What I am coming to see is that distance from churches is the new norm, in Roman Catholicism and in Christianity in general. I did a little research online to get a picture of church membership and participation in the United States. Take your pick: PEW Research and CARA [the Catholic research center at Georgetown University] provide an in-depth picture of the trend away from both formal membership in a church and frequency of participation among those who maintain an affiliation. Briefly, the number of Americans who identify as “Nones” or having no religious affiliation at all has risen to about one-third of the American population. CARA’s most recent data [2015; 2020 report delayed by Covid] indicates that 23% of Catholics attend weekly Mass; when the number of Catholics who attend about once a month is added, the total is 49%, meaning that half of those who identified themselves to researchers as Catholics do not attend at all or come only for Christmas and or Easter. This is an enormous number of Catholics who go it alone.
If it is any consolation, the drift from Catholicism is not as immediately acute as it is for other branches of the Christian family. CARA’s numbers, taken at five-year intervals since its survey began in 1970, show a massive decline in Catholic practice but it is spread out over the past fifty years. Mainstream Protestantism [Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, etc.] has suffered the greatest losses in the twenty-first century. Evangelical and independent churches have also declined. Catholicism has seen less dramatic declines in the immediate past, though remember that the Covid epidemic has not been factored in yet to the statistical picture, and visual-anecdotal evidence suggests that one “long hauler” impact of Covid may be a significant decline in Catholics physically returning to regular worship. PEW’s commentary observes that while Catholics tend to have the largest exit numbers of members, these losses are softened by a higher birthrate and an inflow of Catholic immigrants, but a close look at CARA’s numbers does not support that take.
With this background I turn again to Exit Interviews, specifically Chapters 20 and 21 on church strategies and winning the hearts of those who have left their worshipping communities. In the preceding post [beneath this entry] I covered the author’s advice to churches on how to think about disengaged Christians and some avenues of rapprochement to those who have exited formal Christian communities. Chapter 20 offers several worthwhile considerations, but I would say that William Hendricks’ presuppositions rest on the idea that those currently disaffiliated are in a temporary state of mind and could be reunited with an ecclesiastical community with appropriate outreach.
Chapter 21 addresses those who have left Christian churches and, in an insightful turn of phrase, “those who remain in the institution [church] but endure…a low-grade virus of discontent…. On the whole, they are disappointed with their spiritual experience…yet they are not dissatisfied enough to leave—until some crisis comes along that forces the issue.” [p. 291] One may argue that the clergy abuse scandals and the Covid crisis represented such tipping points for many Catholics, but my personal encounters with longtime friends and coworkers never cease to surprise me. The strongest sentiment I hear—from Catholics who have left and Catholics who ponder leaving—is the perceived failure of parishes to address the spiritual hungers and the moral dilemmas of adulthood.
Last Sunday, on the Feast of the Holy Family, the homily at the Mass I attended was offered by the celebrant who focused on Pontius Pilate and an assortment of myths about him. Why? What did this have to do with St. Luke’s noble narrative of Jesus in the Temple with the priests? I have no idea. What was doubly puzzling was the vested presence in the sanctuary of a happily married deacon with a family; what a fitting candidate to preach on this Feast of the Holy Family. But alas, it was not to be. As it is scientifically proven that poor sermons always last longer, about halfway through this one I discretely leaned over to my wife and said, “Do you have any rope in your purse? I want to hang myself from the rafters.”
I looked around the church at the several families who had brought their children and I wondered how useful this exercise was for these young souls, or for their parents, for that matter. The 2018 CARA/St. Mary’s Press study, “Going, Going, Gone: The Disaffiliation of Young People from the Catholic Church” found that the youthful process of disengaging from Catholicism begins as early as age 10. Put another way, this is the age when a troubling number of young people decide that “there is nothing here for me to invest in.” It is interesting that back in 2018 several critics of the study—and even the language of the study itself to some degree—blamed this early disengagement on the failure of parents to actively participate in weekly Eucharist. This begs the question of why and how the parents are disenchanted.
The question that Hendricks asks in Exit Interviews—why did you leave? –is exactly the question that we Catholics, as an institution, never ask young people and never ask adults, because there is nothing in our theology to address the issue of a sacrament so poorly celebrated that it actually becomes a countersign of what it intends to convey. Put another way, liturgy can become a sacrament of discouragement for many of us who grimly endure experiences of “what might have been.” [I have never experienced this personally, but I read reports from around the country that the pulpit is used for political profiteering or weekly excoriation of sexual weakness, which is actually an abuse that should be reported to the bishop.]
As a Church, we have tolerated poor preaching for a good many years on the grounds that the celebration of the Word of God at Mass is somehow secondary to the Eucharistic Prayer and the reception of Communion. Put another way, we do not equate poor preaching with failure to distribute communion, although theologically speaking, one can make that argument. For it is the preaching that awakens both belief in the Real Presence and hunger for communion. So, what happens when generations of lukewarm celebration of the Word at Mass begin to pile up and become the norm? Is a Catholic permitted to “go his own way” to seek a deeper union with God?
Hendricks observes that those who have left institutional churches have often networked with other fellow faith seekers to study Scripture and other religious texts [he cites Thomas Merton’s works, for example] in place of membership in an institutional church. He is opposed to this as a permanent solution. “Is this a model to follow? Of course not. There are no models when it comes to trying to grow as a Christian outside the institutional church.” [p. 295] I had to smile when I read a Protestant commentator quoting an old Catholic maxim, “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” Of course, the official Catholic teaching still holds that a Catholic is obligated to participate in the life of the Church, but this leaves us with the statistical reality that about half of those who publicly identify as Catholic are not actively engaged.
We honestly do not know why, with any scientific certainty. This population would be one of the most intriguing groups to engage in the upcoming synodal process called by Pope Francis. I doubt that this would happen, because the synodal consultations in the United States have been less than energetic in many dioceses, even for those who are highly active or leaders of their Catholic assemblies. The Vatican directives on the synodal process instruct that “special care should be taken to involve those persons who may risk being excluded: women, the handicapped, refugees, migrants, the elderly, people who live in poverty, Catholics who rarely or never practice their faith.” The pope, evidently, would like to hear from the 50% of alienated U.S. Catholics in this consultation process. Not all bishops are comfortable with this.
For myself, as frustrated as I may be with the Church, honesty compels me to admit to myself that everything I have learned about Christ and the mysteries of salvation has come down to me through the Church, either through my Catholic family or charismatic ministers, education system, and treasury of sacred writing and theology. I would not be the man I am today without that heritage. I feel enthusiastic about passing along what I have received. But I have respect and understanding of my many friends who, for many distinct reasons, have sought different communities of faith or, in Thomas Merton’s literary example, have gone off to the woods to build their own chapels. There are days I have pondered taking a Eucharistic sabbatical, too. In the next post on Exit Interviews, I will talk more about the ownership of one’s faith, spirituality, and conscience before God vis-a-vis membership in a structured religion.