September 15, 2020
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St. Albertus Catholic Church, Detroit

Why Such Empty Pews?

Few religious publications are willing to delve into the issues facing the Catholic Church today when it comes to declining attendance. Most priests do not want to recognize the fact that churches are now emptier today than ever before and parochial schools are closing at an accelerating rate. They feel comfortable in restating the same lines learned in the seminary years ago. Trust in God and He will bring back the parishioners that have left. However, the sad reality is that our society in the United States has and is changing and the Church is not changing with it and/or recognizing the changes.

Only about half of Americans are married today, down from 72 percent in 1960. The age at which one first gets married has risen by six years and now only 20% of Americans get married before the age of 30. Why has marriage declined? Most experts point to the woman’s liberation movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. As more women earned college degrees, entered the workforce and delayed motherhood, marriage became less necessary for their economic survival. Studies have been published linking the use of the birth control pill to women’s earnings. Access to the pill narrowed the gender wage gap. Although the divorce rate has fallen since the 1980s, when it was at an all-time high, it is still twice as high as it was in 1960 and currently hovers around 50%. Sadly, our ranking on the socioeconomic ladder determines our willingness to marry.

The U.S. birth rate is declining. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there were 3.93 million births in the United States in 2013, 9% below the high in 2007. The average number of babies dropped to a record low of 1.8 babies, well below the 2.1 needed for a stable population. Statistics show that birth rates among Catholic couples fell well within the current national statistics.

The concept of the family is changing. Fewer than 25% of American households are made up of a married man and woman with their children. The change in the makeup of the American family is the result of two primary factors: more babies are now born out of wedlock and second, divorce rates remain high resulting in nearly half of all marriage contracts being broken. The overall attitude toward relationships and commitment has shifted. Having a child outside of marriage is acceptable. Having a wedding after the baby is also not uncommon. Cohabitation is on the rise and lasting longer.

Overall, America’s Catholic schools are closing at a rapid rate. At their peak in the mid-1960s, more than 13,000 Catholic elementary and secondary schools enrolled 12% of U.S. school children. But by 2012, fewer than 7,000 Catholic schools enrolled about two million, or 5% of U.S. school-aged children. Why? A number of reasons explain the decline: No more nuns. From a peak of over 100,000 sisters in the 1960s down to about 6,500 in 2010 still working or less than one per Catholic school. Rising tuition. In 1970, nearly 75% of all Catholic schools charged less than $100 in tuition. By 2010, the average tuition was about $4,000 at a Catholic elementary school and around $8,000 for a high school. The Church itself, many scholars suggest, would like to withdraw from general education and use its limited resources for strictly religious education.

Given all of this, we might ask whether faith formation classes on Sunday morning at a local parish are a good substitute for a Catholic education? Do enough children participate to make it a meaningful endeavor? Scholars all seem to agree that the Catholic home is the best place to foster the Catholic faith. But if neither of the parents participate in their Catholic religion to any extent, will parish-provided faith formation provide any lasting benefits?

The Catholic congregations are aging and dying off. At least 60% of most congregations today are over 65 years of age. The older the church’s membership, the more likely that the church is to have falling numbers, weaker finances, anemic youth programming and a sense of spiritual fatigue.

The pews will remain empty unless the Catholic Church can address the issues blocking attendance. This will not be an easy task. The issues have to be addressed at the highest level in the Church.

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Written by
Donald Wittmer