Catholic Church Shopping

I guess I did not realize how Protestant I had become.

It was my first academic job after graduate school and I was sitting in one of those new employee orientation meetings that we have all had to endure at one time or another. I was seated next to another newbie–a philosophy professor who just finished his Ph.D at Notre Dame.

He was Catholic.

During one of the breaks in the meeting we got talking about religion.  I told him that since my family had moved to town we had visited a few churches  but had not yet decided on which one we would attend on a more permanent basis.

I then asked him a question:

“Have you found a church yet?”

My new friend gave me a rather odd look and then said something like “We’re Catholic.  We will be attending St. X Parish since it is just a mile or two away from the house we are renting and the other parish is on the other side of town.”

I initially felt bad for this guy.  His religious choices were so limited.  What if he didn’t like the priest at St. X Parish?  What if the parish did not have a strong religious education program for his children?

And then it hit me. St. X was a place where he and his family could attend mass, partake of the Eucharist, and hear a homily on the same scriptural texts that were read and preached upon at every other Catholic church in the world that weekend.  Each local priest would approach the weekly Gospel text differently, but that was not the point.  Catholicism is less about the homily and more about the sacrament of communion.

I should have known better.  I was born and raised in the Catholic church and did not leave until I was in high school.  I knew that it was rare for Catholics to go “church shopping.”  This was a Protestant thing, with roots dating back to the early 19th century when the separation of church and state forced churches and denominations to start competing with each other for membership and support.

My exchange with this philosophy professor took place about fifteen years ago.  I am not sure if his response to my question was representative of all Catholics at that time and I don’t know if today Catholics have become more or less consumer-oriented in choosing a parish.

But I did think about this story when I read Kaya Oakes‘s article on church shopping at the Jesuit America magazine, The subtitle of the article is “Why is it so hard for young Catholics to find the right parish.

Here is a short taste:

So with discernment and talk with my spiritual director, I started church shopping. In an urban area, this should be easy—there are dozens of Catholic churches in the East Bay Area, and even more in San Francisco. I started at one within walking distance, figuring saving gas would assuage my guilty conscience. When I arrived for the Sunday morning Mass, nobody was at the front door greeting people, so I wandered around for five minutes looking for a bulletin or a hymnal. By the time I found both, some 40 people were in the pews. The choir was good, but the homily lasted 35 minutes (I confess that I timed it) and seemed to have no central message. When it came time for singing, I was the only person within several pews pitching in—and I do not have a good singing voice. Other than one or two families with children, I was the youngest person in attendance by a couple of decades. Passing the peace was cursory, there were no social justice activities listed in the bulletin, and the priest shook one or two hands outside before disappearing.

If I didn’t know that Oakes was Catholic, and if her piece did not reference the “Mass,” it could have easily been written by a young Protestant evangelical.  Protestantism is a religion of the individual. This is why it has done so well in the United States.   Just as Americans–as individuals–make choices about their political candidates and their favorite brand of car, so American Protestants have always made consumer choices about their churches based on the preacher, the style of worship, the programs, etc….   

Oakes and the young Catholics she writes about seem to be doing the same thing.  She even notes how young Catholics like good preaching.   Catholics choosing parishes based on good preaching?  How Protestant is that?

All of this is just more evidence of the complete assimilation of Catholics into American culture.  The Pope can now speak in Congress and in front of Independence Hall.  And young Catholics have become religious consumers.