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The Great Departure
“We have labored greatly and, at times, we see what appear to be failures. We feel like those who must tally up a losing season as we consider those who have left us or no longer consider us credible or relevant.”-Pope Francis
At the macro level, the Catholic Church is in a state of demographic crisis here in the United States (and elsewhere, but the focus of this essay is America). By nearly every measure the Church is shrinking. One might even say collapsing. For example, in spite of robust immigration from Catholic-heavy countries, the percentage of the US population attending Mass weekly has halved since the mid-1970s and is now in the single-digits.During the same time, 40% of Catholic schools, once a booming life source for the faith and American culture, have closed. Only 43% of self-identified Catholics go to confession more than once a year. Vocations to religious life have decreased by 70%. A “losing season” is putting it mildly.
The general trends are clearly visible, but the depth of the crisis is somewhat masked by a thin façade of church structures that are still in place. Mass is still widely available, Catholic schools can still be found, seminaries are still open. Nonetheless, beyond these outward appearances, the Church is rapidly shrinking. Pope Benedict’s prophetic words appear to be playing out in America, “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.”
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And the level of the crisis needs to be recognized before effective fixes can be identified and pursued. Only after understanding the extent of the problem can intellectual and material resources be strategically rallied to engage the situation.
My purpose here is to identify the depth of the crisis with initial hints at where there are signs of hope. A second essay will examine more closely common misperceptions about the crisis and suggest a path forward that will provide opportunities for recovery.
Here are the empirical facts:
The decline of tithing, Mass-attending Catholics willing to raise children in the Church has led to a nosedive in many metrics. The number of priests, new ordinations, parishes, infant baptisms, adult baptisms, and marriages per person in the United States have all cratered since the mid-1970s.
While mere numbers are not the only, or even best, measurement of ecclesial life, such a significant departure from Catholic life is not a sign of health. Clearly business as usual is not working and, if the Church in the US continues to do the same things while expecting different results, there is no reason to assume that the decline will not continue.
In business, politics, and sports, an evidence-based, data-driven approach is increasingly used to analyze the sources of decline or growth and, more importantly, test proposed solutions. A CEO would never make a major corporate decision without running the numbers. Yet in the Catholic Church, the faith community founded by Christ for our salvation, decision making at the parish and diocesan level is largely still driven by conjecture, innuendo, and anecdote. Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal is committed to bringing the Church into the 21st century with data-driven analysis and solutions.
There are three ways to approach the crisis, all of which are complementary and can help forge a path forward. First, understand that even though Catholic practice has changed dramatically, there is still faith to build on. For example, most Catholics still have a firm belief in God, and this has not changed much in the past several decades.
Similarly, most Catholics pray frequently, with almost sixty percent praying every day,and this has not changed significantly in the past 40 years.
Second, identify the areas of growth and commit more resources to those things. There is evidence, for example, that there are micro communities within Church life that are vibrant and growing. As sociologist Stephen Bullivant notes, “Paradoxically, the greater the pull of no religion on younger cradle Catholics, the more committed must be the ones who remain in spite of everything…. Thus they end up forming … mutually encouraging, ‘embattled but thriving’ subcultures.”These need to be identified and supported. For example, with a relatively recent beginning in 1997, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students now has a presence in over 193 campuses worldwide.
Third, recognize the crisis will create a Church that is more faithful to her life and mission. Through this purification, she will become a better witness to the truth, beauty and goodness that satisfies our hearts. Fewer people will participate in this life, which is a real loss; but the remaining participation will be more intense which, in turn, will provide a richer environment for ecclesial and cultural renewal. For example, while Catholics who attend Mass are decreasing, those who do attend pray more.
This purification and its required re-commitment is and will continue to be painful but, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, it will lead to a more Christ-like Church. As Pope Benedict XVI famously said, “I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”
The way forward includes an honest assessment of what is not working, but it is always best to offer solutions alongside of critiques. In the coming weeks, I will examine where ex-Catholics are going when they leave the Church and provide insights into cultures of ecclesial life that are flourishing.
Jayd Henricks is the president of Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal. He served at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for eleven years and holds a STL in systematic theology from the Dominican House of Studies.
Statistical analysis for this article was provided by Stephen Cranney, a data scientist in the Washington, DC area and a non-resident Fellow at Baylor's Institute for the Studies of Religion who has published over 20 peer-reviewed studies. His research has been reported on by The Guardian, Deseret News, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Christianity Today.
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Pope Francis, “Homily at Mass with the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe,” September 23, 2021, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2021/documents/20210923-omelia-ccee.html/
Based on original analysis of the General Social Survey (hereafter GSS). Numbers are based on individuals who 1) identify as Catholic, and 2) report going to religious services “nearly every week” or more. See chart below.
The 1975 combined total for Catholic elementary, middle schools, and colleges was 10,283. In 2022 this number was 6,145. See Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, “Frequently Requested Statistics,” https://cara.georgetown.edu/faqs.
Pew Research Center, “U.S. Catholics Open to Non-Traditional Families,” September 2, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2015/09/02/chapter-2-participation-in-catholic-rites-and-observances/#confession-lenten-observances-and-anointing-of-the-sick.
“Frequently Requested Statistics.” The sum of all religious brothers, sisters, and priests in 1975 was 166,754, while the same number in 2022 was 50,071.
From a broadcast on German radio by Fr. Ratzinger in 1969. See Tod Worner, “When Father Joseph Ratzinger Predicted the Future of the Church,” Aleteia, June 13, 2016, https://aleteia.org/2016/06/13/when-cardinal-joseph-ratzinger-predicted-the-future-of-the-church/.
The teenager numbers are derived from original analysis based on the Wave I National Longitudinal Survey of Health (hereafter “Add Health.”) The Add Health Survey is one of the largest longitudinal surveys available, tracking a nationally representative sample of teenagers in the United States across their lifespans. Numbers are based on the Wave 5 (2016-2018) responses of respondents who indicated in Wave I (1994-1995) that they 1) were Catholic, and 2) attended church at least once a month or more in Wave I while teenagers.
Catholic numbers from “Frequently Requested Statistics.” Yearly population totals from US Census Bureau.
Figures are from all pooled Catholic respondents in the GSS since the 2012 wave: 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2021.
The figure is from all pooled Catholic respondents in the GSS since the 2012 wave: 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2021.
A simple regression between the GSS “pray” variable and year was insignificant for the Catholic subsample, whether weights were included or not.
Stephen Bullivant, Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022), p199.
June 2021-May 2022 Annual Report, FOCUS, https://focus.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/FOCUS-Annual-Report-2022.pdf.
A simple regression between year and a prayer frequency was strongly significant (p<.001) for Mass attending (“nearly every week” or more) Catholics with or without weights.
“When Father Joseph Ratzinger Predicted the Future of the Church.”