For what seems the zillionth time, American Catholics have the opportunity to read once again the familiar findings of a Pew Study released in 2008: roughly a third of US adults raised Catholics have left the Church and they constitute about ten percent of population of this country; the only reason these numbers aren’t worse is due to Latino immigration. (OK, make this a zillion and one.) In an essay, “Further Adrift,” posted on the Commonweal website Oct. 18, Peter Seinfels cited these figures. It was preceded by an article written by National Catholic Reporter’s Tom Roberts only a week earlier titled “The ‘had it’ Catholics” mentioning the same statistics.
Roberts wrote : “According to a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, no one at the conference is studying the phenomenon. Perhaps this massive exodus is not ringing more alarm bells because Catholics are in the same predicament as almost all other mainline Christian denominations,” although Roberts also noted that the “sacramental data,” which “show a falling rate in baptisms” and a “drop in the number receiving later sacraments — first Communion, first confession and marriage — is even more problematic.”
Steinfels, stating 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” in part because “except for financial matters, [the bishops] may have little opportunity to contemplate the Big Picture, even on the diocesan level, let alone the national one,” concludes with: “What matters is a sign of determination [on the part of the USCCB] 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. Is it possible some bishop might mention this at their November meeting?”
Roberts and Seinfels are doing some wishful thinking if they think the Vatican or American hierarchy care about the declining numbers of Catholics in Europe and the US. On the same day Steinfels’ essay appeared, Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt told the AP, “a smaller church isn’t a bad thing if the people in it are more strongly committed to Catholic principles” because “a shrinking church can still be influential on cultural issues.” Nienstedt was only repeating the oft-reported view of his boss, Pope Benedict XVI. (See note below.)
The only author who correctly assessed the decline in US Catholics is the brilliant and insightful Cathleen Kaveny, who teaches law and theology at the University of Notre Dame, and is a regular Commonweal columnist. According to Kaveny in her article, “Long Goodbye,” posted the same day as Steinfels’ essay and Nienstedt’s interview, many Catholics who have left “see no hope of institutional reform.”
As we saw in the fracas over the health-care reform bill, key members of the US hierarchy are calling for loyal deference to ecclesiastical authority even on matters Vatican II recognized to be within the competence of the laity, such as the technical meaning of a complicated piece of legislation….
In the end, most people are what some ethicists call evidence-based virtue theorists. They think that if you cannot get the answer to a basic moral problem right, your advice on more complicated issues will not be reliable. The inability of the hierarchy to grasp immediately the basic injustice of clergy sexual abuse undermines their claim to wisdom on difficult and divisive issues of sexual ethics. To some people, the conjoining of women’s ordination and sexual abuse showed that the hierarchy was not merely bumbling in its approach to these issues, but twisted in its ultimate presuppositions about what the real threats facing the church today are.
From the perspective of these Catholics, doctrine and practice are not developing but withering. But why not stay and fight? First, because they think remaining appears to involve complicity in evil; second, because fighting appears to be futile; and, third, because they don’t like what fighting is doing to them. The fight is diminishing their ability to hear the gospel and proclaim that good news. The fight is depriving them of the peace of Christ.
The only category Kaveny seems to omit (with much overlapping with the above) is those of us who care deeply about the Church but are tired of beating our heads against a brick wall and see no other means of bringing about reform other than to absent ourselves from institutionally-sanctioned gatherings and property. Our hierarchs may not care about a decrease in the number of Catholics receiving the sacraments, but as one priest (whose name I regretfully didn’t note at the time) stated : “The laity – we’d look awfully foolish without them.” There is a tipping point where “decrease” becomes notable “rout,” when the number of Catholics who absent themselves makes enough of a difference so that the current hierarchs appear to be speaking on behalf of ridiculously few persons. When that occurs, all the money in the world won’t buy our prelates the respect and privilege they crave – when all they can do is look “foolish.” Then something is bound to change.
(Note: Don’t be fooled by Benedict’s announcement last June of the creation of a new Pontifical Council for Promotion of the New Evangelization “dedicated to reawakening Christianity in the secular West.” The president of the new council, Italian Archbishop Rino Fisichella, if you remember, wrote an article entitled “On the Side of the Brazilian Girl,” regarding the nine-year-old, pregnant with twins, who weighed a little more than 66 pounds and had been raped repeatedly by her stepfather from the time she was 6 years old. She had an abortion and two Brazilian prelates called for the doctors’ excommunication raising a global outcry. Finishella wrote, the girl “in the first place should have been defended, hugged and held tenderly to help her feel that we were all on her side,” and “Before thinking about excommunication, it was necessary and urgent to safeguard her innocent life and bring it up to a level of humanity for which we men of the Church should have been the professional heralds and teachers” Fisichella was roundly denounced by the Roman Curia and anti-abortionists worldwide. An assignment to accomplish the impossible as long as the current regime controls the Church is, I think, payback. Since June, “the lone concrete project announced by the office is a celebration in 2012 of the twentieth anniversary of publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”)
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