The National Catholic Review
Andrew M. Greeley

The Roman Catholic clergy in the United States report with dismay—and not a little self-pity—that their churches, once filled on Sunday, are now half empty. Some view this decline in Sunday Mass attendance as proof that the Catholic Church is falling apart, and many attribute the decline to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. But this view does not account for the fact that many of the people who do not attend Mass regularly—those who are under 40—were never weekly churchgoers in the first place. Why? Because they do not think it is a serious sin to miss Mass. And those over 40 have also changed their minds. “I don’t think my grandson will go to hell because he misses Sunday Mass,” said an elderly parishioner in one survey, “I don’t think I would either, but I’m not going to take the chance.”

 

American Catholics changed their minds about hellfire and missing Mass as part of the same decision-making process that led them to conclude that birth control in the name of married love would not send them to hell either. The changes are not the result of secularism, a consumerist culture, materialism or the loss of faith, as some would contend, but rather of a “Catholic revolution,” which immediately followed Vatican II and was continued by the “children of the council”—Catholics born since 1960. In both cases, those who do not attend Mass regularly do not believe that they are committing a serious sin. Data from several different sources illuminate this phenomenon: the National Opinion Research Center’s Catholic school studies of 1963 and 1974, the General Social Survey from 1972 to 2002 also conducted by N.O.R.C., a Knowledge Network survey of 2002 and the two General Social Survey religion modules of 1988 and 1998.

The Catholic Revolution

The moderate reforms of Vatican II—support for biblical research, seeing the church as the people of God, ecumenical engagement with Protestants, better relations with Jews, vernacular liturgy, support for religious freedom—would not appear to have caused the decline in Mass attendance among American Catholics. But the changes brought about by the council helped to destabilize the structures (the behavior patterns and supporting motivations) of Catholicism. While serious Catholic scholars knew that change is a constitutive part of the history of the Catholic Church, the mantra that governed Catholic life in the 19th and early 20th centuries was that “the church should not change, cannot change and will not change.” Catholicism was perceived as essentially a network of permanent rules enforced by the penalty of mortal sin and the possibility of eternal damnation for those who broke them.

This posture may have been essential to resist the powerful energies unleashed by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. As the church’s enemies strove to destroy it, it seemed necessary for the church to retreat into the stance of a besieged garrison under attack. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, it was clear that Catholicism had survived and prospered. The church was no longer under siege. Pleas for church reform to meet the new conditions in which the church and its people lived grew more frequent and stronger by the middle of the 20th century, especially in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The reforms of Vatican II were an attempt to meet this demand through a modest updating (aggiornamento) of the church. The changes, relatively minor and theologically sound as they were, destabilized the structures of a church that had been popularly regarded as changeless and whose popular authority was derived from the threat of mortal sin and condemnation.

The council fathers poured new wine into the old wineskins, and the wineskins burst. In the heady atmosphere of the postconciliar church, Catholics decided that if the church could change some rules, then it could change other rules too. If it was no longer a mortal sin that would send you to hell to eat meat on Friday or drink a glass of water before receiving Communion, then were you really likely to go to hell for missing Mass on Sunday or practicing birth control to hold your marriage together?

In the wake of Vatican II, the people changed the rules; hence the “Catholic Revolution.” It may be argued that the people had no right to change the rules, and that argument may be correct. The point is that they did it and that they are very unlikely to reverse themselves. Like it or not, as the result of the Catholic revolution the leaders of the Catholic Church are now sharing power with the laity, and the arrangement seems to be permanent.

Did the fathers of the council anticipate this revolution? Surely not. Yet in retrospect such a dramatic shift in the Catholic perspective was almost certain once change was introduced—any change—in an institution that had apparently not changed in 150 years.

Church Attendance and the Catholic Revolution

How did the Catholic revolution affect Mass attendance in the United States? Two studies from the National Opinion Research Center in the years 1963 and 1974 provide us with a before-and-after picture. Part of the picture is that weekly Mass attendance among American Catholics declined to 50 percent from 72 percent. Most of this decline, as measured by yearly studies from the Gallup polling organization, occurred after the release of Humanae Vitae in 1968, the papal encyclical that prohibited the use of artificial contraception, or birth control. Prior to Humanae Vitae, many Catholics had already decided that birth control was not sinful. The encyclical had the unintended consequence of persuading them that the threat of mortal sin and the fear of hell, which were for many years the principal elements of the church’s popular authority, should not be controlling motivations for their lives. In effect they appealed from a pope who they felt did not understand married love to a God who did. Reaction to Humanae Vitae joined the powerful forces for change set in motion by the council and set loose the full force of the Catholic revolution.

In the wake of the revolution, no one seemed to realize that sensitive and enlightened leadership would be necessary if the destabilized church structures were to be replaced with new ones. The fathers of the council had unleashed the revolution and then found that they lacked a strategy for directing and containing it. In the absence of perceptive and sensitive leadership, the laity and the lower clergy took control of the revolution by deciding that they, not the leadership, would set the norms for being Catholic. Subsequent attempts by church leadership to reassert control and even to restore the structures that existed before the council have proved ineffective.

The change in Sunday Mass attendance in the decade after the council is striking, not merely because it was a dramatic change of behavior but also because it was a trend that affected Catholics in every age group. The Catholic revolution affected even those who were born at the beginning of the 20th century, long before the council. Older Catholics, in fact the oldest group of Catholics in the N.O.R.C. studies, also changed their behavior and attended Mass less frequently. This fact calls into question the explanation offered by many European Catholic leaders that the cultural revolution of the late 1960’s is the cause of declining Mass attendance. They argue that the reforms of the council were commandeered by the secular cultural revolution and that it is therefore necessary to return to the way the church was before the council, if we are to interpret the council properly. Since their classrooms were taken over by the young radicals, one can understand the intensity of their feelings. But it hardly seems likely that the rate of church attendance by older Catholics would be affected by pot-smoking, obscenity-shouting young radicals marching in European streets.

The decline depicted in the N.O.R.C. studies is so dramatic that when it was first reported, many Catholic leaders simply dismissed it without any supporting data of their own. But as Professor Michael Hout of the University of California at Berkeley and I have argued, changing attitudes on sex, authority and sin are closely linked and can be used to account for the decline in Mass attendance. Changing attitudes with regard to Humanae Vitae and the authority behind it appear logically and chronologically prior to the change in Mass attendance.

Church attendance is more than just a factor of age. The data from the 1963 and 1974 N.O.R.C. studies, which group Catholics in cohorts by the decades in which they were born, suggest that Sunday Mass attendance declined among American Catholics for three reasons. First, the older cohorts, those likely to attend Mass frequently, were diminished by mortality in the time between the two studies, and the younger cohorts, those less likely to attend Mass frequently, increased in number by the entrance into the sample of those who were too young to be in the 1963 sample. Sheer demography thus accounts for one-fifth of the change in church attendance by the 1970’s.

Second, attitudes toward artificial contraception and birth control account for much of the decline in church attendance in the early years of the Catholic revolution. Some Catholic commentators dismissed this finding with ridicule. The birth control issue, they insisted, was not that important. (Marital sex wasn’t that important in human life?)

Third, changes in attitudes toward church authority account for part of the decline as well (e.g., changes in the conviction that Jesus passed on to Peter and his successors authority in the church and changes in the belief that God condemns sinners to hell for all eternity). The Catholic revolution, launched by the destabilization of structures occasioned but not caused by the council, provided the context in which this dramatic, not to say traumatic change in church attendance occurred.

The Children of the Council

The decline measured in the N.O.R.C. Catholic school studies appeared at first to be a one-time event, a brief, single shock. However, N.O.R.C.’s General Social Survey for the last 30 years shows that the decline in Mass attendance continued well after 1972, even into 2002 (the most recent G.S.S. survey year). At the same time, Protestant church attendance held steady. These different phenomena suggest that something had happened to Catholics that had not affected Protestants. Hence there had been a special Catholic revolution distinct from the general cultural revolution in the larger U.S. society and in the Western world.

The decline in Catholic attendance at Sunday Mass since 1972 is a function of demographic change—the emergence of younger Catholics, the children who were born and raised during and after the council. These cohorts are the cause of the continuing decline. Their parents had made the decision that, since birth control was not a mortal sin that would damn them to hell for all eternity, missing Mass would not send them to hell either. Hence it was relatively easy for their children to make the same decision. The response from some Catholic writers, like Hans Küng, that one should go to Mass on Sunday out of devotion and loyalty fell on deaf ears. For Catholics, either mortal sin and hellfire motivated them to attend Mass or they did not go. There was no middle ground.

The question remains, however, whether younger Catholics, like their predecessors, were also less likely to attend Mass because of changes in attitudes to sin, sex and authority. The data suggest that issues of sex and authority have had little impact on the church attendance of Catholics born since 1960—the children of the Catholic revolution. Sunday Mass attendance of Catholics born during the 1970’s is 41 percentage points lower than that of those born at the beginning of the 20th century, 20 percent versus 61 percent.

But when the figures are adjusted to take into account attitudes toward premarital sex and confidence in church authority, the attendance rates are the same for all the cohorts born before 1960 save for the cohort born in the 1920’s. Or, to put the matter differently, the variance in attendance rates among these pre-1960 cohorts (save for the 1920’s cohort) is the result of the difference among them in attitudes toward sex and authority.

So the break in church attendance rates for Catholics, once sex and authority changes are taken into account, is between those born before the council and those born after it. The latter presumably do not attend Mass every Sunday because they are even less likely than their parents to consider nonattendance a mortal sin and to lead to eternal damnation.

Most social research demonstrates that the young and the unmarried are less likely to engage in religious behavior than those who are older and married. Thoughts about mortality and the formation of family tend to increase religiosity. There may therefore be some reason to hope that church attendance by the children of the council will increase as the years go on, but hardly to the level of attendance of their parents or grandparents.

The data show that in addition to their youthfulness, the children of the Catholic revolution are also less likely than their parents to approve of the quality of preaching (Knowledge Network Project, 2002).

Finally, further N.O.R.C data from the G.S.S. religion modules of 1988 and 1998 confirm the impact of the belief among Catholics that church attendance is not important. Catholic attendance over the period 1988-98 declined by seven percentage points. Church attendance did not decline among Protestants or among Catholics who believed that weekly attendance was “extremely important” for religious faith, but a statistically significant decline to 20 percent from 30 percent occurred for those who did not believe it was “extremely important” to go to church regularly.

The Blame Game

So who is to “blame”? The fathers of the council for reintroducing change into the church? Their predecessors, who governed the church with threats of sin and damnation? Leaders who postponed change for so long that the release of pent-up pressures caused a revolution? Leaders of the church after the council, who, having lost their nerve, tried desperately to restore some of the status quo ante through more rules and condemnation? Parish priests who believed that they could keep people in church on Sunday no matter how dull and boring the “celebration” was? Priests who denied the evident truth that their homilies bored the laity to death? Liturgists whose fussy rubrical games were indifferent to the religious needs of the laity? All of the above?

Make your own choice. But do not blame the laity, as many priests and bishops do. The laity neither preserved the old wineskins beyond due time nor poured the new wine into them, nor did they fail to lead wisely in the years after the wineskins broke.

Rev. Andrew M. Greeley is professor of social sciences at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona and research associate at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. His latest book is The C

Comments

Skyrider | 1/19/2008 - 3:24am
Excellent Article! My former parish is trying to reintroduce the Latin Mass per Vatican Direction to "cure" problems Ratzinger blames on the council. The congregation told the priest they didn't want Latin, but were ignored. Parishioners are disillusioned. This year I am joining a protestant church because I have had it with the bishop and popes refusal to listen to laity.
Michael Bindner | 6/13/2004 - 6:19pm
On this feast of Corpus Christi, I cannot help but add that most Catholics no longer adhere to the doctrine on receiving communion worthily. Nowadays, everyone goes to Communion, believing that it actually removes sin (which I believes it does in many cases - see the article on my web page on the Death of Jesus).

In former days, every instance of sexual excitement was considered a mortal sin. I believe the origins of this was the pronouncement of a certain Cardinal from Baltimore stating that every sexual sin was mortal. Venial sin is also stated as Sin of Venus (gluttony, lust, etc.). Everyone who wished to go to communion would go to confession on Saturday. Modern Catholics are a bit more enlightened on such matters, which in former days bordered on scrupluousness, which is itself sinful. The old style of morality was self-centered and obsessive. Hopefully we have grown out of it and grown into a more socially responsible morality which is other centered and more about justice than fear of damnation.

Henry Littleton | 6/1/2004 - 2:18pm
I believe most Catholics that attend Mass today do so, because of their love of God and their openness to the effects of God’s grace. This was true in the early Church, and will continue till the end of time.

If one truly believes that the Holy Spirit guides the Church, then one will embrace change, and thank the God of Abraham that His favor of the Holy Catholic Church continues.

Raymond Helgeson | 6/11/2004 - 12:24am
In reading Rev. Andrew Greeley’s “Children of the Council” I couldn’t help but be amused as Fr. Greeley danced around the issue of whether it is a serious sin to miss Mass on Sunday. His article was filled with statistical data concerning this or that reason for lower Mass attendance, as well as a plethora of ambiguity, which seems to be one of the hallmarks of Catholic thought in many circles today. I myself was a recipient of the heavy-handed morality of the 50’s and early 60’s whereby I was damned if I did, and damned if I didn’t. However, this is a very myopic view of the Church before Vatican Council II. It was not, as Fr. Greeley relates “[The] posture… essential to resist the powerful energies unleashed by the Enlightenment.” Rather this was simply a case of poor catechesis. The half-truths and nebulous nature of Fr. Greeley’s article do nothing but contribute to the ongoing crisis in catechesis in the Church. For example, in dancing around the notion of authority in the Church Greeley states “In the absence of perceptive and sensitive leadership, the laity and the lower clergy took control of the revolution by deciding that they, not the leadership, would set the norms for being Catholic.” This is classic Protestantism, not Catholicism. It is just another peculiar notion that has crept into much of, so called, Catholic thinking. What is needed in the Catholic Church is not more personal opinion, but sound Catholic teaching (see 1 Tim 1:13-14 and 1 Tim 4:3-4) Christ demands as much in Matthew 28:19-20. In this way the beauty of the Catholic faith and the joy of following Christ abides in the hearts of Catholic believers. The Sunday obligation has not changed over the past 40 years. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says as much where it states “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation [Sunday Eucharist] commit a grave sin.” I am not making this up, nor am I using it as a club to coerce someone into compliance; it is simply God’s truth; He expects this, among other obligations from us. When less is expected of Catholics by watering-down the faith, or the demands of Christ in living a full faith life—you get less. The next time an article purports to dance around the truth and moral obligation of the Catholic faith, I suggest taking a hard look at what is actually being presented. Hopefully more and more Catholics will decide to simply sit this one out and leave the dance floor of ambiguity in order to seek the real substance of the faith and commit themselves wholeheartedly to its demands and promises.

Michael Bindner | 6/9/2004 - 12:02pm
Congratulations to Father Greeley on an excellent article. It is the pefect set up for the next question: Now that we know why the Churches are half empty, how do we fill them back up?

The answer must be in the area where Father Greeley places the blame, with the hierarchy. Papal appointment of bishops was an appropriate reform to wrest this power from Kings. In those nations that have adapted democracy, this is no longer necessary. In these nations, the clergy and possibly the people must take back the appointment of the episcopacy.

The hierarchy must also begin to tell the truth. Gary Wills and Father Hans Kung have exposed that claims of a continuous line of succession from Peter are a fabrication. It is time for Rome to formally acknowledge this and take its rightful place within the Catholic Church as a whole, as the Western Patriarchy of a larger Church. Two practical steps can be taken here. The first is the establishment of a Patriarchy for the Gallatian Church (for the English speaking and Scandanavian peoples). This could be seated in Galway, Ireland, for an apt play on words. The second is to include in the Eucharistic Prayer an intercession for the Ecumenical Patriarch (an action that any Priest can take as a prayer for Christian unity - or that any Catholic can do in his or her heart).

Lawrence B. Hoge | 6/6/2004 - 3:38pm
Thank you for Fr. Greeley's article, "Children of the Council." May I suggest that another remote cause of the current attitude of Roman Catholics toward the traditional venial sin/mortal sin approach to church ethics of right/wrong is a highly educated and developed laity, which started after World War II. Before WWII the large majority of American Catholics was working class, many without even a high school education. Professionals such as lawyers, doctors, university educators were quite few comparatively. The GI Bill of Rights encouraged thousands of returning Catholic servicemen to go to college. From then on, the numbers of more highly educated Roman Catholics increased dramatically -- which led to more self-discernment and independent thinking in matters of doctrine and practice. Hence, there is less blind obedience to church practice.
(Rev.) John Thomas Lane SSS | 6/6/2004 - 8:35am
I appreciated the article by Fr. Andrew Greeley on “Children of the Council: Why are our Catholic churches half empty?” While Fr. Greeley makes some valid points, I’m sure, my experience in the confessional over the last 12 years tells a different story why children, teens and parents do not go to church on Sunday. I have yet to hear this argument or study ever shared in a magazine.

Many do not come to church on Sunday because church is one of the many leisure or economic activities. People do not confess that they miss Mass because they are upset with the church’s stand on sexuality issues. Rather, it’s because of the soccer or baseball games, the lake or mountain cabin, or that they are forced or have no choice in having to work at one of the many 24/7 stores. Our world shifted in many ways in the 1960s. When stores and activities started to schedule on Sundays, few objected to having this “free day” (rather than the Lord’s Day) taken away.

When we recapture the need for worship and rest – on the Lord’s Day, and speak out that it is unjust to have people play or work on a Sunday mornings, during Mass times, then some church’s will be filled again. Or - we put Mass times at a more convenient time or hold Sunday Mass at a soccer or softball field or at the mall.

Kimberly Ferri Cakebread | 6/12/2004 - 7:46pm
Yes! Thank you for succinctly expressing the observation that was rattling around my mind as I read this article. As a child of the council, born in 1965, and an overeducated American, I can easily trace the origin of my ongoing struggles with the church to that education, as well as to the growing culture of atheistic humanism that discouraged religious devotion as the hallmark of the uneducated. By the time I was applying to colleges, I was beginning to seek alternatives to the Catholicism I was raised with. Luckily, I attended a Jesuit college, largely by chance, and there discovered thinkers and theologians, things I was not exposed to in a normal parish. I regularly return to the Jesuits for spiritual direction when my local parish is unable to provide the assistance I need. Many of the lapsed Catholics I know who have turned to Buddhism or other popular alternatives know very little about the faith they have left, though their libraries are piled sky high with volumes on their new religious pursuits. It is only recently that I have noticed some of the larger parishes in nearby dioceses beginning to acknowledge the need for a more advanced theological ministry.

Joe Marina | 6/7/2004 - 8:20pm
As usual, Fr. Andrew Greeley cuts through the unstable theories of pseudo-ecclesiology with a solid combination of research and common sense to tell it like it is. In his recent article, "Children of the Council," Greeley puts his finger squarely on the factors that have driven many of the faithful, especially the young ones, away from our churches. I agree that, prior to Vatican II, the judgment of mortal sinfulness for missing Mass had helped to fill the pews for decades. But now that the threats of eternal fire and incessant gnashing of teeth for oversleeping on a Sunday have been lifted, the faithful remnant seems to be faced with a proverbial “quality vs. quantity” scenario. To put it another way, is the Church half-empty or half-full? Which of the following options is preferable: a church half-filled with those of contrite hearts and focused minds who have come to adore the living God in the community of other Christians OR standing room only where more than half of those in attendance would rather be anywhere but there? I’m going to opt for door #2 and here’s why. As Pope Paul VI said so powerfully, “She [the Church] exists to evangelize” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 1975). We who have kept on going to Mass, week after week for all the right reasons, have a responsibility, a vocation, to share the fire of our faith with those who are still dragging themselves there, week after week for all the wrong reasons. The Eucharist IS a celebration, the greatest one we will ever have the privilege of attending. If we can first inflame the sisters and brothers whom we can see, then we, with them, will be ready and able to invite those whom we cannot see.

Our church will be filled again if three great things happen: 1) the Holy Spirit moves among those called to be Catholic to return to a church that they can call home, 2) the Church continues to renew itself in the light and wonderful promise of Vatican II, and 3) that those who have remained faithful until now can answer the call to evangelize so that the Church will exist and flourish according to its mission. We are called to evangelize, to share good news. With enough grace and an honest effort, we can get back to filling those pews. But this time, let them be filled with those who truly want to be there.

Michael McGreevy | 6/3/2004 - 3:26pm
Father Greeley's statistically-based insights, as usual, are invaluable in understanding the current state of the American Catholic Church. Although he concludes that the laity is blameless, I would draw a radically different conclusion: There is no blame.

What is happening to the Church in America is not a matter of a revolution but one of evolution. Like its historical counterpart in 16th century Europe, the Church in the United States is changing, but the change is not the same. The Reformation was a metamorphism, a transformation. In America, we are undergoing a morphallaxis, a regeneration. The distinction is important. The structure is not the issue; the essence is. This regeneration is occurring because of the dynamics of the American culture and its place in human history.

This evolution continues now and it is inexorable. It is important to note for those in the hierarchy preparing to fight last year’s ecclesiastical war, that this change is not using the European Reformation as its model. American Catholics will not leave the Church. They are The Church. It is eternal. However, the Church’s structure will change. The hierarchical-authoritarian model of the old Church is extinct. The truly catholic (universal) church is coming of age.

We are in the middle period. Currently, there are last stand attempts to polarize the Church where “old school” and “new school” Catholics are trying to stake their ground. Appeals are being made for the Pope to intervene and direct the “right” path, but he will not do so. We American Catholics will collapse into ourselves. And we will be re-born.

In its final state, the Church's structure will disintegrate. Bishops will be gone. Dioceses will disappear. Priests will be anyone who "bears the name of Jesus on his forehead." (Revelation 22) There will be no clergy. There will be no laity. All will be followers of Christ, and the Kingdom will be born in America.

Fanciful? Mystical? I do not think so. Look around. It is happening all around us.

I only pray that all of us can be around when He returns amongst us.

Anna | 6/2/2004 - 1:44pm
Thanks for the very thoughtful article by Fr. Andrew Greeley. He spoke to the reality of dropped Sunday attendance at Mass. A complicated issue that takes in to account the many reasons for the dropped attendance is well appreciated. Fr. Greeley understands the feelings of many of those disenchanted Catholics, especially around the subject of birth control. Marriage doesn't always survive large numbers of children. Having the children one can support emotionally and financially is the choice the couple has to make.
Michael Bindner | 12/15/2006 - 2:55pm
The Cathechism regerences church regulation, rather than scripture. Can the church make something a serioius sin? Does binding and loosening go that far? Reading forbidden books used to be considered a serious sin, but did people really go to hell for reading Copernicus before it was allowed? I think not.

Thomas W. Ricard | 2/9/2007 - 3:57pm
I read with interest the Rev. Andrew Greeley’s analysis of our half-empty Catholic churches (6/7). But I believe that the real culprit is the failure of the church in its teaching mission to convince the faithful that the Sunday liturgy is such an important element of our faith life that they choose to be there. In that scenario, moral obligation becomes irrelevant. I see very little evidence of any attempt to mend this failure.

Carol Lesch, S.S.N.D. | 2/9/2007 - 3:47pm
In response to “Children of the Council,” by the Rev. Andrew Greeley (6/7), surely it is more than time to move on from the motivation of fear. Fortunately, even as a child, I never went to Sunday Mass out of fear of mortal sin. There are other motives for participating in the Eucharist that can be awakened with good teaching and homilies. Basically, I think people need to realize that who we are and what we have (talents, health, etc.) are gifts from God, which can be difficult for modern people who think everything they do is due to their own efforts. If one realizes everything is gift, then it is easier to praise and thank God for that with Jesus at the Eucharist. As an educator, I have often recommended that parents ask their children before going to Mass, “What can we thank God for this week?” Also, convincing teaching about community worship and the need to hear God’s word can be other motivators.

Joseph F. Kelly | 2/9/2007 - 3:46pm
In “Children of the Council” (6/7), the Rev. Andrew Greeley explains the facts and origins of the decline in Mass attendance but does not draw many conclusions. One of those will be a decrease in priestly vocations. The main cause of the vocation decline is the reluctance of parents to recommend the priesthood to their sons, but I suspect that a significant secondary cause is that teenage boys simply do not encounter priests very often. One can go through Catholic education from kindergarten to doctorate and be taught only by lay people. Since Humanae Vitae, few Catholics go to confession, where they used to come in contact with a priest, no matter how brief the encounter. Lay people are more and more the ministers people meet. The only place a teenage boy could be sure of seeing a priest is at Mass, and as fewer Catholic parents go to Mass, fewer boys will see priests being priests. What examples will they want to follow if they just do not see any examples?

Michael Bindner | 12/15/2006 - 2:55pm
The Cathechism regerences church regulation, rather than scripture. Can the church make something a serioius sin? Does binding and loosening go that far? Reading forbidden books used to be considered a serious sin, but did people really go to hell for reading Copernicus before it was allowed? I think not.

Michael Bindner | 6/13/2004 - 6:19pm
On this feast of Corpus Christi, I cannot help but add that most Catholics no longer adhere to the doctrine on receiving communion worthily. Nowadays, everyone goes to Communion, believing that it actually removes sin (which I believes it does in many cases - see the article on my web page on the Death of Jesus).

In former days, every instance of sexual excitement was considered a mortal sin. I believe the origins of this was the pronouncement of a certain Cardinal from Baltimore stating that every sexual sin was mortal. Venial sin is also stated as Sin of Venus (gluttony, lust, etc.). Everyone who wished to go to communion would go to confession on Saturday. Modern Catholics are a bit more enlightened on such matters, which in former days bordered on scrupluousness, which is itself sinful. The old style of morality was self-centered and obsessive. Hopefully we have grown out of it and grown into a more socially responsible morality which is other centered and more about justice than fear of damnation.

Henry Littleton | 6/1/2004 - 2:18pm
I believe most Catholics that attend Mass today do so, because of their love of God and their openness to the effects of God’s grace. This was true in the early Church, and will continue till the end of time.

If one truly believes that the Holy Spirit guides the Church, then one will embrace change, and thank the God of Abraham that His favor of the Holy Catholic Church continues.

Raymond Helgeson | 6/11/2004 - 12:24am
In reading Rev. Andrew Greeley’s “Children of the Council” I couldn’t help but be amused as Fr. Greeley danced around the issue of whether it is a serious sin to miss Mass on Sunday. His article was filled with statistical data concerning this or that reason for lower Mass attendance, as well as a plethora of ambiguity, which seems to be one of the hallmarks of Catholic thought in many circles today. I myself was a recipient of the heavy-handed morality of the 50’s and early 60’s whereby I was damned if I did, and damned if I didn’t. However, this is a very myopic view of the Church before Vatican Council II. It was not, as Fr. Greeley relates “[The] posture… essential to resist the powerful energies unleashed by the Enlightenment.” Rather this was simply a case of poor catechesis. The half-truths and nebulous nature of Fr. Greeley’s article do nothing but contribute to the ongoing crisis in catechesis in the Church. For example, in dancing around the notion of authority in the Church Greeley states “In the absence of perceptive and sensitive leadership, the laity and the lower clergy took control of the revolution by deciding that they, not the leadership, would set the norms for being Catholic.” This is classic Protestantism, not Catholicism. It is just another peculiar notion that has crept into much of, so called, Catholic thinking. What is needed in the Catholic Church is not more personal opinion, but sound Catholic teaching (see 1 Tim 1:13-14 and 1 Tim 4:3-4) Christ demands as much in Matthew 28:19-20. In this way the beauty of the Catholic faith and the joy of following Christ abides in the hearts of Catholic believers. The Sunday obligation has not changed over the past 40 years. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says as much where it states “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation [Sunday Eucharist] commit a grave sin.” I am not making this up, nor am I using it as a club to coerce someone into compliance; it is simply God’s truth; He expects this, among other obligations from us. When less is expected of Catholics by watering-down the faith, or the demands of Christ in living a full faith life—you get less. The next time an article purports to dance around the truth and moral obligation of the Catholic faith, I suggest taking a hard look at what is actually being presented. Hopefully more and more Catholics will decide to simply sit this one out and leave the dance floor of ambiguity in order to seek the real substance of the faith and commit themselves wholeheartedly to its demands and promises.

Michael Bindner | 6/9/2004 - 12:02pm
Congratulations to Father Greeley on an excellent article. It is the pefect set up for the next question: Now that we know why the Churches are half empty, how do we fill them back up?

The answer must be in the area where Father Greeley places the blame, with the hierarchy. Papal appointment of bishops was an appropriate reform to wrest this power from Kings. In those nations that have adapted democracy, this is no longer necessary. In these nations, the clergy and possibly the people must take back the appointment of the episcopacy.

The hierarchy must also begin to tell the truth. Gary Wills and Father Hans Kung have exposed that claims of a continuous line of succession from Peter are a fabrication. It is time for Rome to formally acknowledge this and take its rightful place within the Catholic Church as a whole, as the Western Patriarchy of a larger Church. Two practical steps can be taken here. The first is the establishment of a Patriarchy for the Gallatian Church (for the English speaking and Scandanavian peoples). This could be seated in Galway, Ireland, for an apt play on words. The second is to include in the Eucharistic Prayer an intercession for the Ecumenical Patriarch (an action that any Priest can take as a prayer for Christian unity - or that any Catholic can do in his or her heart).

Lawrence B. Hoge | 6/6/2004 - 3:38pm
Thank you for Fr. Greeley's article, "Children of the Council." May I suggest that another remote cause of the current attitude of Roman Catholics toward the traditional venial sin/mortal sin approach to church ethics of right/wrong is a highly educated and developed laity, which started after World War II. Before WWII the large majority of American Catholics was working class, many without even a high school education. Professionals such as lawyers, doctors, university educators were quite few comparatively. The GI Bill of Rights encouraged thousands of returning Catholic servicemen to go to college. From then on, the numbers of more highly educated Roman Catholics increased dramatically -- which led to more self-discernment and independent thinking in matters of doctrine and practice. Hence, there is less blind obedience to church practice.
(Rev.) John Thomas Lane SSS | 6/6/2004 - 8:35am
I appreciated the article by Fr. Andrew Greeley on “Children of the Council: Why are our Catholic churches half empty?” While Fr. Greeley makes some valid points, I’m sure, my experience in the confessional over the last 12 years tells a different story why children, teens and parents do not go to church on Sunday. I have yet to hear this argument or study ever shared in a magazine.

Many do not come to church on Sunday because church is one of the many leisure or economic activities. People do not confess that they miss Mass because they are upset with the church’s stand on sexuality issues. Rather, it’s because of the soccer or baseball games, the lake or mountain cabin, or that they are forced or have no choice in having to work at one of the many 24/7 stores. Our world shifted in many ways in the 1960s. When stores and activities started to schedule on Sundays, few objected to having this “free day” (rather than the Lord’s Day) taken away.

When we recapture the need for worship and rest – on the Lord’s Day, and speak out that it is unjust to have people play or work on a Sunday mornings, during Mass times, then some church’s will be filled again. Or - we put Mass times at a more convenient time or hold Sunday Mass at a soccer or softball field or at the mall.

Kimberly Ferri Cakebread | 6/12/2004 - 7:46pm
Yes! Thank you for succinctly expressing the observation that was rattling around my mind as I read this article. As a child of the council, born in 1965, and an overeducated American, I can easily trace the origin of my ongoing struggles with the church to that education, as well as to the growing culture of atheistic humanism that discouraged religious devotion as the hallmark of the uneducated. By the time I was applying to colleges, I was beginning to seek alternatives to the Catholicism I was raised with. Luckily, I attended a Jesuit college, largely by chance, and there discovered thinkers and theologians, things I was not exposed to in a normal parish. I regularly return to the Jesuits for spiritual direction when my local parish is unable to provide the assistance I need. Many of the lapsed Catholics I know who have turned to Buddhism or other popular alternatives know very little about the faith they have left, though their libraries are piled sky high with volumes on their new religious pursuits. It is only recently that I have noticed some of the larger parishes in nearby dioceses beginning to acknowledge the need for a more advanced theological ministry.

Joe Marina | 6/7/2004 - 8:20pm
As usual, Fr. Andrew Greeley cuts through the unstable theories of pseudo-ecclesiology with a solid combination of research and common sense to tell it like it is. In his recent article, "Children of the Council," Greeley puts his finger squarely on the factors that have driven many of the faithful, especially the young ones, away from our churches. I agree that, prior to Vatican II, the judgment of mortal sinfulness for missing Mass had helped to fill the pews for decades. But now that the threats of eternal fire and incessant gnashing of teeth for oversleeping on a Sunday have been lifted, the faithful remnant seems to be faced with a proverbial “quality vs. quantity” scenario. To put it another way, is the Church half-empty or half-full? Which of the following options is preferable: a church half-filled with those of contrite hearts and focused minds who have come to adore the living God in the community of other Christians OR standing room only where more than half of those in attendance would rather be anywhere but there? I’m going to opt for door #2 and here’s why. As Pope Paul VI said so powerfully, “She [the Church] exists to evangelize” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 1975). We who have kept on going to Mass, week after week for all the right reasons, have a responsibility, a vocation, to share the fire of our faith with those who are still dragging themselves there, week after week for all the wrong reasons. The Eucharist IS a celebration, the greatest one we will ever have the privilege of attending. If we can first inflame the sisters and brothers whom we can see, then we, with them, will be ready and able to invite those whom we cannot see.

Our church will be filled again if three great things happen: 1) the Holy Spirit moves among those called to be Catholic to return to a church that they can call home, 2) the Church continues to renew itself in the light and wonderful promise of Vatican II, and 3) that those who have remained faithful until now can answer the call to evangelize so that the Church will exist and flourish according to its mission. We are called to evangelize, to share good news. With enough grace and an honest effort, we can get back to filling those pews. But this time, let them be filled with those who truly want to be there.

Michael McGreevy | 6/3/2004 - 3:26pm
Father Greeley's statistically-based insights, as usual, are invaluable in understanding the current state of the American Catholic Church. Although he concludes that the laity is blameless, I would draw a radically different conclusion: There is no blame.

What is happening to the Church in America is not a matter of a revolution but one of evolution. Like its historical counterpart in 16th century Europe, the Church in the United States is changing, but the change is not the same. The Reformation was a metamorphism, a transformation. In America, we are undergoing a morphallaxis, a regeneration. The distinction is important. The structure is not the issue; the essence is. This regeneration is occurring because of the dynamics of the American culture and its place in human history.

This evolution continues now and it is inexorable. It is important to note for those in the hierarchy preparing to fight last year’s ecclesiastical war, that this change is not using the European Reformation as its model. American Catholics will not leave the Church. They are The Church. It is eternal. However, the Church’s structure will change. The hierarchical-authoritarian model of the old Church is extinct. The truly catholic (universal) church is coming of age.

We are in the middle period. Currently, there are last stand attempts to polarize the Church where “old school” and “new school” Catholics are trying to stake their ground. Appeals are being made for the Pope to intervene and direct the “right” path, but he will not do so. We American Catholics will collapse into ourselves. And we will be re-born.

In its final state, the Church's structure will disintegrate. Bishops will be gone. Dioceses will disappear. Priests will be anyone who "bears the name of Jesus on his forehead." (Revelation 22) There will be no clergy. There will be no laity. All will be followers of Christ, and the Kingdom will be born in America.

Fanciful? Mystical? I do not think so. Look around. It is happening all around us.

I only pray that all of us can be around when He returns amongst us.

Anna | 6/2/2004 - 1:44pm
Thanks for the very thoughtful article by Fr. Andrew Greeley. He spoke to the reality of dropped Sunday attendance at Mass. A complicated issue that takes in to account the many reasons for the dropped attendance is well appreciated. Fr. Greeley understands the feelings of many of those disenchanted Catholics, especially around the subject of birth control. Marriage doesn't always survive large numbers of children. Having the children one can support emotionally and financially is the choice the couple has to make.