For American Catholics these days, the stories told by the statistics often can be troubling. A recent and much-publicized study by the respected Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, titled U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, has reported that fully one-third of native-born American Catholics have left the church of their baptism. While the percentage of Catholics in the United States has remained steady in recent decades at close to 25 percent (and the total number of Catholics has soared from 45.6 million in 1965 to 64.4 million in 2007), these numbers have been buttressed by continuing immigration from Latin American and other Catholic populations. For example, Latinos now represent 45 percent of all U.S. Catholics aged 18 to 29 years. Ten percent of Americans are former Catholics, a population that by itself could make up one of the largest religious denominations in the United States. The church continues to receive new members, long a source of intellectual ferment and cultural vitality, but those raised in another denomination or religion number only 2.6 percent of current Catholics. For reasons not always clear, the church in the United States is suffering an exodus of the faithful unprecedented in its history.
Though much of the mainstream media coverage of the report focused on Catholic losses, the Pew survey reported similarly shocking statistics for Protestant denominations, particularly for the mainline Protestant churches once dominant in American religious life. If one includes switching among different Protestant denominations, around 44 percent of adult Americans now belong to a church different from the one in which they were raised. Half of all Protestants in the United States now identify themselves as evangelical.
In one sense, this religious mobility is a typical expression of our nations religious culture; Americans, particularly Protestants, have always been more accepting of fluidity among Christian denominations than other, more religiously homogenous nations. In the case of current and former Catholics, this phenomenon also has much to do with the continuing entrance of Catholics into the American cultural and economic mainstream. The heirs of an immigrant church have moved in the past half-century out of insular cultural enclaves and achieved financial and cultural acceptance in American society. This trend has been noted by pollsters and cultural critics for years, with its ultimate ramifications unclear but still significant. Suddenly Catholicism in the United States finds itself assailed not by the bigotries of ages past but by the indifference of our current milieu. Have we reached the point where American Catholics are just like everybody else, where Catholicism is nothing more than a high church option in a broad spectrum of Christian religious choices?
While many former Catholics have since found a home in another denomination or religion, around half now describe themselves as unaffiliated, which suggests the troubling thought that a primary reason for their exodus might not have been anger at the institutional church or the oft-cited desire for a more personal or emotional experience of faith, but simple apathy. (Most unaffiliated respondents chose not to describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, but said their religious affiliation was nothing in particular.) A number of Catholics, it seems, have left not because they do not believe, but because they dont care.
If we believe that statistics do not define Christian life, but stories do, what is to be done? It will be difficult if not impossible to find consensus on the proper steps needed to confront these losses, but at a minimum it is clear that methods of catechesis need to be rethought. The dismaying evidence that one out of three Catholics no longer participates in the sacramental life of the church is proof enough of catechetical failure in the past two generations. Church leaders should also re-evaluate programs for adult faith formation, heeding the call of John Paul II for a new evangelization of formerly Christian but increasingly secularized cultures. When one out of every four Americans between 18 and 29 says he or she has no religious affiliation at all, it is clear that the de-Christianization so visible in recent decades in Western Europe is also quietly taking place in the United States. These troubling numbers also suggest that the church in the United States needs to focus less on internecine squabbles over Catholic identity and more on outreach and concern for the many who have simply walked away. Which one of you, Jesus asks in Lk 15:4, having 100 sheep, and having lost one of them, does not leave the 99 in the open country and go after the lost one until he finds it?