It is not often that someone at a New York dinner party calls for a count of religious affiliations, and I cannot recall exactly what led to it. But one guest suddenly said he had the impression that many of those present were Catholics. “Can we have a show of hands?” he asked.

Two of us raised our hands. A third person, who once wrote frequently in the Catholic press, said “no longer,” though as a conservative he continued to sympathize with the church. A fourth person, with whom my wife and I have sometimes worshiped on Easter, Christmas, and other occasions, chose not to make any declaration at all. Finally, the man who asked the question avowed that he had been raised Catholic, “and I hate everything about it.”

Bottom line? Two-and-a-half out of five, perhaps. Par, you might say, for a bunch of overeducated writer-types. Not at all. That’s roughly the proportion you would find at working-class family gatherings or suburban cookouts. In February 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, based on interviews with a representative sample of thirty-five thousand adult Americans, reported that one out of every three adult Americans who were raised Catholic have left the church. If these ex-Catholics were to form a single church, they would constitute the second largest church in the nation.

One in three. Think about it. This record makes the percentage of bad loans and mortgages leading to the financial meltdown look absolutely stellar. It dwarfs the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler. Thomas Reese, SJ, the former editor of America, recently described this loss of one-third of those raised Catholic as “a disaster.” He added, “You wonder if the bishops have noticed.”

I wonder too. As far as I know, there has never been any systematic discussion of these findings at the meetings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. They will meet again in mid-November, with an agenda that will deal with many things—but not with these devastating losses.

Of course, bishops are not the only ones who avoid confronting these findings. There are reasons all of us have difficulty doing so, and special reasons that the hierarchy does. After all, among nearly 70 million American Catholics, you can find incredible centers of apostolic energy. You can find saints, charismatic public ones and invisible everyday ones. You can find hypocrites and authoritarians and neurotics and plain old mediocrities. You can find vital parishes and moribund ones. In short, you can find evidence of whatever you’re looking for.

Most of us base our impressions on our networks of family, friends, fellow worshipers, students, and colleagues—or on news sources that rely, at best, on a few experts and church officials, who in turn have their own networks and may or may not be finding what they want to find. The problem with our personal experience and networks—and this goes for the media too—is of course what the sociologists call “sampling error.” Last summer, for example, conservative Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in the Atlantic that “for millions in Europe and America,” Catholicism is “finished”—“permanently associated with sexual scandal, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The word “finished” evidently struck a nerve. Many commentators on blogs, apart from the predictably querulous or bitter, poignantly described how for themselves or family members a once-strong Catholic faith was reaching some point of no return.

What resonated for me personally was the overall note of grieving. Having written a book about the future of the whole Catholic Church in the United States (A People Adrift), I have increasingly come to narrow my sights. These days I think about that future in terms of my two grandsons, ages ten and seven, the children of Ivy League–educated parents, one Catholic and the other a thoughtful nonbeliever. Sociologically, the track record for successfully passing on the faith in these circumstances is not the best, to say nothing of my own shortcomings as a parent or grandparent. But month after month, year after year, I also see decisions (but mostly nondecisions) by Catholic leaders steadily reducing even further the chances that the faith will be the central reality and priceless blessing in my grandsons’ lives that it was in mine and my wife’s. I realize that I am grieving.

For some Catholics, this grieving has clearly passed beyond anger. It seems to border now on resignation to either a death of faith or withdrawal from the church. For others, it means the impossibility of being in any way a “public Catholic,” whether in their fields of work, their communities, their parishes, or their circles of family and friends. Pray, receive the sacraments, button one’s lips, shrug off the latest self-destructive actions by church officials, and devote one’s talents and resources elsewhere. [See Cathleen Kaveny, "Long Goodbye."]

Such grieving is a very real and painful phenomenon. But I know better than to assume that it and its causes are operating in the lives of most of the Latino Catholics who constitute the majority of my fellow parishioners at the Church of the Ascension on 107th Street in Manhattan. They don’t read the Atlantic. They don’t know or follow many of the concerns that upset Catholics like me. They have other problems. And they are likely the typical Catholics of the future.

Five years ago in the New York Times, I wrote about another, more dramatic example of “sampling error.” When John Paul II died, perhaps only his role in the collapse of the Soviet empire was mentioned more often than his rapport with young people. Having covered the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver and seen firsthand John Paul II’s interaction with youth on other occasions, I can testify personally on this point. But at the very time that this connection was being demonstrated by the young people gathered in Rome for the pope’s funeral, I was reading disquieting data in the book Soul Searching, based on the massive National Study of Youth and Religion. The authors, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, devoted a whole chapter to puzzling over their unanticipated discovery that Catholic teenagers scored lower than every other Christian group, and sometimes even below often secular Jewish teenagers and the self-identified “not religious,” on a variety of measures of religious faith, belief, experience, practice, and involvement. Compared with Mormon and Protestant counterparts, whether black, Evangelical, or mainline, Catholics were less likely to say that their religious faith was “extremely important,” to affirm belief in a personal God, or to report ever having had a powerful experience of spiritual worship.

This all happened on the long watch of the pope who undeniably stirred fervor in many young people. Those who hailed a new day with the advent of a “John Paul II generation” were suffering, I suggest, from “sampling error.” Buoyed by the hundreds of thousands who gathered at World Youth Days, they did not look closely at the millions who were absent. So while our own firsthand impressions and diligent perusal of news sources are irreplaceable, we badly need surveys based on representative samples. Yes, they always suffer from the simplifications necessary to gather and organize large amounts of data, but their findings are checks against our own anecdotal impressions and those from the media sources we favor.

According to the Pew survey, about half of that one-third leaving the church enter the ranks of the fastest-growing religious group in the nation, the “nones,” people who tell pollsters they have no particular religious affiliation, although many hew to surprisingly familiar religious beliefs and practices. The other half of Catholics leaving the church join Protestant denominations (and, more often than not, Evangelical). Catholics becoming unaffiliated stressed disagreement with church teachings, both general teachings and church positions on specific issues like abortion, homosexuality, and treatment of women, and to a lesser extent clerical celibacy. In open-ended questioning, they also stressed hypocrisy and other moral and spiritual failures of church leaders and fellow Catholics.

Catholics becoming Protestants were less apt to stress unhappiness about specific teachings and more likely to pinpoint failures to meet their spiritual needs, frequently stating a general appreciation of their new affiliation and its manner of worship. These former Catholics were also more likely to have been affected by a change in life circumstances, like marrying someone of another faith or moving to a new place. Pew found that the vast majority of Catholics leaving the faith of their childhoods do so before age twenty-four. Those becoming unaffiliated reported having had a weaker faith in their childhood and significantly lower Mass attendance as teens. Most of the former Catholics, especially among those now unaffiliated, reported having just “drifted away” rather than undergoing a sudden change of mind or heart. Relatively few rated the sexual-abuse scandal high among reasons for leaving. That may reflect the calm-between-the-storms moment when the survey was taken. I suspect it also suggests that the scandal often functions less as a trigger to leave than as a confirmation of the dissatisfaction, distrust, or doubt people have already come to feel about the church. Very few, whether now unaffiliated or now Protestant, complained that Catholicism had drifted too far from traditional practices.

Why have I spent so much time on those of Catholic upbringing who have left the church? First, because the numbers are not trivial, to put it mildly. “Catholicism,” the Pew study found, “has lost more people to other religions or to no religion at all than any other single religious group.” In American Grace, their new study of religious polarization and pluralism, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell quote a member of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Acton, Massachusetts, where it is estimated that former Catholics make up nearly half the congregation. “If it weren’t for people leaving the Catholic Church,” he said, “the Episcopal Church would have died a long time ago in America.” [See William A. Galston, "Getting Along."]

Second, these numbers are not only not trivial—they are not just numbers. They are our siblings, our cousins, nieces and nephews, our friends, neighbors, classmates, and students, our children and grandchildren, even in some cases our parents.

Third, this pattern of loss may well be the wave of the future. Faltering Catholic religious education, declining Mass attendance rates among adolescents, drops in what younger people report about the importance of religion in their lives are the advance signs of generational loss. Unlike the familiar drift from faith of individuals, which may correct itself over the course of a life, the shift of a generation will be felt for decades. And from preboomers to millennials, each generation of young Americans has taken greater distance from organized religion.

In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell describe the late 1960s and early ’70s as a seismic shock, particularly in terms of sexual morality, followed by two aftershocks. The seismic shock we identify with the label of “the sixties.” Between 1969 and 1973, for example, the percentage of Americans believing that premarital sex was “not wrong” doubled from just 24 percent to 47 percent—an astonishing change in four years—and then continued rising to 62 percent in 1982. Putnam and Campbell argue that nothing else is such a strong predictor of religious attitudes as attitudes toward premarital sex.

The first aftershock was the reaction that spurred Evangelical growth, which Putnam and Campbell find actually leveled off in the mid-1980s and early ’90s. That was followed by a second, even greater aftershock, in which young Americans increasingly declared themselves “nones,” largely in reaction to their perceptions of conservative Christians’ denunciations and political interventions.

The divisive factors driving people from Catholic ranks are only magnified versions of those within Catholic ranks. There one sees at work all the hot-button issues that now unaffiliated former Catholics point to, as well as the sharp reaction, especially to teachings on homosexuality and identification with high-octane conservative politics, that Putnam and Campbell conclude are currently driving young people from religion altogether. Within the church, one also sees the longing for effective worship, meeting spiritual needs, and pastoral creativity that many now-Protestant former Catholics, especially Evangelicals, underlined.

Liturgical language, decorum, and participation. Quality of homilies. The shortage of priests. Celibacy. The role of women and their ordination. Transparency and consultation in church governance at every level, from the parish to the Vatican. Anti-Catholicism in the media. Religious identity and the role of the hierarchy in Catholic higher education and health care. Monitoring of Catholic theology. Abortion and same-sex relations, and the even more combustible demand that Catholic citizens and civic leaders be answerable to episcopal judgments about laws regarding these matters.

I list these familiar sources of conflict in no particular order except for the last because I think the growing tendency of prominent bishops to claim authority not only in moral principles but even in rather fine-grained judgments about translating those principles into public policy has tremendous potential for divisiveness. It appears to overturn a stance the hierarchy has long followed and spelled out explicitly in their pastoral letters on nuclear defense and on the U.S. economy. Are these bishops repeating the behavior of Religious Right leaders who have now faded from prominence—but only after provoking, if Putnam and Campbell are right, a strong antireligious backlash among the young?

There are several ways of missing this reality. It is true that the one-third exit rate of Catholics is actually lower than the rate of loss suffered by many other groups. Americans live in a constant religious churn. Almost half change their religious affiliation in the course of their lives. This is even true of the “nones.” One can also point out that Catholicism enjoys numerous converts. A number of people are baptized or enter into full communion at my parish’s bilingual Easter Vigil every year. But most of the losses among Protestant denominations are simply to other Protestant denominations. As for converts, the experience of parishes like mine illustrates “sampling error” once again. We celebrate those coming in the door; we don’t note publicly those going out; perhaps no one notices at all except saddened family members. In reality, three Catholics leave the church for each one who enters.

Then there is the good news about Latino Catholics, whose growing numbers both from immigration and higher birthrates have largely compensated for the losses and maintained the church’s proportion of the population at a more or less steady level. Latinos are much more likely than non-Latinos to say that their ethnicity is a very important part of who they are, and strong ethnic identity is associated with retaining religious identity and lower rates of intermarriage: 78 percent of Latinos raised Catholic remain in the church, compared to 57 percent of non-Latinos. Latino Catholics also express relatively greater agreement than non-Latinos with church teachings on divorce, premarital sex, abortion, gay marriage, ordination of women, opposition to the death penalty, and papal authority. I say relatively greater agreement because, in fact, far less than majorities of either Latinos or non-Latinos actually agree with any of those church teachings even while high percentages express confidence in the hierarchy. What the future will hold depends on variables like whether the nation’s capacity for assimilation is greater than its current hostility to Latino immigrants—and whether cultural differences in styles of worship and pastoral needs will exacerbate the Catholic “white flight” already underway. Finally, Latino Catholics appear increasingly Democratic at a time when the hierarchy appears to increasingly signal an obligation to vote Republican.

The constant religious churn in America, the public recognition of conversions but not departures, and the compensating numbers of Latino Catholics may all disguise the magnitude of the church’s recent losses. Yet for the bishops, something else, perhaps more fundamental, may be at work.

My impression is that bishops are constantly called upon to boost morale and lift up spirits in the face of often daunting problems. Appearances at parishes, reunions, conferences, or conventions are hardly occasions for dwelling on ominous trends, let alone encountering former Catholics. Many bishops bounce from event to event and from crisis to crisis. Except for financial matters, they may have little opportunity to contemplate the Big Picture, even on the diocesan level, let alone the national one. Their diocesan newspapers are rife with boosterism. In addition, bishops generally shun polemics. There are notable exceptions, even a few who may see the one-out-of-three who depart not as lost sheep but as good riddance, dead wood that should be cast into the fire, or even wolves preying upon the remaining flock. Most bishops, however, for good or ill, have reached their present positions by avoiding conflict, and they try to be what they should be, a point of unity for the local church. Findings like Pew’s can certainly unleash polemics. After their release, ultras and even moderates all along the ecclesiastical and theological spectrum flooded the blogosphere with accusations. Everyone else was to blame for the losses; one’s own viewpoint was the sure recipe for stanching them.

These partisan reactions cannot survive the most cursory look at the data, in which issues transcending camps like spiritually compelling worship, congregational leadership, and the need for effective adolescent catechesis rank alongside hot-button issues like abortion, homosexuality, treatment of women, sexual abuse, and episcopal forays into politics.

Having raised the question of the bishops’ awareness of American Catholicism’s crumbling condition, am I in turn blaming it on them? (Blaming the bishops is the one thing truly uniting the Right and Left in the American church.) Well, the bishops have their share of the blame, as do many others of us at every level and on every wing of the church. But it would be inane to hold the bishops or any other specific group in the church responsible for the social and economic forces that dissolved the Catholic subculture, or for “the sixties,” or for the inevitable succession of generations. We can only be responsible for the ways we have responded, or not responded, to such huge shifts—with energy, sensitivity, and creativity, or with timidity, inertia, and stock formulas.

I doubt whether any diocese is without some energetic, sensitive, and creative initiatives to improve pastoral practice, liturgy, catechetics, preaching, faith formation, financial support, social witness, and all the other things that could reverse the current decline. I continue to hear of successful programs, learn of valuable research, meet inspiring individuals, and see ads for attractive guides and educational materials for clergy and lay leaders alike. Yet somehow all these initiatives seem too scattered, too underfunded, too dependent on an always limited number of exceptional talents to coalesce into a force equal to the forces of dissolution.

The bishops are not the only ones who should be galvanizing and multiplying these initiatives; but they are, as they often remind us, the church’s authoritative leaders. They direct resources, human and material. They oversee personnel. They grant approval and signal change. They can make the difference between isolated examples and widespread renewal. It is hard to imagine a reversal of the current trends without a concerted effort on their part.

What exactly should the bishops do? Anyone can find my own views distilled in the “Afterword” to the 2004 paperback edition of A People Adrift. Occasionally I’ve tried to distill this distillation even further. I have emphasized very concrete, practical items—a quantum leap in the quality of Sunday liturgies, including preaching; a massive, all-out mobilization of talent and treasure to catechize the young, bring adolescents into church life, and engage young adults in ongoing faith formation; and regular, systematic assessments of all these activities—as well as theologically more complex and controversial matters like expanding the pool of those eligible for ordination and revisiting some aspects of the church’s teaching on sexuality.

What matters is not this set of proposals—or any other. What matters is merely some kind of acknowledgement from the hierarchy, or even leading individuals within the hierarchy, of the seriousness of the situation. What matters is a sign of determination to address these losses honestly and openly, to absorb the existing data, to gather more if necessary, and to entertain and evaluate a wide range of views about causes and remedies. Is it possible some bishop might mention this at their November meeting?


Read more: Letters, December 3, 2010

Related: Long Goodbye, by Cathleen Kaveny
Catholic Vermont, by Nicholas Clifford
The Missing, by the Editors

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2010-10-22 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.