The Church Isn’t Too Good at Introspection

While doing research for another post, I came across a slew of articles with a common theme: young people are leaving the Catholic church at a high rate, and the church’s apologists are trying to figure out how they can stem this tide.

They’re not wrong about this, either. A 1999 survey found that only 14% of Catholics born after 1960 say the church is “very important” in their lives, and a 2009 Gallup poll found that church-going among Catholics has declined dramatically since the 1950s. A 2011 survey found the same: “The attendance rate of the youngest generation of Catholics, known as Millennials, or those coming of age in the 21st century, is lowest of all generations surveyed.”

I give them points for being honest enough to recognize that there is a problem. But their ideas about how to deal with it are lacking a certain something. I’ll quote a few of the best so you can notice the pattern for yourself.

First, there’s Kathryn Jean Lopez in Crisis magazine, who says that the church needs more emphasis on confession:

Finally, there’s the problem of confession. “Youth have been lost because of suppression of the sacrament of reconciliation,” Rutler explains. “While confession has declined in large measure through sloth and neglect… the sacrament has been discouraged intentionally… and impeded by people who hate the priesthood and the doctrine of personal sin. So young people are deprived of the most radical conversion of their souls.”

This blog post from a self-identified young Catholic devotee, who thinks the church needs more Latin and more medieval pomp:

Something however was very familiar: no Latin during Ordinary time, nor during Advent, nor during Lent, no incense, no Laudate Dominum…

If one listens to the young Catholic voice, one would find we are yearning for beauty, for tradition and for truth. Traditional Catholicism honestly fascinates us! We go all week hearing perky pop-songs, jumping techno and chatter that doesn’t leave a minute of silence. We go to church and we get exposed to the same exact things. Thus, of course we find it boring!

Marcel LeJeune, a self-proclaimed “Catholic evangelist”, writes that the church has to try harder to evangelize, especially to younger children:

We need to evangelize more and more effectively. We can’t wait for others to go and get young people, we need to do it ourselves. This is the purpose of the Church – to make disciples of all nations.

…We need better Catholic parenting. Too often parents check their faith at the door. Formation of parents should be the focus of our parishes. Then they in turn can form their children.

…We need more dynamic young adult ministries. We need something more than a singles’ group or young married couples groups. These are fine, when done well, but we need amazingly attractive programs that think outside of the box.

In the National Catholic Register, Matthew Warner says that we need to encourage attendance at Mass:

We have to do two things much, much better. 1) We have to make going to Mass easier for young families in every way that we can. And 2) we have to teach all Catholics that Mass is worth it — no matter how hard it is.

And John Cusick, the director of young adult ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago, writes about his “Theology on Tap” program, which apparently entails “improv[ing] the quality of preaching, hospitality and music” and learning about that slang the young people are using:

A “new apologetics” for young adults will require parish ministry leaders to learn the language of young adults and use the media that they use, Father Cusick said.

There’s one causal factor, however, that goes virtually unmentioned in all these articles, even though the data suggests it’s the most important. As Pew’s 2009 Faith in Flux study found, over thirty million Americans are ex-Catholics, and of those: “Two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated… say they left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings”.

Some of the articles I’ve cited make sidelong references to people who quit Catholicism because they disagree with Vatican teachings about gay people, about women, about birth control, or other issues. But not one of them proposes changing any of the church’s teachings, even when surveys overwhelmingly indicate that this is young people’s biggest objection to Catholicism. It’s all about the trappings: more use of social media, more up-to-date music and language, more traditional music and language, more religious indoctrination for children, more effort poured into evangelism. And if that doesn’t work, they just double down on their insistence that Catholics have to go to services every week and to confess their sins more often.

Fortunately for us atheists, the church isn’t very good at introspection or self-correction. They have a gigantic institutional blind spot when it comes to the unpopularity of their own doctrines: it was their teachings that got them into this mess, and as they continue to bleed members, they respond by bearing down and insisting on those teachings even harder. This shows every sign of being a self-reinforcing cycle, and I can’t wait to see where it leads in the next few decades.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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