According to a Pew research study, one-third of people who were raised Catholic in this country no longer describe themselves as Catholic. That’s nearly 10 percent of the entire population.
Catholics, it seems, are becoming Protestants — or “nones.” While there does appear to be a small “inward” migration of converts to Catholicism, the stark fact that 33 percent of birth Catholics move away from the church should be of concern.
I think that estimate is low.
In addition to Catholics who have left the church — and identify as such — there are those of us who have elected to remain affiliated with the church, but in a different sort of way. Some of us are members of independent Catholic communities. Others worship in churches led by Catholic Womenpriests. These people are all followers of Christ who choose to remain in the spirit of the ritual — but not necessarily the dogma — of the Roman Catholic Church.
When we fill out surveys like the one conducted by Pew, we are likely to identify ourselves as Catholic. You can argue whether that is a correct identification or not. I really don’t care. The point is that losses from the Catholic Church are greater than what Pew is likely to have gleaned from their research.
When I was much younger, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart had several Sunday Masses — I remember at least four at one time — and a single Saturday afternoon Mass. Today, the Cathedral has two Sunday Masses (three when Winona State University is in session) and one Saturday afternoon Mass. Moreover, the newly renovated church only seats about 85 percent of the total that could have been accommodated prior to the renovation. Yet, Cathedral parishioners tell me that the church is often not full. There are similar stories about most Catholic churches in this country.
Where have all the Catholics gone?
That should be of concern for a church that thinks of itself as an organic organization. If the Catholic Church insists on remaining “pure” and conservative, it will continue to shrink. It will also become more marginalized, and more radicalized in this and other western countries.
What is driving people away from the church? Why are they leaving? Why are independent Catholic communities springing up all over the country?
When religious leaders do not practice what they preach, people lose respect. When religious leaders actively break civil laws in order to hide their weaknesses from the public, people lose respect. When religious leaders treat women like second-class citizens simply because it’s a tradition, people lose respect.
Finally, when religious leaders express concern about “confusing” the laity whenever a tough social conversation arises, people begin to realize that those leaders have misconstrued the “good shepherd” metaphor. Instead of taking the metaphor as a guide to pastoral leadership, such leaders believe the metaphor is about blind “followership” — and the people lose respect.
When people lose respect for their religious leaders, they begin to look elsewhere for spiritual guidance.
Catholic Church leaders claim to have absolute knowledge about the infinite. They don’t. Nobody does. While human consciousness may have evolved significantly over the past couple of hundred years, old well-established religions like Roman Catholicism, have not.
It seems to me that our world and human consciousness is evolving ever more rapidly in these connected times and that religious organizations — especially so-called organic ones like the Roman Catholic Church — must evolve more rapidly as well.
Like it or not, the Catholic Church is on an escalator of evolution, and it’s moving upward. When the church steps off the escalator, it must be ready for the new world it finds itself in and it must either move forward — or step aside.