Another Christmas Eve-Christmas Day observance in my parish. I always had the impression that many more people attend Mass on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day than on a typical weekend of the Church year. My thinking until recently was one-dimensional; I assumed that everybody was too busy or too poorly catechized, to attend Mass weekly, and that the Christmas and Easter extras were just a friendly nudge away from attending more often.
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.
Back on November 20, I posted the first entry on William Hendricks’ Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why People Are Leaving the Church . I checked the book’s Amazon site this AM, and the book is available used in hard cover or paper for under $10 from networked small book dealers. Hendricks, as you may recall, interviewed sixteen persons who had left their Christian churches or, in some cases, had been pressured to leave. The author summarizes his impressions and recommendations in the final two chapters, and today I want to look closely at Chapter 20, “What Churches Can Do.” [pp. 273-288]
I noted in the earlier post Hendricks’ observation that churches spend too much time at the front door and not enough time at the back door, i.e., we are always looking for new fresh faces while the disenchanted are leaving unnoticed. I can say that as a pastor I was guilty of this failing; it is always an “upper” when a new family joins us for Sunday liturgy, usually expressing dissatisfaction with a previous church and/or pastor and telling you how much better you are, or your church is. On the other hand, when someone was disengaging from me as pastor or from my parish—either discretely or by a dramatic letter—it was hard to work up the enthusiasm for a pastoral visit that was bound to be lengthy, critical, and at times passionate. That said, Hendricks’ research found that on average a person leaving a congregation expects an outreach or reaction from the church within a six- or eight-week window before making a final break.
Hendricks makes a good point that none of the sixteen people he interviewed were new converts. All his subjects had been church members throughout their adulthood, so they had “skin in the game,” so to speak. Moreover, they were all dissatisfied with their spiritual progress. Whose fault is this? Churches historically tend to slough off crises of faith on the weakness, disobedience, or other inadequacies of the frustrated believer. But the author raises the painful question of whether the churches do an adequate job in the ongoing spiritual formation of adult members. I recall about thirty years ago when I hired a consulting firm to assist in saving a Catholic elementary school in my parish. The first piece of $30,000 advice was this: “Retention, retention, retention!”
Parishioners grow. Cultures change. The tired recipes of parochial life are not keeping up with the spiritual and psychological needs of longtime members. Hendricks uses an interesting example. “People no longer evaluate Christianity based on whether it is true, but how it is true. As my friend Doug Sherman says, today’s question is not whether God exists, but what difference does He make?” [p. 277] One reason the churches are losing members, he argues, is the absence of age-appropriate faith formation. “Yet spirituality is probably the foremost theological category in people’s minds today. If the church lacks a cogent doctrine in this area, it will keep losing credibility—which is to say it will keep losing people.” [p. 277] No Catholic parish or diocese I am aware of offers an ongoing faith formation that parallels the human life cycle. While it is true that God’s revelation is unchanging, we experience it from very distinct generations and outside circumstances.
I can relate to Hendricks’ point from my personal experience. At the age of 40 I joined Alcoholics Anonymous and promptly fell into clinical depression, a common occurrence when one stops “self-medicating.” My psychiatrist referred me to a therapist on his staff, an Episcopal woman whom I met with weekly for two years. A spiritual person herself, she walked me through a rediscovery of my own soul, making me read St. Augustine’s Confessions and other Christian treasures of conversion while I reviewed the direction of my life and made decisions for the future. She provided the faith formation and the psychological support I needed as I passed through a sloppy stage of human development. To be frank, I sensed at the time that someone outside the Roman Catholic community might be more honest with me about the decisions I needed to make, such as leaving the active priesthood.
Hendricks is a bit flip when he observes that “the church is in the people development business” [p. 277] but essentially he is correct. If the church is not meaningfully engaged with every one of its members through the full spectrum of life and experience, we will continue to lose church members. Hendricks refers to a “theology of persons” in which spiritual development and human development go hand in hand. If you look at your church bulletin, you may notice that our parochial formative ministries are lopsided toward the young; we are still living with the 1950’s sacramental model of cramming in “the essentials” before Confirmation and crossing our fingers that everyone has enough gas to cross the finish line of the faith many years hence.
Following along this line of thought, Hendricks pinpoints a problem that has troubled me for years, i.e., how do we engage all our members in opportunities to exercise their unique baptismal gifts, those charisms mentioned frequently in St. Paul’s letters? He writes “I’ve heard countless pastors and church leaders cry that they cannot find enough volunteers, and therefore the work of the church goes undone. Their tendency is to blame the people. But could it be that the people are merely responding to a woefully inadequate theology of spiritual gifts?” [p. 279]
In my lifetime I have seen a considerable growth in the numbers of Catholics who involve themselves in social outreach ministries, and of course the religious education programs of all parishes are now conducted by lay volunteers instead of religious sisters. However, the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation confer divine gifts upon all the initiated, and this is an area where an entire rethinking is in line. Truth be told, the Church does not know how to facilitate the good will and the talents of its members, nor does it have a “theology of volunteerism” nor a systematic concept of how to engage all members in meaningful missionary work. By this I am referring to the skill of diagnosing how every member can serve in the name of Christ. The recent Vatican declaration restoring the order of catechists, Antiquum Ministerium  and specific directives on the requirements of the catechetical ministry issued last week are a step in the right direction, though I think that current catechists might blanch at the evident call for professional excellence in this ministry. Pope Francis’ vision of catechetics will take a generation or more to implement. But that is as it should be.
Certainly, the Catholic Church is always in significant need of volunteers [and decently compensated professionals] to competently maintain the ministries of a parish mandated by custom and Canon Law. But it is wrong to suggest that baptismal gifts can only be exercised within a parish structure. Those with specialized skills may best exercise them in Christ’s name in collaboration with other faiths or civil ventures. During the Covid crisis medical personnel are working far above the call of duty; this is an exercise of extraordinary baptismal service that we never talk about from the pulpit. Other careers, such as law enforcement, are rich in opportunities to live baptismal goodness and courage. The critical point is to reinforce the importance of every member in the collective mission of the Body of Christ. A failure to do this only reinforces the old “pray, pay, and obey” handle about traditional Catholics. Catholics want to play a meaningful role in the Body of Christ; they also hunger to be fed the spiritual guidance necessary to make prudent decisions.
Hendricks makes more important points on how churches can retain and enrich their members. I will highlight them here:
A church must maintain a theology of grace. The author puts it this way: the preaching and message of any church must put God’s saving grace at the center. Hendricks decries “preaching grace while demanding works.” [p. 280] The author comes from an Evangelical Protestant tradition that, going back to Luther, holds the primacy of God in personal salvation. Hendricks is critical of churches and clerics who pay lip service to the mystery of God and demand adherence to a bureaucracy of hoops to salvation.
The term he uses is “legalism.” “Legalism is keeping people out of the church, it is driving people away from the church, and it is poisoning the lives of those who remain in the church.” [p. 280] In the contemporary Roman Catholic Church, many [I included] hunger for mystical communion with God’s grace but find ourselves tangled in preoccupation with doctrinal purity, moral rectitude, and intramural legal considerations. [I recently began working with adult candidates for Confirmation, and I did raise an eyebrow on the paperwork required for a direct encounter with the Holy Spirit.] But far worse is a maverick moralism/legalism that scandalizes huge swaths of society. Last week the Catholic Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, issued an instruction to its parishes that transgender people cannot be baptized or receive other sacraments “until they have repented.”
Redefining Community: Churches are used to dealing with large numbers of people, to thinking collectively. But Hendricks reminds us that “most people can only relate personally to a handful of others.” [p. 283] It may be my psychological training run amuck, but I am always discomfited by Catholicism’s casual use of the term “community.” There is a dissonance in the pew, or in the rearview mirror, when church leaders talk about community when very few of us feel deeply connected or personally impacted. I cannot help but observe that in my own parish the congregation cannot even agree on whether to wear facial masks to Mass.
I used to instruct large groups of people when I worked in my diocese’s catechist training program. After taking five years off, my parish asked me to conduct the formation meetings for adult candidates for Confirmation. I had five candidates for a five-week series. My biggest takeaway from the experience was my inability to get to know them better personally, to hear their faith journey stories—adult Confirmation is always a conversion of sorts. In short, my vision of church is shrinking, which I believe to be a good thing, albeit a significant challenge to achieve. Were we to see our parishes as collections of little communities, I believe that fewer of us will drift away, unloved, and unnoticed.
Teach people theology. Hendricks observes that “As I conducted these interviews, and as I listen to people talk about spiritual issues today, I was stunned at how much ‘folk religion’ there is on the street…popular but inaccurate ideas about what our faith is and how it applies. Folk religion is marked by simplistic formulations of supposedly Biblical truths. It is essentially ‘McDoctrine’—spiritual fast-food of proof texts and cliches that are filling and fattening, but not particularly nourishing.” [p. 284]
How true in the Roman Catholic setting. We are heirs of the greatest treasury of religious thought in the Western World. But there is no systematic structure for continuing adult education and faith formation built into Catholic pastoral life. And, given this vacuum, a sincere Catholic who sets off on a personal online exploration of Catholic theology will lose his way in a maze of literature and websites that would never find its way to the bookshelves of a decent Catholic college. This is particularly true in the computer age; Hendricks wrote these words in 1993. One of the goals of adult faith formation is precisely the skill of critiquing works that are true to the Catholic theological tradition and meet the muster of peer review.
Catholics have a particular challenge to face; sad to say, I am not sure that many Church leaders are comfortable with a well-read and thoughtful adult membership. No better example of this is the lethargic response of dioceses in the United States to Pope Francis’ call to “Synodality,” a worldwide conversation/consultation of the pulse of Catholic life at the grassroots. I suppose this reluctance to converse with the regular members is symptomatic of clericalism, i.e., the laity have nothing important to impart to the ordained. But by the measure of completed years of schooling, Catholics are the best educated cohort in the United States. The tragedy is that parishes have nothing to offer that is comparable to the competence of doctors, teachers, CEOs, and other professions. Boredom leads to frustration and often to the door.
Think about it: when is the last time a book was cited or recommended from the pulpit?
I have not done justice to all of Hendricks’ insights. But there is enough here to enter another discussion: can a Catholic make a go of it independent of a parish? Hendricks addresses the question of living without a faith community in Chapter 20, “You’ll Never Find the Perfect Church,” the third entry on this blog stream which will appear shortly.