Today, Father Steve Grunow reviews an article from Commonweal contributor, Peter Steinfels, in which he analyzes statistics documenting the exodus of a large number of cradle Catholics from the Church. Father Steve challenges Steinfels' interpretation of the perceived departure.
Peter Steinfels laments in a recent issue of Commonweal
the results of a Pew Forum study that indicated that one in every three Americans who were raised Catholic have left the Church. If this statistic is true, a religious denomination comprised of former Catholics would constitute the second largest in the nation. Steinfels has reason to be concerned. According to the Pew Forum study “Catholicism has lost more people to other religions or no religion at all than any other religious group.” Steinfels’ lament goes on to identify not just the drifting away of so many from the Church, but the state of affairs that these people have left behind. The bishops, Steinfels contends, remain silent, and recent studies also indicate the Church’s ability to inculcate the teaching of the Church in new generations of believers have not only faltered, but have completely failed. In terms of general knowledge of the basic tenants of their Faith, young Catholics score lower when compared to adherents of other religions or members of Protestant denominations- not just lower, but way
lower. In terms of comprehension of Catholic teaching by young Catholics, ignorance prevails. If they are rejecting the Church, or will one day do so, do they even know what precisely they are abandoning?
There is of course a bigger picture here. America remains a deeply religious culture with the majority professing belief in the existence of God. Most continue to self identify as being Christian. But this does not mean that most will belong to a church or will express their faith in terms acceptable to the creeds or codes of particular religions- Catholic or otherwise. Harold Bloom made the case years ago in his book “The American Religion” that most Americans would best be described as Gnostics in terms of their approach to the spiritual. I find it hard to argue against that proposition. Therefore, it should not seem surprising that the fastest growing group religious group in the nation is identified as the “nones”- folks with no particular religious affiliation. These people are not by necessity hostile to religion or spirituality, but simply will not or cannot give a particular designation to their identity. Again, given our culture’s stress on individualism, choice and a tendency to interpret all experience as a commodity, should any of this surprise us? If Americans are spiritual or religious, it is on their own terms, an attitude peculiar not only toward religion, but most everything that seems to be an integral quality of the American experience. Since the ethos of Catholic leadership has been for decades that of assimilation and accommodation to the American experience, should it be all that shocking that so many Catholic would “drift” or find the category of “none” to best describe their religious and spiritual identity?
Half of Catholics who leave the Church will not simply drift, but will become members of Protestant churches, and most of the churches that these Catholics join will be Evangelical churches. This is a telling statistic. Some Catholics have opted for American Episcopalianism, which has been a boom for that denomination. Without Catholic attrition it is likely that the American Episcopal church would have virtually vanished a decade ago. In an odd way, Episcopalians can thank the Catholics for keeping their project going, and even so, it is not going all that well for them, as their numbers continue to decline. So many Catholics becoming Protestants is interesting, but should not be seen as a surprising development. Becoming Protestant completes the process of assimilation to the American experience, and Protestantism is better able to contend with the expectations of modern secularism, owing to the fact that such secularist tendencies rise out of the Protestant Reformation. It might be helpful to remember that both Protestantism and secularism define themselves over against the claims of Catholicism, and a culture like America's, which is so fundamentally Protestant and secular, might not always provide the best soil for the long term growth of the Catholic Faith. Further, given that the Catholic Church in the United States has so emphasized the importance of assimilation and accommodation to the American cultural experience, is it any wonder that so many Catholics would find Protestantism appealing. They are simply coming to terms with the fact that Protestantism is a better fit for an American than that of the “ancient regime” of the Catholic Church.
But there is a backstory to this Catholic drift into American Protestantism that Steinfels omits in his appraisal. Protestantism has also been hit hard by shifting demographics in the past few decades. The formerly mainline churches have for the most part passed beyond a tipping point in terms of declining membership (and will soon share the fate of a number of Catholic religious communities.) Attrition from these Protestant denominations has far surpassed that of Catholics. Those who have left the formerly mainline churches continue to remain Protestant, but their affiliation has changed as dramatically, I would argue, as for those Catholics who have left the Church for Protestantism. The Protestants who have left the formerly mainline churches have become Evangelicals. To Catholics, this difference might seem superficial, as it is the tendency of many to view Protestantism as monolithic, but that would be a false impression. To get a sense of just how seismic this jolt has been, I recommend Rodney Stark’s appraisal of the phenomenon in a post that appeared on the Patheos Blog
on August 6th
2010. Stark asserts (and I believe quite rightly) that the Evangelical movement is now the new mainline, a fact that many Catholics and formerly mainline Protestants just don’t seem to get. What is most surprising about Stark’s assessment is that he identifies the precursor for this decline is not merely in the sociological, but in the theological.
It is precisely this point-- the influence of a particular theology and its impact on the decline of the formerly mainline Protestant churches and the possibility that a similar dynamic has influenced current demographic trends in Catholicism-- that is conspicuously absent in Steinfels' article. If Stark is correct, and I think that there is good reason to accept that he is, the remarkable shifts in American Protestantism which have occurred over the past few decades happened because of conscious decisions that were made by those churches to represent in their teachings and practices a particular form of theology, a form of theology that has had its advocates in the American Catholic Church for several decades as well. In fact the advocates of this theological form, well known to Steinfels, were hardly on the margins in terms of Catholic leadership- not only in terms of bishops, but also priests, pastoral ministers, religious communities, parishes, and perhaps most significantly, the Church’s educational institutions. If we are looking for possible reasons for the decline of Catholicism in the United States and its possible remedies, it might be a good idea to begin with a serious appraisal of the kind of theological ethos that came to dominate the Church in America for several decades. I agree with Steinfels that the reality of Catholic attrition rates should be at the forefront of the Church’s agenda, but I think that we might disagree as to what precisely is the most important precipitating factor in Catholicism’s apparent decline.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.