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.

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  • Baffled

    Huh? What does agnosotheism have to do with earlier centuries?

  • Baffled:

    Mark liberated this from a Facebook comment of mine which wasn’t written for a general audience. Basically, I mean that the Church has had a hugely fruitful missionary history – largely outside Christendom, which means outside the west – which those of us in the west know almost nothing about. That almost all our discussions around the Catholic blogosphere are anguishing about the collapse of the last remnants of western Christendom and frenzied debates as to how to stave off total collapse. Hardly ever do we turn to the vast apostolic and evangelical experience of the Church over the ages OUTSIDE a Christendom context and deliberately draw upon that, which can provide a new source of creativity and wisdom for our present situation. Once we accept that yes, Christendom, as the Catholic Church knew it for the past 15 centuries, is truly gone and beyond recovery, we need to know that we are NOT left without truly Catholic resources and models of astonishing apostolic creativity in the face of similar pressures.

    • Ted Seeber

      I completely agree with you- especially the work of Dutch priests in Japan during the Shogun era- there are some stories of courage there that makes our shirking in the light of secularism downright cowardly. However, I’d say that Christiandom has been dying for well over 500 years now; the philosophical roots of the Protestant Rebellion were the poison that started it. Once you do away with Political Apostolic Authority- the rest is all downhill.

  • This is an important insight. In a lot of “traditionalist” Catholic circles there is a sort of pining for the High Middle Ages and a desire to make things “look like that”. Another traditionalist friend of mine observed, quite rightly, that we need to get a grip and figure out (duh) that this ain’t the High Middle Ages and that behaving as if it is, or even could be anytime in the next few centuries, is pretty counterproductive. It’s a whole heck of a lot more like the very early Church, with a sub-sub-sub minority of orthodox Catholics submerged in a thoroughly pagan and increasingly hostile culture.

    And yet, they prevailed. It might behoove us to find out how and try to emulate that instead.

    On the flip-side, I get a little miffed when other Catholics insist that there just can’t be such a thing as a Christian nation any more. Really? It seems to me that all of the once-Christian nations were non-Christian before that. How did they become Christian nations? The old fashioned way: evangelism.

    • Ted Seeber

      How was the fight against greed. Before the Eucharist, giving away food was utterly unheard of; giving away food to SLAVES even less. Then along comes Christianity insisting that slavery is a form of adoption (thank you St. Paul!) and preaching a lord that died for us so that we might have a bite to eat. In a culture where food is scarce (the United States isn’t one) that’s a miracle.

      I think we have a similar opportunity today, though it doesn’t seem like it, in the politics of human extermination and in the pro-life realm.

      We just have to find the right message.

  • Mark R

    Excellent! Of course, duh, before the Gospel was announced there was no Christendom to compare things to. Thank you for this. I think Newman said we need reminders more than information.

  • Mark R – when I said 15 centuries, I meant roughly 15 centuries from today, not the from the Protestant Reformation which badly weakened the “Christendom” model but didn’t totally destroy it. It was still presumed in the 17th century in both Catholic and Protestant circles (fueling both religious war and religious revival). The real emergence of the possibility of an “accepted” “non-Christian” pluralistic European culture was in the late 18th/early 19th centuries. It’s complete triumph was in the 20th century.

  • Mark R

    I was not trying to sound sarcastic. I really am dumb about these things a lot of the time.