John Kenneth WhiteBy John Kenneth White

Two questions present themselves: (1) does the Roman Catholic Church have a future, and (2), if so, what kind?

Asking the first question of a 2,000-year-old institution suggests a church immersed in crisis. The pedophilia scandal that has rocked the U.S. church for the past decade shows no sign of ending, and has spread to Europe where prelates in Ireland, Germany, Belgium, and elsewhere are confronted with admissions -- from religious officials and victims alike -- that have outraged congregants. According to a 2008 poll, 73 percent of U.S. Catholics disapprove of how their church leaders handled the abuse cases, with 58 percent saying they "strongly disapproved." Adding to the problem is the diminished numbers of adherents. Today, 10 percent of Americans describe themselves as being former Catholics -- this at a time when enhanced Catholic migration to the U.S. should have enlarged the numbers. Another troubling sign is a loss of clergy, falling from 58,132 in 1965 to just 45,713 in 2002.

This is quite different from the mid-20th century. During the 1950s, 83 percent of U.S. Catholics said their religion was a "very important" part of their daily lives, and 75 percent attended Mass every week. Today, only 40 percent of Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday, while the number of young Catholic churchgoers has shrunk to one-in-five. Even among religiously active Catholics, once-familiar church practices have fallen by the wayside: 61 percent never pray with a rosary, 76 percent never engage in a novena (nine consecutive evenings of prayer), 44 percent never participate in the Stations of the Cross, 53 percent never attend Benediction, and 57 percent say they either "never" or "almost never" go to confession. These data have prompted Pope Benedict XVI to state that U.S. Catholics are "losing the notion of sin." Polling lends support to the privatization of belief: 86 percent of U.S. Catholics say it is possible to disagree with the pope on articles of faith and still be a "good Catholic."

Today, Orthodox Catholics long for a bygone era when church teachings were unquestioningly accepted, while a growing number of Cafeteria Catholics pick and choose which doctrines they will (or will not) accept. In this environment, church leaders must either use the bully pulpit of their altars to make their arguments, or risk facing more empty pews. Yet the rise of the Cafeteria Catholics does not mean that all Catholic teachings are rejected. According to a 2008 survey, for instance, 73 percent of Catholics believe abortion is a sin. Nonetheless, the unwillingness of many Catholics to condemn most behaviors as sinful illustrates their desire to have their morality-writ-small. The resulting conflict marks an emerging distinction between what political scientist and sociologist Alan Wolfe describes as a "nurturing" Christianity (which emphasizes individual needs) and an "authoritative" Christianity (which stresses the eternal truths).

The rise of so-called "small faith communities" within the Catholic Church is one example of how this beleaguered institution is coping with a changing environment. These communities consist of a dozen or so members from a local church who meet to discuss the Sunday Bible readings and describe how they inform their daily lives.  This dialogue among the laity in a non-judgmental setting has proved popular among many U.S. Catholics, and has been embraced by parishes and dioceses as a means of coping with diminished numbers. According to one study, there are 37,000 small faith communities in the U.S., while others suggest the number could be as high as 50,000.