Dr. Kreeft: Lax faith of U.S. Catholics symptomatic of Church’s comfort in society

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PROVIDENCE — St. Teresa of Calcutta once said that if someone wants to change their world, the first step was to go home and love their family.

That sort of close-to-home evangelization was a key theme in philosopher Peter Kreeft’s recent talk at St. Pius V Church.

“How do we show our faith? By our lives,” said Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College who has written 75 books including “Handbook of Christian Apologetics,” “Christianity for Modern Pagans” and “Fundamentals of the Faith.”

In his hour-long talk, entitled “Unconscious Atheism: the Dangers of Living a Nominal Catholic Life,” Kreeft emphasized the need for Catholics to truly live the Catholic faith, not just in words but in deeds.

“To be a Christian is to sign on to what Jesus did,” Kreeft said while speaking to a packed church audience.

Kreeft noted the statistics that show that many modern Christians in the West reflect the secular world’s values in their daily lives. He added that Catholics in the United States divorce, have sex outside of marriage and use contraception at similar rates to non-Christians.

Less than 40 percent of Catholics attend church in any given week, according to a Gallup poll released earlier this year, and only about 10 percent of Catholics worldwide agree with the Church’s teaching on birth control.

Kreeft said if more Catholics read St. Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body — the late pontiff’s catechesis on human love in the divine plan — they would see “the beautiful reasons” behind the Catholic sexual ethic.

The overall lax faith of Catholics in the United States, and in the West in general, is symptomatic of the Church’s experience throughout history when it is comfortable in society, Kreeft suggested.

While adding that six times more Catholics in the United States leave the Church rather than join it — leading some observers to say that ex-Catholics comprise the second-largest religious group in the country — Kreeft noted that the Church in China grew from 5 million Christians in the 1950s to 50 million during a 20-year period of intense persecution.

“Wherever the Church is persecuted, she multiplies. Wherever the Church is comfortable, she declines. That’s true throughout history,” Kreeft said.

Where the Church today is vibrant, Kreeft said, is in Africa and Latin America, where miracles have been reported and missionaries are being sent to re-evangelize the West. Even in the Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East, conversions to Christianity are happening for the first time in 1,400 years.

“Something is happening there,” Kreeft said.

A handful of attendees asked Kreeft how the West can stem the tide of secularization. Rather than proposing top-down programs, Kreeft said the response begins with conforming oneself to Christ. He added that the apostles and early Christians did not convert pagan Rome through politics.

“It was by their example, their behavior, their mercy, their holiness,” Kreeft added.

Leticia Velasquez, a Connecticut resident and a Catholic writer who drove an hour to attend Kreeft’s talk, later said she was impressed “with how practical” and “down to earth” the Boston College philosophy professor was.

“The man is brilliant and his intelligence shows in that he takes the greatest moral truths and he doesn’t present them in an obscure way,” Velasquez said.

Mazel Belt, 29, an East Providence native who now lives in New Hampshire, also drove to Rhode Island to listen to Kreeft, adding that she has read several of his books.

“I loved it, as I expected,” Belt said. “I think what stood out to me the most was that we’re called to be saints.”

Taking the Catholic faith seriously, living the Gospel and reaching out to others were key takeaways for David Martinez, a Providence resident who is a parishioner of St. Pius V and serves as the parish’s music director.

“So often we think of saints as being people whose holiness we could never obtain,” Martinez said. “None of the saints were perfect in their own lifetimes. As (Kreeft) pointed out, we’re all made in God’s image, and there is no reason we can’t pursue holiness like the great saints did, like Mother Teresa.”