The typically insightful Sherry Weddell writes…
“Agnostotheist” a term that Dan Savage uses on “This American Life” segment. Where he describes becoming aware that he was gay at 14 while at a Catholic high school for boys considering the priesthood. And immediately deciding that the Church has to be wrong.
A 14 year old boy of an earlier generation would probably have felt conflicted guilt. A deeply post-modern teen is more likely to assume that the world is wrong where it disagrees with him because an “attack” on one’s self can never be right. It is a post-modern first principle.
And so an “agnostotheist” who prays to a higher power when his partner passes other cars at 90 miles an hour and returns to unbelief as soon as they get back into the right lane. I wish I’d thought of that term when I was writing the book although I certainly described “agnostheists”.
Many Catholics, lapsed or practicing, are “agnostotheists” in lived reality. Or “atheiotheists”. Truth to tell, there were many former altarboy agnostotheists in earlier generations as well. Even before Vatican II. Back in the mythical days of really good catechesis and American Catholic institutional triumphalism . And long before Catholic evangelists encountered them everywhere – in Rome and China and France and many other places. Only now they can be gay personalities and tell their story on “This American Life”.
If we are going to evangelize in the 21st century west, we need to get it: we are evangelizing Catholic “agnostotheists” much of the time and this takes us beyond standard catechesis. True evangelization of people is and always has been an essentially pre-catechetical endeavor. It is clearly pre-catechetical in the Church’s formal teaching on evangelization which so few conservative Catholics actually take seriously in its entirety.
We keep thinking that if we keep reiterating “thus says the Church” , people will suddenly come to and say “what was I thinking?”. Well, our kind of people anyway. We don’t really want the kind who wouldn’t snap to, who would immediately assume that it was an “attack” on the precious self and therefore automatically wrong. We’d prefer those people to just leave because clearer, louder catechesis/apologetics is just about the only tool we think we have. And everything begins to look like a nail if the only tool you know about is a hammer.
A thought: Large parts of Catholic life and history took place outside western Christendom.
The first 4 centuries, the vast majority of Catholics living today (and 25% of all Catholics who have ever lived are living today!) The centuries of Catholic life in Asia. All the amazing missionary work and communities which only specialists read about. We have a rich heritage of remarkably creative non-Christendom-based mission but western Catholics are so busy fighting one another about who was responsible for the collapse of the last shreds of Christendom (which really has been dying in Europe for over 200 years) that we aren’t looking to this part of our tradition that we lost sight of because we assumed that western Christendom was going to be normative forever.
We have Catholic tools we don’t know about because we lost track of that part of our vast tradition. Time to recover the fullness of our evangelical and apostolic traditions. The “agnostotheists” are waiting.