Growing in the Knowledge of the Faith in the New Year, The Anchor, January 8, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
January 8, 2010

On December 9, in the days of preparation for Christmas, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published the results of a survey that suggested that theological confusion may pose a larger threat to the Christian character of Christmas and influence in society than anything that comes from the opposition of the American Civil Liberties Union or other militant secularists.

The survey revealed that, although Americans overwhelmingly declare themselves to be Christian, large numbers nevertheless accept various things wholly incompatible with the Christian faith. It found that 23 percent believe in astrology, affirming that the position of stars and planets directly affects their lives; 22 percent believe in reincarnation, that people will be reborn in this world again and again, and therefore reject the Christian teaching on the resurrection of the body; 23 percent accept pantheistic premises that spiritual energy resides in inanimate objects like mountains, trees and crystals; 17 percent believe that people can cast an “evil eye” or other types of curses on them and harm them; 14 percent consult psychics, fortune tellers, and necromantics.

Notably, the survey showed that among American Catholics, there was not much difference in the responses between those who practice the faith each Sunday and those who seldom come.

This was yet another confirmation that many American Catholics are unaware about the contents of the faith, are theologically confused, or are not receiving the “salt” of the Christian faith sufficiently as to foresake superstitions or the beliefs and practices of the New Age or Eastern religions. Parishes, parochial and diocesan schools, religious education programs, Catholic colleges and universities, and even organs of Catholic adult information and formation like this newspaper have not been doing a sufficient job in combating the influence of the religious syncretism of the surrounding culture.

It’s also true, however, that the teaching of the Church has in recent years been made amply available to Catholics through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, through various apologetic websites, and so many other accessible resources. Sadly few Catholics take advantage of them. While Catholics now rank among the most educated of Americans — with almost everyone graduating from high school and large numbers going on to college and even to graduate degrees — many know their trades or academic disciplines far better than they know their faith. It’s not uncommon that even Catholic doctors, lawyers and university professors have remained at the level of the knowledge of faith they had at the time of their confirmation; their knowledge of the faith has not kept pace with their knowledge of other disciplines, even though many would readily admit that God and their response to him in faith in God are more important than these other disciplines.

Perhaps nowhere is this lack of growth in the knowledge of the faith more evident than in the relationship Catholic adults have to the Word of God. During the 2008 Vatican Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, an international survey was conducted that showed that even though 93 percent of Catholic adults own a Bible at home —the average household has three copies — only one in 30 read the Bible each day and only one in 14 read it at all during a given week. 44 percent of Catholics say they rarely or never read the Bible. 80 percent confess that the only time they come into contact with the Word of God is when they hear in proclaimed at Mass. So while the average American spends six to eight hours a day watching television, 29 in 30 do not take even one minute to read the Word of God.

It goes almost without saying that religious vitality will suffer when so few Catholics ever take advantage of the incredible treasure God has placed in their hands. It is also obvious that if Catholic adults do not know their faith very well, it will be difficult for them to pass on the faith effectively to newer generations. Ignorance of Scripture, St. Jerome taught in the fourth century, is ignorance of Christ. And that ignorance of Scripture, which is getting worse by the generation, has been amply demonstrated in several other recent surveys of Biblical illiteracy among Americans.

Recent studies have shown that sixty percent of American Christians believe that Jesus was born in Jerusalem, not Bethlehem. Only forty percent of Christian Americans can name any five of the ten commandments. Half of high school seniors think that that Sodom and Gomorrah were married. Less than half can identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible. Only a third of Americans know who gave the Sermon on the Mount, and more people believe that the Reverend Billy Graham delivered it than Jesus. Twelve percent think that Noah’s wife is Joan of Arc. The examples abound.

The Church in America needs a culture shift as it comes to the study of the Bible and the faith. Catholic pastors and educators need to encourage, inspire, guide and assist Catholics to become zealous life-long learners. Catholics adults must also take up their own responsibility to use the gift of the mind God has given them to come to know him, his word, and the faith he has revealed, as it has been lived and transmitted faithful from generation to generation from the time of the apostles.

It would make an excellent New Year’s Resolution for every Anchor reader to make a commitment to spending at least ten minutes a day prayerfully reading the Word of God and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.