Number of Converts to Catholicism Continuing to Decline – You Know What to Do

A recent report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) indicates the need for continuing sobriety among members of the Catholic Church in terms of the critical need for personal evangelization. We cannot remain unconcerned when it comes to declining numbers. More on this in minute. But first, I’d like to present excerpts from the CARA blog, written by Mark Gray. The full post can be here: Research on Catholic Replacement Matters. As always, text from the CARA post is in black, bold, italics. My remarks are plain text red.
In a previous post, we noted that infant baptisms have been declining year-to-year…generally moving in step with the overall fertility rate, which has also been falling (more so since the recession in 2008).

We have commented many times on this blog of the declining birth rate and the problem of contraception. It would seem that the judgment of God is upon us, wherein God says, in effect, “If you don’t love life, you don’t have to have it.”

But of course, having sown in the wind, we reap the whirlwind. With declining birthrates and lower Mass attendance, what do we see, but closing parishes, schools, and overall decline in vocations (thank God there’s some small recovery in this), and the shutting down of any number of various other Catholic agencies and apostolates.

It takes new lives to sustain and grow the Church and have  many ministries. We must also be serious about handing on the faith.
There is little doubt that we are in trouble on all these accounts. Due to contraception, abortion, the delay of marriage, a failure to hand on the faith, evangelize and attend Mass consistently (only 27% go on Sunday), we collectively have said to God that what he offers (life and a relationship with him rooted in faith) does not interest us. And the Lord seems to have said, “If you don’t want it, you don’t have to have it.”

Yet, of course, many, often lukewarm, Catholics still expect the Church to be there for them when it comes to having weddings, funerals and baptisms, parochial schools, food pantries and social services. So they go to knock on the rectory door of “their parish” and, surprise, it is closed. The Church is strong in her people, and when there are fewer of us, we are weaker.

In each of the past three years the number of people entering the faith (of any age) has dropped below 1 million. Since 1947, during only one other period, from 1973 to 1979, did the annual number of new U.S. Catholics number less than 1 million.

Some will be quick to blame the liturgy, others the sex abuse scandal. But CARA and other studies show little correlation to these issues.

The biggest issue is secularization. Our wider culture has become secular as never before. Back in the 1950s and before when the Church was stronger in numbers, so was the culture also more religiously observant. Most Americans were expected to have a church home and attend regularly. God was spoken of more in public settings and there was more of a sense that we were accountable, one day to God.

Secularization has swept all this aside and most Americans, Catholics included, not only consider religious observance unimportant, but even something to be dismissed and despised as many go beyond indifference to be downright hateful of religion. Many actually feel righteous as they indicate that they are “spiritual but not religious,” a rational freethinker rather than a superstitious religionist.

Straight out atheism is on the ascendancy and it has a “religious zeal” all its own. The rise of rampant even militant secularism is surely a big factor in the decline of all religious observance, not just the Catholic faith.
Further, even among Catholics who still attend and are supportive of parish life to some extent,  there are often problems with secularization. For many, the spiritual life is not their priority. Thank God they still attend Mass, but their first priorities center more around career, houses and possessions, and they are more focused on getting their children in a good college and career than handing on the faith to them.

Not only are infant baptisms in decline so are entries into the faith among children, teens, and adults. These had been steadily increasing from 1997 to 2000 and reached a historic peak of 172,581 in 2000. Then something happened….

In just one year, from 2000 to 2001, the number of these non-infant entries into the Church fell by more than 20,000 (down 12.6%). This drop predates the emergence of news of clergy sex abuse cases. In fact the number of entries into the Church increased from 2001 to 2002 when these stories emerged in the media. From 2002 the number of new non-infant entries stabilized until 2006 and 2007 where another steep decline occured.
Here again, note the cause does not seem to be what many people quickly decide it is. It does not seem to be the sex abuse crisis for the reasons stated.
Further, it is not the “new Mass” as some are quick to judge, for the fields were reasonably ripe through the 1990s and past the new Century mark, a period well endowed with the Novus Ordo Missae.

One may speculate as to what the Church’s current condition would be had we never changed  the Mass, but the sweep of secularization and many other trends seemed already underway before liturgical changes and it is hard to imagine we would have largely escaped, changes or not.

The rather sudden collapse of Catholic numbers seems to indicate we were ill-prepared to face the cultural revolution. Further, the generation that led the sexual and cultural revolution surely had large numbers of Catholics in it who went to parochial schools in 1950s, and were raised on the Latin Mass. Something was wrong in the Church long before 1970 or even 1962.

There were more than 28,000 fewer non-infant entries into the Church in 2007 than in 2005 (down 19.2%). Since then, the decline has flattened out a bit but [the decline] still continues through to the numbers for 2010. So the numbers have stabilized, but at the lower number. It would seem we now have a “new normal” and the numbers of the 1990s and before have shifted downward.
You and I will likely look to causes and solutions. And the temptation is to look outside ourselves and say the bishops ought to do something. Perhaps, but allow me to offer that the solution to this problem is no further than your very self, my very self.
What would happen to the Church tomorrow if every Church-going Catholic pledged to bring one fallen away family member or friend back to communion with the Church in the next two years? Well of course our numbers would nearly double. A few of us might not be successful, but, if we really worked at it, we’d probably come close to doubling.  And the Lord would surely be pleased and also reward our efforts.
The answer is not really so difficult, but it is hard work. Yet,  we do not need to go to a mountaintop to get the answer. The answer is staring you in the mirror: Go make disciples. If you need to, grab a partner and work on two people together. But get started. It goes without saying that you ought to have something approaching a relationship with the Lord to be a good evangelizer. More on that next week. But for now, don’t wait to be perfect just get started.

64 Replies to “Number of Converts to Catholicism Continuing to Decline – You Know What to Do”

  1. Monsignor, I respectfully disagree with the belief that the sex abuse crisis is not a major factor. It is huge. Since the underlying issue of some bishops’ involvement has not been dealt with, people have no trust in the Church. Secularization is rampant, but I think many people hunger for truth. They just don’t believe they can find it in the Church. Even devoted Catholics struggle to bring themselves to church because of the betrayal. How can they bring others?

    1. Well, but look at the data. You may personally have serious objections. Understandable. But it would seem that the data are little correlated with with what you think is the major issue. The bigger issue does seem to be that the Church just isn’t on people’s radar. If you have problems with the abuse crisis I strongly urge you to speak with a parish priest and overcome this obstacle. The fact is most priests have had nothing to do with this and most bishops handled it properly, and most dioceses have careful plans in place to make sure this does not happen again. The Lord needs you out there evangelizing and nothing can excuse us from our obligation in this regard. He came to hang out with sinners. So you are inviting people to a Church that is a hospital were there are sinners and even betrayal as you lament. You are not inviting them to a perfect society. Because otherwise you couldn’t belong and neither could I. We have all betrayed Christ.

      1. The Church is Perfect, but members of the Church Militant are imperfect yet seek perfection. Members of the Church Triumphant are perfect, and members of the Church Suffering are imperfect yet being made perfect. (And we can spend our time in Purgatory on Earth by suffering with Christ, by reparation, and by doing penance) The Church who is of Heaven and of Earth is Holy after Christ, and thus, Perfect. Holiness is spiritual perfection. We belong to her because we belong to Christ, to whom the Church belongs, in light of the Paschal Mystery: Ergo to imply poor sinners don’t belong to her because she is perfect is to imply Christ did not redeem mankind, since the Church is the Mother of the redeemed, the One and Mystical Body and Bride of Christ our Redeemer.

          1. I do summer door to door evangelization training in the Denver area, began the program in 2007, which was also when the priest abuse scandal had broken. Surprisingly, most people were understanding about it, told us up front that they know the media likes to sensationalize things like that. It was heartening.

            Then, two springs ago Pope Benedict got dragged into it, in the attack led by the New York Times. Since then, for the past two summers I have seen a distinct change from understanding to a highly critical and cynical attitude toward the Church, so I do think the attacks on the Pope had an effect. It’s not the only factor, there are also the usual comments about the Church needing to “update itself” and suchlike, but the change is distinctly noticeable.

            But we do a lot of educating, providing statistics and such about child sex abuse, and sharing our personal stories and perspectives, along with sharing about Catholicism in the positive way I’ve been developing in this program. We find it really helps overcome the divide and come to a much better understanding with people. So there is hope!

      2. The sex abuse scandal is largely an excuse, not a cause, of people separating themselves from, or avoiding, the Church.

        But my disagreement, if you can call it that, which I’ve noted before, is to dispute the premise that, in the past, the Church was stronger or brought in more converts, such that we are now experiencing a “decline,” with the consequence that we must be defensively-minded and try to “stem the tide.”

        Looking back in recent history, there might have been an appearance of strength, but although a mile wide, it was only an inch deep, or, if you will, like a hollow chocolate Easter bunny. More people went to Mass, but large numbers were there in body only, not in spirit, not being engaged, and all too eager to run out to the car right after Communion. And it was even worse in the far past, when most people were illiterate and barely catechized. The popes and bishops over the years could see it, and tried to address it, and that was the reason for the necessity of the Council.

        Rather than being weaker than before, on the contrary, I think perhaps the Church is actually stronger today than it was a few decades ago, back in the “golden age.” We are a brighter light to the world, even if the world does not want the light and prefers the darkness. The bunny might appear to be smaller, but the chocolate is more solid and, hence, there is more of it. Rather than being dependent upon bishops (or monsignors) to be the ones to do something, we are all better prepared to be a light to the world, to better explain the Faith to others, to give them a reason for our hope. We are better positioned to be affirmatively-minded, advancing the Faith, rather than defensively-minded, trying to hang on to something that never really was.

        But again, there are many in the world who prefer the darkness. We can only propose, we cannot impose. We can only offer them truth and love. It is up to them to want to accept it.

        However, looking back through history, it has always been so. And it will always be so, if we are to believe Revelation (both generally and the Book of). Thus, we should not get discouraged or go on the defensive, thinking that we are losing ground. Any ground that has been “lost” was never really ours, it always belonged to the world instead. We were always going to have to work that ground to prepare the soil anyways.

        1. I largely agree that there is some depth to day that was lacking in the past. Further, as I point out in the post, if the church of the 50s was so great, why did it collapse so fast and why the kids raised in that system the very ones who threw the cultural revolution, the revolution against authority and the sexual revolution. So very rotten fruits came from that system, or at least came in spite of its lauded strength.

          The only danger I see in your approach is that those who look to a smaller and purer church often get only a smaller one. Many the Protestant main-liners have used the “smaller-purer” image for years. And while I think we a miles away from their wide departure from the Christian faith, I just think we have to be careful that a smaller Church may still have many of the troubles of a larger one. What is the ideal size? I just don’t know. But I do think we have to keep evangelizing and always seek to convert every soul. I know you agree with this but just want to make plain the necessary distinction.

      3. Indeed looking at the data, the major declines occurred in 2001 (1 yr before the first sex abuse scandal of 2002) and was stable until 2006-2007.

        I think the sex abuse scandal was rather a incentive for ‘liberal Catholics’ to further alienate themselves from the Church, giving them an excuse to go against the Magisterium.

        Look at Hans Kung, he immediately made use the sex abuse scandal to promote his perverted theological ideas.

    2. Molly,
      I believe the theme of Monsignor’s article was Evangelization. If every person who called themself Catholic really believed that the Holy Eucharist was indeed the Body, Blood, Soul & Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, it wouldn’t matter if there were 100,000 Clergy involved in the Sexual Abuse Scandal. While I agree, many Liberal Catholics or those who were weak in their faith to begin with used the SAS as an excuse to stop attending Sunday Mass, we will all be held accountable for our actions at our “Particular Judgement”. As Tim Staples often says….”Vincible Ignorance is a Bummer”.

  2. Again, I respectfully disagree. It’s not “my problem” with the abuse crisis; I believe it’s a general loss of trust. “Data” can’t show everything.

    1. So where are we? Is data simply set aside and we are left with subjective views that will trump whatever the data indicate. Data may not say everything, but does it then say nothing? If it is merely a loss of trust as you say, it must be a delayed loss of trust. But I have yet to see a study that strongly links the Abuse crisis to declining numbers. There may be some, but it seems more that secularization, is a prime cause as people just drift away rather than walk out in a determinative way because they are angry. That happens but it does not show statistically as significant.

    2. It’s not the sex abuse scandal that sped up the defection rate but the way the episcopacy responded to it. It was not a coherent response. My Jesuit professors taught me that a response, to be effective, must be coherent — it must resound with what is being addressed rather than be a whining about authority being challenged. I agree there are other factors involved but the way the bishops responded to priests putting their hands where they weren’t welcome was in total defiance of what Jesus taught. Jesus said that anyone who put a stumbling block in the path of a child awaited a horrible eternity. The bishops put stumbling blocks in the path of children by not immediately removing the offenders from any exposure to young people. They put stumbling blocks in the path of their parents, who were not, as a rule “liberal Catholics” but rather old-line believers who entrusted their children to the care of predators. It wasn’t liberal Catholics who made the scandal. It was people like Bernard Law.

      If you want to evangelize successfully, present a church that can be trusted to keep its agreements, both stated and unstated. Present a church that represents Jesus and not the interest of careerists. If you want to evangelize successfully, make sure that you have more Sean O’Malleys and fewer people who victimized the people who came forward by making them look like the Roman centurion who crucified Jesus. The victims deserve encouragement, support and everything the church can do to make it right. When that happens, those who are secularized will become more amenable to evangelization.

      1. I don’t disagree with you as to the need for trust. But in terms of the data that is not what is showing up. We can talk internally about this problem, but those who leave and those who fail to “cross the Tiber” are not indicating this is the issue. So you and I agree that trust is a critical issue that has been lost, but the question is, why are they leaving and why are they not coming? The data says its more complicated and multivariate. Not disagreeing with you, but I think culture has a lot more to do with it as the generations raised “without God” (i.e. no prayer in schools, and a general hostility to organized religion), steps up, we’re going to see not just “conversation stoppers” (e.g. trust) that you indicate but more the fact that many don’t come to the conversation in the first place. So we have to change the way we start the conversation and focus on engaging people in the first place rather than just responding to their concerns and criticisms. Frankly it would appear that they don’t have a lot criticisms because we are not on their radar in the first place.

  3. From my perspective, most Catholic leaders/folks likely define evangelization as drawing someone into the Catholic Church. While most non-Catholics would say drawing someone to Christ. I understand that the Church is Christ but you must admit to the average Joe’s (saved or unsaved) just don’t “get it”. Therefore, and this is above my “pay grade” maybe we need to consider, and I know all circumstances are different, placing more emphasis upon drawing folks to Christ first!

  4. Father,

    It’s easy to say the data says the sex-abuse scandal isn’t a contributor factor to the decline in converts, but people who I talk to who know I am Catholic and they aren’t… That’s the first thing they bring up to me.

    “How could you be a part of a church that condones abuse of children?”

    I of course point to the fact that the media plays up the role of the church and downplays the role in other institutions where sex abuse is either the same or higher.

    My point is, while people may say it’s not a contributor factor to keep them from entering the church, I can tell you that it’s very much on the minds of people and how they view our Church.

    Damage control probably is needed, but being vocal evangelists about our faith will probably win more hearts than not.

    I hope that this trend can be reversed.

    1. Well, people who are already critical of the Church look for more reasons to dislike her. It doesn’t sound like people to whom you refer had any intention of entering the Church anyway. But I am glad you keep working. As a door to door evangelizer I don’t always think that I get the real story from those who say they don’t like the Church. Another common thing said is, “All they care about is money” Yeah right, an easy dismissal but something more is going on.

      1. My experience has been the same as Jeff’s. I am very vocal about my faith. I am a blue collar worker and work with mostly blue collar types. The sex abuse scandal is constantly brought up in any discussion about the Church that lasts more than 3 minutes. It has become a “trump card” that is thrown down no matter what the topic started out to be or how kind or logical my presentation of the faith is. I have considered keeping my mouth shut because of the derision that always follows.

  5. Any man’s personal sin will NEVER keep me away from The BODY, BLOOD , SOUL and DIVINITY of my Lord and Savior JESUS CHRIST! Go to confession,pray the Rosary. Like St. John, bring the BLESSED MOTHER into your home. The Church has been here long before this current trap was sprung. Pray for the guilty and stand with the stouthearted,which are the vast majority of our priests! Molly, don’t struggle, get a copy of the Catechism, a Catholic Bible and find the nearest Eucharistic Chapel and lay your cares on the Lord! (for at least an hour)

    1. Well said, Bruce. Anyone who uses scandals to walk away from the Church was not really in it in the first place. Reading your responses, I am puzzled no one mentions the Divine Mercy Message of Jesus through St. Faustina. Here, we have the most powerful weapon to Evangelize, becoming Eucharistic Apostles of the Divine Mercy, praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet every day in addition to the Holy Rosary. For those who can, daily attendance of the 3.00 O’clock Holy Hour Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament and Holy Mass, frequent reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. These commitments to our Faith and the spreading of the Message of Divine Mercy will bring about tremendeous revival of the Faith in those Countries where, at the moment, it appears as if mankind has kicked God out of the window and installed Satan on the Throne. Let us try this, along with the very positive recommendations stated above. And God will do the rest.

  6. People have to know their faith in order to be able to spread it. One thing not mentioned here as a potential cause of our decline is the awful catachesis that has taken place in the last generation. Both parents and educators are to blame. I would highly recommend to would-be evangelists: Take some time to know your faith. You will surely be questioned on it by those you are attempting to evangelize. Don’t lean on your faulty religious education… pick up a Catechism and find out for yourself. Catholic Radio is a great way to learn about your faith, too, if you have it in your area.

  7. Epistle 239
    My some thoughts about “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, in the homily, Msgr. Charles Pope mentioned issue “number of converts to Catholicism continuing to decline – You know what to do”.
    Here, convert (noun) is someone who has changed their religious or political beliefs, and convert (verb) is that if someone converts you, they persuade you to change your religious or political beliefs. You can also say that someone converts to a different religion.
    Thus, theme of the homily is the word convert including noun and verb.
    Secondly, now permit me to say some my thoughts to relate to the theme of the homily hereafter:
    From 2000 to 2004, when I came to Islam, Buddhism (including Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism) and the Catholic Church, I didn’t concern about what called “convert” because I only want to learn “mysteries” of religions.
    At Mai Khoi Monastery, I was learned Catholic Theology (Catechism of the Church) in a class with around 50 Catholics. That is what I wanted because I prayed to Allah, Buddha, and God with hundreds of time that if I was learned, I will become a believer of that religion.
    Thus, I became a Catholic from that day because God accepted my prayer as stated above.
    However, there was a great event for me. That is when I learn at Mai Khoi Monastery on 2004, I was a party member of Vietnamese Communist Party from 1983 and a Doctor of Socialist Political Economy from 1996, I thought that a party member has a right to follow God. This is liberty of religion of party members.
    But Vietnamese Communist Party didn’t think as I did. It deleted my name from its party-list from April 2010.
    As a result, I became a full Catholic from that day.
    Thus, Vietnamese Communist Party admitted that I am a full Catholic.
    I have thought that just God caused Vietnamese Communists decided so.
    Finally, I am a “convert” (noun) as well as “convert” (verb)./.

  8. Msgr. Pope is correct in that the abuse scandal is an excuse for most. Their true underlying motive for not entering the church is their secularist, materialistic mentality and they don’t want to be accountable to anyone.

    We have had unprecedented prosperity since the eighties (based on unreasonable debt), and man does not do well spiritually when prosperous physically. Most have been saying that they will tear down their barns and build bigger ones (luke 12). Well, we are now on the edge, and mankind will soon reap what it has sown.

      1. Very good point! The US and western Europe are the wealthiest and most comfortable parts of the world. Those are also the parts of the world where the numbers of Catholics have dropped most significantly.

        Here is a study I found online about wealth in relation to religiousness:

        And an article about it by an atheist:

  9. Thank you, Msgr, for this post. I just read an article blaming female altar servers on a decline in priestly vocations, but I think low birth rate is to blame. As one of two children becoming a nun would have meant depriving my parents of half their children for support later in life as well as of half their grandchildren, and leaving my sister without a sibling. My refusal to become a religious was very much shaped by the size of my family of origin and I imagine potential priests from small families feel much the same way.

  10. On big factor that the CARA blog doesn’t address directly is the generational change. RCIA is traditionally a young adult thing because the majority were entering for marriage/family reasons and the Millennial generation is in prime RCIA age territory. We are on the edge of demographic precipice.

    The marriage rate of millennials is dropping (fewer are getting married at all) and fewer of those who are getting married are getting married in the Church. Only between 10 -17% of Catholic millennials attend Mass every week in any case (numbers from 2 of CARA’s recent studies) so there are fewer “practicing” Catholics among them who would draw their fiancees in.

    I think we also have to remember that 2000 was the Jubilee and the high point of JPII’s fame – with his iconic trip to the Holy Land. The convert rate peaked then and again after JP II’s massively publicized funeral and has dropped like a stone so massive positive publicity might be one factor. The public news stories during Pope Benedict’s papacy have been pretty grim overall. In any case, the convert rate has dropped roughly 35%.

    CARA’s figures are somewhat different from those derived from the US Bishop’s website but the overall trend is exactly the same.

  11. Catholics make the church grow with explosive force perpetually at Mudjugorge at the hefty cost of airfare and personal inconvenience without evidence that anything supernaturally out of the ordinary is occurring there.

    Conversion away from the need for an exotic locale for the ordinary expressions of faith in confessions, Mass and prayer would solve some of our issues at home.

  12. Regarding “correlation”: Sometimes it takes a while for a cause to have an effect, to sink in, and to affect on. It also depends on external repercussions of that cause, and subsequent external facts. For example, a person may or may not leave the Church or refrain from entering the Church because of the initial cause, say news of sexual abuse, in a given year but when one reads day after day, year after year, of new cases or new information relating to past cases, this all has its effect.

    1. Perhaps. I would like to see data on this however, and it seems consistently missing in the answers people provide as to why they leave or just lack interest in the Church.

  13. Always seem to refer to statistics, I am looking for the ministry of older Catholics who will preach or just witness to college students and younger. .

  14. Can we put it this way: the sex abuse scandal – meaning both the criminal acts themselves and the spectacularly mismanaged communication of the Church’s response – does nothing to bring the fallen back or encourage the lukewarm to embrace.

  15. I know, yes: to give to men the (true) Catholicism again… A fake one doesn’t have any appeal!

  16. One thing I observe in the Church is a near universal passivity on the part of adult Catholics who, for all intents and purposes, were raised Catholic, attended Catholic schools, and who faithfully participate in the sacramental life of the CHurch. These good people were never before or since told to go out there and evanglize. Nor were they ever given training or instruction on how to do that effectively. They just arent’ used to it, can’t get used to it, won’t do it. It is useless to encourage the adult faithful to evangelize when they don’t know how. Teach the teachers first. Then turn ’em loose. Also, don’t hamstring them by complaining that they’re trampling on your priestly territory when they, like you, preach from the rooftops. Most lay cradle Catholics believe that evangelization is the job of priests–not theirs. The youth may, especially after exciting experiences like World Youth Day, see themselves as evangelizers. But, the data show their numbers are not as great as those of adults–and declining. Teach adult faithful to do the work of evangelization. Those CARA numbers can turn around. Don’t be like Pharaoh telling the Hebrews to make bricks without straw.

    1. As a convert 06-07 the RCIA class was lukewarm if not dumbed down. We did not study the Creed, and the director (educated) in one of the last classes said the Hail Mary so quickly the class thought it a joke.

      1. Caecelia, You’ve hit the nail on the head. As has been stated here by others: You can’t pass on what you don’t have. RCIA in many parishes prepares catechumens for a liturgy not a lifetime in the Church. That’s not the official intent (check with the USCCB on this); but that’s what happens to many. You’re kind of on your own to get a good education in what the Church believes. So too are Catholics who’ve had decades of Catholic education that failed to hand on the teaching of the Apostles. Recently, I had a New Testament Greek student who learned for the first time in our class that the Our Father Prayer, when it says “give us this day our daily bread”, is not just talking about earthly bread. It’s talking about the heavenly bread of the Eucharist. She said that was the first time she’d heard that! “I’ve never heard such a thing; not in 12 years of Catholic schooling. They never taught us that!” What do you say? “Your 12, and likely expensive, years of Catholic schooling were a rip off”? I referred her to the Catechism and to the Catechism of the Council of Trent–both of which say the same thing. Faithful good people in our Church are wallowing in ignorance. They become the prey of demagogues and strong personalities. They do not have what they need; and, in ignorance, settle for second best. If we are to ‘sell’ the Church, we’ve got to know our inventory. Crack open your Catechism and start in.

  17. With respect, the abuse crisis, including the often grossly incompetent and even arguably criminally negligent conduct of many Bishops did in fact cause many to leave, while it justified the decisions of others who had already done so. One commentary in a New York paper about a year ago put it succinctly, when it wrote that for an entire generation of youths the Church will be for the remainder of their lives a bad punch line. I hope and pray that is not entirely true, but I fear for many it will be. In the same way the liturgical changes were both a cause for some, and a justification for others. Global secularization is the main cause to be certain, however the problem was certainly made manifestly worse by the deliberate concerted effort to hide and protect child rapists, while reducing the liturgy either though their action or inaction into something akin to a game show, a position sadly reinforced I think with the rather unfortunate attached youtube clip which includes men animating themselves very much like teenage girls.

  18. Thank you for your post. I look forward to your follow up on how to evangelize. I tried to help the numbers. I was one of the a little over 140,000 converts in 2004.

  19. Magistra Bona,
    I think you just hit the nail on the head, I have been a Catholic for 6 years and was never evangelized.
    My daughter who is a methodist told me Catholics belive that the bread and wine became the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and at that moment The Holy Sprit gave me a hunger for the Body and Blood of Christ . I joined as soon as I could. Spread the word!!!

    1. Maybe it is as simple as this: The call has gone out; many have been called but few have listened or many have slumbered or are too weak to reply. TURN UP THE VOLUME! PUMP IT UP! GET THE WORD OUT! TURN UP THE HEAT! MOVE IT! MOVE IT! MOVE IT! WHEN WE “BREATHE CATHOLIC” WE MUST ALSO “SPEAK CATHOLIC” IN THE SAME BREATH. EVANGELIZE!

  20. I think there are a variety of factors at work in the drop off of Catholic practice, but they all revolve around a central idea.

    It is a tautology to suggest the reason their are fewer Catholics is “secularization”. Oh… very well then, why is there more secularization? In reality it is simply another name for the same phenomena. The question remains: Why is religion and more specifically Catholicism no longer meaningful? I agree we should actually look at the evidence to suggest a theory.

    First of all there is something happening to Catholicism . Lets look at Mass attendance ( The following data are cited in Kenneth Jones’s book the “Index of leading Catholic Indicators” ) Immediately after WW II Attendance was at its peak at 75%. There was a slight drop thereafter where it remained about 65% more or less until about 1965, when it began to precipitously decline. If one compares Protestant service attendance one does not observe this. What one sees is a relatively flat and low level of Church attendance since 1939. A nearly identical trend can be observed in the number of seminarians, Diocese run Catholic schools, Baptisms and Converts. All of these things are flat or increasing peaking on about 1965, and then declining at an increasing rate. to levels that are similar to religious observance as practiced by mainstream Protestants in about 1939. That is the data. What to make of it?

    1) Vatican II at the very least did not mitigate any of this. If I give a patient a medicine and all of his vital functions collapse following its administration, it is simply malpractice to keep giving it! One can argue that perhaps the patient was “sick” before it ( As in essence Monsignor Pope does). Well…maybe. But a physician would assume at best the medicine was useless, and potentially it made things worse. I would submit that while as Catholics we must believe that Vatican II as an ecumenical council in terms of its official teaching and documents is protected by the Holy Spirit from error, the changes produced as practical implementations of the council were either useless and maybe even harmful. There is an old dictum in medicine, if what you are doing is not helping the patient, stop doing it.

    2) What changes post Vatican II are the most damaging? Unfortunately there is no direct evidence that helps us here, so we must conjure up a theory. What physicians do in the absence of data is rely on clinical experience. Permit me to do that here. One of my Children is 16 attends a “Catholic” high school. He recently completed one of his classes in moral theology. Interestingly the class never mentioned heaven, hell, sin, etc.. but was all about love, community, and good choices. Even more interestingly last year in his confirmation prep, he was reassured that “atheists can be good people too”. His observation on what his fellow students take away from all this is as follows.: most of the kids thing ok fine Jesus loves me… So what? How is my life any different because of that ? Indeed how is it? Is the absence of a sense of sin does Christianity have any coherence? Most sermons now days tell us Jesus died to save us from death… Whatever does this mean to the modern man? We all still manifestly die… What are we “saved” from? They used to say it was damnation, but this is a very old fashioned way of talking. Still To dance around this in our time is to make Christianity meaningless. In a world where the emphasis is that Jesus loves us where we are at… in fact he loves us even if we argue he does not exist, ( our “good atheist”) I am not sure why it is urgent that I become a Christian? Of course that does not square with the Biblical Christ saying ” I am the way, the Truth and the Life, none get to the Father but through me” but these days that line is not in vogue,. It is so watered down as to be erased.

    3) In the wake of Vatican II there has been enormous change, in liturgy, prayer, moral theology, etc.. What the all share it seems to me, is an effort to make God less awesome and fearful and more like us. In fact this was a central theme of Protestantism at the very beginning of its existence and explains why mainline protestantism was in the boat we are now in 1939. We now have the kind of God who loves us so much, he can not possibly demand atonement for sin. In fact it is not clear what sin really is. The Mass is not a sacrifice, but rather a community celebration, the priest is not a priest but a celebrant. This is simply not a thrill for most people. If I need celebration I will go to a party. No.. what I need is to a sacrifice to atone for my sins. Back when I was a kid the Baltimore Catechism made it pretty clear, if you wanted to avoid hell you had to be a Catholic, oh sure there were exceptions, people who were “invincibly ignorant” and would become Catholic if they were shown the truth. But once you were shown you had a moral duty to accept it. As The catechism put it:

    “167. What do we mean when we say, “Outside the Church there is no salvation?”

    “When we say, “Outside the Church there is no salvation,” we mean that Christ made the Catholic Church a necessary means of salvation and commanded all to enter it, so that a person must be connected with the Church in some way to be saved.”

    If this is what is taught now days I am missing something. Now days I rarely hear anything that makes a compelling case that I need Catholicism. I have taken your advice Monsignor. My wife and I are friends with a younger couple who are “fallen away Catholics”. To some extent they might describe themselves as agnostic. Because of their friendship with us they have at times gone to Mass, but I am struck by their comment.. They just don’t need that.. The homily and the songs sing of “healing our brokenness, our woundedness… ” Frankly these folks are young and happy… they do not feel broken or wounded at all. Indeed they do not need what is currently in our post Vatican II Church being sold. What they are (like all of us) are sinful.. What they need is the grace to save their souls. But sadly this is not on the radar screen, and frankly this kind of thing is difficult for a “friend” to share without coming across as self righteous. At the end of the day this thing must be presented by someone who stands above the rest of us. By someone who can speak for Christ, maybe like a Bishop or a Priest. People including me are not “broken”.. they are often quite happy, Mysteriously The problem is that we are addicted to forms of happiness that include lust, avarice, sloth, etc That is we are not broken. .what we are is “bad” So while often we are quite content to live lives of sense gratification, our long run happiness, that is our salvation is what is at risk. We need to be in the Church to obtain the grace to be good, to recognize we are not good. Certainly not good when compared to an infinitely just and holy God.

    This message has disappeared in the wake of the changes of Vatican II. It is the reason the Church exists. Without it, there is no logic to being a Christian. The losses will continue until someone with the power to change things can do so..

  21. Christ’s love draws us humans individually to Himself and His Grace to maturity within His Church. Without His love for others present within each of us and His love witnessed within His Church we are not following His example/leadership. He began all things with unselfish love for His children whoever and wherever they might be on their unique path in this world.

  22. MRD is on point…

    I think people still yearn for the sacred and the awe of divine mystery, but the Catholic church hasn’t offered that since Vatican II (Tridentine mass not withstanding). With the Church’s embrace of ecumenism and cultural and religious relativism, She has lost her moral authority. It also doesn’t help that the church on the corner looks like a gymnasium.

  23. MRD made several good points. We, like mainline Protestants in the first half of the 20th century, have made God too “nice” and sin only something that “bad” or “sick” people have to deal with. Interestingly, some Evangelicals criticize the mega-churches for the same thing. America seems ripe for this sort of cheapening of the faith. Churches compete for members. They have since the Great Awakening of about 1800. Once one fears membership is going down, one tries to attract them back with ….. whatever.

    Until JFK’s election and Vatican II, we did things so differently and were so “ethnic” that formed a barrier to cultural changes. That all changed in the 1960s. Here in the Chicago area, Catholic identity seemed so wrapped up in ethnic/family customs, devotions, the local Democratic ward organizations, certain sports teams, loyalty to parish and Catholic high schools, that one’s “faith” was just a social thing. The book “Faithful Departed” handles this with regard to Boston. Then of course we were told, “We don’t do that any more” with out distinguishing traditions from Tradition. By the late 1980s matters had improved under John Paul II but too many ex-Catholics were out there voicing their complaints, sometimes in comedy clubs or TV shows.

    Generally Catholics are not trained to share their faith. It’s considered “Fundie” or pushy or in bad taste. And often those who do have picked up End Times ideas from TV evangelists etc. I myself came back to Christ with the help of Evangelicals in a mainline Presbyterian congregation but even then I knew something was missing.

    Sadly many are just too comfortable in America. I have to battle lust, sloth, doubt, and fear every day. Perhaps the current troubles are meant to purify us, but we must trust in Jesus Christ, not in our social situation.

  24. Monsignor:

    With all due respect it is this myopic view of what’s wrong with the Church on the part of the hierarchy that is the real cause of the problem. That myopic view refuses to recognize the fact that the reason conversions are down is because thanks to the “modernizations” in the Church people no longer see any big difference betwen Catholicism and Protestantism. You can deny that all you wish, like the CEOs of Coca-Cola denied that there was any problem with their ill-fated New Coke, but the reality is quite clear to the man in the pew.

    The growth in conversions in the 1990s which you point out came about in spite of, not because of, the ugly Novus Ordo, and most of that growth was in Africa anyway, along with a relatively higher birthrate in Latin American countries, still mostly Catholic. But when the Church cut Herself off from 2,000 years of tradition without so much as a by-your-leave the rot set in quickly.

    Yes, contraception has done its dirty work – but so has NFP, Monsignor, something else the Church refuses to face up to. Everyone on God’s good earth knows perfectly well that NFP is nothing more than Catholic-sanctioned birth control, just as the horrible annullment mills are nothing more than Catholic divorce centers. So we stop must kidding ourselves. If the executives at the top refuse to admit the problems, they are going to simply get worse. Our present Holy Father appears to recognize at least some of the problems, and has taken a few baby steps in order to correct them, but it is going to take a lot, lot more to bring back any kind of restoration.

    These modernizations also provided fertile ground for the fungus-like growth of homosexual predators entering the holy priesthood, an infestation unprecedented in the Church’s 2,000 year history. But to give you a good example of why this problem is not going to go away anytime soon, Church leaders STILL refuse to call the problem by its obvious name: homosexuality. They, like the media they are so terrified of, use euphamisms like “pedophilia” (when in fact it is “ephebephilia” – homosexual men buggering adolescent boys). Since they cannot even bring themselves to use the word sodomy, what hope do we have that the problem will be corrected soon?

    You can sit back and watch your dwindling Novus Ordo parishes die out, close down and get sold off all you like. As for me I will continue to attend a growing community of worshippers at the ancient rite Masses I attend. I have, Monsignor, the evidence of my own eyes to tell me where the problems are.

    1. Well I do wear glasses. But, I am not sure we disagree on much of what you have said. But as to the final point, there just isn’t any data that backs up your claim that large numbers of people are wanting a return to the old mass. Neither do they cite liturgy as to why they leave or fail to enter the Church. I love and celebrate the TLM and it is true that the people I serve are an intense and fervent group, but still very small. That said, I also know many fervent Catholics in moments other than the TLM. Further, if liturgy is the key to the problem, as you state, then it is the Old Mass that is to blame for what happened to the Church the youth and young clergy that threw the revolution in the late 60s were all raised on that. Those who rejected humanae vitae were all raised with the TLM and had the Baltimore Catechism as their main text. Let me be clear that I do not think the TLM IS to blame, I’m just using your logic.

      Further still, the lavender mafia was up an running long before Vatican II and according to the data supplied by the criminal justice system, reported clergy sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church spiked, starting in the late 1950s and has dropped to almost zero by 2005.

      Yet even further, it is entirely speculative in trying to say what would have happened had we not changed the Mass. Who really knows? As far as the “evidence of your own eyes” please appreciate that the Church is very large and diverse compared to what your eyes see. There may actually be some things that you can’t see or don’t want to see. The TLM community you are part of must be a wonderful experience for you. I am glad. But there are bigger things at work that the liturgy alone. There have been huge swings in our culture starting in the early to mid 60s for which the Church that emerged from the 1950s was wholly unprepared to deal with.

      If liturgy is the reason, as you state, then how explain that the revolutionaries all emerged from the glory days of the 1950s when the TLM was celebrated everywhere and the Churches were full? I am not sure I am the only one with myopia. Open your eyes a little wider and tell me culture has nothing to do with it and that the Church of the 1950s was really as great as many seem to think.

      Oh, and by the way Dan, your use of the word “your” (as in your dwindling Novus ordo parishes…..) is an arrogant tone that doesn’t win friends or converts. “We” are your brothers and sisters Dan. It is the sort of tone you and too many vocal ones in the TLM community exhibit that I am convinced explains why interest in the TLM has leveled off in most dioceses. Arrogance is very unappealing. God hates pride, He just can’t stand it. Make room in your heart for us Dan.

  25. As a 19 yr. old convert to the faith, I’ve found that the priestly sex abuse scandal is more the excuse, rather than the cause, of Catholics leaving the faith. I have met one person who was personally affected by said scandal, but the vast majority merely find the Church “outdated” or “dead feeling.” They often resort to livelier nondenominational congregations with rock bands, etc.

    This does not, however, imply that we should have rock bands in Church (though it’s a possibility). In my opinion, the primary solution is not merely evangelization, but education and Catechesis.

    Doing door to door evangelism may have some positive effect on the overall conception of the Catholic Church in society, but it will not bring people in the door. Friendship and love in our current relationships is the real solution. We may find it easier to go door to door because we only have to witness for 30 min or so at most to one particular person. It’s much harder to live that witness 24/7 to one’s protestant or non-Christian brethren (of course, I am sure that most, if not all, involved in door to door evangelism actually live out this 24/7 witness to the best of their ability, I just think it’s ineffective).

    In my life before Catholicism, I had a large number of misconceptions about Catholicism, and even when those misconceptions were corrected, I still felt an emotional drive away from Catholicism, one that only a close Catholic friend’s witness could assuage. It took a lot of work from the Holy Spirit to get me to RCIA.

    My main point is this: Many protestant denominations have resorted to pale imitation of cultural music and revivalism to bring in parishoners. While effective in the short term, it eventually serves only to gloss over the deep truths of the faith and reduce the distinction between the world and the church; in essence, these communities are marginalizing themselves. This is readily apparent to me as I find others who, like myself, were ignorant of concepts even as basic as the names of the Persons of the Trinity.

    We should not make the same mistake as the protestants. Rather than shallowly imitating western culture and resorting to superficial revivalism, we need long-term relationship based evangelism and – most especially – back to the basics catechesis, and a HEAVY emphasis on doctrine and belief, and not merely practice.

    We must learn WHAT we preach before we can preach it, and we need to know WHY we preach so we truly recognize the necessity of doing so.

    1. Yes, this is well said. I would only add the scriptural distinction that the knowledge of the faith we are looking for for is experiential knowledge (ginosko) more than merely informational knowing (odia). True evangelization begins when we go from merely knowing about the Lord to knowing the Lord. I think you are saying this. I just want to make the distinction clear.

  26. Monsignor:

    I think the Holy Spirit is reducing the number of entrants in the Church to match the decline in vocations. At some point both statistics will match and the Church wil be rightsized. (rightsized is a term used in business when they are getting ready to lay people off.)

    1. I remember years ago “predicting” that the laity crisis would catch up to the vocation crisis. For even the 1980s it became clear that we had a generation of Catholics who were not raised to believe that it was a serious sin to miss Mass.

  27. Catechism, anyone? Gee. It’s not like it’s a banned book! You can get a cheap copy on Amazon. Just get one, and dig in. For Tom above: “Embrace tradition”. (We all need a hug, even tradition.) But what is “tradition”? The word comes from the Latin tradere, “to hand over”. Christ taught the Apostles and any disciples, street people, and housewives who were listening. The Apostles handed on the teaching of Christ to the first leaders and laity of the Church. The tradition has been handed on to all of us. It’s everyone’s responsibility to receive it, take good care of it, and send it on in good shape to the next generation or the next frontier. When we consider the poor catechesis of even the ’50’s generation, obviously someone dropped the ball. In a game, at this point, the refs would call for a stoppage in play and get both teams back in position. Ordinary lay people, celebrities or not, may do more to correct this problem than priests and nuns. Just read your Catechism. Notice whether or not you are hearing the same ideas from the pulpit. You have a gold standard to judge by. Don’t settle for dross.

  28. I became Catholic after I married my husband. I went to church with him and I knew I wanted the spiritual peace he had after mass. I went to RCIA classes and was very excited. I put my 3 children in RCIA classes. The church seemed at first pretty excited when we signed up. Then when the children were baptised/confirmed and took thier first Eucharist on Easter almost two years ago that was it. There was no follow up…no would you like to get involved in anything. My oldest daughter turned 18 and is in college. There is no one who asks about her or my family. We were godparents to a child we pushe to get baptised at 4 years old. Where were the priests asking her family about her? I asked about renting the parish hall for a baby shower for my brother in law’s brand new wife of about a week now. He is trying to convince her to become Catholic and to go to church with him. I spoke with the church secretary at our parish and asked about renting the hall not because it was the cheapest but that it would help our church, get my new sister in law around the church and be central in the community. She didn’t call me back after several days, when she did she stated it was only for parishners. When I said I am a parishner she said oh really like she didn’t believe me and was very rude. She said she would have to ask the priest to see if it was ok. I changed my mind about the parish hall. I will be using the city’s civic center now.

    If you cannot take care of your new converts and don’t even bother asking about them or about families that are brought to your attention why would more people want to join?

    I feel like a number and they are only looking for our donations but don’t care about us.
    They certainly don’t forget about us when they are sending the donation letters from the diocese or the collection envelopes for our tithes.

    1. Your issue is unfortunately such a common one. I grew up in a very dynamic parish, and a great deal of my education in life was marked by the quality of priests and their insistence on being part of the lives of their parishioners. Then I came to Washington DC for college, and I realized, that wasn’t the norm everywhere. I tried so many parishes, and I saw so many people going through the motions, and priests who behaved awkward and standoffishly. They saw their congregation as a number that somehow affirmed that they as the clergy and staff must be following the ways of Truth if God would bless them with more numbers. It seemed to me that they were addicted to building up parishes without following through with the obligation a parish has to serve its members of its community as well as the community itself. I’m hoping with renewed focus on New Evangelization techniques, we will enter a time of renewal in the Church’s history, but personally, I’ve grown very disillusioned with Catholicism for this very reason. If you want people, you have to aspire to more than the bare minimum.

  29. I would agree with Monsignor Pope that the chief reasons for the decline in conversions would not necessarily be the clergy sex scandals and the changes in the Mass and confusions attendant upon Vatican II or even changes in the cultural environment of the Church between, say, 1960 and today.

    I would say that the decline in conversions is due to two major factors: The decline in the numbers of people available to convert – by 56,000,000 since 1973 due to the Supreme Court’s decision on making abortion legal – and poorly catechized Catholics who aren’t really conversant with the Faith and Practice of the Church, the Scriptures or the Power of God and consequently have no real living relationship with the Lord.

    I would also say that the fundamental reasons why the clergy sex scandals happened and why the Church found it very difficult to come to grips with an increasingly secularizing culture were the above factors – which are fundamentally catechetical and spiritual and pastoral rather than being fundamentally intellectual or even political.

    How is one going to evangelize – to show forth the Face of Christ – to bring others to Christ – if he lacks (a) a thorough knowledge of the Faith, (b) a sufficient knowledge of the Word of God, and (c) a lively knowledge of the Power of God the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit?

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