I know that in the last week or two I’ve very sarcastically pointed out several Christians who totally knew What the Big Problem With Christianity Is and How to Fix Its Precipitous Decline, but who were wrong on all counts. But this time, this time, a Christian leader is totally sure he knows exactly how to reverse his religion’s stunning drop in membership. Oh yes! You see, Bishop Robert Barron gave a speech on this very topic to a bunch of other Catholic leaders in Orlando, Florida the other day. I’ll pick apart his speech today, and then show you–for good measure, since I’m helpful that way–why his tribe is actually having trouble recruiting and retaining members.
The Disaster Facing Catholicism.
Catholics have more cause to panic over Christianity’s losses than any other denomination does, that’s for sure. They are, after all, declining more quickly and more completely than any other single denomination, according to every survey ever (especially the Religious Landscape Study). A combination of factors are coming together to create a cultural environment that is very hostile to the misogynistic environment Catholic leaders favor–and even more hostile to the third-world-theocratic-hellhole-nightmare environment that seems to lend itself best to Catholic growth.
Young people, particularly, tend to leave Catholicism the second they’re able to do so; the Pew Forum discovered not only a huge drop in the percentage of American Christians who are Catholic corresponding to age, but also found drastically more “switching” (leaving one Christian group for another, or leaving Christianity entirely) from Catholicism than from any other branch of the religion. Somehow, despite 1/3 of Americans getting raised as Catholics, a full 41% according to Pew Forum’s landmark study don’t identify as Catholics anymore.
So retention is obviously a problem with Catholicism. But so is recruiting. The same study discovered that only 2% of Christians had converted into it from some other religion.
These losses are bringing about a crisis in Catholic dioceses all over the nation, with closures and reorganization attempts and consolidation bringing constant chaos to the lives of everyday Catholics. Of course, even if they had their full complement of churches still open and active, they’d be struggling to find priests to administer them all. The number of priests has fallen some 20,000 since 1965 (which is nearly half!), with even more dramatic drops in the number of nuns and religious brothers (which are like monks and chaplains).
Of the few remaining Catholics in America, less than a quarter go to their Sunday services (called Mass), and of those, almost none are between the ages of 18-40.
The reasons ex-Catholics give, when they can be persuaded to attend pointless “listening sessions,” sound very familiar to Protestant ex-Christians: they could no longer bear their Mother Church’s bigotry and sexism. They became too busy with demands on their lives that they viewed as far more relevant than anything they were getting out of Mass. They were concerned about the inaccuracies in the Bible and the glaring errors in Christian mythology generally. And yes, there’s that whole pedophilia scandal going on that’s got them second-thinking their participation in Catholicism.
Really, if it weren’t for people coming into the United States from Catholic-controlled countries, Catholicism would likely be dead in the water completely. And its leaders are well aware of their looming membership catastrophe. It’s not hard to look across the pond to places like Ireland and Italy to see a formerly-dominant denomination toppled by its own hubris and overreach–so even its current strongholds, like Brazil, may not be that way forever.
One thing we can count on TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to do, when faced with an absolute crisis moment, is react in the worst way possible, the most inane way conceivable, and the most counterproductive way imaginable.
So how well does the Catholic Church do compared to their Protestant peers in facing the same crisis facing them all?
The answer: About as well as you’d guess.
A Land Where Dreams Come True.
The speech we’re looking at today was reported to us by Catholic News Agency. It was given on the Fourth of July in Orlando by Bishop Robert Barron to a crowd of fellow Catholic leaders and officials, at some kind of big convention they were having (because where else makes sense to have a religious convention than the location of Disneyworld?). The lecture was called “Equipping Evangelizers,” and it was about how Catholics could engage with those who’ve left their religion–or do not affiliate with any religion at all.
Robert Barron is the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a post he’s only held for about two years. Before that, he was the Professor of Faith and Culture at a Catholic university. If you’ve heard of “Word on Fire Catholic Ministries,” the broadcast/podcast series, that was his brainchild. He’s done a lot of lectures internationally and it sounds from the Wiki writeup that he’s well-regarded as “one of the Church’s best messengers.” He’s considered very good at talking to young people in particular as well as to non-Christians and ex-Christians.
Really! This guy is about the best the Catholic Church has to offer when it comes to recruiting new and retaining existing Catholics. His career has been a constant attempt to paint himself as a Catholic who can talk to anybody and sell the religion.
We’ll see about that.
A String of False Assertions.
I find myself on alert from the very beginning of the writeup of Mr. Barron’s lecture. He was trying to get everyone gung ho about combating the rising wave of Nones. He did it with the standard listicle of problems-and-matching-solutions that we’ve seen before out of Christian leaders (since nothing but nothing can so readily and easily encapsulate messy humanity like bullet points can), where he first tries to strawman his way to three problems he sees facing his religion and then offers up three solutions he thinks will absolutely answer those problems.
He begins with the bizarre, WTF assertion that “the great saints of our church always loved a good fight, and we should too.”
Is he sure of that?
Because I’ve never seen a more risk-averse group of people, ever, in my life, than Catholics. Their leaders’ efforts have always been very calculated–one might even reach for the term insectile to describe their very methodical way of addressing current and potential problems. If I could say anything about the history of the Catholic Church, it’d be that they hated losing, so they made absolutely sure they’d win any time they went forth. They were all about nailing down possible loose threads, ensuring that nothing (or nobody) whatsoever that might be troublesome saw the light of day, and that all possible kinds of pushback or criticism were safely contained.
Hell, the whole reason that Rome is so gorgeous, artistically and architecturally, is that the early Renaissance Popes didn’t want anybody to visit and think that Catholicism was sub-par. Sending all their excess money to charity might well have been a better fulfillment of Jesus’ order to care for the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned, but it wasn’t near as fun to do that.
So I’m not at all sure that Mr. Barron’s assertion that his history is full of leaders who loved a good fight is anything but self-serving revisionism.
I do not have very good hopes for the rest of his lecture.
The First Challenge: Reality.
Of course, any religion’s salesperson must first overcome the major objection of Um, well, what you’re saying isn’t actually true. And Catholicism, though it technically is okay with science, faces the same pushback about its inevitable supernatural claims that their more wild-eyed cousins must endure.
The moment a religious salesperson tries to make the case that reality isn’t everything, that person has already lost the sale with almost all potential customers–for a reason. Religious people are used to parroting that tired idea, but most of the rest of us know that if someone isn’t constrained by reality, they can literally make up whatever they want to sell their ideas. There has to be that tether of reality: there has to be a way to test an assertion. And the fact that Christians routinely slam the Scientific Method, which is the best and one might add the only consistent method humans have ever found to get at the truth of our universe and ourselves, tells us everything we need to know about them.
“Scientism,” which Mr. Barron uses to denigrate the scientific method and the observation-based reality it reveals to humankind, is very much on par with fundagelicals’ dogwhistle term “evolutionist.” I’ll leave it to others to dissect the weird little two-step he does around “proving” that “scientism as a philosophy is self-refuting” and itself “not discoverable through the scientific method,” because that sounds like twaddle meant to confuse and lose listeners and distract customers from the fact that Catholicism, just like every other form of every other religion in the entire world, has no evidence backing up its supernatural claims.
He ends by threatening that people who care about reality and refuse to entertain his supernatural claims “do damage to the human heart. . . [and] to the human spirit.” That’s a [CITATION NEEDED] if we ever needed one, but he doesn’t provide it; this may be one of those many times that a Christian asserts harm where there is no harm done, or insists that the presence of harm looks exactly like the absence of it. It’s not worth taking seriously if he can’t demonstrate exactly how our hearts and spirits are harmed (much less what he means by those words). Apparently our hearts and spirits are harmed by rejecting his overtures–even though we don’t feel that harm is taking place, and apparently the only demonstrable difference between harm and no-harm is in whether or not we accept his sales pitch.
Yes, I would definitely say that reality is a big challenge for Mr. Barron–just not in the way he imagines.
When you hear any salesperson assert that reality doesn’t matter when it comes to evaluating their claims, run far away. Beware of salespeople who concede that reality is not on good terms with their product.
The Second Challenge: Irrelevance.
Second, any religion’s salesperson must content with the simple fact that their product is completely irrelevant to modern existence–superfluous if not downright detrimental to the living of a good and happy and productive life.
The amount of time that people spend on church each week, even attending the bare-minimum number of services and functions that their leaders have set for adherents, is not inconsiderable–and it’s time that those adherents will never get back. The money they donate to their churches’
Pedophile Protection Fund maintenance is money that they are literally throwing down a well, never to be regained, and money they can’t use to further their own futures through education, acquisition of needed resources, or moving up their own property ladders. For the really fervent, the time spent in trying to recruit new members or argue with dissenters is time they aren’t using to improve themselves in tangible ways. The emotional wear and tear can hardly even be counted–the terrible personal decisions made because the adherent thinks a god wants that move taken, the huge life changes undertaken to please a nonexistent god, the stress produced when the religion’s leaders make terrible demands, it all takes resources away from adherents.
And what exactly are those adherents getting out of belonging to a religion and paying those prices?
That’s a question that we see answered in the drastic drops in church membership. Whatever those folks think they’re getting, it’s very clearly not enough to hold them there. It’s very clear that what church membership gave people was safety from the coercion those religious groups used to be able to exert upon them. Now that those groups have far less power to force compliance and punish dissent, they’re seeing the results.
Typically the response of Christian leaders has been to rail about the “selfishness” and “shallowness” of adherents who leave when they sense that their groups don’t offer enough benefits to remain there. Mr. Barron very much seems to take that tack himself.
Until Christians can figure out something tangible and visible to offer adherents that they can’t get elsewhere for far less, they are not going to gain members or keep the ones they have.
When you hear any salesperson try to tell you that their product has some kind of grand relevance even though that relevance is indistinguishable from irrelevance, run far away.
The Third Challenge: Overreach.
One can only imagine the sheer hatred boiling in Christian leaders’ hearts for a population that does not respond to their brand of overreach. This is the third challenge facing Christian leaders like Robert Barron: how to reinsert themselves into people’s lives and become an unquestioned authority source again to people who have learned the value of self-ownership?
American Catholics are very complacent and easy-going compared to their leaders. They are famous for simply ignoring dictates that they don’t agree with or like. Really, American Catholicism is famous for that above all else. It drives Catholic leaders up the ever-lovin’ wall, but there isn’t a way for them to force adherents to follow their rules in most cases. Their leaders’ ability to force Catholic-style pre-marriage counseling on couples who wish to use their churches for weddings is one well-known example of that ability to coerce, and it’s one of the few remaining!*
Because of their own attitude toward what their leaders demand, these adherents don’t generally even seem to recognize the life-or-death power that those leaders have in other countries, or the far-reaching decisions they are authorized to make even in the United States. They are one of the main forces behind the push to create hospitals in areas that desperately need them–and then ensure that those hospitals have the power to deny contraception and abortion care to women. They are one of the main groups facilitating adoptions in our country–and then they use those groups to deny adoption services to couples that don’t look like their idealized notion of families. Catholic-run businesses are not shy about using their power to prevent necessary healthcare from getting into low-paid workers’ hands, either, or about outright firing employees whose private lives don’t run along Catholic-approved lines.
A Catholic who doesn’t really need hospital care like that or isn’t very interested in adoption might never brush up against these examples of religious overreach. A Catholic who doesn’t work for a Catholic-run business might never realize just what their affiliation with and support of Catholicism has led to in this country.
But outsiders who keep up with the news certainly know. No matter how mild and sweet and beneficial Catholic salespeople want to make their religion look, there is that anti-woman, anti-poverty, anti-LGBTQ spectre hanging over the religion like a poorly-made suit.
When acceptance of a product means acquiescing to someone else’s decisions about your life, and moreover means that you will not be allowed to dissent or disagree with those decision-makers without facing significant trouble, run far away. It’s not a good product for you.
Barron’s First Opportunity: False Claims.
It’s telling that Mr. Barron’s first “opportunity” is the making of a number of false claims about his religion. Is this his idea of a counterpoint to his first “problem,” which is reality itself contradicting Christianity’s claims?
He says, “I hate dumbed-down Catholicism,” and I can believe it–his biography takes pains to emphasize his love of the great thinkers in his religion (like Thomas Aquinas). He’s sure that the big problem with his religion is that the people selling it to new people and indoctrinating kids into it aren’t pushing those great thinkers’ ideas enough. He thinks that if people are taught the super-deep catechism undergirding Catholicism, they’ll be happy to be Catholic.
The humor here writes itself.
No wonder people are leaving his religion, if that’s what passes for great arguments.
Worth noting: I only know of one person at all who converted to Catholicism from atheism, and that’s Leah Libresco. Her conversion apparently did hinge on some of those classic Catholic-beloved arguments, particularly around objective morality. The last time I looked, she’s still Catholic. So I suppose his idea’s been successful for some folks. I just don’t think it happens very often.
It sounds a lot like Mr. Barron is advising his fellow Catholics to drill down on the super-Catholic ideas and strategies more than anything else, like how Ed Stetzer thinks that he’ll totally turn his religion around if he can talk Southern Baptists into witnessing more often. But like Baptists’ evangelism efforts, Catholic attempts to confuse-and-lose listeners with big convoluted fancy-sounding arguments don’t appear to have succeeded so far, and I’ve got no faith in them succeeding in the future.
Arguments are not evidence, and certainly they are not an adequate answer to all the mountains of contradictory evidence against Christian claims. Dumb or smart, simple or confusing, they are just words–and we’re used to sales pitches that are just words without proof.
Barron’s Second Opportunity: Good Christians.
What’s thoroughly laughable is that Mr. Barron seems to think that the presence of a few Good Christians, the antithesis of all the Bad Christians infesting all Christian groups, are going to convince anybody that his supernatural claims are true. Of course, he’s not talking about the everyday goodness of laypeople in his churches’ ranks. He’s talking about the big names here–like, uh, Mother Theresa.
I’m not sure Catholics realize that outside their denomination, a lot of people don’t view her as being good in any sense of the word. There’ve been entire books about Mother Theresa’s self-serving hypocrisy and cruelty–writing one such debunk of the myths around this falsely-revered icon is what catapulted Christopher Hitchens into his position as one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism, for goodness’ sake.
So his first job is to locate actual “radical Christians” whose lives are in fact illustrative of great goodness. But his second and more important task is to establish that those Christian’s goodness is actually something that they could only get from Christianity. And that might be the really tough part, because by now so many people are familiar with Christian hypocrisy that we no longer see Christianity as necessary for becoming a good person, any more than we see its absence as a guarantee of someone being a bad person. Christianity itself is something we know is 100% superfluous to the question of how good or evil a person is, if not coming down on the side of edging good people toward the commission of terrible, dark deeds while doing nothing at all to dissuade less-good people from committing evil upon others.
As social systems go, Christianity is a complete, unmitigated failure, and Catholic-style Christianity is no better than anything we find in the rest of the religion. The charities that have existed in Christianity in the name of this denomination must be considered alongside the dreadful legacy of the Magdalene Laundries and other evils committed–often by those same charitable groups. It is impossible to think that given the time and resources and connections that Catholics have enjoyed through history, that other groups–better-run, more-transparent, and more-humane–might be able to manage as good or better. Foundation Beyond Belief is group just like that, and the secular Doctors Without Borders (a charity I support) has been helping thousands if not millions of people for decades.
Good people exist everywhere, and bad people exist aplenty in Catholicism. This is not a persuasive selling point.
Barron’s Third Opportunity: The Argument from Beauty Fallacy.
And to answer that third problem of overreach, Mr. Barron offers only “the beauty of Catholicism,” meaning “the Sistine Chapel, Mother Theresa’s sisters,” and the like.
When I read that part, I laughed out loud.
I guess we’re not supposed to wonder about the horrific and dark ugliness of Catholicism while looking up at all those pretty buildings and whatnot–the thousands of dead children, the abused and murdered women, the lives destroyed and torn apart by their attempt to stop contraception from reaching families who need it.
Stephen Fry asks the questions we need to ask:
No religion can claim a monopoly on beauty, and trying to say that beauty comes from their god without addressing the great ugliness committed by their very own religion smacks of deliberate deception.
What the Catholic Church Isn’t Doing.
The things that the Catholic Church could do to reverse their losses are things that they are simply not willing to do under any circumstances.
- Drop the bigotry and homophobia that marks their denomination’s leadership.
- Stop trying to control women’s lives and bodies.
- Offer leadership roles to everyone who is qualified for those roles on personal and professional levels.
- Become more transparent about where adherents’ money is going.
- Wholeheartedly embrace scientific advances, eschewing all truth claims that cannot be conclusively and credibly supported through observation and measurement.
These are the specific complaints of the people who are leaving Catholicism, with one exception.
It’s a big exception, though. All of the suggestions I’ve made pale before the very obvious thing that they must do in order to allay the fears and concerns of both members and non-members alike, the one resolution to the one problem whose exposure and revelation spelled the beginning and continuing end to Catholicism’s control of so much of the world:
They must, before and beyond all else, vehemently come down like Thor’s very own hammer Mjölnir upon the heads of every single child molester and shelterer of child molesters who exists in their ranks, ensuring that every human being alive knows how deeply sorry they are that they ever became the world’s biggest clan of organized pedophiles on the planet and how dedicated they are to stamping out that vileness anywhere it’s found.
Until then, every person who hears Catholics’ sales pitch will immediately think about this scandal and consider it all the reason they need to avoid the religion and ignore its demands.
Oddly, however, Robert Barron isn’t talking about doing any of that, especially not the really big thing that he’s got to do or else nobody sensible will come near his religion.
Catholic leaders can’t address any of those issues without dismantling their whole stinking rotten toxic system–and so they don’t. They spend their time chasing down what they think is going to help them, instead of taking into account what is actually hurting them.
The Kids Are Going To Be Fine.
Ultimately, I’m professionally unimpressed with Bishop Robert Barron. If this guy is really the very best that the Catholic Church can offer as a way to reverse their stunning, crippling, catastrophic losses in civilized countries over the last 50 years, then I feel perfectly safe in asserting to you today that we’re going to be okay.
His entire strategy depends entirely on his ability to persuade people to ignore reality, ugly facts, and simple irrelevance, and on his ability to convince people to join a religion that can’t even keep little kids safe from handsy priests or reliably bring those priests to justice when their inevitable abuses come to light. His strategy for dealing with Catholicism’s solid history of misogyny, bigotry, and injustice is to ignore those details as silly fusty trivialities not worth addressing, when they are causing misery the world over–in America and abroad. He genuinely thinks that he can concoct a sales strategy that ignores those serious shortcomings and still successfully keeps Catholics in the pews and even attracts new ones to the fold.
So he sets forth a sales plan that addresses the strawman objections to his religion that he imagines people make. And I’m sure that plan does wonderfully at making sales to all the people who are upset about anti-science Catholic doctrines (like the dishonest spew they habitually issue about birth control) yet who are likely to be swayed by an insistence that reality isn’t everything. I just don’t think that statement covers very many people, and the ones who it does cover are probably already Catholic–or leaning that way.
And he thinks that his potential customers will ignore those points, just like he does, to help him make those all-important sales.
Yeah, we’re going to be okay.
h/t to our lovely Eh’Theist!
* My sister ran into this exact form of coercion. She’s a lifelong Catholic, but definitely not the sort that the Pope would approve of. Her husband-to-be flat refused to raise any kids they had in the Church. So the Church refused to let them marry in their building. She got a much nicer wedding venue and we all had a great time, and she’s now looking at her 25th anniversary and two great kids who seem largely non-religious. Now guess how fervent she is? And how friendly her husband is to Catholicism? Yeah, that attempt to coerce this couple sure worked to make the sale!