Losing Faith — Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

December 16, 2013

Guiding my own thoughts about historical changes are these lines by the Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset: “Decisive historical changes do not come from great wars, terrible cataclysms, or ingenious inventions: it is enough that the heart of man incline its sensitive crown to one side or the other of the horizon, toward optimism or toward pessimism, toward heroism or toward utility, toward combat or toward peace.” Ortega could also have watched the human heart incline its sensitive crown toward faith or non-faith, and thus have provided a text for this December meditation.

Commonweal, a superior Catholic magazine, recently presented a symposium featuring notable, mature and senior Catholic parents who wrote about the absence of explicit Catholic faith among many of their grandchildren. The collection inspired an uncommon number of blog posts and other responses, a fact suggesting that this topic concerns multitudes.

Many Catholic friends, with whom my wife and I raised children “next door” or “next sanctuary” through the decades, report, sometimes with a tear and sometimes with haste to get past the topic: “Not one of our offspring or not one of theirs ever goes to Mass or observes anything we taught or tried to model for them.”
Most eloquent among the Commonweal authors, in my view, is Sidney Callahan, a writer whom I’ve known and respected for decades, who, with her (now post-faith) husband, ethicist Dan Callahan, was an exemplar in the “faith” community. Dr. Callahan now writes eloquently about the six Callahan children who have departed the Church and for whom “faith” is a non-issue.

I am going to let Dr. Callahan speak for herself (see reference below) and commend to readers any of the other Commonweal symposium participants whose essays are retrievable on the internet or accessible at the library. In summary: after all the church-going, discipling, and the rest, she “remains a grateful Catholic convert, while everyone else in the family is long gone from the church.” “Mom is the delegated believer in the family.”

Callahan loves and admires and praises most aspects of her children’s lives, and concludes with expressions of a spirit of hope that somehow, as if by “capillary action” and “articulation” (my terms, not hers), major features of Catholic life endure through them.

Let it be noted that this sense of loss, regret, failure, and cautious hope is not unique among Catholics. Heaped-on for “decline” in their ranks, “Mainline Protestants” experience similar losses, Judaism more so, and even Evangelical parents in great numbers voice comments similar to Callahan’s.

Let it also be noted that, while Callahan and most other commentators will refer to events that led to these departures—not Ortega’s “great wars, terrible cataclysms, or ingenious inventions” (unless media and the internet are to be factored in) we are instead seeing the “hearts of humans inclining their sensitive crowns” in subtle but decisive ways away from faith.

Of course, they and their counterparts mention happenings, such as “the sixties” or, in Catholicism, priestly abuse scandals, and offer other particulars. Also, of course, they are not all determinists, inevitableists, or ‘declinists.’ Many of them combine criticism of religious institutions with expressions of hopes and invention of stratagems, which can effect change from the current ways.

Historians with a longer view have seen moments and even epochs of revival and renewal over against times of waning or fading of faith. Certainly evidences abound that people of all ages, not least of all the young, are open to signals of transcendence and welcome spiritual striving and depth.

However, Callahan and Company in Commonweal are alerting us that while sluggish and stupid religious institutions and hierarchies need criticism, renewal, and reform, the “sensitive crown” of the human heart needs ministering by symbols, whispers, invitations, and conversations that have more to do with “the mystery of faith” than with problems of the contemporary church and culture.

Thanks, Sidney, for your contribution to this alert.


Ortega y Gasset, José. Quoted in Karl J. Weintraub, Visions of Culture. University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Callahan, Sidney. “Learning Humility, Learning Patience: Part 4 of ‘Raising Catholic Kids’.” Commonweal, November 25, 2013. Accessed December 15, 2013.

Dreher, Rod. “Kids In The Collapse of Catholic Culture.” The American Conservative, December 11, 2013. Accessed December 15, 2013. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/kids-catholic-culture-phil-lawler-sidney-callahan/.

Photo Credit: Momo64 / Photos.com


0.jpegAuthor, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.



ac_110325_151102_1489c9b397c70eff40990f.Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/god-theological-accounts-and-ethical-possibilities.



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