Whatever your ministerial plans are for today, may I make the suggestion that you drop what you are doing to take a look at the results of the most recent PEW Research Center’s study, released yesterday and reported on national news. I happened to see it last night on NBC, where anchor Lester Holt simply announced that the United States is a less Christian nation than it was seven years ago. Everyone has impressions and opinions on the state of religion, of course. The declining Mass attendance and church/school closings around the country over the years have certainly given indication that something is seriously wrong in the Catholic family. But I believe in empirical evidence: I turn to professions like PEW for general U.S. trends and CARA for in-house Catholic research.
In a study titled “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” PEW found that the number of Americans who identified themselves as Christian has dropped from 78% to 70%. The biggest statistical factor is a decline in Roman Catholic and Mainline Protestant Churches, but even the Evangelical Churches have dropped in membership statistically. The unaffiliated population rose from 16% to 22%. Two factors give me considerable concern: (1) this study is a follow-up to a similar one undertaken in 2007; thus, we are looking at an eight-year trend, not a quick snapshot. Trends over considerable time lines do not stop on a dime. (2) PEW notes that the drop in Christian affiliation is more statistically pronounced among young adults, but it “is occurring among Americans of all ages.” I have linked the details of the study above
(I should note here that CARA disputes these findings on methodological grounds. But its own internal numbers are hardly comforting: less than a quarter or 24% of self-identified Catholics attend weekly Mass: this translates to three families in every class of twelve students in your religious education programs. Your impressions were indeed correct.)
What are some possible causes/reactions/conceptualizations/pastoral considerations we might bring to reception of a report such as this? (Please add your own.)
1. Polling and research don't matter. Poor research makes things worse. Ask Thomas E. Dewey. Good research produces things like the polio vaccine and air bags. PEW is among the best. And this study is more confirmation than revelation.
2. Contemporary culture is destroying basic values like prayer and fidelity. Yes, there is merit to this argument, but in what period of history was there no struggle between value and popular culture? Socrates, Jesus, Francis of Assisi, and Martin Luther King all discovered this to be true.
3. Everyone who leaves the Church is abandoning the Faith and we are better off without them. We don’t know exactly why people leave. Maybe the Church should spend a little money with the PEW people and ask those former Catholics why they left. Such a population is not hard to find; “former Catholics” is the second largest identifiable religious group in the United States.
4. If we changed our rules and made things easier, people wouldn’t leave. According to PEW, mainstream Protestantism is losing members at nearly the same rate as Roman Catholicism. No insult intended; some of my best friends are Methodists.
5. We need a fundamental return to simple piety and the Bible. PEW notes that Evangelicals are decreasing as well. (That surprised me, too.)
6. Christianity doesn’t work anyway; look at all the scandals. "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." I knew one of these days I could drop this G.K. Chesterton quote. If you are a regular reader or attend Mass on Sundays, you might pick up a whiff of the Evangelist Mark in Chesterton’s thought.
I have two initial reactions to the study, whose results frankly did not surprise me. Late last night, like many of you, I stayed up to watch the coverage of the tragic train derailment in Philadelphia. I got to thinking that the railroad bed of this train is probably the same one in use when Union troops left New York to fight the Confederacy in 1861. It is hardly news that the infrastructure of the United States is old, rotting, ineffective, and from time to time kills people. I am of a mind that the infrastructure of the Catholic Church is old, rotting, ineffective, and from time to time kills or alienates the good will, productivity, and patience of its fellow travelers. What is very sobering is PEW’s finding that departures from the Church cover the entire gamut of ages, including my own +65 cohort.
I hasten to add that I am not speaking of the body of Catholic belief that we share, but rather the attempt to preach and teach our Tradition without its most important reality, a profound personal sense of the wonder of God. The early twentieth century philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto, spoke of the holy with three Latin terms: mysterium, the hidden nature of the holy beyond all imagination; tremendum, the awesome character of this mystery as beyond our control, and fascinans, the attractive character of this mystery insofar as it is overwhelmingly gracious. St. Augustine describes this foundational experience of God like this: “God is sought in order to be found more sweetly, and found in order to be sought more eagerly.”
Any religion, including our own Catholic heritage, that attempts to do business without the mysterium, tremendum, and fascinans is, at the end of the day, just another store in the strip mall of inadequate meanings and dead end trails on the cultural horizon. A Church that conveys mystery, awe and an intangible attraction to the holy will never have empty parking places.