An Honest Look at Catholicism’s Decline

An Honest Look at Catholicism’s Decline January 26, 2015


I came across an essay by Peter Daly, a Catholic priest, that I wanted to address: “An attempt to answer the question: Where are the young adults?” It’s notable for being the frankest admission I’ve seen from a Catholic of the demographic crisis the church is facing, as well as a bracingly honest study of the causes.

Daly begins with a statement of the problem:

Everywhere from Boston to Minneapolis, Catholic churches have closed or been consolidated into regional clusters. The chief reason is declining Mass attendance.

In New York, Mass attendance has fallen to European levels, around 15 percent on an average Sunday, according to The New York Times. In Boston, it is even lower, around 12 percent.

Nationwide, only 24 percent of Catholics go to Mass on an average Sunday, down from 55 percent in 1965.

Daly writes that his own parish in Maryland isn’t exempt from this problem. The elderly regularly attend Mass, but young adults have mostly stopped showing up, replicating a pattern that’s seen around the nation. He wanted to know why, so he sent letters to 500 young people who’d gone through confirmation but then stopped attending church, inviting them to come and explain their reasons. About 40 did. To his credit, he sat in silence and listened to what they had to say, then reported on the reasons they gave.

Obviously, there’s no way to tell the motivations of the more than 90 percent who didn’t respond to the invitation. But for those who did show up, there was a consistent theme. It wasn’t simple laziness, or boredom, or having better things to do. A handful cited lack of time, but the vast majority had made a deliberate choice to sever ties with the church because they sharply disagreed with its teachings:

The No. 1 issue by far, which came up over and over again, was the Catholic church’s treatment of lesbians and gays. Everyone, conservative or liberal, disagreed with the church on that.

One young lady wrote me a note, saying, “Being gay is NOT a choice. Many of my friends are gay. I want to bring my gay friends to church – but they do not feel accepted.”

One young man, a lawyer, said the Catholic church is the “most sexist and homophobic institution of significance in our culture.” He noted that there is no discussion of issues like women’s ordination in the church. It is just not to be discussed. He felt the church just dismissed women’s opinions.

…A young mother in her 30s with four children was upset about birth control. She spoke of moving back to our community after a decade of living elsewhere. Her first Sunday back, she was confronted by a woman about natural family planning. She was told she was not in a state of grace because she was using birth control. She felt the church’s teaching on birth control was unrealistic.

Many Catholic apologists insist that it’s just distorted views or lack of true understanding that keeps people away from Catholicism, and that if they could really learn all the church’s rules and see how beautiful they are, they’d be eager to follow them. But Daly’s experience convinced him this was the opposite of the truth:

I used to think that better catechesis was the problem. But they did not feel that they had not been taught the faith. We have a pretty thorough religious education program. They felt they knew “the stuff.” It did not seem that pounding the catechism harder would have made them more sympathetic to the faith. Some, like the young lawyer, clearly knew what the Catholic church said in great detail. They just disagreed.

Daly deserves credit for his honesty in compiling this. He made a real effort to listen to ex-Catholics and to take their concerns seriously, as opposed to the Catholic apologists who bend over backwards to avoid addressing why young people are leaving the church and just insist that Catholics have to try harder to evangelize.

Liberal Catholics who’ve long pressed for change will doubtless be encouraged to hear all this. But for traditionalists and conservatives, these findings present a serious challenge. The problem isn’t some surface detail that can easily be changed, but the rules and dogmas that, in their view, make the Catholic church what it is. When your teachings are driving people away and putting the future existence of the church in doubt, yet those same teachings specify that no article of faith can ever be changed, you’ve created a dilemma for yourself that has no solution.

For example, here’s a take from my Patheos colleague Calah Alexander on the Catholic channel:

God only knows how it hit Fr. Daly, but I sense that writing about it must have taken quite a lot of fortitude. Even worse, though, was the overwhelming response from those who did attend. It basically boils down to, “as soon as the Church stops being the Church, I’ll come back to church.”

And therein lies the problem when you try to listen to the masses, so as to give them what they want — or even what they think they need.

…In the end, the truth is that there’s only so much we can do to bring young adults back to the Church. The Church has always, in every age, stood in contradiction to the culture. It cannot do anything else.

Alexander bites the bullet and concludes that the church has to preserve its teachings, no matter the cost. She expresses a hope that eventually the culture will “crash” (I’m not sure exactly what that would entail) and young people will come back to Catholicism, but I’d say this is wishful thinking at best. Human history isn’t a unidirectional trend of progress, but it seems extremely improbable that the last few decades’ expansion of rights for women and LGBT people will ever be reversed. On the contrary, it’s far more likely that the trend of increasing equality for women and greater tolerance of sexual diversity will continue; and the few religions which refuse to move with the times will only stand out more and make themselves look even worse with their obstinacy. And that means their slow, inexorable dwindling will continue as well.

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