn into Jesus’ body and blood.” There were no deeper reflections. There was no robust theological engagement of the type that a high schooler is probably prepared to encounter. Looking back, this is the moment my friend remembers as the beginning of his journey away.
When we put catechists in front of children and teens, typically they are assumed to be experts by those they are teaching. It’s not fair to say that my friend should have done more investigation on his own. A catechist should be counted on to know the basics of the faith, and when their answers are not satisfying, then Church’s answer—in that moment—is not satisfying. Certainly those who understand the complexities of catechetical ministries in the Church know better, but children and teens do not. They do not know that often parishes are desperately just trying to find warm bodies to put in front of young people. It is incumbent on bishops, priests, and catechetical leaders to ensure that those who are handing on the faith intimately understand the subjects they teach. As a colleague once said to me, with many parish catechists it is as if the blind are leading the blind. We must do better.
With the USCCB intending to draft its document on Eucharistic coherence as a response to a perceived lack of understanding of the Eucharist among the faithful, perhaps the U.S. Bishops should shift their focus to a comprehensive catechetical renewal in the Church as part of the renewal Pope Francis proposes Evangelii Gaudium. Let’s not beat around the bush, it is the Church’s fault that the faithful and fallen away do not understand the Eucharist. What should we expect when poorly-catechized and lackluster catechists are entrusted with handing on the Church’s most central and important teachings?
The catechetical renewal that the U.S. Church requires will take decades. It would need to address the catechetical situations everywhere, from kindergartens to seminaries, and would include in-depth training for parish catechists. Pope Francis invites all the faithful to become missionary disciples and encourages the Church as a whole to “undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification, and reform” (EG 30). This is what is needed to address the widespread lack of understanding of Church teaching among Catholics. This is clearly an area requiring purification and reform, and the bishops of the United States must lead by example in this matter.
Another area in desperate need of reform and renewal is Catholics’ and catechists’ Biblical literacy. Great scandal is caused by the ignorance and mishandling of scripture by Catholics, many of whom are well-intentioned. A co-worker once shared with me that her experiences of church led her to be terrified of God when she was only five years old. She recalls learning about the story of Noah’s Ark and the Flood at church. What was her takeaway from that day’s catechesis? “If I do anything bad God will kill me!” This image of God—at least in her experiences of Christianity—has never been rehabilitated. A five-year old’s faith is small and fragile. To begin to lose one’s faith at that age is a terrible scandal. For what it’s worth, Noah’s Arc can be difficult for adults to understand, and just because there is a boat and animals does not make it a children’s story.
In my work as a catechetical director, I find that many everyday Catholics’ perspective on scripture—even those fairly well-acquainted with the Bible—is more influenced by American Evangelicalism than by Catholicism. For example, most Catholics I have encountered in my time in ministry have never heard of Dei Verbum, the second Vatican Council’s great document on Divine Revelation and Sacred Scripture. With such abysmal Biblical literacy among the faithful, it is easy to see why many pastoral ministers are unaware of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. The Gospel doesn’t simply call on us to change our ways of thinking, but also to change our hearts. Sacred Scripture calls us to approach the suffering with the mercy and compassion of Jesus Christ. Failure to understand the Gospel leads to an inability to respond to situations with a truly Christian witness.
When my daughter’s godmother was seventeen, she attended a Catholic youth retreat with her school. While on the retreat, she learned that one of her best friends had been killed in a car accident. Needless to say, she was devastated. She told me that this was where she lost her sense of community that had been integral to her Catholic identity. When she heard the heartbreaking news of her friend’s death, she hoped she would be able to engage her grief from the perspective of her faith, and that the ministers and leaders of the retreat would accompany her in her grief. She hoped that they would help her to trust in a loving and merciful God. Unfortunately, after telling the retreat leaders, the retreat went along as business as usual. They simply stuck to the weekend’s itinerary, and none of them acknowledged what she was experiencing or spoke to her about how her faith could help her in grieving. This scandalized her, and resulted in a ten-year lapse in her commitment to her faith. Jesus left the ninety-nine to go after the one, but in this case, a grieving and heartbroken teenager was left behind while the ninety-nine carried on like nothing had happened.
Above all else, we are called to be disciples of Jesus who follow his example and teachings. We must avoid scandalizing those of little faith and abandoning those who suffer. We as disciples must be aware of how we act and how we hand on the faith. We must be conscious that even when we do something as simple as sharing a Bible story, we are not sharing in the wrong way or at the wrong time. Failure to be aware of the needs of others can cause scandal, especially to those whose faith is just beginning, whether children, teens, or adults. Scandalizing those of little faith is a grave sin. We must repent when we put stumbling blocks before anyone in their journey of faith. This is especially true for leaders in the Church.
The Church in the West must undergo a metanoia. Evangelii Gaudium is a charter calling the Church to a life of renewal and missionary discipleship. In it, Pope Francis draws from the deep well of the Church’s tradition to make his point. As a body, the bishops of the United States cannot remain indifferent to Pope Francis’s plan to renew the Church. Their apparent refusal to embrace his vision of reform for the entire Church is a failure to evangelize. Until the US bishops broaden their perspective and realize that the scope of the challenge cannot be reduced to fighting battles in the culture war, more and more Catholics will drift away.
Lumen Gentium, (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1964).
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013).
W.F. Albright/C.S. Mann, Matthew, vol. 29, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971).
M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 7, The New Interpreters Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995).
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged in one volume (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985).
Image: Pope Francis talks as he meets youth and the Synod Fathers at the Pope Paul VI hall. © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk (License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)) Source: https://flic.kr/p/2aoHto2
J.D. Combs has a Master's Degree in Theological Studies from the Franciscan School of Theology where he wrote his thesis on the evangelization of young people. He is currently a parish director of catechetical ministries, and is beginning his Ph.D. in Spirituality at Oblate School of Theology in the Fall of 2021.