Lowering Catholic Standards: Is a More Welcoming Church a Healthier One?


freespiritswelcomeOne hallmark of a well-written book is its timelessness. Certainly over time, the jargon and anecdotes of the text will appear antiquated, but its argument will still resonate long after its publication. I picked up Dean Kelley’s 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches are Growing, to help me understand a paradox facing the Episcopal Church. Their congregations espouse the values of many young Americans. They are welcoming, nonjudgmental, and diverse. I can only imagine church leaders embracing such attributes with a vision of the inevitable avalanche of young people who would rush into their church.

Instead, the Episcopal Church is dying.

Forty-three years ago, Kelley’s text explained the declining membership of mainline Protestant denominations while still in its early stages, but as I entered deeper into the text, I was surprised to discover that it revealed more to me about contemporary Catholicism than the state of Christianity in the seventies. The import of historical phenomena recounted in the book appear not to have been lost on the thirteen cardinals who intervened during the recent synod, who ended their letter to Pope Francis with this statement:

“The collapse of liberal Protestant churches in the modern era, accelerated by their abandonment of key elements of Christian belief and practice in the name of pastoral adaptation, warrants great caution in our own synodal discussions.”

Francis’ tenure has increasingly been characterized as a Rorschach papacy — an inkblot on which the observer can project whatever he prefers — and the pope’s positions on numerous issues prove difficult to discern. With that said, the preponderance of evidence points to the conclusion that Francis wants a more welcoming brand of Catholicism, one that is capable of meeting individuals outside of the church where they are. Also apparent is his desire to loosen the requirements for full participation in the life of the Church.

Traditional Catholics have often critiqued the approach of Francis and his closest advisors on theological grounds, and claims of heresy have even made their way into some of those arguments. I am not a theologian, and given the reaction Ross Douthat recently received, it seems imprudent for me to enter into that particular fray. For my purposes, I want to set sidestep the theological debate and address instead the frequent rejoinder of progressives who support the more progressive initiatives of this papacy.

It seems that in our evaluation of these new approaches there is a question we should be asking: will a more welcoming and less demanding Church attract disillusioned individuals on the periphery into joining the Catholic Faith?

In his work, Kelley’s central thesis is that the primary function of religion is to provide meaning. Members of new religious movements experience an intense rush of meaning, but with time, the intensity declines. According to Kelley, the strategy for delaying this weakening of meaning is strictness — what Pope Francis might refer to as “rigidity” — and he offers four methods to increase this strictness, which he believes should aid in retaining members and stabilizing church attendance.

1) “Do not confuse it [faith] with other beliefs/loyalties/practices, or mingle them together indiscriminately, or pretend they are alike of equal merit, or mutually compatible, if they are not.”

The social strength of Catholicism depends on distinguishing Catholicism from all other religions and emphasizing those differences. Catholicism declines when similarities are drawn between Catholics and Protestants or when common ground is found between Catholics and atheists. By emphasizing similarities and downplaying the Church’s uniqueness, we are taking away the incentive to convert to Catholicism. By downplaying the distinctiveness of Catholicism, we are also making Catholics less likely to remain in the church.

2) “Make high demands of those admitted to the organization that bears the faith, and do not include or allow to continue within it those who are not fully committed to it”

Kelley argues that a religion without high standards will fall into decline. Strict requirements ensure commitment from members, and signify that the religion is worthy of sacrifice. The controversial elements of the recent synod focused on lowering the requirements for full sacramental participation. Kelley’s argument predicts that the pope’s effort to lower the bar so that more individuals can receive Holy Communion will result in fewer people desiring to receive Holy Communion, because it will be less significant. On the contrary, challenging Catholics to follow difficult Church teachings and holding them accountable when they have gone astray will draw more people to both the Church and the sacraments.

3) “Do not consent to, encourage, or indulge any violations of [the religion’s] standards of beliefs or behavior by its professed adherents.”

Progressive Catholics have championed Francis’ openness to divergent viewpoints. During the synod, the fathers felt comfortable speaking without fear of retribution. Some of the most openly dissenting Cardinals in the Church — such as Kasper and Daneels — were even given roles of prominence in the gathering in what should have been the quiet twilight of their careers. Their radical vision of the family has been echoed throughout the Catholic world without any rebuke from the pope. Appealing to common sense, Kelley contends that any promotion of views contrary to the established beliefs hastens the decline of the faith.

4) “Do not keep silent about it, apologize for it, or let it be treated as though it made no difference, or should make no difference, in their behavior or in their relationship with other.”     

Francis has not been silent. An argument could be made that he has been the most outspoken pope to date. Yet, the content of his speech is significant. Kelley claims that religious leaders need to emphasize what makes religion distinct. Liberal churches stress things like fellowship, entertainment, and social work, but non-religious entities offer these functions as well, often more successfully than churches. Conservative churches promise salvation. Kelley argues the vital message that church leaders need to proclaim is salvation through their church, and not economic inequality, environmental, or other tangential issues.

It bears repeating that these four elements summarize how to halt church decline, while doing the opposite will augment religious decay. Kelley’s argument merits particular attention because it is rooted in statistical analysis, not opinion. In reviewing these four points, we are not debating whether or not we like them, but providing a factual basis for approaches that will help to maintain and grow the social strength of a given religion.

I find his conclusions more convincing because he was not a traditional Catholic but a moderate Protestant. Everyone has a bias, and many progressive Catholics would no doubt be skeptical of a traditional Catholic advancing such ideas. Kelley, however, had no axe to grind against liberals. His research was financed by the ideologically leftist National Council of Churches, and he often expressed his desire that the evidence he uncovered was different.

Kelley’s thesis has its detractors, but he has been vindicated by recent history.[1] As a historian, I find that the most upsetting aspect of watching recent events unfold in the Catholic Church is a horrible case of déjà vu. For the past fifty years, progressives advocated for a more welcoming stance towards non-Catholics and non-practicing Catholics through relaxed disciplines, informal practices, and watered-down doctrine. Half a century should have been more than enough time for this strategy, if it were valid, to bear fruit. Where are the converts? Why are Catholics abandoning the faith like never before? Such efforts have repeatedly resulted in failure. Every progressive diocese, religious order, and parish has gone into decline with falling membership. Why should we continue to employ the same approach?

Debate will continue to rage over the theology surrounding papal rhetoric, but Catholics of any persuasion who care about their Church would be remiss to neglect the underlining sociological impact of this pontificate’s programs and proposed changes. There is no data to suggest that a more open and welcoming Church would result in a healthier Catholicism. There is a mounting body of evidence, however, that the reverse is true.

To continue on our present path as though we don’t know this is tantamount to suicide.


[1] The most common critiques are that he overlooked a higher birthrate among more conservative and traditional religions, and he neglects the impact of the surrounding culture.

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