Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
Since 2002, when the first wave of the Church’s scandal broke in Boston, sociologists have seen a steady rise of people identifying with no faith or religious tradition whatsoever. Described as “Nones,” they are 23% of the population, outnumbering Catholics as the largest “religious” identification group.
Catholic hopes to meet this opportunity to propose (or re-propose) the Gospel, however, have been badly hit by the ugly truth of sex abuse crisis, since the summer of 2018 unveiled the huge role of bishops and the Vatican in the cover-up of crimes and malfeasance toward the clergy’s Catholic victims. The number of Catholic faithful who have questioned whether they can identify as Catholic has risen to 37% (2019) up from 22% (2002). Today, one out of 5 Catholics (22%) has questioned whether they can remain Catholic — up from 12% in 2002.
Amid the scandal, Los Angeles auxiliary, Bishop Robert Barron, told the Register that Catholics should have confidence to propose Jesus Christ and his Good News to those who identify as “Nones.”
You’ve been focused on this question of evangelizing the Nones for a long time. What made you realize that this was a key group the Church needed to focus on and reach?
I have always thought in concentric circles. There is a group that remains rather close to the center of the Church who need to be evangelized, namely, those who attend Mass and receive the sacraments but are rather blasé about their faith. Going outward from that group, to the next circle, we find inactive Catholics; in the following circle are those who are members of other Christian denominations; and finally, we come to the outermost circle, to those who have fallen completely away from religion. I’m interested in all of those groups, but I guess I’ve always had an instinct, as Pope Francis says, for the margins.
When engaging the Nones, what approaches have you found to be effective?
I have found good success with videos that include an interactive element. I do a commentary on some aspect of the faith or the contemporary culture, and then people have a chance to respond, question, vent their spleen, etc. Even those who comment only to upbraid me or tell me how stupid I am at least give me a way in, some traction. Usually, by responding positively, I can start a conversation. I have also found that the use of the beautiful (rather than the good and the true) tends to be more efficacious with the unaffiliated. I just show them some beautiful expression of the Catholic tradition and tell them why it’s beautiful. That usually provides a way in.
Do you think the sex-abuse crisis, and the scandal of how bishops and chanceries have treated victims, is an obstacle to evangelizing the “Nones”?
The scandals, obviously, have negatively affected evangelization. Many people, especially those who have actively abandoned the Church, simply think Catholicism is too corrupt to be taken seriously. I usually lead with St. Paul’s insight that we carry the treasure of the Church in earthen vessels — and then I talk about the treasure. From the earliest years of the Church’s life, followers of Christ have behaved badly, and in point of fact, our doctrine of original sin and its effects should lead us to expect this misbehavior. But even the worst sins of Christians don’t destroy the treasure of God’s grace, Christ’s love, the witness of the saints, the power of the sacraments, etc.
Are “Nones” a monolithic group? Are there subset groups within “Nones” that have to be approached differently from the standpoint of Catholic evangelization?
The “Nones” are certainly not monolithic. Some have drifted away; others have stormed away. Some have had very little religious instruction; others are objecting to specific doctrines and practices. Some are in their teens; others are in their 60s and 70s.
Each group calls for a specific evangelical strategy. For example, to those who have clear intellectual objections to the faith, a rigorous apologetic approach is appropriate; and to those who are angry at the misbehavior of priests and bishops, the cultivation of an attitude of welcome and the building up of trust are probably the most important moves. For those who have drifted away, I often recommend the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty).
What do we Catholics have to do differently in order to invite Nones into fellowship with the Body of Christ? Is there a hunger that we can feed?
On the practical level, the most important thing we can do is to develop a digital outreach. Most “Nones” are not spontaneously going to come to our parish programs. We have to move into their space, and the social media give us the opportunity to do so — and in a way that is inviting rather than threatening. I would recommend commencing with elements of the culture — films, music, books, etc. — that are redolent of the Christian faith. The hunger you speak of is the longing of soul that St. Augustine identified long ago: “Lord, you have made us for yourself; therefore, our heart is restless until it rests in thee.” We should take Augustine’s insight as a source of tremendous encouragement and inspiration: the words we are offering are food for the hungry soul.
Many Catholics look at the growth of the “Nones” with discouragement. Why do you have confidence that Catholics can evangelize successfully men and women who do not, or no longer, identify with faith?
Of course we can evangelize the “Nones!” My confidence comes from the Holy Spirit. Jesus told his first disciples to announce the Good News to the ends of the world. Last time I checked, that order has not been rescinded. And the risen Christ sent (and sends) his Holy Spirit to equip us for this work. We don’t rely upon ourselves and our own cleverness. We rely on the Spirit. And therefore, we will not fail.
Read related Register coverage: As ‘Nones’ Rise in Numbers, Catholic Church Faces Evangelization Challenge by Peter Jesserer Smith
Reporter’s note: This interview was conducted April 12. Since then, Bishop Barron has written and published a book, Letter to a Suffering Church, addressing the sex abuse crisis and the path forward.