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

About Adam Lee

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

  • Rover Serton

    Excellent analysis. It is much like a parent saying “Oh, you don’t like carrots?, You’ll get carrots every meal until you like them!” When they understand it is the message, not the messenger, they will become enlightened.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    I don’t think the Catholic church can just change their teachings. They believe that they are absolutely correct on these and they won’t change them based on majority opinion. For them, this would be like suggesting that a biology teacher stop teaching evolution on the basis that most people don’t believe in evolution. (I realize my analogy is imperfect in that science is testable and verifiable while religion is not. But this is how the church would see it.)

    I’d say their best bet would be to either de-emphasize the unpopular teachings or find better ways to argue that they are true. The first they already do, to some extent: you never hear a homily on the evils of contraception even though the majority of those sitting in the pew use them. The second option, i think is near impossible with all the wacky things the church believes in. The church is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

  • Marcion

    I find the Catholic Church’s blindness facinatingly similar to the Republican Party’s inability to understand why they’re hemmorhaging support.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com Michael

    @Overlapping Magisteria: You’re right, and the doctrine of infallibility stops them from changing, which may have been it’s purpose. Once a Pope has declared something infallible (such as the ban on contraception) their successors can’t change that without contradiction. It would in essence be saying that a Pope, God’s representative on Earth, had been wrong-or worse, that God had been wrong. So it’s dicey to say the least-I don’t think they’ll be going the Mormon route any time soon, where God has now changed His mind a lot, as proclaimed through His representative whoever the current prophet and President of the Church is.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    This is slightly incidental to your point, but I always see the Church referring to X number of Catholics in this country, but I wonder how they calculate those numbers? Do they keep some running tab of births and deaths in Catholic parishes? Do they still consider those of us who haven’t stepped inside a church for purposes of worship (I still go to weddings and funerals) as Catholics? 30 million “ex-Catholics” is a big number, and tends to diminish the size of the church, especially if extrapolated across the globe.

    I was raised Catholic, but left when I became an adult, much to my parents chagrin. I have not been a Catholic since 1972. Does the Church still consider me one? They have no real procedure for resigning from a religion. Indeed, I don’t know of any other church that does. People move from religion to religion without any formal process of joining and quitting, so I’ll bet many people are counted more than once. Perhaps if you went around and added up all of the various and sundry churches’ proclaimed memberships in America, you’d find that the combined total exceeds that of the population, once you factor in all those who say they don’t belong to any church.

  • Eric D Red

    But downplaying certain teachings like contraception while still officially holding them won’t help. At least not in the long run. It just shows the hypocrisy, which is a serious problem for some. For me, the complete disconnect between the bible (by plain or alegorical reading) and the church doctrine, and actual practice, is a big reason I don’t believe or trust the Catholic church.

    Ignoring beliefs will alienate those that believe them and feel they are being ignored, and alienate those that think the doctrine is wrong.

  • ewok_wrangler

    They have very limited doctrinal wiggle-room. The church has always claimed that the meaning of the bible cannot be properly understood by simply reading its literal sense, but only by using the techniques of exegesis, using the rules of hermeneutics (eyes glaze). So it would be possible to extract a more modern “meaning” from some texts without completely contradicting prior teachings. But no amount of exegesis could ever sanction birth control, abortion, the need for the confessional, all-male priesthood, the idea of hell, etc. And any change perceived as loosening doctrine would risk creating schisms like the one that already exists between “modern” and “traditionalist” catholics, the latter resenting the loss of the latin mass. So the church is not like a modern corporation that could “rebrand” or “reposition” itself to match demographic shifts.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.co.uk/ Steve Bowen

    A Catholic spokesperson on the BBC’s “The Big Question” last Sunday said on UK national television that if people didn’t like the Church’s doctrines they shouldn’t join. I guess the message is already out…

  • Jack

    “Two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated… say they left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings”.

    I’m surprised that so few Catholic apostates cite the clergy sexual abuse scandal as a factor in their leaving (< 30% in the Pew study). This is one problem where a change in doctrine could make a stunning difference. If the doctrine of the celibate male priesthood were simply inverted, such that only married women were allowed to be priests, I predict the problem of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests would nearly or completely vanish. The idea is easy to implement and easy to test empirically. But is it easy for the entrenched male power structure to swallow? We already know the answer to that .

  • http://winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

    I have engaged a number of liberal Protestants on these same issues and it is not much different. Some have successfully updated services and attracted youth, but within half a generation, those new ideas just become old again. The generation that is having babies now has a lot of “nones” and I don’t think they will be sending their kids to Sunday School “just in case” like previous generations did or going “just for the community”.

  • Bob Jase

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

    Right, the lack of speaking in tongues is what is hurting the RCC. Because everyone knows Jesus spoke Latin, that’s why the oldest NT books are in Greek.

  • MNb

    “I give them points for being honest enough”
    I don’t. For one thing this has been known, at least in The Netherlands, for decades. My home country has received the status of missionary field (or whatever it’s called). For another thing no single organization on the long run can deny the hard fact of shrinking on the long run.
    All the proposals for remedy you mention are old news for me. They didn’t work in The Netherlands and there is no reason they will work elsewhere.
    Some numbers: catholic political party KVP got 75 – 80% of the votes in the Dutch provinces Noord-Brabant and Limburg until 1970. It’s successor, CDA, which includes protestants, got less than 10% in both provinces in 2012.

  • Jimmy

    Should the Catholic Church change their doctrine based on the opinions of the majority? That assumes the majority to be right which is not true in all cases

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    If the doctrine of the celibate male priesthood were simply inverted, such that only married women were allowed to be priests, I predict the problem of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests would nearly or completely vanish.

    Jack, one could dispute that by pointing to the number of cases where female school teachers had sex with their male students.

    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.

    Adam, as a fan of history, one constant that I have noticed is that some institutions that require radical reform in order to avoid sliding into further decline are often unable to do so because the needed reforms threaten many who have a vital stake in maintaining the status quo. An example I like to use is the Qing dynasty of China in the late 19th century. A number of government officials saw how backward China had become and saw the need for radical reform, but they were constantly undermined by other officials or members of the ruling dynasty who saw the reforms as threatening their privileged position. So even as the dynasty was circling the drain, they doubled down and refused to change until the end came and they lost their power and privilege anyway.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    With regard to the Catholic Church itself in the United States, it still has enough of a dedicated corps of believers that it is not in danger of vanishing, though it will likely continue in a state of slow decline. The question is, will there arise in the US a Martin Luther type figure in the church who will set the stage for the division of the church into two, with a Rome oriented church and an American oriented church that is willing to allow women priests, married priests and so forth?

  • icecreamassassin

    I admit that the one thing I always wish the Catholic Church (and other religious institutions) would do in response to “our group is shrinking” is to ask themselves if what they’re claiming about reality is, you know, *correct*.

    While I don’t think it applies to many of the younger Catholics leaving the church, for someone like myself at least, I left the church for the same reason that someone would have abandoned geocentrism: the teachings of the institution simply DO NOT CORRESPOND TO REALITY.

  • Lagerbaer

    So what is it? More Latin or more youth language? I hope they’ll go for the latter one, just for shits and giggles. “And Jesus said to his homies: Foes before hoes”.

  • Azkyroth

    With regard to the Catholic Church itself in the United States, it still has enough of a dedicated corps of believers that it is not in danger of vanishing, though it will likely continue in a state of slow decline.

    If they keep this up, though, they’ll be left with a dedicated corpse of believers in a few decades.

  • Azkyroth

    Should the Catholic Church change their doctrine based on the opinions of the majority? That assumes the majority to be right which is not true in all cases

    Are you seriously strawmanning this as us only proposing these doctrinal changes because they’re the majority? And if so, is it stupidity or dishonesty talking?

  • Leum

    @Overlapping Magisteria: You’re right, and the doctrine of infallibility stops them from changing, which may have been it’s purpose. Once a Pope has declared something infallible (such as the ban on contraception) their successors can’t change that without contradiction. It would in essence be saying that a Pope, God’s representative on Earth, had been wrong-or worse, that God had been wrong. So it’s dicey to say the least-I don’t think they’ll be going the Mormon route any time soon, where God has now changed His mind a lot, as proclaimed through His representative whoever the current prophet and President of the Church is.

    The papacy has only invoked infallibility twice since Vatican I declared it could do so. Both times it was for obscure Marian doctrines that no one outside the Church cares about.

  • Dianne Leonard

    I began the process of leaving the Catholic Church at age 9, when I realized that, at confession (every week) I was lying to the priest about my “sins” (which didn’t exist.) When I asked my mom about this problem, she said, “Don’t worry about that. Everybody does it.” I was forced into religious observances (mass, catechism) til I left home to go away to college, but have not been to church since 1970, except to go to my mom’s funeral–nor do I intend to. The church is lying to people, just as they expect people to lie to be members. About membership–yes, they do count you, as long as you’ve been baptized. I’ve tried to get excommunicated and it’s impossible. So when the church says they have x number of adherents, you have to subtract those who have left. They’re just padding their numbers. I’ve read that 10% of adults in the U.S. are ex-catholics, which makes us the fourth largest “religious” group in the country, right after “nones.” Another thing: catholics would be a much smaller denomination today, due to people leaving, had it not been for massive catholic immigration from Latin America.

  • Rieux

    Azkyroth responded well to this, but to take it a little more head-on:

    Should the Catholic Church change their doctrine based on the opinions of the majority?

    No. The Catholic Church should change its doctrine because a huge proportion of that doctrine is (1) factually false, (2) irrational, and/or (3) morally reprobate.

    Given the slight possibility that the Church hierarchy doesn’t find that position persuasive, the Catholic Church might wish to change its doctrine on the grounds of self-preservation, given that (as Adam documented) that doctrine is causing people to leave the Church in droves. I think there’s actually something sort of admirable about an institution that’s committed enough to its own principles (even though, alas, they’re false/irrational/reprobate principles) to choose extinction over compromise, but to the extent that the Church is concerned with continuing to exist, catching up with the scientific and moral progress that the modern world enjoys would clearly be an advisable strategy.

    That assumes the majority to be right which is not true in all cases[.]

    Good thing that no one here (certainly not the blogger) is “assum[ing]” anything of the kind. Shocking as this may be to you, we atheists (of all people!) are not, as a group, terribly prone to presupposing that the majority of people are self-evidently correct about just about anything.

  • Azkyroth

    The papacy has only invoked infallibility twice since Vatican I declared it could do so.

    Seems to be news to the hierarchy.

  • Azkyroth

    PS: I only started noticing this tack of attempting to defend/rehabilitate/whatever infallibility doctrine and/or the church by protesting that “infallibility” is actually only supposed to apply once a certain critical mass of Simon Says is achieved and the rest of the pronouncements the church demands Catholics assent to and live by without question aren’t “really” supposed to be infallible, just…infallible. Is this a new thing? And is it something apologists only present to their critics, or does it occasionally bleed over into church/flock relations?

  • Azkyroth

    (Err, “only recently noticed”)

  • Adam Lee

    @Marcion:

    I find the Catholic Church’s blindness facinatingly similar to the Republican Party’s inability to understand why they’re hemmorhaging support.

    Yes! Well said. We need to coin a name for this phenomenon; I suggest “ideological death spiral”.

    @Tommykey:

    Adam, as a fan of history, one constant that I have noticed is that some institutions that require radical reform in order to avoid sliding into further decline are often unable to do so because the needed reforms threaten many who have a vital stake in maintaining the status quo.

    I think Jared Diamond wrote about a similar phenomenon in his book Collapse, which I’ll have to reread.

    @Leum:

    The papacy has only invoked infallibility twice since Vatican I declared it could do so. Both times it was for obscure Marian doctrines that no one outside the Church cares about.

    Technically true, but infallible doctrine can be created in other ways, as in my post on the ordinary and universal magisterium.

  • Paul Sanders

    The Mormon church is in the same boat to a certain degree, though they’re a much smaller population. There are no definite studies, but I’ve read educated estimates of as much as 40% of their young people are out the door. For such a small faith, that’s a huge problem, and there are no immigrants from Latin America to bolster their numbers.

    To an extent, all churches are bad at introspection in this fashion. The LDS church is trying some new PR on gays, but they aren’t changing their doctrine. Likewise, the Christian churches here are holding concerts and getting youth pastors tattoos. But when it comes down to it, their teachings are the same old backward junk, and it’s totally obvious to everyone else that they’re posing. Is there something about religion that makes people just not “get it”?

  • lambchopsuey

    The Republican party likewise did a double-down on its most unpopular positions after losing the 2012 presidential election – “We only lost because we weren’t conservative ENOUGH!” It should come as no surprise that most Republicans are also Christians…


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