A recent Pew survey points to a drift away from institutionalized religion and a robust tendency towards spirituality. I’ll leave a detailed examination of the numbers to others, but I think Catholic America needs to revisit the spiritual side of religion expressed in the term “spirituality.”
In the history of Catholicism, spiritualities arose at moments of crisis to renew the Church. Franciscan spirituality, for instance, emerged at a time of increasing commercial wealth that had created a new class of urban poor. The Franciscan spirituality added a new charism to Catholic virtue. While it was eventually approved by the hierarchy, Franciscanism at its core is spirituality arising from among the faithful.
It may be a good thing to see the rise of spirituality in contemporary Catholic America, even if the hierarchy does not command the movement. It proves the vitality of the faith, although it probably will require a lot of hard work to keep this energy focused on renewing today’s institutionalized Church.
Church leaders run the risk of ignoring the current rise of the “NONES.” This is a category for religious surveys developed by my colleagues Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar and incorporated in the American Religious Identification Surveys (ARIS) over more than two decades. A NONE says to the survey that he/she has “no particular religion.” But the NONES are not the same as atheists. The NONES may deny the importance of institutionalized religion but they do not share the atheist’s common belief that the spiritual world does not exist.
A special characteristic of the current spirituality among the NONES is the inclusion of practices taken from religions like Wicca, Santería and Buddhism in forging eclectic new mixes. It would be a mistake, I think, to view this rising phenomenon in the United States as a result of intellectual confusion, ignorance or superstition. While none of us are immune from error, much of the new spirituality is in fact focused on a person’s encounter with spirits. Thus, for instance, the new survey found that 29 percent of respondents had experienced contact with spirits of the dead. Notice that this is not abstract “belief that ghosts exist,” but an actual lived experience. While atheists might use reason to state a priori that such contact is impossible, or a bishop might declare that such reports are “unconfirmed by ecclesiastical authority,” it is clear that, among a sizable group, lived religion trumps fact-denying declarations from professional nay-sayers.
Spirituality that recognizes living contact with spirits is especially important to the Latino segment of Catholic America to which I belong and which is a large and ever growing part of the Church’s future. Our Catholicism has always had room for spirituality based on the sentiment: “If you have talked to a Puerto Rican and he/she has not mentioned the spirits, then you haven’t talked to him/her long enough.”
I would not say that every reported experience with ghosts is automatically to be accepted. However, even when we Latinos and Latinas doubt the divine origin of a particular reported spirit manifestation, we recognize that the spiritual world does actually exist and is not bound by normal, ordinary rules. Moreover, even when the manifestation is attributed to the devil or restless spirits, we do not deny that the manifestation may be real – we instead invoke divine protection as a response to the reality of evil spirits.
Latinos and Latinas are not the only ones to have such views. The Irish often are wary of “the little people,” and Italians are not the only ones to fear the “evil eye” (as reported in the survey). Renewed interest in Celtic or Mediterranean spirituality includes such elements.
Contact with spirits occurs in the “paranormal:” It not an imagined realm, but a spiritual dimension of humanity that exists alongside the merely rational dimension of life. (“Alongside” is after all a meaning of “para” in “paranormal.”) It remains to be seen if institutionalized religion will expand enough in the future to embrace this aspect of contemporary spirituality. Past Catholicism gloried in paranormal manifestations like levitation, the stigmata, and apparitions that framed our piety. The return to a spirit-filled spirituality may be in the future of Catholic America.