In late February 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a major survey that found that nearly a third of U.S. Catholics have left the [Roman] Catholic church. Some have joined other churches, but most have simply slipped from active membership in the Catholic church to become part of a group once described as “lapsed Catholics.”
This means that about 10 percent of all Americans today are former Catholics. It has been estimated that, if these ex-Catholics were to constitute a denomination unto themselves, they would be the second largest religious body in the United States – after the Catholic church itself.
It should be noted in passing that the major losses suffered by the Catholic church in recent years have been largely offset by the new immigrant population, mostly from Latin America. In addition, over two percent of the population has joined the Catholic church within the same time-period.
But how has the pastoral leadership of the Catholic church responded to this acutely serious problem?
To the extent that the bishops have reacted at all, they seem to believe that disaffected Catholics are simply “bad Catholics,” who cannot accept the morally demanding teachings of their church.
Some bishops convey the impression that the church’s official teachings on contraception, divorce-and-remarriage, homosexuality, the ordination of women, and obligatory celibacy for priests are so clear and compelling that only a person of bad will could possibly disagree with them.
And yet there are many committed, well-educated, still-practicing Catholics, including many priests and religious women, who do disagree with these teachings, in whole or in part.
And how does the church’s pastoral leadership respond to those with questions? In the case of priests, they are ruled ineligible for appointment as diocesan bishops. In the case of nuns, they are subjected to a “visitation” that is a thinly veiled investigation, and the leadership of 95 percent of their communities is subjected to a “doctrinal assessment.”
The Pew study also found that young Catholics, ages 18-29, are much more likely than older Catholics to say that they are not affiliated with any particular religion. If these generational patterns persist, the survey warns, recent declines in the numbers of native-born Catholics and growth in the size of the unaffiliated population are likely to continue.
Whatever the case, the situation calls for bolder and more imaginative pastoral initiatives than have heretofore been proposed or tried.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What It Means to Be Catholic
The “Underground Church”
The Shrinking Catholic Tent
Hans Küng: “We Are Facing a Structural Problem”
A Smaller, Purer Vision of the Church – and Why It Won’t Work
Of Mustard Seeds and Walled Gardens
“Uncle Vince” is At It Again
The Two-Sided Catholic Crisis
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
A Catholic Understanding of “Faithful Dissent” (Part 1)
A Catholic Understanding of “Faithful Dissent” (Part 2)
To Whom the Future of the Catholic Church Belongs
Staying On Board
The “Complex Reality” of Catholicism
Tips for Thinking Catholics
A Declaration for Reform and Renewal
Recommended Off-site Links:
Disaffected Catholics: It’s About the Feeling Not the Reasons - Colleen Kochivar (Enlightened Catholicism, January 13, 2010).
“Falling Away” - Mary Lynn Murphy (The Progressive Catholic Voice, January 4, 2009).
Essays in Theology - Brien McBrien’s official website.