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Why the U.S. Catholic Church Has Lost More Members than Any Other Major Denomination

The downward trend in the number of Catholics is pretty familiar by now. In 2016, we were 18% of the population according to a recent PRRI report. In 2014, we were 21% and in 2007, 24% according to a Pew Religious Landscape Study.

The decline in non-Hispanic white Catholics is a bit steeper: 11% in 2016, 12% in 2014 and 16% in 2007.

Thirty six percent of Catholics are Hispanic; 9% are black, Asian and other. Hispanics are 52% of Catholics under the age of 30. The proportion of Hispanics is likely to increase because they have younger children and larger families, according to PRRI.

In 1990, native-born Catholics were 23% of the U.S. population and 87% were white, non-Hispanic.

“The largest decline among major religious groups” has occurred in the Catholic Church according to an earlier PRRI survey. “Nearly one-third (31.2%) of Americans report being raised in a Catholic household, but only about one in five (20.9%) Americans identify as Catholic currently.”

A 2014 Pew Research study found the same. “The greatest net losses [in the number of Americans claiming a religious affiliation] by far, have been experienced by Catholics. Nearly one-third of American adults (31.7%) say they were raised Catholic. Among that group, fully 41% no longer identify with Catholicism. This means that 12.9% of American adults are former Catholics.”

The above numbers include all Catholics. Specifically, Latinos are leaving the Church also as shown by a Pew survey conducted in 2013, the latest statistics available. “Nearly one-in-four Hispanic adults (24%) are now former Catholics [although] a majority (55%) of the nation’s Latino adults identify as Catholic … The share of Hispanics who are Catholic likely has been in decline for at least the last few decades. But as recently as 2010, Pew Research polling found that fully two-thirds of Hispanics (67%) were Catholic. That means the Catholic share has dropped by 12 percentage points in just the last four years.”

Worse yet, only 22% of Catholics attended Mass on a regular basis in 2016, down from 39% in 1990 according to Church statistics.

Why

In 2016, PRRI asked those who no longer identify with a denomination why the left. “A lack of belief in teachings of religion was the most commonly cited reason for disaffiliation …. Notably, those who were raised Catholic are more likely than those raised in any other religion to cite negative religious treatment of gay and lesbian people (39% vs. 29%, respectively) and the clergy sexual-abuse scandal (32% vs. 19%, respectively) as primary reasons they left the Church.”

From the 2013 Pew survey: “Latinos who have left the Catholic Church are especially likely to say that an important reason was that they stopped believing in its teachings …. In addition, 49% of Hispanics who were raised as Catholics and have become Protestants say that an important factor was finding a church that “reaches out and helps its members more” …. About 3% specifically mention the scandal over sexual abuse by clergy.”

Both PRRI and Pew attribute part of the exodus to a generational shift. The median age of those in the pews is rising and the number of those who leave is increasing among the young, including Latinos. But this is true for most Christian denominations.

“White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country,” the recent PRRI report stated. During this period in our history, all major Christian denominations are losing members.

So why is the Catholic Church experiencing the greatest decline? Because we are the only U.S. denomination controlled by a foreign government, a society exclusively all male, (officially) without spouses and children, who were promoted to their current positions precisely because they place the institution before all else. And that directly effects the reasons Catholics give for leaving.

Negative treatment of gay and lesbian people

Although it states that gay men and women “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” the Church’s Catechism  describes homosexuality as “psychological” and an “inclination,” and homosexual acts as “grave depravity.”

That’s why Pope Francis approved a reiteration last November of the ban on priests with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”

Pope Francis has referred to same-sex marriage as an “anthropological regression,” “disfiguring God’s plan for creation” that will “destroy the family.” The pope stated, “We must reaffirm the right of children to grow up in a family with a father and a mother.”

The pope has been especially harsh to transgender persons comparing them to nuclear weapons because neither “recognize the order of creation.” For the pope, teaching children about transgender human rights is a “sin against God the Creator.”

On June 29, the pope gave the highest award possible to lay persons to Alan Sears, head of the Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-gay hate group.  Sears was one of “America’s most active anti-gay activists” invited by Pope Francis to a Vatican conference on “traditional marriage.”

And that is why Cardinal Blasé Cupich, poster child for what the media refers to as “Francis’ pastoral bishops,”  fired archdiocesan employees Sandor Demkovich and Colin Collette after the former announced his marriage and the latter his engagement to other men.  Cupich also removed Fr. Marco Mercado from ministry because of his “inappropriate relationship with an adult man.”

Clerical Sex Abuse

On Sept. 7, a report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child detailed how, after three years, Pope Francis has not implemented any of the committee’s recommendations to protect children from sexual violence.

“The Holy See was summoned to the committee in 2014 where the Vatican was implored to take concrete steps to remedy decades of institutional complicity and cover-up of widespread sexual violence.”

In their report, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) “detail the Vatican’s failure to implement any of the committee’s recommendations, including increasing child protection from sexual violence and accountability for perpetrators and those who cover-up and conceal the offenses. The groups underscored the continued urgency to remedy this crisis, as revelations continue to unfold across the world of the widespread and pervasive nature of sexual violence in the Church.”

“No other entity on earth has the Church’s global presence and power to conceal the offenses and insulate its perpetrators through the religious, political, and financial influence it wields,” said CCR staff attorney Pam Spees.

A week later, it was reported that a Vatican diplomat posted in Washington D.C. and accused by the U.S. State Department of possession of child pornography, was immediately recalled to the safety of Vatican City State. “The State Department said it had asked the Vatican to lift the official’s diplomatic immunity and said the request was denied three days later.”

That is why the U.S. bishops do not take seriously the torture of children (the UN Committee against Torture “found that the widespread sexual violence within the Catholic Church amounted to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”) when, given what we know now, Pope Francis’ leadership in allowing sexual assaults against children to continue is sickening. With personal knowledge of the allegations against them, the pope has helped keep at least six sexual predators free men. He has taken no action against any of the 14 other bishops accused of complicity with abusive priests although, without any investigation or canonical trial, he removed the “Bishop of Bling.”

In an excellent work of investigative journalism, Nicole Sotelo researched the location of 33 of Cardinal Cupich’s former priests accused of child sex abuse who are still alive. She was able to locate the whereabouts of 29. “At least 16 – approximately half – of the abusive former priests currently reside or have recently resided within close proximity of a school or child services facility ….Two are currently in state or federal mental health facilities. [O]nly one former priest is part of a sex offender registry.”  None are being monitored by Cupich.

“Church officials covered up crimes for so long that in many cases the statute of limitations for criminal charges expired. [I]t is a sobering reminder that if Church officials had not shielded these men from the law or fought to keep the statute of limitations, some of these men would be registered sex offenders and, thus, identifiable to concerned parents and teachers,” Sotelo noted.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released their 2016 Annual Report on clerical sex abuse. For the years 2014, 2015 and 2016 combined, 1333 victims made “new credible allegations” against 799 clerics. Even a conservative extrapolation from Sotelo’s findings would be horrific.

In their report, the bishops do not give us the names of the credibly accused predators, which ones are free men and where are they located, nor which ones – if any – they have reported to the police. They do not act because Pope Francis will never hold them accountable for following his lead.

Not “reaching out and helping” Hispanics

That more progressive Catholics have left, leaving conservatives as the majority among white Catholics is evident by the white Catholic vote in this century. The majority voted for Bush in 2000 (52%), 2004 (56%) McCain (52%), Romney (59%) and Trump (60%).

This was critically important in 2016 because Trump, while carrying the South as expected, was elected because he won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, all states with large percentages of Catholics.

Had progressives not left, the following figures wouldn’t be so appalling: “Less than half of white Catholics (44%) believe immigrants strengthen the country” and “roughly four in ten white Catholics (41%) say that immigrants present a threat to American culture,” according to the PRRI 2015 American Values Atlas.

The U.S. bishops, faithfully Republican, congratulated Trump on his victory. The president of the USCCB, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, wrote, “We are firm in our resolve that our brothers and sisters who are migrants and refugees can be humanely welcomed without sacrificing our security.” A week later, the USCCB repeated that their pro-immigration efforts would “honor and respect the laws of this nation,” echoing Pope Francis’ position.

Pope Francis has said, “Yes, each country has the right to control its borders, who comes and who goes, and those countries at risk – from terrorism or such things –  have even more the right to control them more, but no country has the right to deprive its citizens of the possibility to talk with their neighbors.” The week before the U.S. elections, Pope Francis said, “The migrant must be treated with certain rules, because to emigrate is a right, but it is a very regulated right.”

So while the U.S. episcopate has been very vocal since the election in demanding humane treatment for immigrants, unlike religious leaders of other faiths, not one has offered any of his properties be made available as a sanctuary for those facing deportation where “cooperation with the national government effort to enforce immigration law” would be limited. In fact, Cardinal Cupich issued a letter to his priests specifying that they should not offer their facilities as sanctuaries because only priests and those approved by the archdiocese could reside on Church property.

As the danger for Latinos increased after the election, the bishops ignored hunger strikers at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. who asked that every Catholic diocese in America open at least one parish church as a sanctuary. And while the bishops sit in their comfortable offices and homes, other religious organizations have been holding vigils at the White House to support DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).

How the U.S. Episcopate Became an Adjunct of the Republican Party

Martin A. Lee’s “Their Will Be Done,” published by Mother Jones in 1983, is still one of the best narratives of Vatican/right-wing U.S. cooperation in the post-World War II era ever written. According to Lee:

Opus Dei is, at the top, “mostly middle- and upper-class businessmen, professionals, military personnel and government officials …. Its members control a large number of banks and financial institutions.”

Therefore, Opus Dei played “the most significant role of all groups engaged in the U.S.-sponsored campaign against liberation theology” in Latin America because liberation theology provided the theoretical basis for a “people’s church” committed to “economic and political reform.”

In 1978, “Opus Dei powerbrokers helped install Pope John Paul II” who “repudiated liberation theology.”

The pope and Ronald Reagan formed an alliance to quash this movement in Latin America even before Reagan’s election as president. “The Santa Fe Report, prepared for the Council for Inter-American Security and presented in 1980 to the Republican Platform Committee by a team of ultraconservative advisers, states that ‘U.S. foreign policy must begin to counter (not react against) liberation theology as it is utilized in Latin America by the liberation theology clergy.’”

After Reagan won the 1980 election and even before his inauguration, John Paul II appointed Archbishop Pio Laghi as his ambassador to the new administration. Laghi had been the Vatican ambassador to the Argentine military junta and “kept a secret list of thousands of people who disappeared during the Dirty War” for the dictatorship.

Officially the pope appoints all bishops, archbishops and cardinals, but he depends on advisers to help with his selections. Popes especially rely on their ambassadors in each country for guidance. So Laghi would have substantial input in shaping the U.S. episcopate. In view of John Paul II’s close political alliance with Reagan and Laghi’s personal friendship with Vice Pres. George H. W. Bush, it is probable Republican Party officials also offered guidance on the selection of prelates.

Also in 1978, the Religious Right was constructed by neoconservative Catholics Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie and Terry Dolan. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was their first creation towards uniting conservative Christians to the Republican Party.  Regardless of recent revisionist accounts, Catholics were always their intended targets as well. In the 1970s, “Catholics represented a quarter of the nation’s electorate”* and were needed to win state elections outside the South in addition to national elections.

It took Pope John Paul II more than a decade to form a majority of the U.S. episcopate who would campaign under the guise of “moral values” for the Republican Party because bishops are usually replaced only upon retirement.

Since then, it has been Catholics like Prof. Robert P. George, referred to as “this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker,” who have contributed much of the intellectual apologia against abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage and transgender rights under the umbrella of “religious liberty.”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, the bishops made a “scare movie” against Hillary Clinton and then attacked her and her running mate, Tim Kaine.

The prelate of Wall Street, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, began the inauguration ceremony by offering a prayer for wisdom. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, helped plan the National Prayer Service at Washington National Cathedral and led the “Prayer for Our Country.”

On May 4, before signing his executive order on “religious freedom” with Wuerl standing behind him, Trump decried the “attacks against the Little Sisters of the Poor,” the same group Pope Francis had visited while in the U.S. to encourage their lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act.  Trump invited the sisters present to stand beside him and shook their hands.

Wuerl and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the new USCCB president, met with Trump the day before. “It was a very good meeting.” Wuerl said.

The “Francis effect”

Currently, Pope Francis’ overall approval is 87.9% among Americans. He has 67.9% approval among U.S. Catholics.

Obviously, that has not translated into an increase in membership among progressives and adult Latinos now that the rate of immigration has slowed.

No American priest or prelate has supported same-sex marriage or other human rights for LGBTQ persons.

There has been neverending local news coverage of ongoing clerical sex abuse, not to mention continuous reports worldwide.

Since white Catholics are majority Trump-voters and the bishops are Republican, there will be no increase in “reaching out and helping” Latinos in more substantive ways.

Conservatives are now unhappy, also. Pope Francis accused bishops who disagreed with him about allowing communion for the divorced and civilly remarried of “legalism,” “closed hearts,” “blinkered viewpoints,” judging “sometimes with superiority and superficiality,” lacking “understanding,” unable to “discern,” cowardice in “burying their heads in the sand,’ “a nasty spirit in order to sow division,” and psychologically “born from something missing, from trying to hide one’s own sad dissatisfaction behind a kind of armor.” He warned that they are a “cancer of the Church” and “in pursuit of glory rooted in the logic of ambition and power.”

(Since Jesus said “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” [Matthew 19:9]; “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” [Mark 10:11]; and “Whoever puts away his wife and marries another, commits adultery [Luke 16:18] vicious name-calling was not in order.)

This rift may turn out to be a blessing for the road ahead.

The Future

The pope appoints the bishops, the bishops decide who does or doesn’t become a priest. Priests are accountable only to their bishop, bishops only to the pope. A pope appoints the cardinals who will elect the next pope. No substantive change is going to come from this system of governance.

That is not to say that there aren’t vibrant and faith-filled Catholic parishes, charities, schools and colleges now. But the numbers are dwindling and American Catholicism is in danger of being reduced to a minor sect.

So it is up to the Catholic laity to assert themselves for more control in their communities. Nothing will change until the laity choose their parish leaders and, either directly or indirectly, their bishops.

A Christian community’s first responsibility should be as Jesus commanded: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15) “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).

Unfortunately, job one must now be insuring the safety of children and vulnerable adults. Lay councils should insist on background checks for all employees before they are hired, make it mandatory that any credible accusation of sex abuse or possession on child pornography be reported immediately to the police, that the names of credibly accused predators be made public and that their whereabouts be monitored.

Jesus also prayed that his believers “all may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:21).

Early Christians had plenty of differences of opinion, too. But they were resolved through councils, not name-calling. Although the participants were Church leaders, the “sensus fidelium” or “sense of the faithful” also played a major role. For example, whether Jesus was human or divine was one of the foremost issues requiring a resolution. It was popular use among the laity of the title “Theotokos” (God-bearer) for Mary that helped settle the matter. They believed Mary was mother of both the divine and human Christ and so, Jesus was eventually declared both fully human and fully divine by the Church Fathers.

In June 2014, the International Theological Commission released a document, “‘Sensus Fidei’ in the Life of the Church.” “From the beginning of Christianity, all the faithful played an active role in the development of Christian belief  …. What is less well known, and generally receives less attention, is the role played by the laity with regard to the development of the moral teaching of the Church …. Sometimes the truth of the faith has been conserved not by the efforts of theologians or the teaching of the majority of bishops but in the hearts of believers.”

Granted, most church-goers are understandably occupied with making a living and raising a family. But for those who become leaders and wish to reinvigorate their communities, they can understand that there would be no Church without them and that their contribution is vital. I don’t remember which prelate once said about the laity, “We’d look pretty foolish without them.”

The great North African theologian Tertullian (ca. 160–220) “imagined pagans looking at Christians and saying, ‘Look how they love one another …'” That could become the most potent sign that Catholics are following Jesus. Imagine if we could show respect and patience for those with whom we disagree.

George Lakoff, cognitive linguist and professor, described a model for conservative and progressive worldviews as “strict father” and “nurturing parent.” Among many characteristics, the former favor authoritarian figures and a clear delineation between right and wrong. The latter favor empathy and a more situational ethic.

Conservative Catholics are in the majority because for almost 40 years popes and U.S. bishops have been conservative. Perhaps some would be willing to cede more influence to the laity and less to their hierarchs since they have now been denigrated by Pope Francis. Progressive Catholics could try to remember that they had been the ones denounced for almost four decades.

Not only should the laity be more respectful of different worldviews, but they can also concede that many of their opinions are predicated on their culture and not religion. Culture shapes religion, not vice versa. It would be natural to still have Masses in English, Latin and Spanish because we prefer to worship within our comfort zone. When I was a child, entire parishes were Irish, Italian, Polish or other nationalities and yet we all considered ourselves to be faithful Catholics. I remember one gentleman telling me recently that, due to his work schedule, he could only attend a Mass where he loathed the music but was happy to see others enjoying it so much – a much needed spirit of community.

Whether worship is solemn or exuberant, what peripheral positions are considered right and wrong, what other ceremonies and festivals are essential, etc., need to be recognized as a cultural heritage and not Jesus-directed.

Jesus shared his meals with sinners and the Last Supper with Judas Iscariot. No Catholic should be denied participation in the sacraments.

Right now, our nation is bitterly polarized. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Catholics could be an example of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

*Heyer, Kristin E.; Rozell, Mark J.; Genovese, Michael A. Catholics and Politics: The Dynamic Tension Between Faith and Power p. 17
(Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America.)

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2 Responses

  1. A fine status report of where we have been and where we are today!

    John Dick

    • Thank you very much.

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