Catholicism: Can the Decline Be Reversed?

Catholicism: Can the Decline Be Reversed?

That the Catholic Church has been losing numbers for decades has been well established. Why the loss has occurred, however, is not as clear. One might expect that Church leaders would be interested in finding the answer and sharing it with their congregations. But they have offered little explanation other than blaming secularism. Before considering possible explanations, let’s consider some numbers.

The number of U.S. Catholics continues to decline. From the 1960s to 2009 the Church has lost four American-born Catholics for every convert gained. The situation with the clergy is similar. There were 58,632 priests in 1965 and 37,192 in 2016, half of them over age 65. In addition, fewer Catholics are getting married in the Church, the number having fallen from 352,458 in 1965 to 145,916 in 2016. Mass attendance has also dropped from 55% in 1965 to 23% in 2017. The National Catholic Reporter saw in these numbers “the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history.”

Notable changes have also occurred among those who have remained in the Church. Only 8% of Catholics say they are very close to their clergy. And their confidence in the guidance of priests on a number of matters is disturbingly low: only 30% on marriage/relationships, 16% on immigration issues, 8% on climate change.

Catholics’ lack of confidence in the guidance of their clergy is matched by their disagreement with the hierarchy in matters of moral theology. Slightly under a third accept one of the Church’s most fundamental teachings—the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Sixty percent favor allowing same-sex marriages and 51% believe abortion should be legal (though fewer support late term abortion); 65% believe cohabitation without marriage is not a sin; and 50% believe  ‘homosexual behavior’ is not a sin. Sixty percent believe priests should be allowed to marry and women should be allowed to become priests.

The great irony in the departure of Catholics from the Church is that some are leaving because the Church has not changed, while others are leaving because it has changed too much. Oddly, both views have merit, for reasons I will explain. But first let’s look more closely at each view.

Those who believe the Church has not changed point to the Catechism’s statements on homosexuality, marriage, birth control and abortion, among other subjects, and say “The Church has not changed its position on these matters despite the changes in scientific and psychological knowledge.” They point, as well, to the hierarchy’s repeated assertion that the Church’s views have been consistent throughout the ages.

On the other side are those who believe the church has changed too much. Author David Carlin is one of them. In his 2003 book on the decline of the Church, he described a society in which “most ‘Catholics’ are really not Catholic, but, rather, generic Christians, and in which Catholic bishops and priests, either through timidity or policy or conviction, are reluctant to press upon their people a specifically Catholic form of Christianity.” And he warned that “American Catholicism is traveling down the road earlier traveled by mainline Protestants: a road that terminates, it seems likely, in something resembling extinction.”

Since Carlin wrote those words, there is more evidence that the hierarchy has changed its view of Church teaching. As I have detailed, many bishops are taking positions that resemble Leftist media narratives more than the Gospel. And even Pope Francis seems to be of two minds about some Catholic teachings. For example:

In late July 2013, Francis said concerning gays and the sexuality of priests: “If a person is gay, seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” [After the Cardinals at the Vatican spoke to him, he revised the statement, saying that the Catholic Church still declares homosexuality is a sin.]

Two months LATER in an interview with La Civilta Cattolica, Francis said, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me, when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person… In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”

Let’s recap: first Francis implied that homosexual acts are not sinful, in direct contradiction of the Catechism. Then he revised the statement, which might have been understandable had he not switched back again. When asked directly about the moral status of homosexuality, he stated his acceptance of homosexual persons, thus ignoring the important distinction between hating the sin but loving the sinner, and implying his acceptance of homosexual acts.

Spiritual advisors warn against judging the entire Church by the actions of one or more bishops, and the warning is not unreasonable. Yet it is a rather difficult warning to heed. The very structure of the Church illuminates the difficulty. The bishops comprise the “Magisterium,” that is, the body that holds the teaching authority of the Church. Moreover, the Church teaches that the bishops share in the infallibility of the Pope. explains this as follows: The infallibility of the Church is seen best in the infallibility of the bishops. They are, in the fullest sense, the successors of the apostles. When they teach a truth so widely that it can be called the teaching of the episcopate of the Catholic Church, that teaching is true. God’s power keeps it from being wrong.” 

To be sure, a careful reading of the infallibility doctrine reveals that few statements from bishops (or the Pope) meet the criteria of infallibility. Nevertheless, the aura of the doctrine of infallibility surrounds every statement the bishops make and commands that what they say be taken seriously. So whenever the bishops say something at odds with Church teaching, or worse, something false and harmful, informed lay people are not only outraged with the bishops—they are also disillusioned with the Church the bishops represent. And if the bishops refuse to correct their error even after it has been exposed, as is often the case, lay people will regard their intransigence as arrogant disdain for the truth and disrespect for the people.

This reaction of the bishops has beyond question contributed significantly to the alienation of lay Catholics from the Church. The bishops have surely watched the exodus increase over the decades, so why on earth do they continue their intransigence? The answer, I believe is that they feel caught between what they regard as two imperatives: 1) to perpetuate the idea that Catholic teaching never changes, and 2) to accommodate new cultural attitudes and values and keep the faith “relevant.”

Their goal is evidently to retain both Catholics who still embrace the traditional faith and those who reject it. Though this goal is understandable in concept, it is clearly unachievable. That is why instead of retaining both groups, they are well on their way to losing both.

I submit that for the bishops to have any chance of avoiding the Church’s decline to “something resembling extinction,” I submit that they need to take a number of steps to improve their attitudes toward themselves and others. I believe these six steps are among the most important.

Remember that the infallibility they enjoy (with certain qualifications) is but a tiny oasis in the virtually limitless reality of human fallibility, and that the vast majority of their thoughts, words, and actions (like those of the rest of us) are subject to the latter limitation.

Resist the temptation to assume that their elevation to the Magisterium has transported them to a higher intellectual or spiritual plane than that of the priests, deacons, or lay people they shepherd; and be mindful that even in the most modest stations in life there are individuals blessed by God with greater intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom than they themselves possess.

Acknowledge that the Holy Spirit communicates to whomever He pleases and thus anyone with whom they come into contact, educated or uneducated, wealthy or poor, of great influence or none at all, may carry a special gift of enlightenment, vision, inspiration, or grace from the Holy Spirit that can be of great value to the hierarchy and the Church.

Develop the habit of opening their minds not only to ideas that flatter their own but also—indeed, especially—to ideas that challenge their own. In addition, escape the aura of infallibility and the sense of anointedness that threaten humility and willingness to learn. (These threats can be recognized by the thoughts they give rise to, such as “how dare they question me. Don’t they know who I am, what credentials I possess, what honors I have received,” and so on.)

Engage clerics and the lay people who question their viewpoints, and do so graciously, humbly, and collegially as opposed to dismissively or paternalistically. This does not require answering every essay or article that offers criticism, of course, but it certainly means answering every one whose author himself, or someone who shares his view, sends to the bishop. And by “engage” I don’t mean a boilerplate response that says no more than “Thank you for your comment. I always welcome the input of the faithful,” which translates to “I’m not going to lower myself to give a meaningful reply.” I mean instead a response in which the bishop discusses the issue in question and explains his rationale for thinking as he does.

Put aside the view that the Church has never changed its teachings, because it is neither true nor efficacious. John T. Noonan Jr demonstrated the falsity of the claim in “Development in Moral Doctrine,” (Theological Studies 54, 1993), and events in the Church since that time have further exposed its error. Champion, instead, the eminently more supportable view that though the Church has changed its views on many occasions, the more remarkable fact is that so many of its teachings remain true almost two millennia after they were formed.

Once the above changes are made, the bishops will be prepared to address more responsibly the issues facing the Church today, including contraception, homosexuality, gay marriage, immigration, social justice, married priests, women priests, and liberation theology. Equally important, they will be able to assume a leadership role in the battle against anarchy’s intensifying assault on Western Civilization, which historian Thomas Woods reminds us the Catholic Church built.

By taking on these challenges, the bishops will regain the respect not only of Catholic clerics and laypeople, but of all people who value integrity and genuine leadership.

Copyright © 2020 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero