Georgetown: Conversions Down

We’re not hitting our numbers.

That’s the gist of the latest report from Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Numbers of non-infant entries into the Catholic Church have nosedived from a high of 172,581 in 2000 to 111,918 in 2010.

Interestingly, there’s no obvious correlation between the decline and the clerical sex abuse scandal. The year 2002, when the Boston Globe first reported on abusive priests and indulgent superiors, actually saw a slight increase over the previous year. The big dip — from 150,007 in 2005 to 111,918 in 2007 — occurred long after the scandal had become common knowledge.

Naturally, this raises the question of what we’re doing wrong, or more helpfully, what could we be doing better. Speaking as a recent convert with a sales and marketing background, I feel as though I ought to come up with an answer, but I’ve got nothing. The problem is, CARA doesn’t tell us who these non-infant entrants are, where they came from, or what motivated them. The absence of that data works like an invitation for everyone to ride his favorite hobby horse — “People want a Latin Mass!” “No, idiot, they want the bishops to take a stronger antiwar stance!” Et cetera, et cetera.

What I can do is offer a few observations from the two RCIA classes I was involved in — the first as a candidate, the second as a sponsor. A few caveats are in order, though. First, the parish where these classes were conducted has an historic connection to a university. (The church and offices stand right across the street from campus.) For that reason, most of the converts came from the middle and upper-middle classes. Most were either students or alumni; many were studying for higher degrees. In the class where I served as a sponsor, there was one African American girl who came from a lower-income background and had no connection to the university. Nobody had any idea how she’d gotten there, but we all doted on her.

With that in mind, here goes nothing:

Many People Enter the Church for Non-Ideological Reasons

All told, I can think of two people — out of, perhaps, 30 — who entered the Church because they had convinced themselves intellectually of her eternal truths. One came from a very strict fundamentalist family and could recite Scripture like a shopping list. Another had grew up Episcopalian, and was working for some social-services agency. Both had read and studied their way across the Tiber, and could ably explain and defend all the positions that distinguished the Catholic Church from their native faith traditions. (The Baptist could, in fact, talk the hind legs off a dray mule.)

The Hook’s in Hymen’s Altar…

I may well be selling the ideologues short a few people. Nevertheless, I maintain they formed a minority. Many more people, it seemed, were planning to marry a Catholic. Interestingly, most of these people were women. What that means I don’t know — do Catholic men (or their parents) make greater demands in the way of conformity than Catholic women (or their parents)? Or are non-Catholic men simply better at resisting calls to conversion?

Not every Catholic husband-to-be was equally supportive of his intended’s conversion. One classmate reported that her fiance, a severely lapsed Catholic from Ireland, had gasped, “Jaysus! What t’ feck d’ye want to do t’at for?” upon learning of her candidacy. I heard she did get him to attend Mass, at least a few times, though whether and where his mind might have wandered during the liturgy I can’t guess.

…And in the Reaper’s Scythe…

Probably the most poignant story was that of a family of three — a woman, her daughter and her boyfriend — who entered the Church over two consecutive Easters. The woman, suffering from a serious pulmonary disorder, took much of her oxygen through a tube, and was not expected to live much longer. She wanted to die a Catholic, and with some help from a priest who’d been a close friend, persuaded her boyfriend and daughter to convert along with her. From what I understand, the boyfriend’s son later joined the RCIA program.

…And in Brick Walls and Moments of Grace…

Now we come to me. I decided to become Catholic when I realized I’d never be rich — or, more exactly, when I realized I’d spend my life micromanaged in some corporate cube farm or other. My reward for such constriction of body and spirit would amount to Getting By…barely. Compared to the sacrifice, the reward seemed awfully scanty. To resort to a cliché, I wanted something more.

What made me seek that something in the Church was a strange combination of events. First, I found a collection of fun, laid-back Catholic friends online — this after I’d cut ties with my grad school friends, who had all gone on to much better things, and when my work mates were too tormented, or too tormenting, to make tolerable company. Second, I lost my job. Third, I got mugged. It was with a sense that all my bridges had been burned for me that, following an inexplicable impulse, I found my way to Mass one Sunday morning.

In some respects, Chip, the candidate I sponsored, had a similar story. After an unhealthy relationship had ended in fireworks, he’d woken up to find a rosary on his doorstep. With no idea who had left it there, he took it as a sign. Since then, I’ve learned that Catholics from certain organizations make a practice of leaving rosaries on strangers’ doorsteps in the hope of triggering just such conversions. Point to them.

Based on those scraps of data, it’s impossible to tease out all the implications for the development of an effective evangelization strategy. But I can see two:

1. Don’t keep kids in an airtight Catholic bubble. Let ‘em mingle. If your son, or somewhat less commonly, your daughter, comes home with a non-Catholic, the Church stands more to gain than to lose. If your kids are attending Ave Maria University, let ‘em visit Daytona Beach for Spring Break.

2. Offer hope and meaning. Pope Benedict has popularized the notion of affirmative orthodoy, which is fine. However, bear in mind that most people are not ideologues; for them, orthodoxy is neither here nor there. What they will recognize is a generally affirmative tone.

That last point should raise some objections. Many believe that a conversion is worth nothing unless the convert in question evolves into a cross between Polycarp and Bill Donahue — a tireless defender of the Church, her hierarchy and her teachings against all challengers, particularly when the teachings relate to sex. Though I won’t dispute that notion, I can’t believe, as many people seem to, that proper catechesis will serve as an assembly line for such creatures. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but he may prefer ginger ale.

  • Catherine E.

    Thanks for this. I recently left a Catholic bubble where I’d studied and worked for almost a decade. Now I’m at a public school among fallen-away and anti-Catholics, and am dating a non-practicing Catholic. It strikes me continually that it is impossible to argue or convince anyone into anything. The only answer seems to be, first, for me to be as kind and reasonable and competent as I can at this human thing that we’re all doing together. If someone’s humanity is attractive, others might be interested to find out what else that person finds true and beautiful and good. And then, second, to pray a lot that God would act. I think you are right about people being hungry for hope and meaning. We don’t know what people will find hopeful or meaningful though, so we can only try to be kind and again, reasonable. God has to do the work on the person’s perception and imagination. Thanks again.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ray.dubuque Ray Dubuque

    Where in the world is the church the most successful in winning converts? And where in the world is the church the LEAST successful in winning converts?
    It’s no accident that the countries with the highest intellectual development are countries where Catholicism is on the way OUT! As much as we Americans would like believe in “American exceptionalism”, the inabilidty of so many Americans to accept evolution only proves how many Americans that evolution has left behind.
    As Americans wise up, mark my words, they too will join the ranks of those who know the truth about the Roman Catholic church that I expose at http://JesusWouldBeFurious.Org/.
    P.S. Catholic web sites and blogs are so cowardly, and so conscious of how indefensible their church is that they often ban comments like mine, so that the weak minds of their fellow Catholics won’t be exposed to any without the R.C. “imprimatur”.
    This practice is so widespread that I have been documenting it and publishing it at http://jesuswouldbefurious.org/fearoflight.html .

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    Good blog Max. I’m wondering of the numbers are down because the pool of possible converts has shrunk. It seems like there are less religious out there, and so less looking for any faith.

  • Brian A Cook

    Sadly, Ray Dubuque brings up very serious allegations.

  • David Werling

    You know, its funny, but you keep referring to people who take their religion seriously as “ideologues”. Do you realize that you are doing this?

    Really, if all you want out of religion is “a generally affirmative tone” then any self-help book will do. Why Catholicism? If you take it seriously you will find just as much un-affirming content (you know? all that “sin no more” stuff), as you will find affirming content. It seems to me that you just want to be affirmed, but in a sort of new-agey kind of way that ignores the trials and tribulations that the saints had to endure, not to mention that whole “take up your cross” thing that Somebody didn’t just suggest, but commanded as necessary.

    I do think you are wimpy, though, so the name of the blog is great.

  • Anonymous

    Noitice? Jeepers, no. WWhen I sit down to write, I choose my words at random. For example: you’re a douchebag.

  • JKok

    Hi, Max,

    On August 28 I linked to your blog with reference to this post in two blog posts of my own:

    http://janettekok.blogspot.com/2011/08/conversion.html
    http://janettekok.blogspot.com/2011/08/and-another-thing.html

    I was going to let you know at that time, but I was having trouble with the patheos comments. I realize in retrospect that maybe I should have linked specifically to this post rather than the front page of the blog. Probably won’t matter much, as I have a readership of about 26, I think. Anyway, in case you wanted to see where a post of yours took someone else’s thoughts.

    I really enjoy your blog, especially your clever wordplays. Keep up the good work, and blessings on your sobriety.

  • JKok

    Hi, Max,

    On August 28 I linked to your blog with reference to this post in two blog posts of my own:

    http://janettekok.blogspot.com/2011/08/conversion.html
    http://janettekok.blogspot.com/2011/08/and-another-thing.html

    I was going to let you know at that time, but I was having trouble with the patheos comments. I realize in retrospect that maybe I should have linked specifically to this post rather than the front page of the blog. Probably won’t matter much, as I have a readership of about 26, I think. Anyway, in case you wanted to see where a post of yours took someone else’s thoughts.

    I really enjoy your blog, especially your clever wordplays. Keep up the good work, and blessings on your sobriety.


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