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Banging Our Heads Against a Brick Wall

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.”)


26 Responses

  1. Outstanding commentary, Betty–and on target, though the conclusion that the pastoral leaders of the church don’t care about the huge exodus is alarming (while absolutely true).

    And as this occurs, a Belgian archbishop made primate of that country by Benedict says that AIDS is a punishment from God, and Benedict elevates the odious Raymond Burke to a cardinal’s position, sending a signal to wealthy Republican Catholics that their little pope has the ear of the big pope.

    What the church has become under John Paul II and Benedict . . . .

  2. A friend from Belgium wrote that the two largest-circulation Catholic weeklies have both condemned Leonard’s statements. While Rome is …..well Rome, the church in Europe – what’s left of it – seems far more progressive than in the US. Still, my firend writes that the sex abuse scandals in Ireland, Germany, and his country have had seismic effects not acknowledged by the pope and his men.

  3. What I don’t buy is that this decline in numbers is really the consequence of an out-of-touch hierarchy. Certainly, I believe the hierarchy is riddled with obvious problems that have legitimately earned their outrage.

    But what about those progressive churches that already cater to secular political, social [primarily liberal] paradigms and are typically lauded as the direction the Church must go in order to survive? I don’t see them doing very well either and in some cases worse.

    The deeper the secular narrative about human life- its meaning and goals- takes root in culture the less relevant people find the Church in any manifestation.

    Post church and post Christian is where these numbers are headed which, liberal or not, is not Catholic.

    • Thanks for reading the article. The US and Rome Catholic hierarchs aren’t “out-of-touch”, they’re corrupt. I don’t think you’ve been following the sex-abuse scandal very closely, but I would suggest you google and read anything written by Fr. Thomas Doyle O.P. or you could start with the next article down about the Vatican and then proceed to the SNAP website and/or Doyle.

      What you say about mainlain Protestant denominations in the US is also true to a point. However, I would suggest you read the 2008 Pew Study on Religion as to which denomination has lost the most adherents (percentage) and the reasons why people left. Also, the Roberts, Steinfels and Kaveny articles are replete with anecdotal stories.


    • Betty,

      You didn’t respond to the observations made by Jordan. If none of the denominations are doing well, and the Catholic Church is only doing slightly worse than the average, the problem is fundamental to Christian churches.

      Further, it would stand to reason that the Catholic Church should be doing worse than other Christian demoninations, because the Catholic Church relies the least upon the secular narrative, and has some of the greatest differences with the new religions of historicism, scientism, pluralism, and the like.

      On the other hand, the Catholic Church is caputuring the most Hispanics. The gain is most likely predominately cultural, as I suspect is the loss of most demoninations.

      • Please read the 2008 Pew Study on Religion.

      • I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say the ‘catholic church is capturing the most Hispanics’. It is quite the opposite.

        Hispanics are traditionally Catholic and the church is losing them by the millions to the Evangelicals. Check the statistics from Brazil, Guatemela, and the Southwest US dioceses. Immigrant Hispanics may keep the numbers inflated for awhile, but that is somewhat illusory, especially as they become more integrated in the culture.

        • Currently, in the US, numerically and by percentage, Latinos are still more Catholic than any other US religious denominations even though those numbers are also falling. The point being made by Roberts and Steinfels based on the Pew Study and the Church’s own statistice, is that without them, the numbers and percentage of American Catholics would be much lower and the exodus would be more noticeable.


    • Jordan,

      I agree. The loss of a institutional church connection has more to do with the loss of the transcendent and spiritual in the secular culture than specific moral teachings or sex-abuse scandals or “corrupt” clerics, etc.

      I suspect that the reason evangelicals has risen so fast is primarily because they focus more on feeling than doctrine.

  4. Of all the reasons that people are leaving the Catholic Church, I think the corruption of the hierarchy ranks pretty close to the bottom. As this blog has pointed out numerous times, the experience of the typical Catholic is largely removed from the Vatican and the bishop’s office in the first place.

    What we are seeing is the steady culmination of trends that began long before the abuse crisis and will persist no matter what action the hierarchy takes- knowing this is probably what, in their minds, gives them the permission to carry on with the status quo.

    A very great portion of people raised within Catholic homes don’t even acquire enough contact with the representatives of the hierarchy to be outraged at anything more than abstract level [that is, for very few people has this hit home for personal reasons].

    Though, no doubt some have left over this issue specifically.

    I don’t know a single person who has left the Church over the abuse crisis, though I know my family members have plenty of loud opinions about it. Yet, I know dozens upon dozens of people who were raised with me in the Catholic education system who feel that they have no need for religion at all. The corruption is just evidence to them that what is irrelevant to society is also dangerous.

    So my point is that these numbers are not a poll on the hierarchy’s actions or corruption. They are part of a much larger socio-cultural trend that exceeds the Catholic Church.

    And I agree with David, the Evangelicals are faring well [for the time being] because they are feeling based. I also suspect they are offering a quick and easy opium for the secular malaise: the meaning of life and the overall significance of your actions can be guaranteed with a minimal adjustment to your life choices (unless you are, say, homosexual)

    • Jordan, I can see where your coming from because the data can be interpreted on the lines you suggest. What I think you might be missing is that the heirarchies of all churches amptly demonstrate that they are as corrupted by the largest trends in secularism as any other segment. In their case, because they rant about the effects of secularism on their congregations while denying the same in themselves, they demonstrate a high level of hypocrisy.

      The Evangelical appeal will last only in so far as the hypocrisy level remains hidden. One major difference is that many of these congregations are being indoctrinated in the prosperity gospel. I find that a very clever way of hiding the hypocrisy, but given enough Eddie Longs and Ted Haggards thinking people will leave these congregations as well.

      The data that I find most hopeful is that many people will admit to seeking a spiritual connection while denying any interest in religion. There is a true need, but until mainstream religious traditions are willing to look at the fact their own systems are part of the problem, the exodus will continue.

  5. Another outstanding post, Betty, and as you say in your response to Jordan (which you had to repeat), you are not dealing in abstract idle speculation as to causes but hard sociological data. The people walking are talking. We need to listen to them. Read the 2008 Pew Study on religion.

    • Jayden,

      Listen to them, and do what? Build our own golden calves?

      • use simple common sense

        ” What matters is merely some kind of acknowledgment from the hierarchy, or even leading individuals within the hierarchy, of the seriousness of the situation. What matters is a sign of determination 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.” Peter Steinfels

  6. 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.*

    This is even more frightening to me, that the institution will become a circle-the-wagons fundamentalist group of people who are easiest to bend to the will of the hierarchy because of how devoted they are to the traditions of the church, including the patriarchal, authoritarian power structure. Yikes.

  7. Well, I’m not suggesting that the hierarchy is *not* corrupt. Large segments of it most certainly are, and where they are not, I generally find them inept. The priesthood is in a state of grave crisis, this I do believe, and I myself have no priestly confidants because I find them inaccessible. This isn’t to say there are not amazing priests out there, but all the major personal influences on my Catholic life have been fellow lay persons, both leaders and peers.

    [I am talking about personal relationships not, for example, priests who have influenced me through their books]

    At this point in my life, the priest is a liturgical and a sacramental function—certainly not pastoral. Quite frequently, I bring something supplementary to read during sermons.

    I guess I think that the hierarchy will be unphased by these numbers because I think they [correctly] understand that the exodus out of the Church—while a conscientious decision for some [as per this post and Jayden’s recent post on Gay Mystic]—is actually part of a much more complex socio-cultural trend. Many people who would be at Church have found that sitting on a park bench in the early morning or doing Hatha yoga at an upscale club simply make more sense to them. I have two particular women from my own life in mind with that example.

    This is not an excuse of course to stave off cleaning house, but I imagine it will be used as such.

    I think the idea that Catholic doctrine is withering is probably a correct assessment. The image of a once vibrant but wilting flower is a commanding image of the state of the Church, as though someone has left the lilies to wither before the Tabernacle and no one has thought to clear them away and bring new ones.

    • lovely images – sitting on a park bench or doing hatha yoga – or for that matter, Tai Chi in the early morning hours. I have several Asian friends here in Prague who do just that -right through the dead of winter. Constitutes their form of Zen meditation.

      • Oh I agree. And I myself often love to take spiritual refuge in a hike through the forest or just to sit out in the field in the sunlight. But for me, this can not replace holy Mass, which is not essentially about finding inner peace, but rather is a kind of eschatological participation in God.

    • Just to clarify – my articles regarding a corrupt hierarchy are about the US and the Vatican. I don’t know enough about the Church in other countries to comment.

      Some of the exodus in the US and Europe is a socio-cultural trend but some is not. My friends in Europe tell me the revelations of hierarchical cover-up of sex abuse in Ireland, Germany and Belgium has had a tremendous effect.


      • And Austria! I have many Austrian friends who are very vocal about this. They are leaving in mass numbers – taking themselves off the tax roles. Jayden in Prague.

        • Thanks, Jayden. That’s what Roberts, Seinfels and Kaveny were saying in their articles, that this was their experience with the Americans they knew who have left the Church.


    • Jordan,

      I theorize that the Western world has entered a period of laissez-faire moralism which shares some of the same characteristics of laissez-faire capitalism.

      In this world, Catholicism is worse than useless. It is the enemy. Catholicism says that there should be laws and regulations (doctrines) regarding moral principles, and that these principles are discernable. Who, in their right mind, would want to confine themselves by rules against abortion, contraception, divorce etc.? Let the moral marketplace roam free to find its own definitions of value (good and evil).

      I would submit that the loss of Church may also be a sympton of the loss of God. When once we were sure that God existed in our churches, we no longer have the confidence that he exists there. But, we have no other community to replace Church. So, in its extreme form, we pronounce that, “God is dead.”. In its milder forms, we look for God in government, or other religions or philosophies that are unfamilar to us.

  8. Just posted the results at Gay Mystic of a new poll showing Catholics most likely to rate their churches negatively in contributing to gay teen suicides.

    • Jayden,

      Perhaps what the poll really demonstrates is a confusion over cause and effect. Is it Eve’s or the serpent’s fault that Adam ate the apple?

      As a divorce lawyer nearly every person who wants a divorce tells me that he/she is getting a divorce because of the other person. In reality, people choose to file for divorce, and they almost always blame the other person even in cases of adultery.

      People make the choice to leave the Church. I would submit that the choice is nearly identical to filing for divorce. Whatever rationale people give for leaving their spouse, partner, or the Church, it is almost always a rationalization of their own lack of commitment.

      I’ve already made the commitment to my Church – for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.

  9. David, Adam made his own choice and is responsible for his own choice–not Eve, not Lucifer.

    It might be easiser for you to stay with Catholicism till ‘death’ do you part, because you are not getting beat up by the doctrine. For some of us, it is virtually impossible to stay when the cost is essentially denying your truth. I don’t know how certain high ranking clergy, one for sure who was just given a red hat, can pretend to be what they are not and still face their creator—unless they don’t believe what they teach and this whole Catholic priest thing is just a role they learned to play real well.

    • Colleen,

      My point to Jayden is to we need to be careful in assuming that the cause of our discontent is the other person. We have to assume personal responsibility for the fact that we feel bad or that we are acting badly.

      I can’t begin to understand the pain that gays and lesbians are feeling. But, I don’t think the Vatican is asking anyone to deny their truth. Read in the right context, much of the apparent sting of the doctrine is removed.

      You don’t have to believe what is being taught, nor does it have to be read in the worst possible light. In fact, Pope John Paul II mentions in the Prologue to the Catechism that the whole purpose of the doctrine is to be make manifest the Love of Christ. This is true whether the doctrine is proposed for belief, for action, or for hope.

      By almost any account, today’s Catholic clerics are some of the most dedicated, thoughtful, and spiritual folks around, and the Church is one of the most generous and charitable organizations in the world. In spite of all of its failures, the Church remains a strong advocate for the homeless, the criminal, the immigrant, and the downtrodden.

      A person could bang her head against the wall of church doctrine; she could also participate in one of the many fine causes of social justice to help make the love of Christ more manifest.

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