Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

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.

27 thoughts on “Lowering Catholic Standards: Is a More Welcoming Church a Healthier One?”

  1. Why continue the failed experiments of the ‘spirit’ of Vatican II? To bring the Church down, to seek to destroy her even by unwitting puppets. But there has a been a demonic underlying cause. The admittance of sodomites into seminaries, the infiltration by masons—these things are obviously not just conspiracy theories as we have seen. There has been a wholesale lack of teaching the Truths of the Faith. One cannot love what is not known. Mushy luv homilies and failed catechesis have taken their toll Is any family unscathed? We lost our TLM and devotions that spoke to the heart and brought us closer to Jesus and Mary. Those who adhered to them were, and still often are, ridiculed and ostracized.
    This life is a spiritual battle!!! Only the strong in faith will make it to the heavenly finish line.

  2. The fact that this is even a matter for discussion shows just how terrible the state of affairs in the Western Church truly is. All of this should be common sense. Just take a look at secular organizations: who wants to play football, for example, for a coach who is lax in his training regimen for his players and is more concerned with making certain everyone feels good and has plenty of playing time—even if they have no skill, whatsoever—than with winning football games? Likewise, who wants to waste their time getting up early on Sunday morning and going to church, only to be greeted with banal music, lackadaisical liturgy, and homilies entirely devoid of teeth and meaningful content? One need not go to a church in order to be told just what a good person he is; we are more than capable of doing that to ourselves, convincing ourselves that our faults and sins really aren’t all that bad.

    But none of this will change in the near future; the bishops and cardinals in power have too much invested in the liturgical reforms and “spirit of Vatican II” nonsense that have plagued the Church for the past five decades. In order to fix the problem, they would have to admit they were wrong, as well as have to work out some sort of realistic, tenable plan to reeducate the laity with regard to traditional Catholic praxis. But as someone that’s sort of a big deal within the Church has said: “We have to always go forward, always forward and who goes back is making a mistake.” With that sort of attitude firmly entrenched in the institutional Church, and if the past 50 years are any indication, it’s not difficult to predict what the outcome of that mindset will be.

  3. Kelley’s prescriptions are nothing other than the example that the apostles left to us in both word and action. The Letters of Peter, Paul, John, James and Jude are clear on these matters, but many prominent ecclesiastics and catholic writers/journalists prefer human “wisdom”.

  4. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about those withering the Bride of Christ through the slow bleed of “liberal Catholicism” (consummate oxymoron, that) is not knowing which among them are stupid enough to actually believe they’re doing something good, and which are the real jackals, hiding their delight at her demise behind a pretentious mask of inane pleasantries.

    Where’s the Inquisition when you need it.

  5. This argument is similar to Tocqueville’s in Democracy in America. Religion serves to provide a moral authority, a guide to right and wrong and how to be good in the world. Nothing is as harmful to this function of a religion than ambiguity of teachings and multiple interpretations of teachings. That is why Tocqueville notes the growth in Catholicism in America–clear authority and uniformity in teachings. He says that if people are to submit to the authority of a religion, they want that authority to be clear and unambiguous. Otherwise, they will not seek religion, because it is not providing the key function of religion according to Tocqueville.

    • Also, “high demands” are important because they improve our holiness. Everyone intuitively knows that good things are not easy. That is why we sense that religions that ask a lot are more worthwhile, as a martial art that asks a lot of us is better than one that asks a minimal commitment.

      • Let us never forget that any good we do is by the gift of God which is grace through our faith in Christ Jesus. Lest any man should boast.

  6. I was raised in one of those high-control religions: Jehovah’s Witnesses. They executed very well all of these points, but I’d suggest this is ultimately an error. These points are all perfectly valid for a group like the Witnesses whose mission, I argue, quite different from that of the Church. I don’t think such methods are correct for the Church, much as we should avoid compromise.

    Maybe a focus on the first point, emphasizing the distinct nature of the Church against all other contenders, would be sufficient.

    • My take on the article is that we need clear, high-standard teaching in the Church and zero compromise…..that is vastly different than “high-control”. “HIgh-control” is not love, but is needed to continue their lie.

      • I agree with you about the right thing to do, but I don’t think that’s the point in this article. The article builds on research about how new religions keep high motivation for members after the initial charm wears off. The key points are to draw sharp distinctions and never tolerate questioning.

        Thus: “…do not include or allow to continue within it those who are not fully committed to it.”

        Think about that for a minute. The Jehovah’s Witnesses routinely find members with doubts and kick them out of the organization — that is exactly what is meant by the research on this topic. And the point being made is that such measures are effective from the perspective of the religions under examination.

        But the Church is not some new American religion. It’s the Church, and it doesn’t need any such insecure policies as the Jehovah’s Witnesses do, since the Church is true and the JWs are idiots. The job of the Church is to continue to witness to all her members, especially those who are not yet committed to her. We don’t excommunicate those who show too little commitment — which is what this research is suggesting happens to be an effective strategy for those religious groups that rely on something other than the gospel to get adherents.

        • I don’t think the key point of the article is “never tolerate questioning ” .
          You can question all day if you are earnestly seeking answers you will find that the Church has them. There’s a difference between questioning and demanding that the Church change according to your desires or flagrantly being disobedient

          “The Church is intolerant in principle because she believes; she is tolerant in practice because she loves. The enemies of the Church are tolerant in principle because they do not believe; they are intolerant in practice because they do not love.” – quote from Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange , O.P.

  7. Great article, couldn’t agree more. Reminds me of Einsteins definition of insanity and a quote from Cicero:

    “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Einstein

    “Any man can make mistakes, but only an idiot persists in his error.” Cicero.

  8. Religion is about change. Change is difficult. Religion is difficult.

    The devil’s road is an easy and those who follow it will end in a bad way. Our Lord was clear about this. So why does the Catholic Church not follow His direction, especially since Vatican II. I think the answer is simple. The Church no longer believes what Christ taught as a requirement for the attainment of eternal life. Perhaps it believes, or convinced itself, that Christ spoke of ideals which were only for the few.

    The Catholic Church since Vatican II has emphasized accommodation over the need for change. The Church has become a business. It has customers, not followers. As a business it tries to give it’s customers what they want, And what do the customers want? An easy road to heaven, a no hassle religion., consumer friendly, easy to use, a place to meet friends, people to tell them they are OK, etc.

    The problem with the religion as business idea is that it will not bring the change Christ requires, which is holiness, and the road to holiness is about conforming our will to the will of God which is difficult.

    What we have now in the Catholic Church is a religion that is becoming adulterated and fraudulent particularly now in the hands of Pope Francis. It is a religion whose goal appears to be effecting change in society not in the heart of Man. Who needs such nonsense when Liberal politics has a much more direct impact.

    Let us pray that the Catholic Church gets back to saving souls and telling it like it is, just like Jesus did.

  9. When seen from the perspective of “solving the problem of church attendance”, this argument regarding progressivism being detrimental to church attendance seems true and dire. However, when seen from the perspective of “saving individual souls”, this pastoral progressivism seems, to me, a joy and a true influx of the Holy Spirit.

    Preaching God’s love can never be considered too progressive. My takeaway from reading St. Faustina’s diary was just how very, desperately, breathlessly, Jesus wants souls. He THIRSTS for them. It is true that we are bound by the sacraments, but God is not. God- in my opinion, frequently- colors outside the lines. We cannot change His holy teachings, but we MUST minister to those outside in a way they will understand.

    Caution is warranted that others don’t take Pope Francis’ words and actions too far. But I think, properly understood, they are wonderful and not out of line with either Church teaching or that of his immediate predecessors.

    • St. Faustina also talked about souls going to Hell. There is mercy, however, we have to seek it through repentance. Proclaiming God’s love also requires stating the truth, especially these days when it comes so sexual morality. As Our Lady of Fatima stated, more souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh. Plus, St. Faustina stated, most of the souls in Hell did not even believe in Hell. We cannot not only talk about mercy & Heaven, while ignoring justice & Hell, as this is not truly loving the soul of a person.

  10. I would also add that joining any organization with rules strictly enforced requires humility and obedience. These are fundamental to Faith. While laxity and permissiveness may get more people in the door, that approach does not transmit the basis of our relationship to God.

    I would go further to say imagine turning loose a military expertly trained in every art of war with the exception of order and chain of command.

  11. “Every progressive diocese, religious order, and parish has gone into
    decline with falling membership. Why should we continue to employ the
    same approach?”

    WE don’t continue with it, many members of the hierarchy do. Why do they continue to employ the approach? Isn’t it obvious? they want to destroy the church, plain and simple.

    Get as many faithful people on the path to hell as possible, through
    abuse, disgust, despair and being starved for the sacraments.

    God have mercy.

  12. …(Pope) Francis wants a more welcoming brand of Catholicism, one that is capable of meeting individuals outside of the church where they are.

    Street preaching will resolve that nicely.

    Also apparent is his desire to loosen the requirements for full participation in the life of the Church.

    Anybody can attend Mass. Or be present during the exposition of the Sacrament and sit for a while with Jesus. What more “participation in the life of the Church” is there?

    • Come to think of it, those who are living in sin (principle targets of the new welcoming program) can’t go to confession either, unless they change their lives. All mortal sins must be confessed to receive absolution, and any intent not to stop committing those sins precludes absolution as well.

  13. The dilution of reverence in the Catholic Church is directly related to real, covert anti-Christian brainwashing and its accompanying rhetoric. You wouldn’t believe some of the things you see in San Francisco, the home of atheist/anti-Christian sentiment.

  14. Thank you for your blog and articles. I am only beginning to learn how Vatican II impacted the era I grew up in, my own faith, and that of my family members. I agree with Vatican II, that hearing the gospel in my own language (in a bible study with a Protestant church!), certainly impacted my understanding of my baptism. I wonder however, if the church I grew up in had not been so focused on modernism, if I ever would have questioned it in the first place. Praise God in His eternal forgiveness and mercy!

  15. Although I agree with all points presented here, still I am reminded that in Hosea, he loved his adulterous wife, so Christ loves His Church, how miserable she may appear at this time. Christ “IS” the founder of it and He will regain Her still
    Blessings to all


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...