Department

The New New Testament

The Catholic Church has had a rough couple of decades. Can a 51-year-old layman from Westminster help turn things around? The pope thinks so.

October 2012

On a recent summer morning, Curtis Martin prepares to spread the Word. He has driven from his Westminster home to the Snow Mountain Ranch near Granby, where he’ll speak to a few dozen college kids, who are there for a weeklong summit on Catholicism. A husky 6-foot-3 with neatly cropped dark hair, graying temples, and a warm smile, Martin waits patiently while a worker helps connect Martin’s computer to the projector. The first slide of his PowerPoint presentation is a photograph of Earth taken from space, but the projector isn’t working as his audience begins to enter the room.

A woman introduces Martin by asking how many have heard of FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. Half the youngsters raise their hands and a few clap. She yields the pulpit to Martin, the group’s president and founder, who greets them by saying, somewhat jokingly, “I’m sure I’ll say a number of things that will confuse you wildly.”

Dressed in jeans and a navy sport coat, Martin begins. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in your lifetime it has gone from relatively respectable and even honorable to be a committed Catholic, to actually being a little bit questionable,” he says. “Some of the Catholic positions are perceived as bigoted; they run the risk of being declared illegal. And so we have to recognize that there’s been a real shift in the culture.” A few moments later, the projector is fixed; now these students, Martin hopes, will be able to more clearly comprehend his picture of the world.

For years now, the Roman Catholic Church has been in crisis. Although it’s one of the largest organizations in the world—with more than one billion members, including 80 million in the United States—the number of self-described Catholics who attend weekly mass plummeted from 75 percent in 1955 to 45 percent in 2003 before leveling off. The median age of a Catholic priest has also increased from 35 in 1970 to 63 today—an 80 percent bump. The average age of doctors and lawyers, by comparison, increased between three and five percent during the same span.

Nothing has done more damage to the Church’s reputation—and ability to attract new membership—than the widespread allegations that an untold number of Catholic priests have sexually abused boys over many decades, and have had their offenses covered up or ignored by Church officials. One of the largest studies of the scandal—by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, funded in part by the Church—concluded that 4 percent of priests, almost 4,400 out of about 110,000 worldwide, have been accused of sexual abuse.

Although the Vatican has tried to distance itself from the scandal, it hasn’t been able to deny or ignore Catholicism’s waning influence. That’s why, in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI announced the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization—a group of cardinals, archbishops, and bishops tasked with rekindling the Catholic faith, primarily in the United States and Europe. “In the course of history,” the pope’s order read, “[the Church’s] mission...has been particularly challenged by an abandonment of the faith…. The social changes we have witnessed in recent decades have a long and complex history, and they have profoundly altered our way of looking at the world.”

When the pope sought experts to help the council bring Catholicism’s 2,000-year-old teachings to a 2012 audience, Curtis Martin was one of two nonclergy Americans his office called. This month, Martin will travel to Rome for his first formal meeting with the group. There, he hopes to demonstrate what once inspired New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan—the highest-ranking Catholic official in the United States—to say, “If you’re looking for hope, look to FOCUS.”

On a June night at the University of Colorado Boulder, FOCUS missionary Joseph O’Loughlin and a half-dozen CU students gather for what O’Loughlin calls “pipe night.” It’s a weekly get-together of young men in which everyone smokes tobacco from artisanal wooden pipes and chats informally about all aspects of life. (FOCUS also recruits female missionaries to work with young women, and all FOCUS missionaries must raise their salaries—about $1,500 per month—from friends and family.)

The young men sit around a tattered table and drink British tea as they smoke. The conversation, which covers topics such as the Virgin Mary, Taco Bell, man cards, and hydrogen bombs, drifts past midnight. O’Loughlin hosts a few of these same guys on a separate night for Bible study, and he told me he hopes more of the pipe-night guys would soon join the Bible group.

When Martin was young, he didn’t attend pious gatherings like these. He grew up passively Catholic in Ventura, California, more interested in partying than in an apprenticeship with Jesus Christ. He recalls, on numerous occasions, sitting in class in a booze- or drug-induced haze—sometimes both. During his senior year, Martin got his girlfriend pregnant, and he helped her get an abortion.

After attending a nearby junior college, Martin enrolled at Louisiana State University. The day before he left for school, his mother handed him a copy of the New Testament. He packed it to appease her. Months later, Martin found himself drawn to the stories on its pages, specifically to the paradoxical Jesus, because, Martin says, “At one time, he’s able to show mercy to sinners and challenge the religiously hypocritical.” He began hanging out with a few Protestant classmates, playing golf, watching Monday Night Football, and going bass fishing with them. The men impressed Martin with their lofty morals and strong character. “The foul language wasn’t there,” he says. “They would talk about women, but when they did, it was respectful.” He soon joined their Bible study group. “I found myself a thousand miles away from home and a million miles from where I’d been in high school,” Martin says.

While studying graduate theology at the Catholic Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, Martin noticed the dearth of collegiate Catholic organizations. “There’s a Catholic Church either on or near every campus in America, but students don’t choose to go there,” Martin says. “Why is there not an outreach to meet them where they are and engage them in friendship? No pressure, just invitation.”

In 1993, Martin was still living in Ohio when he traveled to Denver for the annual World Youth Day—a celebration of Catholicism for young people. En route, he stopped in Rapid City, South Dakota, to visit friends who worked for a young bishop named Charles Chaput. Martin told Chaput about his vision for Catholic youth outreach. The two stayed in touch, and soon after Chaput was named archbishop of Denver in 1997, he asked Martin to move his new organization to Colorado. Martin soon launched FOCUS at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley and the Catholic Benedictine College in Kansas.

The Church’s struggles to attract and retain members make Martin’s efforts that much more impressive. Since its founding in 1998, FOCUS has spread to 74 schools in 29 states and has grown from two staff members to more than 400. FOCUS has brought hundreds, maybe thousands, of new members into the aging Church. Even the University of Colorado Boulder, Playboy magazine’s top party school of 2011, has a strong FOCUS presence.

Although the Pontifical Council aims to adapt the Church to the modern world, that mission won’t include any shifts in Catholic philosophy. The Church remains vehemently opposed to abortion, same-sex unions, contraception, and in vitro fertilization—and FOCUS adheres to these tenets. Martin concedes that the alleged priestly abuse is “scandalous” and that the Church must be held to a higher standard. Still, he insists many great priests remain. “You’ve got hundreds of faithful priests, and 10 percent of them are off-the-charts amazing guys.”

Amid controversy, however, Martin sees opportunity. “The last 60 years have been a pretty brutal time for the Catholic Church,” he says. “I’m not an expert in history, but what frequently happens through those scandals is that the Church gets smaller and stronger, and then experiences new growth.”

Martin educates Catholic officials throughout the United States about FOCUS and speaks regularly at Christian men’s conferences, all while raising eight kids with Michaelann, his wife of 22 years. He worries about rearing them in a society that has abandoned Christianity. “I’d like to think things are going to get better, because raising eight kids in this culture is challenging,” Martin says. “If it’s getting worse, it’s going to be really brutal for my kids to raise my grandkids.”

Back inside the classroom at Snow Mountain Ranch, Martin has concluded his presentation and solicits questions. A young woman reluctantly raises her hand and asks in a pained tone, “About gay marriage, I want to be able to explain it to people who question me about it. It’s always been explained to me that being gay isn’t a sin, but performing [those] acts are—outside of marriage. But because they aren’t allowed to get married, that’s where the argument starts.”

She continues as Martin gently encourages her. “One of my best friends is gay, and he is a practicing Catholic. He’s Catholic,” she says. “So he really struggles with the fact that he’s gay, because he doesn’t know how to live out his life. And…I don’t know how to answer that question for him.”

It’s a perfect example of the 21st-century culture Martin and the Church are facing—a world seemingly incongruous with Catholicism’s rigid ideology. And so, in some ways, the young woman’s question is the question Martin and the Church must answer.

Although Martin appears to be sympathetic to her concerns, he offers her a nonanswer that underlines the difficulty the Church has in connecting with a modern audience. He starts with, “This is a great question,” before rambling through a four-minute response during which he repeats “There’s no easy answer” six times. He invokes today’s “hook-up” culture, suggests “there’s a lot of mystery” surrounding the issue, and says God’s answer is the most merciful one. “I think there’s going to be an answer that your generation is going to raise up, because the percentage of people that have gone through this is higher in your generation for many reasons—some we can guess, others we don’t know,” he says. “But I think it’s going to teach us something about love that is going to be profound in our culture.”

For the final time, in a softened voice, he says, “No easy answer” and thanks the young woman for her question.