On Saturday evening Bishop Tobin delivered an address at the Portsmouth Institute’s Catholicism and the American Experience seminar entitled, “Evangelization in a Secular Age.” The piece is an interesting look at the evangelization strategies of a church facing declining membership, but I want to concentrate on part three of Tobin’s talk, “The Context of Evangelization.” Tobin here attempts to answer the question of “What is the context in which we evangelize today?”
It is interesting that Tobin uses the word “context,” which he seems to define as “culture,” that is, American culture in general, which Tobin sees as rather uniform and undifferentiated. I think America is better understood as many different cultures unified and balanced by a series of ideas, laws and mores. Catholics represent just one of many, specifically religious cultures, and a single individual could conceivably be a member of several different cultures at the same time. For instance, a person might be a Catholic, a veteran, a banker and a member of the PTA, and each of these affiliations carries cultural pressures and significance.
Tobin eschews this understanding for something more universal and much less accurate, saying, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that our culture… is becoming more obviously and proudly more secular and atheistic than in the past.”
I would counter that the trouble is that less and less people are identifying themselves as members of Tobin’s preferred culture, just as there are less and less people identifying themselves as members of any religious group, but to say American culture is more or less secular is wrong.
America is just as secular as it has always been.
You see, all the different cultures I talked about above, and hundreds if not thousands more besides, interact in our country without too much violence or mayhem because they are all contained within a larger secular framework. To call this framework “culture” is like calling a large building empty of people and equipment a “hospital.” Tobin sees the secular framework that binds our cultures together and establishes the rules for peaceful coexistence as our culture, but this is inaccurate. Tobin mistakes the cardboard box for the cereal.
I would posit that Tobin intuitively understands this and uses the word “context” precisely because the word “culture” is ill-suited to label the larger secular framework when he says things such as, “…there’s little doubt that the context in which we seek to proclaim the Gospel and share the faith of the Church is as secular and atheistic, and therefore as apathetic, as ever.” (Emphasis mine)
Tobin’s use of the word atheistic is accurate, strictly speaking. The secular framework of American society takes no position on supernatural claims and is “a-” or “without” a position on “-theos,” or gods. It is silent on the issue, because room needs to be made for all sorts of different cultural interpretations regarding supernatural beliefs. The alternative is to construct a non-secular framework, a container for our various cultures that preferences one set of cultures and beliefs over another. The Bishop makes no secret over the fact that he would prefer a framework that favors his beliefs and culture, but surely he must realize that such a system would be deeply unfair to anyone of a different culture, with different beliefs.
Tobin routinely slips between the words “secular” and “atheistic” in describing the present state of what he defines as American culture. The two terms are in some ways related but are not synonymous. Many deeply religious people, including Catholics, consider secularism to be an important guarantor of our individual rights of conscience. The Rhode Island Council of Churches, representing a broad collation of Christian and non-Christian beliefs, overwhelmingly voted to support marriage equality. I know for a fact that many who voted to support the legislation personally believe that acting upon sexual attraction between same-sex persons is sinful and wrong. But these individuals understand the importance of secularism, even if they reject atheism. For Tobin to routinely equate the two terms is disingenuous.
In the third section of Tobin’s talk the bishop also fall prey to his habit of insulting atheists. Tobin’s relates the following parable:
A number of years ago, while still in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, I was invited to attend a picnic, a surprise 30th birthday party for one of our former seminarians. When I arrived at the picnic site I got out of my car, and was greeted by a beautiful little girl, about 7 years old I’d say, with blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. When I stepped out of the car she ran to me, looked at me straight in the eye and said, “I don’t know you… I don’t like you… and who invited you anyway?”
Obviously those words have scarred me; have left a permanent mark on my psyche.
But if you think about it, isn’t that what the secular world, the culture says to us whenever we, as people have faith, try to engage in the popular discussion and share our faith and values with others. They say to us: “I don’t know you… I don’t like you… and who invited you to this discussion anyway?”
Note what Tobin does here. Those who oppose the teachings of the Catholic Church and insist on a secular framework do not do so for any kind of valid reasons or with any kind of deep reflection or thought. These secularists and atheists, Tobin says, are like ignorant and selfish seven year olds, lacking in wisdom, maturity, courtesy, and knowledge. They jump to instant conclusions based on instinct and first impressions, and immaturely believe that they have the right to vocalize their narcissistic opinions to their cultural, privileged superiors.
Earlier in his piece, Tobin wondered if the growing irreligiosity of our culture might be due to “the failure of the leaders of the Church to adequately preach and teach.” Tobin should understand that if the preaching and the teaching is couched in disingenuous wordplay, misapplications of facts and insults towards your target audience, then failure is assured.