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American Catholicism: Headed Towards a Dead End

Although “nearly one-third of American adults (31.7%) say they were raised Catholic, only about one in five (20.8%) identified as Catholic” in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. “The share of adults who identify as Christians fell from 78% to just under 71%” between 2007 and 2014. But “within Christianity the greatest net losses, by far, have been experienced by Catholics,” according to the “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” study.

The survey also showed that – since 34% of Catholics were Latino and 8% Black, Asian or other – the number of white Catholics had fallen to less than 12% of the population.

An update on the “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” study was published in October 2019. “Catholics no longer constitute a majority of the U.S. Hispanic population …. 47% of Hispanics described themselves as Catholic, down from 57% a decade ago,” Pew stated. This decline occurred while the U.S. Hispanic population had increased by 20% during the same decade per U.S. Census Bureau estimates.Thus, the Church could no longer depend on immigrants to sustain its membership numbers.

A problem with these Pew surveys is that they did not ask why someone no longer affiliates with a particular religion. The last reliable survey on this question based on the population as a whole was conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in 2016. They 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.”

Clerical sex abuse (Warning: graphic language might trigger flashbacks or strong emotional or physical responses.)

And that survey was conducted before a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was issued in August 2018. “Bishops and other leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania covered up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests over a period of 70 years …. The report found more than 1,000 identifiable victims [but] there are likely thousands more whose records were lost or who were too afraid to come forward,” the New York Times stated.

“It catalogs horrific instances of abuse: a priest who raped a young girl in the hospital after she had her tonsils out; a victim tied up and whipped with leather straps by a priest; and another priest who was allowed to stay in ministry after impregnating a young girl and arranging for her to have an abortion,” noted the Times.

“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades. While some accused priests were removed from ministry, the Church officials who protected them remained in office or even got promotions.” the grand jury wrote

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office initiated the investigation, said in a news conference that the cover-up by senior Church officials “stretched in some cases all the way up to the Vatican,” the Times quoted. “They protected their institution at all costs,” added Shapiro.

Not surprisingly, “37% of U.S. Catholics say news of the abuse has led them to question whether they would remain in the Church,” reported Gallup in March 2019. “While it is uncertain how many of the 37% will actually leave, any loss of adherents is certainly not welcome news,” Gallup noted.


No sanctuary

After Trump’s 2016 election victory, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (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.”

Unlike religious leaders of other faiths, not one Catholic bishop offered any of his properties be made available as a sanctuary for those facing deportation. By March 2017, “more than 800 [non-Catholic] churches and some synagogues have declared themselves sanctuaries and are taking other measures to stop the deportation of immigrants who are in the country illegally,” VOA News reported.

In contrast, Chicago Cardinal Blasé 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.

Closing Black parishes

On March 9, 2021, Cardinal Cupich’s Archdiocese of Chicago announced the decision close eight parishes in “regions south of Chicago,” a predominantly African-American area. The archdiocese announced the parish closures are “part of the ‘Renew My Church’ plan,” as reported by the National Catholic Register.

“Black churches bear the burden when dioceses decide that churches need to close and parishes need to reorganize,” said Tia Noelle Pratt. “Where churches close” is a “factor that drives Black Americans away,” noted Pratt, the president of the TNPratt & Associates sociology firm in Philadelphia, in a February interview with Crux.

 “54 percent of Black adults who were raised Catholic still identify as Catholic, but 81 percent of Black adults who were raised Protestant still identify as Protestant,” stated a Pew Research Center survey conducted between November 2019 and June 2020. The study “found that 6 percent of Black Americans are Catholic. And though that percentage may seem small, it’s important to recognize that 6 percent is millions of people,” Pratt said about the Pew report.

“The Black Catholic exodus from the Church in America calls into question the Catholic Church’s credibility and integrity,” Fr. Bryan Massingale stated at a Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture online discussion in February titled “Black Churches, Black Catholics.”

Closing schools of low-income students of color

“209 Catholic schools closed at the end of the 2019-2020 school year,” according to the National Catholic Education Association. “The closure of Catholic schools disproportionately affected lower-income students of color living in urban areas,” stated the NCEA report published in February. “In many cases, these underserved groups were over twice as likely to have their Catholic schools close compared to both all school closures and all communities served by Catholic schools,” the report “Catholic School Enrollment and School Closures, Post-COVID-19” noted in Crux article.

“Some of our schools were financially vulnerable and then when the pandemic hit parents lost jobs, parents were furloughed. They didn’t have the income to pay tuition,” Kathy Mears, interim president of the NCEA, told Crux. “It’s proven out in the numbers because the schools that were most impacted by this were schools that were in the economic areas that were struggling.”

In June, Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s Archdiocese of Boston announced “the closure of 10% of its schools, and the number of schools that won’t be reopening to students in the fall could grow.”

“I believe we’re going to have the largest number of Catholic school closures around the country in anyone’s recent memory,” Thomas Carroll, the superintendent of archdiocesan schools, said in June 2020. “It’s not for lack of interest, but the lack of ability for families to pay the tuition as they have lost their jobs and income due to government’s decision to shut down much of the economy.” Carroll also blamed the government for “causing the collapse of Catholic schools …. It’s on them when they do the next relief package’ to direct [taxpayer] money to families who want to send their children to have a Catholic education,” Carroll told WBUR.


“As the pandemic began to unfold, scores of Catholic dioceses across the U.S. received aid through the Paycheck Protection Program while sitting on well over $10 billion in cash, short-term investments or other available funds,” stated an Associated Press investigation published in February 2021. “The $10 billion AP identified doesn’t count important financial pillars of the U.S. Church. Among those are its thousands of real estate properties and most of the funds that parishes and schools hold. Also excluded is the money – estimated at $9.5 billion in a 2019 study by the Delaware-based wealth management firm Wilmington Trust – held by foundations created to help dioceses oversee donations.”

“And despite the broad economic downturn, these assets have grown in many dioceses. Overall, the nation’s nearly 200 dioceses, where bishops and cardinals govern, and other Catholic institutions received at least $3 billion. That makes the Roman Catholic Church perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the paycheck program, according to AP’s analysis of data the U.S. Small Business Administration released following a public-records lawsuit by news organizations. The agency for months had shared only partial information, making a more precise analysis impossible.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago, where Cardinal Cupich is closing eight parishes in poor neighborhoods, “had more than $1 billion in cash and investments in its headquarters and cemetery division as of May, while the faithful continued to donate ‘more than expected,’ according to a review by the independent ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service. Chicago’s parishes, schools and ministries accumulated at least $77 million in paycheck protection funds.”

The central ministries office of the Archdiocese of  Boston, where Cardinal O’Malley was closing 10% or more of his schools, “received about $3 million, while its parishes and schools collected about $32 million more …. The archdiocese – along with its parishes, schools and cemeteries – had roughly $233 million in available funds in June 2020, according to the AP investigation.” Other sources of funding: “The archdiocese’s ‘Inspiring Hope’ campaign, announced in January, has raised at least $150 million. And one of its supporting charities – the Catholic Schools Foundation, where Cardinal Sean O’Malley is board chairman – counted more than $33 million in cash and other funds that could be ‘used for general operations’ as of the beginning of the 2020 fiscal year,” the AP reported.


Young Catholics

“Approximately 12.8 percent of U.S. young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are former Catholics, and approximately 6.8 percent of U.S. teens between the ages of 15 and 17 are former Catholics” stated a report, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics,” published in January 2018. Opposition to Church positions on “gay marriage, contraception, and abortion is the most common” reason for leaving, noted the report released by Saint Mary’s Press of Minnesota in collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University as reported by Crux.

“Half of young Catholics today report little to no trust in organized religion. A third of young Catholics told us they do not think it’s important to have a faith community and a third attend religious services once a year or less. Like their peers, a sizable chunk of young Catholics doesn’t necessarily consider institutional engagement to be an important aspect of their faith,” according to the 2020 Catholic Edition of “The State of Religion & Young” published by the Springtide Research Institute as reported by Crux.

Progressive Catholics call for reform

“About three-quarters (76%) of Catholics say the church should allow its adherents to use birth control. Roughly six-in-ten Catholics say the church should allow priests to get married (62%) and women to become priests (59%),” the Pew Research Center stated in 2015.

“Catholics who identify as Democrats or lean that way (77%) said abortion should be legal in all or most cases” while “most Catholics who identify as Republican or lean toward the Republican Party (63%) said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases,” according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.

“67% of white Catholics and 78% of Hispanic Catholics favor legalizing same-sex marriage,” the Public Religion Research Institute reported in October 2020.

The progressive Call to Action’s website states: “Our work includes RACIAL JUSTICE, LGBT JUSTICE, CHURCH WORKER JUSTICE, WOMEN’S AND GIRL’S EQUALITY, LAY ENGAGEMENT and more.”

Voice of the Faithful promotes “active participation of the laity” in “the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church.” They also support having women deacons and married priests.



“Pope Francis agreed that abortion is the ‘preeminent‘ social and political issue during a Jan. 16, 2020, meeting with U.S. bishops. ‘The pope put it in a very beautiful way: Do we always want to simply eliminate those who are inconvenient?’” Bishop W. Shawn McKnight related to Our Sunday Visitor publication.

Shortly before the January 2021 legalization of abortion in Argentina up to the 14th week of pregnancy for any reason and after, only in cases of rape or if the mother’s health is in danger, Pope Francis sent a handwritten letter to a group of women in Buenos Aires: “Is it fair to hire a hitman to resolve a problem?” Even to save the life of woman, the pope has stated on multiple occasions that every abortion is equivalent to the action of a “hitman.”


In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the document, Humanae Vita, in which he forcefully reaffirmed the Church’s ban on “artificial” birth control. When asked about Humanae Vitae, Pope Francis replied that Paul VI’s “genius was prophetic; he had the courage to place himself against the majority, defending the moral discipline, exercising a culture brake,” as related by Vatican reporter, Andrea Gagliarducci.

During his trip to the U.S. in 2015, Pope Francis visited with the Little Sisters of the Poor community in Washington D.C. “This is a sign, obviously, of support for them in their court case” against insurance for contraception for their employees under Obamacare, stated the director of the Vatican’s Press Office. The Obama Administration had already “issued a compromise to the law allowing religious groups to opt out of paying for contraception and sterilization, as long as a third party pays for the services instead. But the Sisters say that would still violate their spiritual position,” reported NBC News.


On March 15, 2021, the Vatican issued a document approved by Pope Francis stating that “blessings” of same-sex marriages are “not legitimate,” as homosexual unions are “not ordered to the Creator’s plan.”

Fr. James Martin said he feared the directive may prompt “some LGBTQ Catholics to leave the church, after years of feeling rejected and unwelcome.”

Pope Francis has said that same-sex marriage is an “anthropological regression.” The pope had stated that “homosexuals not be accepted into the priesthood or into consecrated life [brothers and nuns].”

Even worse, Pope Francis has said that transgender persons constitute the very “annihilation of man as image of God.” He compared transgender persons to “nuclear arms;” both are “a sin against God the Creator.

Women’s rights and married priests

Pope Francis said “he believes the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on women becoming priests is forever and will never be changed” noted Reuters in November 2016,

“Pope Francis Won’t Allow Married Men As Priests, Women As Deacons” was the headline of a February 2020 report by NPR.

Child Sex Abuse

During his eight-year reign, Pope Francis has created powerless commissions, made ineffectual “reforms” and taken meaningless actions when forced to by civil authorities and/or public opinion.

For example, in June 2018, Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced that the New York Archdiocesan Review Board found that an allegation of sex abuse of a minor by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was “credible and substantiated.” Because McCarrick, previously archbishop of Washington D.C., had been such an important prelate, the accusation made U.S. headlines. At least two other accusations of abuse of minors by McCarrick were reported

In February 2019, a week before his highly publicized Vatican “summit” on child sex abuse, Pope Francis “defrocked” the 88-year-old – and now long-retired – McCarrick after the Vatican had found him guilty of “committing sins and abuse of power with minors and adults.” At the time of his “punishment,” McCarrick had already acquired “a private income from savings and monthly annuities” according to the Catholic News Agency and now lives in an undisclosed location.


In Jerusalem in about 50 AD, a conference was held among the first Christian leaders. As Acts 15:22-29 describes it, “the apostles and elders, with the whole Church” sent their representatives “to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia” with a letter: “…. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.”

Throughout the next two millennia, Christian Churches evolved in their response to their particular society and culture. In contrast, the current Vatican and American Catholic leadership remain frozen in the “moral values” promulgated by U.S. neoconservatives in the late 1970s in order to energize conservative Christians to political activism and to vote for the Republican Party.

For 23 years, Francis X. Maier was senior adviser and special assistant to Archbishop Charles Chaput, the eminence grise of the most vociferous anti-Democratic Party bishops. Maier and his wife were named “Knight Commander” and “Dame Commander” in the Order of St. Gregory the Great, the highest papal honor granted to laypeople in recognition of their service to the Church, in December 2019 by Pope Francis.

Regarding the corona virus pandemic, Maier wrote: “Most bishops project between a 25 percent and 40 percent permanent fall-off in Mass attendance and parish engagement even after the virus is history. Combined with already-existing trends in sacramental decline, this suggests a smaller, leaner future for many dioceses, sooner than many planned.” Maier’s article appeared in the February 2021 edition of First Things, a publication established by a founding theocon, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.

Nevertheless, “most bishops expressed satisfaction with the state of the U.S. bishops’ conference …. Worry about the negative spirit and potential damage of the Biden administration was unanimous. Several voiced irritation with Washington’s Cardinal Wilton Gregory for undercutting conference leadership on the issue of [giving] Communion to President Biden [despite his pro-choice position].”

(“67% of U.S. Catholics say that Biden should be allowed to receive Communion at Mass,” according to a Pew Research Center survey released on March 30. “Among Catholics who identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, a slim majority (55%) say Biden’s abortion stance should disqualify him from receiving Communion.”)

Maier: The bishops “oppose any public ‘democratization’ of [governance] as dragging the worst of American pressure politics into the life of the Church.”

“I asked each of the bishops I interviewed a concluding question: At the end of the day, what worries and what encourages you the most? In case after case, a bishop gave the same answer to each question – young people. The greatest pain is the number of young persons exiting the Church. The greatest source of hope is the zeal and character of the young people who remain faithful and love Jesus Christ.”  That’s bishop-speak for white, conservative, financially secure Catholics.

Not only is there no impetus in the U.S. episcopate to respond to our present society and culture, but also they are “at peace” according to Maier with a Church that rejects diversity, dialogue and dissent –  a dead end institution.

Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Instituting Christian Nationalism in America.


One Response

  1. […] who identify as Christians fell from 78% to just under 71%’ between 2007 and 2014. But ‘within Christianity the greatest net losses, by far, have been experienced by Catholics(link is e…,’ according to the ‘America’s Changing Religious Landscape’ study. The survey also showed […]

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