Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York greets Rabbi Moses A. Birnbaum of the Kew Gardens Hills, N.Y., Jewish Center before a luncheon for Jewish and Catholic leaders at the archbishop's residence in New York in January 2010. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In the years since Vatican Council II,
American Catholics and Jews have pursued a positive dialogue aimed,
among other things, at exploring areas of common ground. Far from
positive, but a crucial area of shared experience all the same, is
the damage done to the respective religious identities of Jews and
Catholics by assimilation into a secular culture becoming ever more
hostile to faith. (If you think it isn't, by the way, consider that
some 20% of Americans now say they have no religious affiliation--up
5% in just a few years.)
On the Jewish side, the latest
evidence of this process is the study of American Jews--the most
comprehensive in a dozen years--released last month by the Pew
Research Center. Not only has the percentage of adults who say
they're Jews fallen by half since the 1950s to under 2% now, but
among those who still self-identify as Jewish, more than one in five
report having no religion.
This is possible, the Pew people
explain, because Jews can be Jews simply "on the basis of
ancestry, ethnicity or culture," without reference to religion.
Now, it seems, a substantial number do just that.
This phenomenon has no close parallel
among American Catholics. Or does it?
Of the 75 million Catholics in the
United States, a little math shows that as many as 20 million aren't
"practicing" members of the Church as measured by at least
occasional attendance at Mass. (Another 20 million-plus Americans
raised as Catholics no longer claim any affiliation with the Church,
but we aren't talking about them.)
So what moves the 20 million
non-practicing to self-identify as Catholic when asked about their
religion? With them as with non-religious Jews, ancestry, ethnicity
and culture--plus force of habit and a touch of nostalgia--seem as
good explanations as any. And, explanations aside, the problem for
the non-practiced religion is pretty much the same in both cases.
How did Jews get like this?
Intermarriage has a lot to do with assimilation and loss of
religious identity. The Pew researchers found that 79% of the married
"no religion" Jews had non-Jewish spouses compared with
only 36% of religious Jews. Similarly, on the Catholic side, it's
long been recognized that Catholics who marry other Catholics are
less likely to divorce than Catholics in religiously mixed marriages.
Assimilation is central to what's
happening to both religious groups. The New York Times begins
its account of the Pew study by speaking of the "rapid
assimilation" sweeping through all sectors of American Judaism
with the notable exception of the Orthodox. Near the end comes this
quote from Jane Eisner, editor of The Jewish Daily Forward,
who is said to have urged Pew to undertake the new research: "This
should serve as a wake-up call for all of us as Jews to think about
what kind of community we're going to be able to sustain if we have
so much assimilation."
For Catholics, concern about the
impact of cultural assimilation on religious identity is hardly a
brand new thought. Analysis of the assimilation process and its
unintended consequences supplies the conceptual background of my
recent book American
Church, as it does for much else of the serious
writing about U.S. Catholicism over the years.
The time, in short, is long past for
hailing the charms of the melting pot and urging no-strings-attached
assimilation into American secular culture. Catholics, Jews, and
others who value their religious traditions have all the wake-up
calls they need. Now they had better wake up.