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….
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.
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.