The Catholic Church seems to be evaporating before our eyes. Bishop Robert Barron claims that only 7% of American Catholics are engaged in parish life while 11% have left the church and 82% of those who self-identify as Catholic have drifted away, i.e., they are only nominally connected and no longer engaged in practicing their faith.
In your understanding, what does it mean to practice faith? Is it like going to practice when we’re on a team or practicing piano or preparing for class by doing homework? Is it more like gaining proficiency with certitude from higher officials, like those who earn the right to practice medicine or law or teach? Or is it even more serious than that in the case of religion because we’re practicing for our existence beyond earthly death? Whatever you decide, the high percentage of those not practicing—or drifting away from—religion should startle us all.
I know many baby boomer Catholics who had wonderful experiences growing up in a culture where their social life, worship, education, games, and neighborhood events revolved around religious activities and traditions. Those good experiences occurred during a time that some hierarchical leaders, unbeknown to us, were bad characters who misused or abused their power; wholesome encounters occurred in spite of archaic ecclesial regulations and rituals, and in spite of some unhealthy socio-religious mores and disciplines. A substantial part of the 82% are those who appreciate that upbringing but no longer accept religious teachings with blind obedience. They now realize that mortal sins—like missing Mass or improperly touching themselves or eating meat on Fridays during Lent or receiving communion after doing one of these things—are not worthy of the fires of hell. But they know that tolerance of other things—like children who are physically or sexually abused, families that are starving, elderly who are discarded, young or vulnerable people trapped in human trafficking or schemes in which nefarious villains profit—are far more worthy of such eternal punishment.
While as a priest I continue to practice (hoping that I get better at what I am doing), I identify with the 82% who have been harmed or disappointed by the institutional church and choose to distance themselves from it; the 82% may be better people overall than those of us who keep up the practice. Members of the 82% think that the church is out of touch with daily human struggles. Many in the 82% describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” or they might be religious but not fans of institutional structures and functions. Most of them value communion with Christ and others, put faith into action through service to the less fortunate, and point out the Good News of Jesus by living lives that imitate Him in the best way they know how, as most practitioners also try to do. Many are turned off by our ecclesial hierarchy’s obsession with sex in the way that many foreigners are turned off by America’s obsession with race, and they believe that bureaucratic church issues far too often get in the way of following the Gospel message set forth by Our Lord.
Perhaps the 82% will influence American Catholics to imitate eastern cultures which, for centuries, have emphasized creative personal spirituality over dull congregational worship and living virtuous lives over performing pietistic rituals. Maybe we’ll follow regions of Europe where churches have become empty museums, yet citizens adopt wholesome values of goodness and peace following their conscience more than they follow ecclesial leaders. I can understand why some aspects of religion are evaporating but, like many of you, I would like to hold on to, and build up, what is crucial and good about organized religion. Among other things, it gives moral structure to anchor young families upon solid foundations, an educational system that provides virtuous roadmaps that go far beyond academics, aspects of community that offer helpful accompaniment for aging members, and generations of faith that interact to create healthy communities. These and other faith-based merits are crucial to enlivening and enlightening our society.
I pray that Catholicism is not evaporating in spite of indicators to the contrary. If it is, let’s do our part to keep our own faith communities vibrant places of hope for people who need one another, need God, and need to touch that hope.