The Incredible Shrinking Church Part 2: What Can We Do About It?

Image result for proverbs without vision the people perish

I gave a talk this past spring at the University of Connecticut on where the Catholic Church would be in 2050. Part of the talk was on the shrinking membership of the Catholic Church. One woman leaving the talk shook her head and lamented, “Well, that was depressing!”

I dedicate this article to her. The point of the talk was to alert Catholics in the U.S. to a problem. Facing serious problems can indeed be depressing but ignoring them is dangerous. The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, observed that, “The specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” In other words, a willful ignorance of a problem is the worst form of despair. But if we accept that there is a problem, we can seek a solution. So, let us admit that we have a problem. The evidence is overwhelming.  Because of our failures as a Church, CARA (the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University) reveals that the number of former Catholics in the United States has risen from ten million in 1990 to thirty million by 2016. So, we know the scope of our problem. Let us plot a path forward. Let us prepare for a pilgrimage of renewal.

STEP #1 How Did We Get Here?

The first step to a solution is to discover what has gone wrong. My previous blog post dealt with this in more detail, but let me restate here some of the reasons:

  • A lack of trust and authority caused by the priest pedophilia scandal
  • Poor parish administration including an unwelcoming culture, poor homiletics, a lack of relevance in instruction and programming
  • A lack of initiative and creativity in the church
  • A millennial loss due to poor catechesis, outreach, opportunities to deepen their faith, and a sense of a lack of relevance on moral and ethical issues

 Step #2 Healing/Trust

The pain of the priest pedophilia scandal is the most damaging example of how the institutional Church has in a number of instances broken a sacred bond of trust. Institutional interests, as in that crisis, have too often trumped how the Church of Jesus should act. I will never forget reading about how Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston in response to a lawsuit involving his oversight of priests, used the defense that the parents were negligent in leaving their children alone with a priest.  ( Words cannot convey how angry and disgusted I was by that claim. It was a complete violation of the trust people place in the institutional Church.

Church corruption can also be seen in an embrace of power and wealth instead of Catholic social teaching. Consider the example of former Archbishop of Newark, John J. Meyers. He not only put known pedophiles in the 2000’s in positions where they were in close contact with children, but he also used Church funds for his retirement home that has five bedrooms, a three-car garage, an elevator and a large swimming pool, on eight acres of land. It also includes an indoor exercise pool and hot tub, three fireplaces, a large study with an attached library, and a gallery so large it takes up the entire third floor.

The key for the Church to restore trust is to engage in accountability, listening and transparency. Accountability means that those who have done wrong are punished and the priority is always the protection of the innocent. The Catholic Church Charter in 2002 created stringent new requirements. The Washington Post reporting on the Church’s efforts observed in 2012 that,

“Over the past 10 years, Catholic parishes have trained more than 2.1 million clergy, employees, and volunteers about how to create safe environments and prevent child sexual abuse. More than 5.2 million children have also been taught to protect themselves, and churches have run criminal background checks on more than 2 million volunteers, employees, educators, clerics and seminarians.

Allegations of new abuse cases continue to decline, as they have since 1980, and appear to reflect the effectiveness of some of the charter’s policies as well as ongoing efforts to increase screening of seminarians and to deal with suspected abusers before they claim multiple victims.”

Listening requires the institutional Church to seek input from the laity. Pope Francis has been leading the way by asking Catholic laity to express their opinions on issues before the synods he has called. What are the struggles, concerns, and hopes of the laity?

For transparency, lay oversight and input is essential on financial and disciplinary matters. Any organization is not necessarily the best group to exercise oversight of its critical functions. Self-regulation is problematic. Important steps by theCatholic Church have taken place on the pedophilia issue. There are now national standards and lay oversight. But the transparency and oversight movement need to be expanded to many areas of the Church.

STEP #3 A Vibrant, Responsive, and Inclusive Church 

So, we must begin with a Church that is accountable, transparent, and listening. In addition, we should include more groups in decision making and church programs. On the role of women, a dramatic addition would be women deacons. Young women need to sense that women can answer this role of service and have greater input in parish decisions. An expanding role for minorities is increasingly critical in a Church well on its way to having a majority of minorities.

In our parishes, there are other changes that would be helpful. For example, doctrinal issues need to be pastorally interpreted and communicated with compassion and mercy. There are many ethical issues on which the Church has important and relevant positions, but it must learn how to effectively communicate them. There is a need to develop common ground that does not get mired in partisan politics. For example, we have a beautiful and timely doctrine of a consistent ethic of life that transcends American political ideologies.

On parish life, two keys are communication and community. We must be a welcoming Church that connects on many levels. We need vibrant ministries, small Church groups, engaging liturgies, and better homiletics. And do our parishes welcome and engage new members?

On the need for initiative and creativity, the Church must set some bold goals. In the words of Jesus, “Be not afraid.” (Matthew 24:27) To take one example, why could we not be the leader on issues like the environment? In Atlanta, our archdiocese has a beautiful “Laudato Si” initiative based on the recommendations of scientists from the University of Georgia on how we can practically implement this papal encyclical.  We are thinking of hiring the first sustainability officer for a diocese. Other aspects of the action plan include:

  • Teaching the action plan in all Archdiocesan schools.
  • Creation of Catholic Green Teams in parishes to implement plans of sustainable gardening, recycling, food sharing, etc.
  • Hosting a Green Mass near the feast of Saint Francis

STEP #4 Special Case: Young Catholics

Image result for pope francis with young people

We need to develop the leadership of the young generation and nurture a desire to remain in the Church. Ninety percent of Catholic going to university and college currently do so at a non-Catholic college or university. So, we must develop Catholic programs and structures at these universities to assist them deepen their faith. This requires excellent spiritual and academic centers at these institutions.

We must also offer young Catholic beginning their careers special ministries. In Atlanta, Catholic Charities has created a leadership program for young adults, many of them new to Atlanta, on what leadership means in the light of Catholic social teaching. This program is a special opportunity for fellowship and mentoring of the next generation of Catholic leaders who will lead in a time of increasing challenge and uncertainty.

But the most important work needs to be done on parenting and working with very young Catholics. Research by CARA shows that the average age when young Catholics decide to leave the Church is thirteen. We must train parents and Catholic educators on means to effectively educate those under their instruction. This must be a priority of Catholic education and every parish.

Conclusion: We Are Responsible for the Church

I was discussing with a priest the decline of Christianity in the United States. He declared that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church. (Matthew 16:18). True, but I countered with that American sage, Benjamin Franklin, who offered that, “God helps those who help themselves”. We must be neither passive, nor panicked. We must be determined and take our duty to our faith and our God seriously. We must energetically sow the seeds of renewal.

A favorite painting of Pope Francis is “The Calling of Saint Matthew”. See below.

Image result for Saint matthew and tax collector caravaggio boardroom

Pope Francis loves the fact that Jesus is interrupting a scene of food and commerce to call Saint Matthew, the tax collector. The people at the table are disturbed or uncertain. What is he calling us to do? Does he mean me? If our Church is the vehicle for our responding to Jesus as a community, then we must like Saint Matthew respond to the call and be the source of a renewal of the faith. If we awaken to the call, then we must develop a powerful and transformative vision for this moment. Such a vision will bring people back. With this vision, the Church will not perish but be reborn.