“Cultural Catholicism” — What is it? Do we still have it?

Cultural Catholicism is a term with a range of connotations and meanings. Personally, it’s a term I have a hard time with, I wish the phenomenon that led to the term didn’t exist. [H/T to Brent Stubbs for similar thoughts.] I have to coax myself to see the positive potential and history of it.

Putting myself in as objective a position as possible, I see three main definitions for Cultural Catholicism:

  1. (Positive connotation) Catholicism that exists within a surrounding culture that is so shaped by the Catholic faith, that the culture itself evangelizes. Imagine a culture so imbued with the vivid truth of our faith that just living, breathing, and existing in this environment evangelized and beget more evangelizers. [Note: when and where this has existed would be an entirely different topic for hearty debate!]
  2. (Neutral connotation) The practice or observance of Catholic religious traditions, actions, and customs without accompanying personal faith or interiorized spiritual exercise or assent. There is some goodness in this, in that through the grace of God, present in actions, customs, liturgical sacraments, and practices, many can undergo conversion and begin to have an interiorized spiritual exercise or assent to the faith. However, this does not always happen. It’s not automatic.
  3. (Negative connotation) Rarely, if ever, observing Catholic religious traditions, yet self-identifying as Catholic. Interestingly, this is currently the Wikipedia description of “cultural Catholic” (which is synonymous with “lapsed Catholic”). Catholicism in this sense may be no different from an ethnic cultural identification or regional cultural affiliation.

In both ministerial and academic settings, it’s important to differentiate what kind of “cultural Catholicism” we’re referring to when we use the term. Critical conversations about inculturating (sometimes spelled enculturating) our Catholic faith are not necessarily the same thing as attempting to recreate a (positive connotation) “cultural Catholicism.” Nor should we assume that inculturating the faith leads to the neutral or negative connotations of “cultural Catholicism.” 

I think it’s safe to say that we no longer have (if we ever did) a positive “cultural Catholicism” in the United States. With only 18% of those who self-identify as Catholic self-reporting attending Mass on a weekly basis, our culture does not seem to be so filled with our faith that it is evangelizing many or most who identify as Catholic. While I do not know the depths of others’ faith lives, I think it is difficult to make the honest argument that those who do not respond to the initial proclamation of the Gospel with participation in the Catholic faith are evangelized.

In short, I’d say that “cultural Catholicism” definition #1 (positive) is almost non-existent in the United States (maybe some small pockets remaining). I think definition #2 (neutral) is in a slow, generational decline (i.e. the cultural pull may stake a claim on the Baby Boomer generation, but distinctly less so within my Millennial generation). Definition #3 (negative) has increased in recent decades, but may begin to decline as more and more people in the United States self-identify as “unaffiliated” rather than as “Catholic.” Just my predictions 🙂 Any thoughts? 

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3 thoughts on ““Cultural Catholicism” — What is it? Do we still have it?

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