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Posted November 14, 2005

Theology On Tap As Reported in the New York Times

Published: November 12, 2005

MANCHESTER, N.H., Nov. 10 - On Thursday night, the Rev. Marc Montminy's pulpit was a cocktail table, and his flock all had their I.D.'s checked by a burly bouncer at the door.

Father Montminy was speaking to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester's Theology on Tap program, a series of lecture and question-and-answer sessions held in bars that engage young adults in discussion about Catholic doctrine.

"You have a beer; it's very relaxed," said Father Montminy, who sipped a Chivas Regal on the rocks after his program, titled "It ain't easy being a Catholic today," where he fielded questions on topics like cohabitation, gay parishioners and the sexual abuse scandal in the clergy.

The goal, organizers said, is to explain and discuss the church's view on topics of faith and social issues, and to dispel any preconceived notions. A drink in a familiar place usually helps loosen up young people reluctant to inquire about touchy topics, organizers said.

"If you go through Christian scripture, where did Jesus encounter people?" said the Rev. John Cusick, a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago. "At the well, where people gathered. This is a culture where people in their 20's and 30's meet one another in bars."

"Bars aren't evil," said Father Cusick, who developed Theology on Tap in 1980 to teach Catholicism in an atmosphere where adults ages 18 to 35 would feel at ease. "They're where people gather. Why can't we take the message to where the people are and not wait for the people to come to us?"

Father Cusick said the program had grown exponentially in the past five years. He believes the renewed interest comes from a generation of young people who do not regularly attend religious services but are hungry for some sort of spirituality or faith.

"With all of the fluidity in the workplace and elsewhere," Father Cusick said, "I think this generation has begun to ask 'What is of lasting value? Is there anything I can really hold onto in this world that's up for grabs?' " Catholic dioceses in 46 states and five countries now have a Theology on Tap program, he said, and about 28,000 people are on their mailing lists. Other denominations have also adopted the program, including the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Boston.

The Rev. Patrick Gray, the assistant priest at Church of the Advent, said, "I think what this program does so admirably is show that theology can be interesting and fun."

Program directors said that they had never had a problem with people drinking too much, and that the importance of designated drivers was emphasized.

"It's not like a drunk fest," said Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The Tampa chapter gave Ann Bayro, 27, an opportunity to reconnect with the church she became disconnected from at college.

"It's different when you go into church alone," said Ms. Bayro, who usually has a soda and a salad during the group's Tuesday meetings at Margarita Mamma's in Tampa. "You don't feel like you have a community. You're just one more person there.

"I needed to get back to spirituality to deal with my daily burdens. This helped a lot, not only because you're going to learn about faith, but you're meeting people who have similar interests."

The San Francisco group started this year, and Maryellen Mullin, 29, attended two sessions, one on feminism and the church and another on immigration. Ms. Mullin said she was most surprised to hear two nuns speak about how the church had changed from a lay-powered community to a male-powered one. Some women challenged men about having power, she said, and a discussion of male versus female roles ensued.

"It was a really positive way to have an open dialogue," Ms. Mullin said.

Mary Jansen, 35, who runs the San Francisco program, said it was directed toward unrooted young adults.

"In our diocese it's really intended for the Catholic not quite attached to a parish community and who might not feel comfortable talking about issues of faith in a church, but would in a bar," Ms. Jansen said.

Tim Casey, 29, of Tampa, said, "A lot of people think of the Catholic Church as a closed, black-and-white-type of religion, but when you have Theology on Tap and an open dialogue, it shows that there's a gray area and room for discussion."

Father Montminy tried to do just that at the Strange Brew Tavern here in front of a crowd of at least 75 people, most of whom were having a pint of one of 40 tap beers. He spoke of the struggles that come with reconciling the secular world and Catholic teaching.

"Is it easy being a Catholic? Absolutely not," he said to applause. "But I'd rather have a church that demands more of me than less."

Those demands include abstaining from sex and cohabitation before marriage, and Father Montminy was asked how he would advise a couple who were abstaining from neither.

"I'd try not to judge them," he said. "For 40 years the media has been telling people to live together. But I'd tell the woman not to live with the guy, because he won't marry you."

Jesse Kurtz, 21, wondered how to get his friends to explore Catholicism, despite the abuse scandal and negative views of the religion.

"It's like showing someone a fruit that's bruised and getting them to eat the good part," Mr. Kurtz said afterward. "But things like this show us we're not alone."

Father Montminy said the abuse scandal, which hit his diocese particularly hard, as it is 55 miles from Boston, tested him as well. "With the whole scandal there were times I was embarrassed to wear my robe and collar," he said, "but I needed to speak the truth. I wanted to lift the church up."

The promise of open dialogue drew in Richard and Karen Mailhot of Deerfield, N.H. The couple, who come to the Strange Brew each week for dinner and dancing, saw the Theology on Tap flyer last month and decided to check it out despite being older - Richard is 53 and Karen is 44. They returned for their third session because they thought the first meetings were honest discussions. Richard, who left the church 20 years ago after a divorce, said the program was spurring him to inquire about Catholicism.

"I might now try to answer some longstanding questions and possibly renew some level of faith," he said. "I'm more likely to put up my hand here than in a church."