How Great We Aren’t – The Catholic Church in America Today

The Former St. Agnes Parish, Detroit.

The Former St. Agnes Parish, Detroit.

Those who follow baseball know that the past decade has seen what is called the “Moneyball” revolution in how players are evaluated. In the past, players were gauged using popular, preconceived narratives: Who knocks in the most runs? Who gets the most hits? However, it has been shown in recent years that these questions are not actually predictive of which players truly help their teams win games. For years the experts were analyzing the situation with a preconceived narrative in place, and were therefore prone to ignore the data that didn’t jibe with that narrative. Now, however, new advanced statistical tools have been deployed to discover exactly how much each player contributes to team wins. Moneyball advocates stress that the correct data, looked at dispassionately, is the best way to analyze a situation and come to accurate conclusions.

Nowhere is a preconceived narrative more entrenched than in the Catholic Church in America today. Imagine your own Catholic parish. Can you think of any time that the pastor got up and said, “Listen, things are not good – the school is failing to educate kids in the Faith, people are leaving in droves, and no one believes Catholic doctrine anymore”? Of course not; usually we are told how great the school is, how great the parish is and that we are great, great, great – surely one day we will reword the classic hymn to “How Great We Art”. The message is that we should just keep doing everything as we have done it for the past generation: catechesis, marriage preparation, liturgy, and so on.

But will an objective look at the numbers show that everything is in fact fine? In recent years several studies have been conducted that give an in-depth look at the practices (and non-practices) of Catholics in America.

A major study done by Pew Research in 2009 found that over 30% of Americans who were raised Catholic no longer consider themselves Catholic. This is a well-known figure, but what about those who do still self-identify as Catholic? These are the people who still have some attachment to the Church, at least enough to call themselves “Catholic.” According to one study, less than 30% of them attend Mass once a week, and according to another study, only 25% go to Confession at least once a year. Furthermore, only 62% of those who attend Mass weekly also go to Confession at least once a year.

Putting all these numbers together, we find that less than 10% of baptized Catholics in this country both attend Mass on Sundays and go to Confession at least once a year. In other words, less than 1 in 10 baptized Catholics actually follow the two most measurable precepts of the Church, which all Catholics are obliged to follow.

Getting back to those who have left the Church, a few surveys have asked why they left. The Pew Study referenced above notes that of those who left, most stated that they “gradually drifted away from the Church” and that their “spiritual needs were not being met.” A more recent, smaller survey conducted by the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois details that the majority left because their “spiritual needs [were] not met” and they “lost interest” in being Catholic.

Although we may draw many conclusions from this data, all of these numbers are summed up in one fact: Most people do not see any compelling reason to live as Catholics. This is true both for those who left the Church and for most who continue to self-identify as Catholic. For if one thought it was worthwhile to live as a Catholic, he would attend Mass faithfully, go to Confession regularly, learn his faith, and strive to live its teachings, even the hard ones. Yet so few Catholics are doing this.

Now before you think “But numbers aren’t everything in evangelization!” let me say that you are correct: numbers aren’t everything. But surely when vast numbers of people are saying they are leaving the Church because their spiritual needs are not being met – the precise reason the Church exists – then something is fundamentally wrong. It is true that evangelization does not always produce large numbers of converts – Jesus himself was rejected by many of his initial disciples – but the staggering number of baptized Catholics who don’t find value in practicing the Faith should give us serious pause.

We also have to be careful not to take away from these numbers more than is really there. The studies tell us very clearly the present situation, but they do not tell us the reasons behind the numbers. For example, the fact that many Americans left the Church because they didn’t find their spiritual needs being met doesn’t tell us why they believed this. But it does tell us, unequivocally, that Catholic parishes by and large are failing to meet their parishioners’ perceived spiritual needs. “How Great We Art” indeed.

So how should Catholics respond in the face of these daunting numbers? Unfortunately, three improper responses to this crisis have emerged in the past few decades. They are denial, despair, and desertion:

Denial: This appears to be the most common response by many Church leaders, both clergy and lay: ignoring or downplaying the problem and continuing to do the same things that got us into this mess. But one thing these numbers make clear: what we have done in the past few decades certainly doesn’t work. Continuing with the same strategy and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

Despair: Many faithful Catholics see how bad things are and just lose hope that the situation can ever be fixed; the problems of today can be overwhelming and appear unsolvable. So they make no effort to improve the state of affairs in their local parish or the greater Church.

Desertion: If things are so bad in the Church, some will conclude that perhaps it is not THE Church after all. This occurs with many Catholics-turned-Evangelical Protestants, as well as some who join “independent” Catholic churches not in communion with Rome.

What is the way forward? If denial, despair and desertion are not the proper Catholic response, how should Catholics react to the calamity of less than 10% of all baptized Catholics actually practicing their faith? In a word, determination.

Determination: The proper way to respond to these sobering numbers is to first face them squarely without whitewashing or downplaying them. The old adage, “The first step in solving a problem is acknowledging you have one” comes to mind. Second, we ask ourselves, “What can I do to make a more compelling case for Catholicism?” After all, the Faith spreads organically, person to person, so each Catholic has a duty to spread it to his or her own circle of influence. Finally, we must open ourselves to radical changes, including scrapping much of what we have done over the past few decades for something better.

Of course the debate then becomes “What is better?” There is not sufficient space here to detail possible solutions, but two principles should be kept in mind:

  1. Just as we’ve used quantitative data to arrive at the conclusion that something’s wrong, any new initiative should also be objectively analyzed. If a new marriage preparation program is started, for example, the divorce rate among its participants should be tracked to see if it is reduced.
  2. New initiatives should tap into the deep reservoir of Catholic Tradition. The Church through the centuries has been the greatest evangelizing institution the world has ever seen, so we do not need to re-invent the wheel. Although times may change, human nature does not. Looking to evangelist Saints like Francis Xavier and Boniface would be a good place to start when it comes to re-evangelizing Catholics in America.

The stark truth found in various recent surveys is that Catholicism is not attractive anymore to a massive number of Americans. The Catholic Church in America for the past few decades is like Willie Mays in the twilight of his career – a once great player that is no longer so. One can simply ignore the facts and keep putting this shadow of greatness into the lineup day after day. The better option, however, is to recognize the reality shown by his numbers and put in a younger, better player – one who plays more like Mays did in his prime. The ways the Church has been doing things for the past few decades have been proven to be ineffective; we must be bold enough to recognize this and take them out of the lineup.

Let’s rebuild the ways of living and preaching the Catholic Faith that converted Empires, nations, and people all around the world.

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