Volume > Issue > A Terrible Forgetting

A Terrible Forgetting


By Pieter Vree | June 2023
Pieter Vree is Editor of the NOR.

Who’s your master?

You have one, even if you don’t realize it. And you’re at your master’s service.

“We may choose our master, but God or mammon we must serve,” said St. John Henry Newman. “We cannot possibly be in a neutral or intermediate state. Such a state does not exist…. We cannot be without a master. Such is the law of our nature” (sermon, “The Strictness of the Law of Christ”).

We must choose either God or mammon.

What is mammon? It is a Semitic word for money, or riches. Jesus Christ used it to great effect when He introduced the parable of Dives and Lazarus by saying, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Lk. 16:13).

Now, Jesus’ teachings stand on their own; they don’t need empirical data to prove them correct. And yet current, large-scale economic and religious trends cast Our Lord’s (and, by extension, Newman’s) words in stark relief.

Mark Gray of Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate recently analyzed data from the seventh edition of the “World Values Survey,” an ongoing, international study of religious belief. In an article titled “Where Is Mass Attendance Highest and Lowest?” (Jan. 23), he ranked the 36 countries with the largest Catholic populations based on the frequency of Mass attendance (that is, based on the number of Catholics who report attending Mass weekly or more, while excluding weddings, funerals, and baptisms).

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the United States ranked in the bottom third overall, with 17 percent Mass attendance, coming in 28th place out of the 36 countries in Gray’s analysis. The eight countries with lower Mass attendance are, in descending order:

  • Lithuania (16%)
  •  Germany and Canada (tied at 14%)
  •  Latvia and Switzerland (tied at 11%)
  •  France and Brazil (8%)
  •  the Netherlands (dead last at 7%)

Yes, these figures are dismal. But we’ve known for some time that in most of these nations the Catholic Church has been suffering massive losses, in both population and piety.

Which nations are the leaders in weekly Mass attendance? It should also come as no surprise that six of the top seven are located in what’s called the Global South. The nations with the highest attendance are, in order:

1. Nigeria (94%)
2. Kenya (73%)
3. Lebanon (69%)
4. the Philippines (56%)
5. Colombia (54%)
6. Poland (52%)
7. Ecuador (50%)

There is something striking about the clustering of the countries at the top and the bottom of the list. With a couple exceptions, those with a higher gross domestic product (GDP) tend to have a lower level of Mass attendance, whereas those with a lower GDP tend to have a higher level of attendance.

For example, the United States is the world’s leader in nominal GDP, according to the latest data from the International Monetary Fund. (Nominal GDP is a country’s total economic output calculated using current prices and without adjusting for inflation.) Germany is fourth, France is sixth, Brazil is ninth, and Canada is tenth. And yet each is at or near the bottom in Mass attendance.

On the flipside, Nigeria ranks 26th, Kenya 61st, Ecuador 64th, and Lebanon 112th in nominal GDP. And yet they are at the top in Mass attendance.

What are we to make of this?

Gray is reticent to try to explain it. “The precise mechanisms associated with economic development and wealth that are impacting Catholics’ participation in the faith and identification as religious are unclear,” he wrote. But, he admitted, “whatever they are, they matter significantly.”

Gee, thanks. That was really insightful. Not!

Luckily, the late Tom Bethell, a former contributing editor of the NOR, wrote an article in these pages addressing this very topic. Bethell notes in “The Spiritual Hazards of Wealth” (April 2005) that “the rising prosperity in the West following its movement toward capitalism (beginning in the late 17th century) seems to account for the decline of the Christian faith in the same period.”

Does a rise in prosperity in the West (where most of the countries with the lowest Mass attendance are located) account for the decline of faith in the present period?

One of the common refrains among free-market evangelists is that capitalism has pulled billions of people out of poverty. Whether this is so, it is fair to ask, from a Catholic perspective, if, after people’s basic needs have been met, the stockpiling of wealth has been a positive development.

Consider Bethell’s observation. Jesus, he writes, “sees wealth above all as something that distracts us. He tells a young man that if he wishes to be ‘perfect,’ he should sell what he has and give it to the poor. The young man wasn’t too happy about that. The potential of attaining wealth orients us toward the wrong goal, a worldly goal filled with choices, delights, and distractions. We forget about our souls, and we try to forget about death.”

Note that Bethell isn’t writing about wealth itself; rather, he specifies that the potential to attain wealth, or merely the ability to earn riches, brings choices, delights, and distractions — and a terrible forgetting.

Nowhere is this more evident than among the group that was supposed to keep U.S. Catholicism vibrant: Hispanic Catholics.

As mentioned above, the United States has the world’s largest nominal GDP. It also has the world’s fourth largest Catholic population. But the Church in the United States isn’t as healthy as she should be. Over the past several decades, she has been boosted by the ongoing influx of Hispanic immigrants to the United States, the majority of whom arrive as Catholics. But once settled, they tend to become forgetful.

Hosffman Ospino of Our Sunday Visitor News (April 18) writes that, during the past half-century, Hispanics became “the major source of demographic vitality for our Church. Today, nearly half of all Catholics in the country are Hispanic…. When most Hispanics were Catholic, pastoral leaders at all levels, from bishops to catechetical leaders and pastors in parishes, viewed this population as a breath of fresh air, injecting new life into faith communities and structures.”

That fresh air is turning stale. Could it be the stench of mammon?

As I pointed out in my April column (“Our Future Foretold”), the share of U.S. Hispanic Catholics who do not attend weekly Mass doubled after the COVID-19 lockdowns. This sad factoid is but an indicator of a more troubling development: fewer U.S. Hispanics are self-identifying as Catholics. As Ospino reports, the Pew Research Center recently “updated its estimates reporting that about 43% of all Hispanic adults in the U.S. self-identify as Catholic. Just a decade ago, in 2010, that estimate was 67%.”

Ospino calls this drop “rather breathtaking.”

Further, he writes, “The biggest phenomenon affecting Hispanics in America is this: they are religiously disaffiliating, which has become a de facto highway into secularization. About 30% of Hispanic adults are religiously unaffiliated; most of them are former Catholics — another breathtaking piece of information.”

To what can we attribute this loss of faith, this de-facto secularization, among Hispanic Catholics? Could it be the rise in prosperity that Bethell identified?

Hispanics today “have rates of intergenerational mobility…similar to those of whites,” write economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Maggie R. Jones, and Sonya R. Porter (“Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 2020). “Hispanics are on an upward trajectory across generations and may close most of the gap between their incomes and those of whites.”

Hispanic upward mobility cuts across economic classes. According to a CNN Business report (June 22, 2018), “Among those who grew up lower middle class, 28% of Hispanics made it to the upper middle class or higher, compared to 35% of whites…. And 14% of middle class Hispanic kids made it to the top of the income scale, compared to 19% of whites…. Hispanics also were more likely to escape poverty. Some 45% of Hispanics who grew up in the lowest income quintile made it to the middle class or even higher, compared to 46% of whites.”

Yes, the experience of U.S. Hispanics in the 21st century is an economic success story. But, much like other Catholic immigrant groups before them, it appears that the cost of success is the loss of faith.

Now, as we all know, correlation does not equal causation. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable coincidence, at the very least, that as Hispanics ascend to higher income brackets, they are shedding their religious identity. Should we be surprised? Again, no. Popes and saints down the ages have reminded us of this very phenomenon, which, like all things under the sun, isn’t new. “There is nothing more grievous than luxury,” said St. John Chrysostom way back in the fourth century, for it “often leads to forgetfulness.”

A corollary of this consistent warning is the Church’s preferential option for the poor, which has biblical roots. St. James wrote in his epistle that God has chosen “the poor in the world to be rich in faith, and to be heirs of the kingdom” (Jas. 2:5).

He could say this because Our Lord, in delivering the parable of Dives and Lazarus, compared the rich and poor unfavorably, placing the poor man in “Abraham’s bosom,” while the rich man suffered the “anguish” and “torments” of Hell (cf. Lk. 16:19-26). Notably, Christ directed this parable to the Pharisees, whom Luke describes as “lovers of money” (16:14).

Once again, empirical data has proven St. James’s precept. Who are the richest in faith today? They are poor in Nigeria, at least according to the criteria set forth by the “World Values Survey.” A very robust 94 percent of Nigerian Catholics attend Mass weekly, if not more frequently.

How poor are the poor in Nigeria? According to Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, 63 percent of the population lives in poverty, and, unlike U.S. Hispanics, the population is getting poorer. The Economist (Jan. 9) has the details: “Between 2015 and 2020 the average income per [Nigerian] person (adjusted for purchasing power) slid from $5,400 to $4,900 a year. The share of Nigerians living on less than $1.90 a day…increased to almost 40% in 2019.” And that was before the advent of COVID-19, which ushered in Nigeria’s deepest recession since the 1980s, as the country’s GDP suffered a 34.1 percent loss, and an additional 27 million people fell below the poverty line.

Is it merely a coincidence that where the economic situation is direst, Mass attendance is highest?

There is, of course, something else of great significance happening in Nigeria besides rampant poverty: Muslim persecution of Nigerian Christians.

According to the latest “World Watch List” released by Open Doors, a nonprofit organization that serves persecuted Christian populations around the world, violence against Christians is at its highest point in three decades. In sub-Saharan Africa, the group says, anti-Christian violence has reached “unprecedented intensity.” Nigeria is at the epicenter of the atrocities: 5,014 Christians were killed in Nigeria in 2022, nearly 90 percent of the total number of all Christians killed worldwide last year. In addition to the murders, millions of Nigerians have had to flee their homes to escape violence.

Needless to say, violence and economics alone don’t account for the high rate of Mass attendance in Nigeria. Peter Cardinal Okpaleke, bishop of the Nigerian Diocese of Ekwulobia, offered a more spiritual explanation. Nigerian society as a whole, in contradistinction to the rapidly secularizing West, has “a traditional worldview” that recognizes the presence of God in life and society, he said in an interview with Catholic News Agency (Feb. 14). Nigerians have not lost sight of how the spiritual world permeates this world. “There is a general awareness of the role of the divine in human life,” explained Cardinal Okpaleke. “It is this awareness that translates into Mass attendance for Catholics, who come to Mass to encounter Christ in the Eucharist.”

It is precisely this awareness that is being lost in wealthier nations, even among historically poor communities that are vying for a slice of the pie in wealthier nations. Economic striving, it seems, carries an inherent risk of religious forgetting.

If we take the opposing trajectories (both economic and religious) of U.S. Hispanic Catholics and Nigerian Catholics as our guide, we can glean a couple formulae:

  • The greatest factors for maximizing religious commitment seem to be poverty and persecution.
  •  The greatest factors for minimizing religious commitment seem to be wealth and security.

As Newman said, we will have our master, whom we must serve; it is part of our human nature. So we must choose wisely.

Will you serve God or mammon?

Those of us who would avoid falling into the trap of forgetting God would do well to heed Christ’s instruction: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt. 6:19-21).


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