July 19, 2019

Why Catholic Numbers are Declining

According to the latest Pew research, the American Catholic population has declined by 3 million in the last seven years. Today 41% of people who had been raised Catholic are no longer Catholic. Some have joined other churches, while others have no religious affiliation.

What is causing this decline? The main reason is cultural. Spirituality and morality are now considered a matter of personal taste or preference, which means that formal religion, particularly a dogmatic religion like Catholicism, is regarded as irrelevant.

Unfortunately, the Church’s efforts to defeat those notions have sometimes reinforced them, thereby contributing to the decline.

For most of the last two millennia, the Church has emphasized reason as the companion to faith. The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle contributed the Natural Law theory that was later refined by St.Thomas Aquinas. That theory focused on the interplay between intellect and free will in seeking truth and applying it to human life.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, however, secular philosophy abandoned two concerns central to Natural Law theory and to Theology—metaphysics and ethics. This change in focus created an intellectual vacuum that was quickly filled by the then-new discipline of psychology. Many versions of psychology became prominent, notably Freudianism and Behaviorism, but none impacted the culture as much as Humanistic Psychology.

Humanistic Psychology continues to provide American culture with its central ideas about good and evil, truth and reality, feelings and reason, and sexuality. For the most part, those ideas are not only fallacious but also diametrically opposed to traditional Catholic teaching. Despite this, they have infiltrated Catholic scholarship, as I explained in an earlier essay.

The ideas of Humanistic Psychology were a dominant focus of the graduate school training of psychologists and other counselors, including priests. Many priests embraced those ideas then and in the following decades promulgated them in their writings and sermons. A number of those priests in time became bishops and cardinals.

Thus, the ideas that the Church had hoped to vanquish became, at very least, respected points of view in theological speculation and moral discourse. Here are some examples:

  • The Church historically spoke of “the sins of the world,” meaning the offenses committed by individuals against God’s commandments. For example, the Agnus Dei used to be worded, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world; have mercy on us.” Today many Church leaders replace the word “sins” with the general term “sin,” which comports with Humanistic Psychology’s idea that when wrongs are done, society is at fault. Similarly, the Church traditionally taught that people need to be liberated from their inclination to sin. Today, the new “Liberation Theology” focuses instead on freedom from socio-political oppression—that is, from the “sin” of society. Item: In 2007 the Vatican issued a warning of doctrinal errors in the writings of liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, SJ, but in 2015 published an excerpt from one of his writings in the Vatican newspaper.
  • Christ’s admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself” was traditionally understood to mean we must moderate our already bounteous self-regard in order to love others. Today many Church leaders borrow Humanistic Psychology’s formula that we must love ourselves before we can love others.
  • The Church has always emphasized the duty of helping our neighbors in need. In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII renewed that emphasis but clarified that the duty is one of charity rather than justice. Further, he reasoned, “the first and most fundamental principle . . . if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.” Many Church leaders ignore that crucial qualification and repeat Humanistic Psychology’s notion that society is the source of all wrong, as well as Progressivism’s emphasis on “social justice” (rather than simple justice) and governmental redistribution of wealth.
  • The Church has traditionally taught that both homosexual acts and heterosexual birth control are contrary to nature—the former because they use sex organs in a way unintended by nature, and the latter because it frustrates the natural purpose of the sex act. But in October, 2014 a draft of a Vatican synod report on family life spoke of “welcoming [homosexuals] . . . to a fraternal place in our communities [emphasis added].” More recently, Pope Francis appointed Father Timothy Radcliffe, an advocate on behalf of gays, as a consultant to the Pontifical Council. And Irish Archbishop Diarmuid Martin argued, “We have to find ways in which gay and lesbian people can have their love fully recognised in an equal but different manner,” adding “we have to find ways of examining that and I don’t think we have done that far enough. I think civil partnership is not adequate, I think it could be tweaked.” (See also, Rome’s Welcome to Homosexuals.)
  • The Church’s opposition to abortion has been strong and consistent, considering abortion the unjust taking of an innocent human life and therefore a grave sin. Yet even on this issue, on which most Catholic leaders are united, there are some who embrace the secular view. For example, Cardinal Godfried Danneels reportedly tried to persuade King Baudouin of Beligum to sign a liberal abortion law in 1990. (The king refused.)

Such contradictions understandably cause Catholics to question the credibility of Church leaders. Even young Catholics who have little grasp of traditional Church teachings will recognize the more obvious inconsistencies. Older Catholics are acutely aware of them.

Consider older married Catholics who in effect were required, under pain of mortal sin, to abstain from sex with their spouses for many days each month for most of their adult lives. What do they think when they see the Church maintaining its prohibition of artificial birth control for heterosexual couples while “accommodating” gay marriage and, in effect, approving homosexual intercourse? At very least they must be perplexed about the status of the Natural Law and wonder, “Has it been repealed? If so, why is it still in force for heterosexuals? And if not, why the accommodation for homosexuals?”

I submit that these and many similar concerns explain in part why the number of practicing Catholics continues to decline. Church leaders owe it to their followers—and indeed to Christ Himself—to consider to what extent they are promulgating some of the very errors they have been appointed to overcome.

Copyright © 2015 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero