Sandro Magister in his blog has once again directed our attention to a remarkable essay. To accompany the pope’s recent visit to Venice, L’Osservatore Romano published a most interesting article and survey by Alessandro Castegnaro regarding the beliefs and practice among Catholics in the Northeast corner of Italy and how these have evolved over the last 50 years. According to this author at least, this region was once the stronghold of religious practice in North Italy. What has happened in the last 50 years is the same sad story familiar to us all. Attendance at Sunday Mass has dropped from 80% in the early 1960’s – exemplary for Italy at that time – to barely 26-28%. 90% of those interviewed acknowledged with some degree of certitude the existence of God – but only half of these accepted the existence of a “Christian God.” 80-90 % have a belief of some kind in life after death, but only 30 % believe in the Resurrection. In “Alto Adige” (Südtirol) well over 90% of the children are still baptized – but 48% are born out of wedlock. While the vast majority of the population of the Veneto still considers itself Christian, the degree to which they accept the teachings and morality of the Church varies widely. What exists today is a wide spectrum of individual beliefs and religious practices. “Multiple Catholicisms have emerged.”
Now many intelligent observers who have predicted or described this situation have seen it as the natural consequence of decisions associated with the Second Vatican Council, its aftermath or both. Fr. Gomar De Pauw spoke (in 1965!) of a US Catholic laity being told by the bishops returning from the Council that they could now be Catholic without the need to practice Catholicism. Later, Malachi Martin wrote of “autozoic” individual churches, movements and communities existing within the increasingly nebulous framework of the Church. George Weigel writes of the “Truce of 1968” relating to Humanae Vitae in which the Vatican de facto accepted and indeed endorsed “dissent” both in theory and practice from its own teaching within the Church itself. At the present day, the institutional Church remains formally unchallenged and Catholics continue to regard themselves as such – but for the majority the substance of Catholic belief and practice has undergone a radical transformation. The hierarchy in turn dares not challenge this state of affairs for fear of “schism.” Maintaining the “great façade” of Church unity and hierarchical control becomes an end in itself.
Castegnano has provided an succinct perceptive description of the Catholicism of the present day. Regrettably, he is unable to provide an equally convincing analysis of why this situation has come about. Rather, in the opening and concluding paragraphs of the article (which Sandro Magister does not reproduce in his blog) he insinuates that the traditional Catholicism of the Veneto as it existed up till the 60’s rested on the foundation of economic underdevelopment, social group identity and religious conformism. This world was shaken by economic progress, consumerism, immigration etc. Obviously these developments had their effects – but Castegnano does not even mention that there were significant changes in the Church itself over the last 50 years! According to him, what has replaced traditional popular Catholicism is a religion of “choice” in “freedom” by those “who do not seek to evade the questions of contemporary man and live on the precipice of an uncertain search.” Thus Castegnaro would seem to conclude that the loss of Catholic culture and the decline of religious practice are positive developments. The same kind of nonsense (about the “Catholic ghetto” and the newly “mature Christians” emerging from it) could have been written in 1960 – nothing has changed. It will be a long time before the rhetoric and attitudes of the “hermeneutic of rupture” depart from the official Catholic press.