A couple of graphs spurred by a Pew Center Survey.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public life has a new survey out (this is the full pdf.) If you have read any of Prothero (this book is the closest on topic), the survey seems to be made to beat one of his drums – the desperate need for religious education. Of course that would help him as a religious studies professor. In one sense I completely agree with him, “Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion…It is time to address our national epidemic of religious illiteracy. I have called in the past for mandatory public school courses on the Bible and the world’s religions to remedy this problem. The time for such courses is now.” But I also have a severe disagreement with the idea of public school taught religion.

Why I have a severe problem with that is told by the pull line from the Pew Study – “Atheists and Mormons know more about Christianity than Christians.” (Here is a good round-up of links.) The ha-ha is of course they do, because the smarter and the more you know, the more atheist you become. Ha-ha, aren’t we so smart. My problem is not people knowing more. I’d love it if this data wasn’t true. My problem is that teaching the Bible or religion in a public school means it must be taught as comparative religion. The very act of doing that places the learner above or superior to what is being mastered. Placing yourself superior is never the act of a disciple. There is theological distinction called magisterial vs. ministerial and it is usually applied to reason. In the public sphere, reason is magisterial. That means that reason is the ultimate arbitrator of everything. What that means is that in teaching the Bible in a modern public school, the student’s reason is magisterial over the Bible. The student and teacher are superior to the Word of God. The ministerial sense of reason is more in line with the old Catholic phrase – “reason seeking understanding.” Or Biblically “I believe, help my unbelief”. The assumption is that the rule of faith – the bible is correct. Reason is a servant or a minister in helping understand how that is true. A magisterial reason, the only type allowed in a public school, is corrosive to faith. A ministerial reason is a help to faith, but it is not possible to teach that way in a public school.

Now for the graphs I promised. The first graph either says a lot about the quality of preaching, invincible ignorance, or I just don’t know what. What it says is that the level of knowledge on the religion questions Pew asked was completely invariable with worship attendance. Now maybe its just that the people attending weekly know a whole bunch about their religion and nothing at all about anything else. Its good that as a Lutheran preacher I take worship as being a spiritual activity of the Word of God. If preachers were being graded on “knowledge acquired” we’d all be flunked based on this.

The second graph takes a look at St. Mark’s attendance. I’ve got 140 names that have been to at least 1 service in the past year. Of those 140, 44 or 31% have attended less than 10% of the Sundays this calendar year. After carving out that group, the attendance is a little more normal distributed. Roughly 12 that attend monthly, 27 that attend almost twice a month, 26 that attend a little over twice a month, 17 that are present 3 out of 4 Sundays, and 14 that are present almost every Sunday. If the Pew survey is true, the 44 know more facts about Christianity than the others, and the rest all know about the same.

Also, to those 44, you’re on my list. I want to see you next week. Its good for your soul.

Bin Frequency Cumulative %
0% – 10% 44 31.43%
11%-25% 12 40.00%
26%-50% 27 59.29%
51%-75% 26 77.86%
76%-90% 17 90.00%
90%-100% 14 100.00%

A Virtue of a Necessity

Most organizations or institutions do not make changes until they just stop functioning. Somewhere in a vague past the complexity and size that an institution had built up actually helped. Then it stops. But the institution can’t even think about operating in another way. That is the way we’ve always done things – even though it isn’t. And a big part of it is that the institution made promises, promises they can’t keep anymore. And instead of admitting that and going into triage mode – finding what can be done – they keep the external dead husk of a structure while killing everything in it with 10% cut after 10% cut. And that can go on forever – until it just stops or until someone with the leadership and guts comes along to change it.

Parochially, the Eastern District and the LCMS has been in that situation for years. Taking a look at the budget is sad tale of woe of zombie programs and structure that just won’t die. All the while strangling things that might work. A tale of hospice instead of triage. A tale of care-taking instead of healing.

This NY times article and this bishop’s letter on the same thing – the NYC catholic schools – would seem to signal a change in that institution. It seems that Archbishop Timothy Dolan wants to be a leader. (The hospice image is his.) He’s picked a couple of interesting fights. First he’s picked a fight with “American Individualism”.

I fear as well an attitude that the support of our Catholic schools is only the duty of the parents who have children there. In this view, a parish without a school has no obligation at all to support other Catholic schools, and a parish blessed with a school might offer a “subsidy” to the school, but shifts the major burden of upkeep to the “school families,” who then are looked upon as “demanding drains” on the rest of the parish.

Such a view, of course, is, simply put, “non-Catholic.” As our tradition, Church teaching, canon law and cherished Catholic practice remind us, support of Catholic schools is a duty of the entire Church, even if you may not have a child now in one, or belong to a parish without one.

There are concentric rings of responsibility. Luther put the catechism to the head of the household by which he meant the father. But he also meant the heads of larger houses including the princes as the heads of the household of state when he wrote in 1524 a treatise “To the Councilmen of all Cities in Germany that they Establish and Maintain Christian Schools.” Luther would agree with the Archbishop.

The second fight he picks is over the role Bishops and Clergy. Stop the whining, stop the “good enough for church work”, stop the narcissism and pious sad face – and do your real job. Building hope. And it starts with competence in the job placed before you.

Finally, I fear a subtle buy-in into what I call the hospice mentality. Some bishops, priests, pastoral leaders, and Catholic faithful now sigh and say, “Well, we sure love our schools, and they have served us well, but, sadly, their day is over, and twilight is here. So, the best we can do is make their passing comfortable, and hold their hand while they slowly pass into grateful memory.”

Malarkey! We need to move from hospice to hope.

And we can’t do business as usual. To stand back and watch our schools struggle and scrape will only result in an “academic Darwinism”—where only the few fit survive—and a slow shrinking and gradual disappearance.

So, what do we do? We do what those before us have done. We renew passion, face reality and boldly plan for the future. We recover our dare and quit whining.

Pathways to Excellence calls for ongoing improvement internally, with realistic attention to quality teachers and principals, improvement of math and science scores, reassertion of Catholic identity and aggressive marketing.

Nobody wants to dedicate a life (especially a celibate live) to living in a hospice. In 2009 protestant seminaries had 20,835 M.Div students while catholic had 2,170 – an order of magnitude difference. It is nice to see someone with the leadership mantle appearing to use it.

Inspiring leadership

I’m Lutheran – I believe teach and confess this. But I also like to think or lay claim to the title catholic – as in the one holy, catholic and apostolic church.

This article from the Wall Street Journal on Catholic schools had one of the most hopeful sentences I’d read in a long time.

Tim Busch has an answer to the epidemic of closing Catholic schools. And it has nothing to do with vouchers…”We can’t wait for vouchers, and we can’t look to the old model of relying on our pastors and bishops to come up with the money and answers,” says Mr. Busch. “If we want Catholic schools for our children and our society, we have to adopt new models that let us compete.”

That is a sign of hope and renewal. And if the stodgy institutions can’t adapt or move fast enough, well, its too important to wait. As a minister, I would pray that we could provide some of the leadership. If we can’t or won’t, don’t just sit there. The gospel is too important to be locked up in old wineskins.