The Reality of American Catholicism

On June 23, The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life released its second set of findings of its 25 year U.S. Religious landscape survey. When the first part of this report was released in February, it received a substantial amount of press coverage in the media, and the June report created the same result with National Catholic Reporter offering a good summary on Catholic findings.

When the first half of the report was released in February, it forced me to reevaluate my work as a parish minister and give great consideration to the future of the Catholic Church among the laity. Most amazing and concerning is the huge drop off in numbers of American Catholics. The actual number of Catholics in the U.S. has remained the same for the past 25 years because of the many, primarily Latin American, immigrants to the U.S. who have retained their Catholic identity in their adopted homeland. Among U.S. born Catholics, however, the Church is witnessing drop out rates comparable to the Reformation. Ten percent of the U.S. Population (1 in every 10 Americans), was raised Catholic but no longer practice or considers themselves Catholic. These are not the many people who only show up to church for big occasions, for they are still counted as practicing Catholics, but 10% of the entire U.S. population has chosen to leave the Church of their family and childhood. Only 2-3% of the 10% have left to join other religions (primarily Evangelical/Fundamentalist churches), and the other 7-8% are unaffiliated Christians, agnostics or atheists. Among all religions in the U.S., the Catholic Church demonstrated the greatest loss by a very wide margin.

The June report also confirmed that 68% of Catholic and mainline Protestant Americans say that their churches should adjust traditional practices in light of new circumstances or adopted norms. Of great interest to me as a professional catechetical leader, though not necessarily surprising given my experiences in parish ministry, is that the knowledge and acceptance of Catholic teachings, even as basic of beliefs as those of the Eucharist or a non-literalist reading of the Bible is barely different from the overall American population. This means that past religious education/faith formation either did a poor job and/or Catholics prefer to look to pop culture for their understanding of faith and religious practices. In fact, 52% say that they look most to practical experience and common sense rather than Church teachings and beliefs for their life’s decisions.

What amazes me even more than these numbers is the utter lack of concern and active response from the Catholic hierarchy. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement following the June 23 findings that could not have expressed more disinterest. It ends by saying that we must keep doing what we’ve been doing: “In the face of any measure, the steady and ongoing response of the Church is an ever renewed commitment to robust catechetical efforts.” Are they serious? I’m dumbfounded! Dioceses across the country have either filed or are close to filing bankruptcy, diocesan offices, parishes, and Catholic schools are barely staying open for lack of funds and support (the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, for example, now has ONE person in charge of catechesis—both child and youth for the entire diocese where 20 years ago there were 15 people), and droves of Catholics are leaving the church for countless reasons. Still the bishops chose to remain blind and not do anything to help Christ’s church remain vibrant and present on earth as Christ’s greatest Sacrament.

For the past 25 years, the buzz word in the Catholic Church has been “evangelization,” yet instead of growing and bringing new members into our communities, those initiated in infancy refuse to stay. From my wide eyed and optimistic perspective, using these research findings to reevaluate parish and diocesan structure, activities, ministries, outreach, and faith formation could bring about a wonderful and vibrant renewal in the Church, one that could meet our society’s growing thirst for community and a sense of belonging, yet our leaders seem committed to doing what their brothers in Europe have done…let our church buildings become museums and watch our faith community move towards extinction.

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.


18 thoughts on “The Reality of American Catholicism

  1. This is a subject that is dear to my heart. I think a lot of cradle catholics do not realize what they have! I was included in this group until a few months ago. Our generation is important for the future of the Church in America.

    I think the Church in America needs a good PR director (Bill Donahue is not a good PR director). We need to utilize technology and new means of communication to promote religious discussion. This needs to be nationwide, but grassroots (do dioceses have myspace pages, imagine that each bishop blogging on myspace!).

    The Catholic Church holds the most perfect of christian truth. We need to get the word out!

  2. It IS troubling how little reaction the drop in American Catholics gets from the hiearchy. But the figures don’t surprise me; I see this reality around me all the time. I work in a progressive organization, and over half the staff are former Catholics. There are two practicing Catholics, myself included, on staff. Most of those who have left did so because of the Church’s oppression of women and an overemphasis on guilt and sin. I think those of us who were raised Post-Vatican two are fortunate that we avoided the latter, but the former is still alive and well.

    For me, the hardest thing is knowing that people aren’t leaving because they don’t need God, or because they want to seek God elsewhere, but because they’re feeling as though their voices aren’t heard, their thoughts aren’t respected. Too many parishes, too many bishops, would reduce us to children who can’t make our own moral decisions. That’s insulting, and demeaning, and soul-crushing. Those who dissent with any of the Church’s teachings are either silenced or ignored, while a shrinking pool of fervent adherents to every statement from the Vatican congratulate themselves on staying with the “pure” Church. I once heard a priest use that exact phrase when talking about this issue — that it’s better for the dissenters to leave so that the smaller Church will be a pure one. And unfortunately, I think that’s why the Bishops have so little to say, because they’d rather shepherd those Catholics who are “easy” to shepherd; why bother going after the ones who are difficult? But there’s one very important man who once left a whole flock of “easy” sheep to find the one who had wandered off alone; if only our Church would do the same.

  3. Several years ago when I was writing for — a small, just-starting-out e-zine for young adult Catholics — one of the founders said he had approached the local bishop for help with getting it off the ground. The bishop responded that the Church isn’t interested in reaching the young adult population, but is content to wait until they marry and start bringing their kids back to church.

    And once, when my fiancee (before I’d met her) tried to register at her local parish, she found the form was geared toward families and was confusing for a single person trying to fill it out. When she pointed it out to the pastor, his curt, snappish reply left her feeling as though the parish had no place for unmarried adults.

    It’s unfortunate that this kind of attitude seems to be so pervasive within our Church.

  4. Another view:

    ‘The Catholic Church may be the “biggest loser” in terms of total population loss, but it is important to remember that the Catholic Church is also the single largest Christian denomination in the United States. Proportions matter. As bad as the losses have been, they would be even worse if Catholics were losing their young faithful at the same rate as every other U.S. Christian denomination. None of these other Christian churches has had as much success as the Catholic Church in retaining as adults members who were raised in the faith. The Pew study reports that the Catholic Church has retained 68 percent of those who grew up Catholic. By comparison, 60 percent of those raised Baptist are still Baptists as adults; the number is nearly the same for Lutherans (59 percent). The retention rates are lower for Methodists and Pentecostals (both 47 percent), Episcopalians (45 percent) and Presbyterians (40 percent). Of all the faith groups in the United States, only those who were raised as Hindu, Jew, Orthodox or Mormon are more likely than Catholics to keep their faith as adults (84, 76, 73 and 70 percent retention rates, respectively). Actually, the Pew numbers demonstrate that the Catholic Church is among the most successful at retaining those raised in their faith.

    ‘It is the case that more “Protestants stay Protestant” (80 percent), but this statistic masks the large volume of switching that occurs among Protestant denominations. The relative ease with which such a move can be made does not mean that it is somehow less relevant. Each denomination has its own unique customs, rituals, traditions, teachings and style; and switching from one to another brings change for the individual and the members of the churches involved. Although the expression about Protestants staying Protestant may have sociological and historical validity, the concept lacks relevance in the real world for the persons who make these changes and the religious organizations that lose and receive these members. Researchers may choose not to recognize a respondent’s change of faith group as a “real change,” but this does not mean the individuals making these changes (or the churches losing or gaining their membership) share such an interpretation.”‘

    – Mark M. Gray (director of CARA) and Joseph Claude Harris in the July 21 issue of America

  5. Josh, how cool that you wrote for Busted Halo; I was pretty excited when I discovered that site a little over a year ago.

    It’s disheartening to hear that the Church has “no interest” in reaching young adults, but again not altogether surprising. I’ve been a member of the same parish for years, and I attend Mass almost every week (and on the holidays for which I’m in town). Yet even after all this time, I still go to Church alone and not a single parishioner knows my name. I don’t expect anyone to go out of their way to meet me, but part of this “invisibility” comes from the fact that there aren’t any programs at the Church that tailor to young, single people; the programs for women are all programs for moms and the programs for “young adults” are for teenagers. It was especially hard when I first moved here, not knowing a soul, and was hoping Church would help me find community. Now I’ve just accepted that Church will fill different needs for me, but that I’ll need to find community elsewhere (the internet, for example. ;))

  6. Lacey, funny thing about that “invisibility” you talk about. (I should perhaps mention, I’m at a different parish now than the one mentioned in my post for today…) Heading in to daily mass this morning, there was an elderly couple just ahead of me. They held the door as I approached, then the woman kept looking back at me several times. Finally she said to me, “You look so familiar, where have I seen you before?” Her huband turned to her and said, “He’s the one who sings at the front of the church every Sunday.”

  7. Lacey –

    I don’t think one very broad survey about American religious beliefs and a few second-hand anecdotes show that the Church has no interest in young adults. While I don’t doubt the stories above, I’d also wager that for every story of a disinterested priest or bishop there’s a Theology on Tap or an innovative ministry like the young adult cooking class/faith sharing group outlined in the most recent issue of America, to say nothing about more widely targeted programs like Why Catholic.

    Personally, I’m not convinced that aged-based ministries are always appropriate. While they certainly have their place, they also create artificial divisions within the Body of Christ. Why should age be the determining factor for our ongoing catechesis? Wouldn’t it benefit young people to get to know some of their elders a little better? And vice versa?

  8. Regarding the experience of young adults: you can identify the priorities of a parish by examining the bottom line. What is the budget for ministry to Catholics ages 18-30 in your parish? Is there even a line item? Compare it to the budget for 2nd grade. If adult faith formation is to be the priority of faith formation in a parish (I believe the GDC and the NDC say something to that effect – I don’t have them in front of me right now), then is there a parish out there that will show me the money?

    Regarding the decline of the Catholic Church in the United States: is anyone surprised? Americans know BS when they see it, hear it, experience it. The best the Church has to offer Americans will never get to them through the mound of manure that has been piled on top of it. Personally, the only reason I remain Catholic is because I believe that, at her deepest and most secret heart, the Catholic church is the best and most authentic representation of the Reign of God. But that heart is covered over and obscured by so much crap that it takes years of graduate education in theology, ministry, Scripture, etc. to uncover it. Unfortunately, most Americans have neither the time nor the energy to dig it out. So until the Church actually bears witness to the Reign of God in the practical circumstances of everyday life, a “smaller, purer” church is what we will have. How will that be salvation for the world?

  9. Mzurowski, it’s astonishing and a little sad how many folks in the progressive Catholic movement (especially those in their 20s and 30s) do seem to have graduate degrees in theology. As you say, it shouldn’t take that to understand everything that’s still great about the Church. I would be interested to hear your thoughts for how the church could better bear witness to God in everday life.

  10. Kate, why do you feel it’s a little sad? Personally, I find it encouraging that people do care enough about their faith to want to immerse themselves in it that way.

    Though I do agree that we shouldn’t have to! And I think that does speak to a failing of the modern Church, that it isn’t educating its adults as it should be. I think if the Church were to fully embrace the spirit of Vatican2, and started actively helping us of the laity in forming a mature and informed faith life, it would be a good start at least!

  11. Sad was a poor choice of words–but I do think it’s unfortunate, one, that we’re a pretty homogenous group (drawn in high numbers from people whose lives permit graduate study) and two, that we’re a pretty SMALL group, drawn in large part from the admittedly ever-growing ranks of divinity school graduates! I’m talking here about people who are actively involved in church reform, not the majority of people who, as Lacey pointed out, support “reformist” concepts like women’s ordination.

    I didn’t mean to say anything against graduate study in theology. (Some of you know I partake myself.) And I can’t count the times I’ve sat in class and thought, “Wow, every baptized Catholic should know about this!”

  12. I think I understand what you mean — and yeah, maybe it is sad that this kind of activism seems to require some form of higher education.

    Some years ago I was involved in several social activist groups, and in some independent media groups. The issues we dealt with were mostly aimed at helping low-income and indigents, and it frustrated me that most of the media work we were doing couldn’t actually be accessed by those very people we were trying to reach, since public access TV is only accessible to those who pay for cable reception; online video feeds are accessible only to those who can afford good computers and high-speed internet service.

    There were a few groups that had some success mobilizing the low-income population to take some action on important issues, but for the most part, activism does usually seem to be a luxury of the more privileged classes.

    And yeah, that is sad.

  13. The Church would be a better witness to God in everyday life if our leaders were less interested in preserving their authority at the expense of the real life experiences of American Catholics. The Bishops’ voices ring hollow even when I agree with what they are saying because we know that the clericalism which motivated and perpetuated the recent abuses is still a powerful force in the heirarchical church. Rome refuses to submit the heirarchy to any form of lay oversight or accountability. Until lay Catholics can honestly tell the world, “these are OUR bishops. WE chose them. We KNOW they are building God’s Reign because their activities and administrations are completely transparent to us” the good and righteous teaching of the bishops will continue to go unheard because, without transparency, there is no trust. Wihtout trust there is no moral authority.

    Healthcare, immigration, social justice, the Iraq war, climate change, education, etc. The Church has brilliant things to say about these issues – issues which are of great concern to Americans – but Americans won’t hear them unless the official church 1) opens itself to democracy – some form of binding lay decision-making esp. the selection of bishops, priests, and deacons 2) brings the “official” teaching of the church up to date regarding sexuality, ordination, and birth control to name a few, and 3) submits to lay oversight of its decision-making and administrative processes.

    Americans have certain “gut” instincts (equality, freedom, openness, fairness, democracy) and they know when an institution is vioating those principles. Right now, the heirarchy’s instincts (clericalism, moral dictatorship, secrecy, privilege, monarchy) are in stark contrast with those of Americans. We have been told since we were children, “the Church is not a democracy.” In this country and other democratic nations around the world, is it any wonder that more and more people find the monarchical church an illegitimate form of government and no longer submit to be ruled by it?

  14. Waitasec – I forgot the “everyday life” part of it.
    In everyday life, young Americans work, live, and socialize with all different types of people. We know that women are as capable leaders as men because we have experienced it. We know homosexuals are not fundamentally disordered human beings because, in our experience, they are just as human as anyone else we’ve met. In these everyday circumstances of life, the Church’s official teaching does not line up with human experience. Whenever that happens, a person is confronted with a choice to either write off the Church’s teaching as BS or write off the world in which they live as hopelessly sinful. People who take these choices to the extreme leave the Catholic Church to become non-churched on one hand or fundamentalists on the other.

    Unfortunately, the face of the Catholic Church in the world is the face of the heirarchy, not of the billions of parishioners around the world. The good work they do is lost when the heirarchy protects child molesters or declares that individuals that vote their conscience (for a pro-choice candidate) might be jeopardizing their salvation.

    For those of us with progressive points of view, everyday life is made all the more difficult when, every time we hang out with people of similar political persuasions we have to defend or participation in a Church that seems to become less and less defensible.

  15. Are we catholic or american first? Its a tough question. Here’s how I would explain my take – first, we are lucky to be both. We have a voice in our country, we have a vote – that is the fundamental basis of America, voting and freedom. Our catholicism should direct how we use those precious rights. I don’t disagree that its a bit obnoxious when a bishop calls out a pro-choice catholic politician, however I can only think of a few (Sebelius, Guiliani, Kennedy, and Kerry) and its usually because of their use of their catholicism for political points, which in and of itself is quite obnoxious, that elicits the bishops reactions. As for active support for a pro-choice candidate, its not just voting for them that could endanger the soul, its the active support of abortion through that vote. If I vote for Obama because I like him more than McCain, I am only committing grave sin if I am voting for Obama mainly because he supports abortion.

    A democratic church would tear it to shreds. If the congregration elected the bishops the catholic church would cease to exist. The bishops, priests and deacons are here to do God’s work, not man’s.

    I have a story on this. A colleague of mine is a former Baptist minister. He got out of that to sell insurance not because of the stress of ministering to the sick or the danger of missionary work or the other stressful pastoral work that comes with serving a congregation. He got out because of the church council. He was on a mission in South America, and he was baptising converts in the ocean, and they were videotaping the baptisms as part of the project. Well, while they were there, unbeknownst to them, a pair of topless women were strolling up and down the beach in the background. When the church council saw this they were insensed. It was the last straw, he left the ministry and went into private business. He felt he needed to preach to the people, what they wanted to hear.

    Imagine if our priests had that over their heads? THink that would improve the vocation issue? I don’t think so!

    Think about where you work – do they take a vote on every decision being made? Unlikely. What is more plausible is there is a manger making all of the decisions, or possibly a collection of wisened old people on a board of directors who appoint a manager to make all the decisions.

    The Trinity is our board of directors, and the Pope is our CEO, if you like (please note that the Pope does not serve on the board, nor do I think he even has a direct link from them to him. Actually we all have a direct link from ourselves right to the board, Mass. That’s some BOD we have, its like the chairman visiting your cube everyday, but you’d be lucky to meet the CEO once in your lifetime!).

    My point is that top down decision making works and is constantly in use. In our human institutions the accountability is easy to see. Stock prices, hirings and firings, elections are all clear visible results of those decisions. In the Church…we’ll find out in due time who did well and who didn’t!

    Its not just the Church that isn’t a democracy…this is the Kingdom of God on earth founded by Christ, himself, not the united states of salvation.

  16. I liked your input on the pew survey, but I don’t think it is the whole picture of what is happening regarding evangelization in the U.S. I think there are great things happening in Diocese across the country, but there is also renewal that is needed, but as Vatican II said: The Church is constantly renewing. I’d be interested to see more bishops use the internet but I realize their would have to be realistic goals about how bishops would use the internet to communicate. Cardinal Sean from Boston has a blog and I believe a few other bishops do too. The Office of Catechesis and Evangelization in the Diocese of Madison is using the internet to interact with those in ministry throughout that diocese.

  17. Some very thoughtful comments on this blog. I’d like to add a few humble observations:

    1) With regard to doctrinal changes in the Catholic Church, most of the major reforms proposed for Catholicism – election of bishops, ordination of women, acceptance of artificial contraception, less focus on abortion, homosexual activity, and divorce – are all present in the Episcopal Church. However, the Episcopal Church hardly demonstrates that these changes are a panacea. It is currently flirting with schism (and no fewer than three Episcopal bishops in the last year have converted to Catholicism). Foreign Affairs magazine noted a couple of years back that the number of American Episcopals fell from 3.6 million in 1960 to around 2.3 million in recent years, even as the national population grew. Finally, there are mixed reports on whether the Episcopal Church is facing a priest shortage in the near future. These sobering trends should make us consider doctrinal questions very, very carefully.
    2) Regarding the issue of clericalism, yes, the Church does have trouble communicating in the same language and with the same media as the rest of society; as an example, the terms “scandal”, “inherently evil”, and “intrinsically disordered” mean different things in Church jargon than in regular conversation.
    However, to add further anecdotal evidence to our conversation: I am in a volunteer role whose function is to set up young adult chapters of a certain Catholic organization throughout the area. When I review the proposals I have made over the years for such groups, I have been turned down every bit as often, if not more often, by the lay leadership in a parish, rather than its pastor. In short, I am doubtful that resistance to young adult ministry is purely (or even predominantly) the province of clergy.
    3) With regard to lack of (single) young adult opportunities, activities, and programs in the Church, a couple of thoughts:
    a. There may be more there than you think – I personally know of 14 different groups for Catholics between the ages of 19 – 40 in St. Louis City and its surrounding counties. They simply advertise themselves to differing degrees.
    b. While the Church may not devote enough concerted thought to such programs, it is also incumbent upon us, as young adults, to take the initiative to start such programs. With regard to the young adult groups I know of that have struggled or folded, although pastor indifference or disapproval can contribute, the largest issues have been (a) the transient nature of young adults make leadership handoff very difficult and (b) young adults are a very non-committal demographic, i.e. the phenomena of the “disappearing member”. Even purely social events that place no expectations on the participants but to show up and have a good time can often be an exercise in disappointment.

    While the Church may not invest enough in such groups, the truth of the matter is that younger adults have all of the expertise and time needed to put together such groups ourselves, and most require little to no funding to operate. What Catholic young adult ministry needs more than anything is young adults willing to lead such groups and a consistent membership base. Certainly I am guilty of failure on both counts, but I think we have to acknowledge this issue.

    Bryan Kirchoff
    St. Louis

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