Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Incredible Shrinking Church

I'm having trouble seeing all those hordes of JPII kids who are going to save Catholicism.  Maybe they are in the confessionals.

Peter Steinfels has a piece on Commonweal which is receiving a lot of interest.  He deals with the exodus of US Catholics from the pews and some of the reasons for it.  One of the points I was personally glad he made is the incredible disconnect between the reporting about the John Paul II generation of youth and that generation's real representation in the pews.  Which is about nil.  One of the major reasons for this, at least as found by current research, is the younger generations are turned off by the conservative politics of Church leadership.  This includes conservative political attitudes towards social justice and ecological issues as well sexual morality.  This is not just true for Catholic youth,  but plays across the whole spectrum of Christian denominations. 

From my perspective it seems Evangelical Protestants have a better grasp of this situation than our Catholic leadership--at least our most vocal Catholic leadership.  For instance,  there have been more pleas for real understanding of the gay bullying issue from Evangelicals while Catholic leadership has been stunningly silent.  Unfortunately this silence is the exact wrong strategy to use if the Church really gave a damn about the loss of it's youth.  These youth have gone way beyond concern about gay issues.  In their minds gay rights is a done deal.

In my own experience it is the description of the kind of God implied in conservative political ideology that is a major stumbling block for these younger generations.  So many of them have grown up in split families that the patriarchal God of the Old Testament doesn't have much resonance.  They haven't experienced the kind of family order that conservatives are trying to say is God's order.  When serial monogamists like Newt Gingrich give speeches about the divine nature of this family order, they smell hypocrisy and exit stage left. 
For a lot of them paternity is not about a benevolent male authority figure, it's about male abandoment.

I don't actually have any idea as to how the current version of Catholicism is going to successfully make any inroads with these younger generations.  I was really disappointed with the roll out of Benedict's new Vatican dicastery for the evangelization of the old Catholic strongholds.  Archbishop Reno Fisichella sounded as if he didn't have a clue as to what his assignment was about.  The best he could offer was he would get right on adding other languages (other than Italian and Latin) to the not yet fully constructed website for the not yet thought out plan by the not yet staffed dicastery.  Great.

Maybe this lack of foresite for Benedict's new initiative indicates the Vatican is aware of some hard facts.  Unless there is a massive change in the conceptualization of Catholic theology and a true reformation of how the Church does business it will not survive as a meaningful entity.  Benedict has decided that survival of the current model of the Church is worth any cost.  He is throwing verbal tokens in the direction of the lost sheep while spending the vast majority of his energy upholding the current clerical system and espousing the pre Vatican II Christology which is so necessary to that clerical system.  

This is a Church which is essentially preaching to the maturity and intellectual level of naive high schoolers.  Benedict's vision of the 'simple people' sometimes seems as if he sees his core audience as one big class of freshmen college students and his classroom is fully committed to the idea of 'en loco parentis'.  This most certainly seems to be what he is seeking in seminary candidates and episcopal appointments.  It is a recipe for virtually the total loss of the thinking West, but also most of the developing third world. 

Worse than this, it makes the statement loud and clear that caring for souls is not what he is about.  He is about saving the clerical Church.  Evangelization implies a moving out towards others.  Benedict's Church is telling Catholics it is our duty to move towards the stagnant center of Rome, not the Church's duty to reach out to the evolving margins.  This is matched by his idea of ecumenism in which he has reached out for the most reactionary components of historical Catholicism while silencing or condemning the progressive components.

If the question for Catholics is sacrificing emotional maturity and intellectual integrity for the sake of full communion in the Church, the numbers that Peter Steinfels laments are only going to get worse.  As long as the restorationist movement holds sway in Rome, the Roman Church will continue to shrink.  Maybe it's time disaffected Catholics started buying up some of the property the shrinking Roman Church is selling.  No reason their loss shouldn't be someone else's gain.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I could attend one service once a month at an Orthodox mission in my home town. Not exactly my idea of a vibrant opportunity. Orthodoxy is not much of an option out in the wide open spaces of the Western US. For the most part Orthodoxy is an East Coast/bigger city option.

  3. I just read that Archbishop "Nein" in Minnesota says that a smaller church is a better thing because the people in it have to be "100% Catholic". Which means following the party bosses apparently.
    I just went to pick up an application at the church office for a friend who wants to be a Eucharistic Minister-she heard they needed more- and who works during the day. I was told no--she has to request an interview with the pastor. If he approves, her name will go before the parish council(appointed by him) for approval. If they approve, her name will go to the Bishop. If he approves, she will get an application. Guess one has to screen carefully for those 100% Catholics!

  4. Paranoia runs rampant in Malone's Maine. This kind of stuff is not indicative of psychological health or any kind of trust level at all. I feel for you coolmom. As much as I feel for the people of "Nein's" Archdiocese. I too saw that same quote.

    Take a look at Betty Clermont's latest post on Open Tabernacle.


    None of these conservative clericalist men appear to understand spirituality, but they sure seem to understand money laundering schemes.

  5. Well written Colleen. Thank you.
    But I am aware that the people that may need to read it most probably won't ! Like so many of us, we are voices crying in the wildreness but we have to keep saying it. All I can do is pray to the Holy Spirit and not give up.

  6. This is a Church which is essentially preaching to the maturity and intellectual level of naive high schoolers.
    The high school freshman in my house is very unimpressed with the anti-gay rhetoric of the church.

  7. The picture with this post reminds me of a Liberace concert.

  8. Dilemma: Pro-life except when gay kids commit suicide. How can the Bishops craft a message that is truly catholic? It must be both anti-gay and at the same time speak out against the forces of hate that push kids to kill themselves. Maybe they'll just stress the fact that suicide is a mortal sin. Yeah, that'll do it.

  9. FDeF I'm not sure that will do it since the Church is more or less teaching kids that gays are are predisposed to go to hell anyway. The number of mortal sins might be irrelevant in the mind of depressed kid. It's not like a kid could earn two trips to hell for all eternity.

    I wonder when the Vatican will admit the threat of hell and mortal sin is not selling real well any longer. What kind of God sends you to hell for all eternity for loving a person of the 'wrong' body type? Not one who truly did incarnate. That kind of God might be predisposed to look at the love end of things and not the peg A in slot B kind of things.

    Anon, no wonder your wise freshman is not impressed. I'm not either.

  10. I wasn't going to comment but I was compelled by the verification word: ajobbill

    Indeed the Church needs a job bill.

    The demographics are working against all traditional mainstream churches. Even the young priests are, according to Pew research, about 43 at ordination.

    Church policy toward divorcees has ensured a generation raised in non-traditional homes don't feel welcome.

    I don't recall Jesus rejecting the sinner based upon the crime. That sexual sin and divorce are treated to harshly, without compassion or forgiveness is contrary to the Gospel. The institution is in great danger of calamity.


  11. The church has an even bigger problem with the young. Far too many of its high-profile stances seem downright silly to the young. Take the brouhaha over the "DaVinci Code." Admittedly, the theology in the book was pretty poor. To hear the Vatican's side, it was the biggest threat to moral developent to ever hit the streets. But, to any literate young person, it's just a novel. Fiction is made-up, and you seem to get that fact.

    Why would any media-savvy young person join a group that doesn't understand what fiction is? Couple that with the Vatican's sexual hypocrisy and you have a recipe for driving away the young.

    BTW, I love the blog and this is my first post. :)

    Emperor Lew

  12. Nice to have you on board Emperor. Your take on kids knowing the difference between fiction and fact is pretty accurate. This hypocrisy in the hierarchy isn't just fostering indifference. It's fostering cynicism and that is a very bad thing. I'd rather deal with atheism in youth in some respects, than deal with their cynicism.

  13. If this was a business case study I would ask the decision makers to consider the instructive example of the plight of General Motors and more particularly their Cadillac and Oldsmobile divisions. In the good Olds days, around 1985, the average age of their customer was 62. They sold about a million a year. Olds was the penultimate car. The last car GM wanted you to drive was the Cadillac, with an even older demographic.

    GM started to advertise "This is not your father's Oldsmobile" to attract younger buyers and they lost their older buyers who were implied to be not too cool. By 2000 they were only selling about 300,000 cars per year. Buh bye Olds.

    Cadillac was the best selling luxury brand in the USA for six decades, until 1998, when it dropped to third on the basis of being perceived as a "geezer mobile".

    General Motors declared bankruptcy in 2009 shocking some who thought GM to be too big to fail.

    The RC Church is not "too big" to fail as an organization. There have already been bankruptcies in dioceses.

    GM could never recover by insisting on producing their best hits from past years. Nobody would go to a GM dealer looking for a new 1985 vintage Olds today. (Although I must admit I have a certain kind of fond nostalgia for those Cadillac land yachts circa 1959 that have become legend in story and song. You know the ones, with the fins.)

    Today GM's car of the future, the one with the "wow" factor, is the Chevy Volt.

    The future of the church isn't to be found in the 13th century cathedrals, nor in majesty of the Tridentine mass, however beautiful and nostalgic they may make us feel.

    The future is more like the lightning bolt that energizes the laity. When was the last time you entered a church and had an experience of wonder and awe? Wow.


  14. As one of those JP2 youth, yes absolutely I would say the church's conservative policies are repellent.(To put it mildly).

    I'm tired of all the enforced ignorance and censoring of independent thought. I'm sick to death of all the manipulation, belittlement, and oppression the hierarchy fosters. You can tell there's a serious problem when the pope desires more to reach out to the crazy Nazi radtrad fringe then to the pioneering Liberation theologians who revere people like Oscar Romero.


  15. Kallisti, the story of JPII and Archbishop Romero is worth studying for what it says about JPII's agenda. Romero was on JPII's fast track when Romero was another Latin American Opus Dei clone, but when he actually saw what that version of the Church was advocating, he flipped entirely and so did JPII on Romero.

    I think it's a really interesting coincidence that JPII signed the documents removing Romero from his position on the very day Romero was assasinated. Talk about being on the same wave length.

  16. I have to admit, I didn't know Romero used to be involved with OD, I'm surprised! Someone whose memory alone still puts fear into the heart of an injust status quo in El Salvador, a former ODer?

    Of course, JP2's own cozy relationship with Odious Dei is still hard to reconcile. How can a man regarded by many as "Great" and the hailed "Santo Subito!" want anything to do with this cult? And if anyone should dare criticize him, will they still end up like Sinead O'Connor years ago?

    This piece on KtB is a wonderful look at Romero's legacy in El Salvador today, including his possible sainthood and typical Vatican shenanigans- http://www.killingthebuddha.com/mag/damnation/presente/


  17. You know, funny thing is as a young, vibrant and CONSERVATIVE Catholic, I don't see the Church shrinking. Not when you teach the youth orthodox Catholic teachings. I see a generation sick of "the spirit of Vatican II", Richard McBriens, wishy-washy Catholicism of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Thank goodness we have had some strong leadership to reform us after that time.
    I'm still in my 20s, educated at Notre Dame and teaching youth and guess what? They, like me, love to learn authentic Catholicism. Why? Because it speaks to the deepest desires for Someone that they have innately. Because when you latch onto a Sacramental life, a life of grace, you just want more. More of God.
    And...all of the seminarians I know (a lot of them) are all in their 20s, vibrant young men who love their Catholic faith.
    You see the faith dying; I see it vibrantly alive. Only time will tell. But remember the words Jesus said to Peter: "the gates of the netherworld will never prevail against it[the Church]"

  18. @anon 4:45pm

    Are you a dreamer?

    I like that you have joined us to enter into discussion. Please bring something to the conversation. Do you have any statistics? Bring them.

    It would be better to avoid calling those of us who identify by something other than "CONSERVATIVE" wishy-washy. We aren't. You are mistaken to think that we are without authenticity, without grace, without sacramental life. Too many who come here with your point of view begin with ad hominem argument. Better not to insult and divide.

    So let's begin the dialogue. I commented above (GM analogy) that the Church can't win by alienating the current devoted faithful.

    So here are some statistics from an authoritative source: CARA Georgetown University,


    "I don't see the Church shrinking"
    You say you are in your twenties so in your lifetime (1985 to 2010)
    1. The total number of priests has shrunk from 57,317 to 39,993 a drop of 30%.
    2. The number of priestly ordinations went from 533 to 459 a drop of 14%.
    3. The number of seminarians declined from 4,063 to 3,483 a drop of 14%.
    4. The number of parishes turned down from 19,244 to 17,958 a drop of about 7%.
    5. The number of parishes without priests increased from 1,051 to 3,400+ and astounding increase of 324%. About 19% or 12.5 million Catholics are in parishes without priests.
    6. The Catholic population increased from 52.3 million to 65.6 million or an increase of 25%.

    According to the USCCB, in 2009 the average (mean) age of ordination was 33. (My earlier figure was the median age.)


    I don't see the faith dying. The problem is the institution, that's what's dying.

    Please join the conversation but bring facts and leave the insults behind. Incidentally I find it hard to believe that any graduate of Notre Dame would make the claims you do without any facts to substantiate your argument.


  19. @anon 4:45 pm

    If you've read this blog for any time at all then you will know that "the Church" is not just the clergy.

    I want to weep when I see how poorly the Church has treated the women religious. In your lifetime the number of religious sisters has declined from 115,386 to 57,544 or a drop of 49.9%. Many of those wonderful women worked in education and were responsible for inspiring vocations.


  20. JMJ,

    I don't understand the youth today. Obviously they have many misconceptions about the 60's etc.

    I need a laugh or at least to lighten up a bit. One of my favourite books about the faith is:

    Growing Up Catholic by Mary Jane Frances Cavolina, Maureen Anne Teresa Kelly, Jeffrey Allen Joseph Stone, Richard Glen Michael Davis


    They have two other sequels to the original including a millennial edition.


  21. New anon. I taught CCD about five years ago. Admittedly I had high school sophomores and juniors. I used to have them speed read what ever it was we were supposed to go over and then I took out my own extensive library and we went to the heart of the teachings--theology, history, the whole shebang. They loved it.

    My objective was not to educate life long Catholics, because there was no guarantee they would retain any of their enthusiasm when it wasnt' being sort of pushed. But what I could guarantee was that they would think about their decisions and if they stayed in the Chuch it was because it was their decision.

    p2p has it right. The Church which is shrinking faster than ever is the clerical church. Those numbers are not inflated by Hispanic immigration. The lack of enthusiasm in the JPII generation is seen in both their absence from the pews and in the numbers entering religious life.

    Sacramental life is very important. I will never dispute that even though I myself have opted for spiritual communion. Personal integrity calls me to refrain from crossing certain lines about reception of the Sacraments. It's not a matter of wrong behavior on my part, it's a matter of conscience. I will not give tacit approval to a Church I think has gone off the rails and has become far more interested in thought control than in fostering the hard love Jesus taught.

    The Church teaches love the sinner, hate the sin. Jesus actually taught something different. He taught love the sinner, hate the sin in yourself. Which is why He also cautioned about the beam in one's own eye when mouthing off about the splinter in the 'others' eye.

    Real Christianity is very difficult to put into practice. Catholicism can be much easier, especially if one is content to let the teaching authority make all one's decisions.

  22. I just don't see the fantastic future of the church due to hyper-conservative young folks. Maybe my own experiences have tainted my perceptions.

    I'm a cradle Catholic and still active in the church, but I'm not sure if I would be if not for the faith development I received in college and grad school. In both of those places, the campus Catholic ministries were fantastic. Very loving, open places with a real sense of community. It was as far from conservative doctrinaire as you can get. The masses and activities were always packed with us college-age types.

    Fast-forward to my present parish. It is rather conservative in outlook. You know what, the pews look like the picture. The only people between high school and retirement ages are families with children. The demographics of the parish are significantly older than the area.

    My experience makes me think that the church's future is in trouble if growth is going to come from conservative youngsters. They may be loud, but I sure don't see their numbers.

    Emperor Lew

  23. Here's an article about women's orders:

    And another order fast facts:
    Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist
    > Founded in 1997 with 4 Sisters
    > We've grown to over 100 Sisters in just 13 years
    > Average age of the Sisters is 26
    > Average age of the women who enter is 21

    Sure, vocations are down from what they were in the 40s, 50s, 60s. But they are looking up and some orders are gaining more vocations than the 60s, 70s, and 80s garnished. That's my point. And what did it for these communities and others was their fidelity to Church teaching, lives of prayer, HABITS, a vision for helping people and winning souls for Christ (being ecofriendly is good but shouldn't be the point of a vocation) and a vibrant community in which to share life.

    I'm not trying to insult anyone, just speaking the truth as I see it.

  24. P.S. in response to Emperor Lew, on a lighter note, we conservative young people are the ones that are getting married and having lots of babies (no contraception remember?)...we're building the Church, trust me. :)

  25. http://www.usccb.org/vocations/classof2010/class_of_2010_report.pdf

    Check out that the largest percentage of the priestly ordinations (2010) (pg 6) at in their twenties.

  26. I'm not saying there won't be a Roman Catholic church. There will be, and it may never appreciabley change anything about it's current structure. The military culture has lasted longer than the Church using the same exact leadership paradigm. Just because I believe it will or could survive as is, doesn't mean I think it will play a meaningful role in the evolution of mankind. I don't think it can play much of a role because in the Benedict view of the Church there is no room for any more fresh guidance from the Holy Spirit unless that guidance happens to affirm the past.

    I think there are huge changes about to occur in how we understand human consciousness and the way consciousness effects the way our world works. Jesus actually taught a great deal about how all this quantum consciousness stuff works--especially how it works the most efficiently--but it got way screwed up in the the 'translating'.

  27. Hello @ anon 5:16 pm

    Thanks for returning. Thanks for bringing some information to the discussion and dropping the personal attacks.

    The height of ordinations, numbers of religious etc. was in the 1970's. It was largely due to the baby boom cohort. Even allowing for the demographic differences between generations the millennials are not participating in vocations at the same high rate as their parents' generation.

    I ran several simulations using ordination rates, Catholic population growth, and mortality rates for the current population of priests. In the United States there will be a continuing decline in the number of priests for the foreseeable future. In twenty years the number of priests could be 20% lower than it is today. If you think the dearth of priests is bad now you've seen nothing.

    The theological attitudes of RC priests have been studied for decades. For analysis of attitudes based upon age distribution see separate studies by Hoge, Schoenherr, Sorenson, Young and others. The priesthood has always been conservative and will become more so based upon the effect of age. But what I think you are referring to is something different that theological conservatism.

    I think it is good that there are some orders growing. The Domenican sisters you mention are subsidized by Tom Monaghan, as are their private Spiritus Sanctus schools, where tuition is about $5,000 per year. They aren't serving the poor, which seems a bit surprising given the economic misery in Michigan these days. In any case this is such a small order that it really does not offset the overall decline.

    Natural family planning is contraception. I can't find any statistics indicating increases in the number of households with three or more children. Interesting that you think conservatives tend to marry more. I guess that's true about the USCCB favorite advisers Newt Gingrich and Deal Hudson. However, the Church is ill advised by these men.
    "... Divorce rates among conservative Christians were significantly higher than for other faith groups, and much higher than Atheists and Agnostics experience."


    Over to you anon.


  28. p2p I've always found that really fascinating that divorce rates amongst conservative Christians is so much higher than it is amongst liberals. Just compare divorce rates in Massachusetts with any state in the South.

    I've often wondered how much of that has to do with an immature understanding of patriarchy which is more akin to male entitlement than anything else.

  29. Colleen,

    I don't know. Rigidity in beliefs, all or nothing thinking, starry eyed idealism, lack of maturity, trying to live up to unrealistic parental expectations, all might have something to do with it.

    I like this new anon. She really needs to experience more of the wider world. Travel would help. The macro-trends are like a tsunami. What anon observes in her neck of the woods isn't representative of the larger picture. There aren't enough conservatives in the church to effect the change they desire.


    word: pleaseto

  30. This is really interesting. It seems like my experiences are similar to those of Anon., and yet we draw vastly different conclusions.

    In the pews at mass, there are maybe one or two large "traditional Catholic" families. In my son's parochial school class of 29, I don't think any of the children have more than 2 siblings.

    Thirteen years ago, my now-wife and I went to a mandatory Dioceasean retreat as part of our marriage preparations. There were something like 50-60 couples there. Of those couples, only one or two even seemed vaguely interested in the natural family planning talk. I just don't see the numbers of these conservative young people.

    To me, this means that the conservative/traditional Catholic young people just don't have very large numbers. To Anon., the strength of their dedication is a good sign.

    I think it's very sad that the Catholic church has so little to offer young people of modern America. Welcoming only the adequately pure devout seems so limiting to me.

    My dataset is very limited, so maybe I'm missing the bugger world. I just don't see this outswelling of conservative young Catholics. I honestly think that this is a case of sound volume overcoming the volume of people.

    If being a conservative Catholic helps you grow spirtually, I'm genuinely happy for you. I just don't see great numbers of you.

    Emperor Lew

  31. I'll leave the argument about vocations to the convent or priesthood to those who are more knowledgeable about the numbers than I am. But this particular argument makes me laugh every time I see/read it.

    Women are going into the convents where habits are worn.

    Really. Women are making life-long, important decisions for their lives - spiritual and otherwise - based on fashionably dated clothing? And the Holy Spirit is making them the offer? 'Commit to the convent and never have to worry about what to wear another day in your life.'

    Now I'll admit I've not had a lot of chance to get to know sisters and nuns. Some of them wore a habit, some wore a veil and many wore street clothes. One thing I will say about all of them though: Their vocations were ALWAYS more than just clothing-deep.

  32. I do think the argument could be made that one of the reasons for the exodus out of the convents in the seventies and eighties is because a lot vocations actually were more about group think and group indentification than anything else. Once that group emphasis was removed, those whose vocations were truly a personal committment were left.

    That's one of the reasons I follow the retention statistics of the new orders. Right now they are no better than the LCWR orders, about fifty percent go on to make final vows.

    As to the observation about young Catholics in the pews, my experience is very similar to Emperor Lew's. My alma matre had pretty decent attendance at Mass, principally because they were community driven. It was disapointing to me to see the lack of attendance thirty years later when my daughter attended the same Catholic College. Bishop Morlino had brought in the Focus group--started in Colorado by AB Chaput--and virtually no one but Focus members attended Mass. They had a real negative impact on sacramental participation except amongst the like minded. Most other students went to Mass off campus.

    The first thing the new bishop did after Morlino left was get rid of Focus.

  33. @ Colleen,

    Could you please check the spam box for one of my long comments?



  34. Thanks Colleen,

    I looked at the statistics over the last 150 years in North America. The average number of children per woman has declined from about 6 to just under 2.

    I concentrated on Canadian statistics, because that's of interest to me and because Canada has been and is a predominantly Catholic country. During the depression, before there were issues of Vatican 2 and the availability of modern contraception the number of children per woman dropped from about 4 to just more than 2. It returned to just under 4 children per woman during the baby boom. Women have more or fewer children when their environment changes. It has nothing to do with the '60's or the pill.

    In Ontario, Canada we have separate public schools for Catholics. (It is archaic and would violate US law regarding separation of church and state.) At the time of confederation, in 1867, minority religious groups received the right to minority public schools. I examined the public statistics regarding the size of Catholic families. The "large conservative Catholic" family is a myth, at least here in Ontario.

    I then drew upon my knowledge of local parishes to estimate the effect of the "large conservative Catholic" families. One or two such families of 5 or more children in a parish cannot possibly have the effect claimed by anon. In a parish of 1,000 families there are probably only one or two families of 5 or more children. The new norm for Catholic families is the same as the rest of the population, about 2 children.

    Furthermore I used current statistics and MS Excel to run several simulations with different assumptions about the US clergy. I included the total number of priests, the enrollments at seminaries, mortality rates of current priests. Under all scenarios the number of Catholic priests will shrink by about 20% in 20 years.

    So there you have it. Only this time without the references.