Friday, October 22, 2010

A Church Further Adrift

Recently over at Enlightened Catholicism, Colleen Kochivar-Baker highlighted an insightful, if rather sobering article by Peter Steinfels (pictured at right), co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture.

Steinfels wrote his piece for Commonweal in response to a recent Pew Foundation study that found that “Catholicism has lost more people to other religions or to no religion at all than any other single religious group.”

Following are highlights from Steinfels informed commentary on this reality. (NOTE: To read Steinfels’ commentary in its entirety, click here. To read Colleen Kochivar-Baker’s erudite reflections on the issues raised by Steinfels, click here.)


In February 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, based on interviews with a representative sample of thirty-five thousand adult Americans, reported that one out of every three adult Americans who were raised Catholic have left the church. If these ex-Catholics were to form a single church, they would constitute the second largest church in the nation. . . . Thomas Reese, SJ, the former editor of America, recently described this loss of one-third of those raised Catholic as “a disaster.” He added, “You wonder if the bishops have noticed.”

. . . Those who hailed a new day with the advent of a “John Paul II generation” were suffering, I suggest, from “sampling error.” Buoyed by the hundreds of thousands who gathered at World Youth Days, they did not look closely at the millions who were absent. So while our own firsthand impressions and diligent perusal of news sources are irreplaceable, we badly need surveys based on representative samples. Yes, they always suffer from the simplifications necessary to gather and organize large amounts of data, but their findings are checks against our own anecdotal impressions and those from the media sources we favor.

According to the Pew survey, about half of that one-third leaving the church enter the ranks of the fastest-growing religious group in the nation, the “nones,” people who tell pollsters they have no particular religious affiliation, although many hew to surprisingly familiar religious beliefs and practices. The other half of Catholics leaving the church join Protestant denominations (and, more often than not, Evangelical). Catholics becoming unaffiliated stressed disagreement with church teachings, both general teachings and church positions on specific issues like abortion, homosexuality, and treatment of women, and to a lesser extent clerical celibacy. In open-ended questioning, they also stressed hypocrisy and other moral and spiritual failures of church leaders and fellow Catholics.

The divisive factors driving people from Catholic ranks are only magnified versions of those within Catholic ranks. There one sees at work all the hot-button issues that now unaffiliated former Catholics point to, as well as the sharp reaction, especially to teachings on homosexuality and identification with high-octane conservative politics, that [researchers] Putnam and Campbell conclude are currently driving young people from religion altogether. Within the church, one also sees the longing for effective worship, meeting spiritual needs, and pastoral creativity that many now-Protestant former Catholics, especially Evangelicals, underlined.

Liturgical language, decorum, and participation. Quality of homilies. The shortage of priests. Celibacy. The role of women and their ordination. Transparency and consultation in church governance at every level, from the parish to the Vatican. Anti-Catholicism in the media. Religious identity and the role of the hierarchy in Catholic higher education and health care. Monitoring of Catholic theology. Abortion and same-sex relations, and the even more combustible demand that Catholic citizens and civic leaders be answerable to episcopal judgments about laws regarding these matters.

I list these familiar sources of conflict in no particular order except for the last because I think the growing tendency of prominent bishops to claim authority not only in moral principles but even in rather fine-grained judgments about translating those principles into public policy has tremendous potential for divisiveness. It appears to overturn a stance the hierarchy has long followed and spelled out explicitly in their pastoral letters on nuclear defense and on the U.S. economy. Are these bishops repeating the behavior of Religious Right leaders who have now faded from prominence—but only after provoking, if Putnam and Campbell are right, a strong anti-religious backlash among the young?

There are several ways of missing this reality. It is true that the one-third exit rate of Catholics is actually lower than the rate of loss suffered by many other groups. Americans live in a constant religious churn. Almost half change their religious affiliation in the course of their lives. This is even true of the “nones.” One can also point out that Catholicism enjoys numerous converts. A number of people are baptized or enter into full communion at my parish’s bilingual Easter Vigil every year. But most of the losses among Protestant denominations are simply to other Protestant denominations. As for converts, the experience of parishes like mine illustrates “sampling error” once again. We celebrate those coming in the door; we don’t note publicly those going out; perhaps no one notices at all except saddened family members. In reality, three Catholics leave the church for each one who enters.

Then there is the good news about Latino Catholics, whose growing numbers both from immigration and higher birthrates have largely compensated for the losses and maintained the church’s proportion of the population at a more or less steady level. Latinos are much more likely than non-Latinos to say that their ethnicity is a very important part of who they are, and strong ethnic identity is associated with retaining religious identity and lower rates of intermarriage: 78 percent of Latinos raised Catholic remain in the church, compared to 57 percent of non-Latinos. Latino Catholics also express relatively greater agreement than non-Latinos with church teachings on divorce, premarital sex, abortion, gay marriage, ordination of women, opposition to the death penalty, and papal authority. I say relatively greater agreement because, in fact, far less than majorities of either Latinos or non-Latinos actually agree with any of those church teachings even while high percentages express confidence in the hierarchy. What the future will hold depends on variables like whether the nation’s capacity for assimilation is greater than its current hostility to Latino immigrants—and whether cultural differences in styles of worship and pastoral needs will exacerbate the Catholic “white flight” already underway. Finally, Latino Catholics appear increasingly Democratic at a time when the hierarchy appears to increasingly signal an obligation to vote Republican.

The constant religious churn in America, the public recognition of conversions but not departures, and the compensating numbers of Latino Catholics may all disguise the magnitude of the church’s recent losses. Yet for the bishops, something else, perhaps more fundamental, may be at work.

My impression is that bishops are constantly called upon to boost morale and lift up spirits in the face of often daunting problems. Appearances at parishes, reunions, conferences, or conventions are hardly occasions for dwelling on ominous trends, let alone encountering former Catholics. Many bishops bounce from event to event and from crisis to crisis. Except for financial matters, they may have little opportunity to contemplate the Big Picture, even on the diocesan level, let alone the national one. Their diocesan newspapers are rife with boosterism. In addition, bishops generally shun polemics. There are notable exceptions, even a few who may see the one-out-of-three who depart not as lost sheep but as good riddance, dead wood that should be cast into the fire, or even wolves preying upon the remaining flock. Most bishops, however, for good or ill, have reached their present positions by avoiding conflict, and they try to be what they should be, a point of unity for the local church. Findings like Pew’s can certainly unleash polemics. After their release, ultras and even moderates all along the ecclesiastical and theological spectrum flooded the blogosphere with accusations. Everyone else was to blame for the losses; one’s own viewpoint was the sure recipe for stanching them.

These partisan reactions cannot survive the most cursory look at the data, in which issues transcending camps like spiritually compelling worship, congregational leadership, and the need for effective adolescent catechesis rank alongside hot-button issues like abortion, homosexuality, treatment of women, sexual abuse, and episcopal forays into politics.

Having raised the question of the bishops’ awareness of American Catholicism’s crumbling condition, am I in turn blaming it on them? (Blaming the bishops is the one thing truly uniting the Right and Left in the American church.) Well, the bishops have their share of the blame, as do many others of us at every level and on every wing of the church. But it would be inane to hold the bishops or any other specific group in the church responsible for the social and economic forces that dissolved the Catholic subculture, or for “the sixties,” or for the inevitable succession of generations. We can only be responsible for the ways we have responded, or not responded, to such huge shifts—with energy, sensitivity, and creativity, or with timidity, inertia, and stock formulas.

I doubt whether any diocese is without some energetic, sensitive, and creative initiatives to improve pastoral practice, liturgy, catechetics, preaching, faith formation, financial support, social witness, and all the other things that could reverse the current decline. I continue to hear of successful programs, learn of valuable research, meet inspiring individuals, and see ads for attractive guides and educational materials for clergy and lay leaders alike. Yet somehow all these initiatives seem too scattered, too underfunded, too dependent on an always limited number of exceptional talents to coalesce into a force equal to the forces of dissolution.

The bishops are not the only ones who should be galvanizing and multiplying these initiatives; but they are, as they often remind us, the church’s authoritative leaders. They direct resources, human and material. They oversee personnel. They grant approval and signal change. They can make the difference between isolated examples and widespread renewal. It is hard to imagine a reversal of the current trends without a concerted effort on their part.

What exactly should the bishops do? Anyone can find my own views distilled in the “Afterword” to the 2004 paperback edition of A People Adrift. Occasionally I’ve tried to distill this distillation even further. I have emphasized very concrete, practical items — a quantum leap in the quality of Sunday liturgies, including preaching; a massive, all-out mobilization of talent and treasure to catechize the young, bring adolescents into church life, and engage young adults in ongoing faith formation; and regular, systematic assessments of all these activities—as well as theologically more complex and controversial matters like expanding the pool of those eligible for ordination and revisiting some aspects of the church’s teaching on sexuality.

What matters is not this set of proposals — or any other. What matters is merely some kind of acknowledgment from the hierarchy, or even leading individuals within the hierarchy, of the seriousness of the situation. What matters is a sign of determination to address these losses honestly and openly, to absorb the existing data, to gather more if necessary, and to entertain and evaluate a wide range of views about causes and remedies.


  1. Thanks to Peter Steinfels for this article and thanks for posting it, Michael. Steinfels says:

    What matters is a sign of determination to address these losses honestly and openly, to absorb the existing data, to gather more if necessary, and to entertain and evaluate a wide range of views about causes and remedies.

    This is what many of us have been calling for in the Archdiocesan Strategic Planning process. People seem to be making a cultural choice with their feet. Why must the Catholic experience be limited to the Archbishop's personal religious mode?

  2. "What matters is not this set of proposals — or any other." I respectfully disagree if you mean the usual doctrinal presentation. We must move out of the box of indoctrination. The bedrock, the theological infrastructure of Christianity i.e. the doctrines of the incarnation and resurrection appear to have collapsed. Biblical-historical scientific scholarship and philosophical reasoning e.g. epistemology in exposing the circular argument of the "faith-revelation' issue are bottom line reasons why educated people can no longer practice Christianity. This Axial Age religion has run its course. A post-Axial Age faith phenomenon is evolving. The bishops are passing if the church is passing. Various faith and morals issues have to be reconstructed for a new age via relevant science and advanced philosophical reasoning. Concerted, massive education hopefully can dissolve the extreme polarization that affects the church. But this would be done by lay experts. However, where I think the bishops could facilitate is in bringing conservatives and progressives together to peacefully discuss.

  3. Resumed Blog 1: please google Marie Schickel Rottschaefer.