A national survey in 2008 by the Pew Forum got America’s Catholic clergy and lay leaders talking. It found that a third of Americans who were raised Catholic had left the church. One in 10 Americans was an ex-Catholic. Ex-Catholics outnumbered converts to Catholicism four to one.
In March 2009 the national American Religious Identification Survey found that between 1990 and 2008 the church’s flock fell from 26.2 percent to 25.1 percent of the total U.S. population, even though roughly half of all immigrants to the United States were Catholic.
The March 2008 Pew survey also found that only 41 percent of all Catholics attend Mass weekly; only 57 percent consider religion important in their lives; only 44 percent believe that abortion should be prohibited in most or all cases; and only 35 percent oppose the death penalty.
Ex-Catholics and lapsed Catholics are a twin reality that cannot be attributed simply to changes in American culture. Many Americans now favor self-styled “spirituality” over “religion.” Old, religion-rooted moral codes are often mocked or worse by the nation’s secular elites.
Still, from sea to shining sea, over the last few decades many Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal churches have boomed with new members, new ministries, new megachurches and new multimedia outlets that reach millions here and abroad.
Cathedral-building American Catholics used to know how to do all that, and more. Despite anti-Catholic laws and a hostile culture featuring Know Nothings, 19th- and early 20th-century Catholic leaders created America’s parish-anchored religious communities. They mastered their own faith-testing times by sympathetically and successively sharing in real-life struggles faced by immigrant, Mass-going Catholic masses, underpaid Catholic urban workers and emerging Catholic suburban middle-class families.
From scratch they built entire Catholic elementary school systems, high schools and universities. Like today’s Catholic leaders, they had their intermittent intramural squabbles over doctrine, politics, finances and ethnic identities; but in public, if not always in private, they normally sounded united on essentials and generally remained charitable toward one another.
Today’s American Catholic leaders, both clergy and lay, face challenges their earliest predecessors could not fathom. And for all the criticism Catholic bishops routinely receive, both just and unjust, most do their big executive jobs pretty well.
Still, today’s church is running on institutional fumes and atrophying affinities. No organization, sacred or otherwise, can stem or reverse decline if massive membership and loyalty losses go on for decades. Missing from church leaders’ diagnoses and responses to the crisis is any overarching empirical reality principle.
For instance, over 80 percent of young adult Catholics attend non-Catholic colleges and universities. There are more Catholic undergraduates at Philadelphia’s nonsectarian University of Pennsylvania, for example, than at most of Philadelphia’s Catholic colleges and universities.
So is each diocese rushing Catholic campus ministers to secular colleges and universities, where most college-age Catholics reside—robust outreach operations led by talented religious, bolstered by lay ministers and teeming with spiritual formation and service-learning activities that bring the pro-life, pro-family and pro-poor catechism to life for young adult Catholics? No.
Well, maybe an apostolic team from each of the 28 Jesuit universities is readying to jet in to each nearby secular school? Nope.
The hottest debates over Catholics and education are instead about how “Catholic” this or that Catholic college truly is and whether to allow pro-choice speakers on Catholic campuses.
A December 2008 Pew survey reported that Catholics, by more than three-to-one, think that “behaving like Jesus” and other “actions,” rather than just “relationship with Jesus” and other “beliefs,” determine “who obtains eternal life.”
Amen, I say. And faith-motivated actions, not beliefs or public battles over beliefs, will also determine whether, a generation hence, Catholics figure more or less prominently on the American religious landscape than they do today.