How far adrift?


This letter is in response to Peter Steinfels’s article “Further Adrift” (October 22). I have always respected Peter very much. He expresses concern for the fact that so many Catholics have become inactive or left the church entirely. He wonders if the bishops are concerned about these devastating losses. Let me assure you that we are.

He and others have suggested changes in church doctrine and practices—like changing church teaching on abortion, premarital sex, homosexual activity, divorce, ordaining women, and ending celibacy for priests. But the mainline churches have given in on all these matters and they are shrinking dramatically. Many of them have even abandoned orthodox Christian theological teaching. The churches that have given in to the secular materialistic Western culture have done badly. Our culture is, of course, in deep trouble.

Some people have left the church because of the clerical sexual-abuse scandal. But no one should leave the church because of human weakness. I tell people not to put their faith in the priest or the bishop. Instead put your faith in the Mass and the sacraments of our church. We clergy members do our best but sometimes fail. Put your faith in those elements of the church of Jesus Christ that can never fail! And note that we now have zero tolerance for sexual misconduct and have reached out to victims of abuse with counseling, apology, and settlement of claims. Great care is taken in the ordaining of new men to the priesthood.

I believe that the richness of our Catholic heritage offers the most complete, compassionate witness of Jesus Christ possible. Jesus gave Peter and his successors the keys to the kingdom of heaven. He promised to be with his church forever. The magisterium, the teaching authority of the pope and bishops, keeps the church faithful to Scripture and tradition and guides Catholics in unity to the joy of life eternal. Those who leave the faith put the salvation of their immortal souls at risk!

Do we need to do more? Indeed we do. We need to have ever more effective Catholic worship and better preaching, which challenges people to resist the secular humanism of our culture; we have to reach out to meet the spiritual needs of our people; and we need to continue our work for social justice and assistance to the poor. There are effective new evangelization programs, such as Catholics Come Home and the Paulists’ Awakening Faith approach, that are bearing great fruit with the inactive and unchurched.

We should have a love, a passion, for our Catholic faith and a burning desire to share it. I am full of hope for the future of our Catholic Church! The Lord promised to be with his church forever!

(Most Rev.) Michael J. Sheehan
Santa Fe, N. Mex.


Thanks to Peter Steinfels for his thoughtful comments on the new data about Catholics “leaving the church.” I wonder if we would not understand this better if we reversed our language and spoke of the church leaving many Catholics.

Catholic lay leaders, priests, and religious once accompanied immigrants and then their children and grandchildren, helping them find meaning in their experiences. Later, when some of us went off to college and the suburbs, leaving our Catholic subculture behind, once again our church, in the persons of pastors and people, stayed with us, at least for a while. Together we tried to renew Catholicism, now in an entirely new place (remember early Andrew Greeley), with no surrounding subculture and with a new set of personal and civic responsibilities. Inspired by Pope John XXIII and Vatican II, many of our fellow Catholics helped us explore new and appropriate forms of discipleship and citizenship.

But slowly, paralyzed by myths about supposed secularization, many church leaders abandoned suburban, middle-class Americanized Catholics. They deliberately deconstructed experiments in shared responsibility, denounced pastoral and theological affirmations of baptismal equality—the people of God—and demanded affirmation of moral and political judgments contradicted by personal experience. Sadly, when they did so, there were not enough priests and sisters in parishes and diocesan offices to resist the drift of the organized church away from so many of its people. And laypeople, for the most part, including those responsible for Catholic institutions, lacked the ideas, skills, and perhaps will to develop alternative forms of ministry so that the church, or at least some portions of it, might yet accompany new generations into a future marked by liberation and its dreaded partner, responsibility. In religious as in other markets, Catholics, our children and grandchildren, are on their own.

The good news is that many Christian Latinos and immigrants are accompanying one another in churches they build for themselves. And a great many of those in surveys who have become uncertain about their religious identity are like so many people we know, including our children: smart, morally serious, dedicated to their families, facing up to challenges we never imagined. But they do so without our church, which abandoned them long before they felt compelled to search elsewhere for the accompanying presence of God’s Holy Spirit.

David O’Brien
Dayton, Ohio



Peter Steinfels offers an excellent description of the church’s present predicament—but no way forward. There is a way.

For the first three centuries, the church voted for its leaders, who gradually transformed themselves into Roman-style priests. That began the separation of clergy from laity. Constantine ratified that separation during the council at his summer palace at Nicaea in 325. Under Canon 4, bishops were to be voted into office by other bishops. The previous requirement, a vote by the laity, went unmentioned.

Bishops are now a law unto themselves. They pretend to own the sacraments, though this is contradicted by St. Paul (1 Cor. 11) and by Acts 2:42–46.

The Christian Catholic response to Rome’s outrages is to take the sacraments back into our homes. Keep the parishes, but abandon Rome. When a great ship is sinking, the obvious choice is to get into lifeboats. It may be difficult, but there is no other course.

Joseph Marren
Chicago, Ill.



My article evidently struck a chord. It is now the most read article on Commonweal’s Web site. I have received numerous e-mailed comments and been approached by people in my parish and elsewhere who I assumed were well outside the orbit of Commonweal

All the letters here are from people I know and respect, which makes their inadequacy as responses to a complex situation all the more disappointing.  

Why does Archbishop Sheehan feel compelled to begin with a preemptive strike against suggested changes in doctrine and practice on which mainline Protestant churches (I assume he means ecclesiastical bodies) “have given in”? These changes have not caused mainline decline, if one is to believe many serious studies. It is true that they are also “no antidote to decline,” which is exactly what I cautioned liberals in A People Adrift.

Nor was that agenda of changes urged in my article. Archbishop Sheehan’s letter reads as a passionate pledge to “do more”—that is, provide more effective worship, better preaching, greater outreach in meeting spiritual needs, harder work for social justice—but refuses any serious analysis of why hundreds of equally heartfelt pledges in recent years have not succeeded. We will do better but, thanks to the magisterium, we have no need to reconsider any of our teachings or practices. I am not reassured. Exclamation points do not substitute for analysis.

Joseph Marren recommends taking initiatives without waiting for the hierarchy. Fine. That is a well-established tradition. But when he looks to the flourishing of Roman Catholicism without the Roman Catholic Church, identified with the hierarchy, he is in different territory. It is true that radical “spinoffs” have sometimes been prophetic forces for broader reform. More often, they become niche sects providing spiritual solace to small groups but remaining quite marginal to the millions upon millions now departing the church. 

David O’Brien argues that these millions have not abandoned the church; the hierarchy has abandoned them. I think I know what he has in mind. But once one begins to examine in detail the developments of the past five decades and the different populations and age groups that have drifted from the church for quite different reasons, I would argue that the problem and any potential solutions grow much more complex. 

Let me take this opportunity to correct two errors in my article. First, after inquiring with a staff member of the bishops’ conference, I wrote, “As far as I know, there has never been any systematic discussion of these findings” at the conference meetings. Someone close to the conference now tells me that some such discussion did take place at a spring-summer meeting. I have also heard of organized discussions taking place among the clergy in some dioceses. 

Second, in warning against a false impression created by our appropriate celebration of people entering the church, I wrote, “In reality, three Catholics leave the church for each one who enters.” The Pew data actually show that four leave for every one entering.

Peter Steinfels

Published in the 2010-12-03 issue: 
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