Some recent data available over at the CARA Blog presents a sober picture for the Church in the decade ahead. I have long suspected that the 25% of Catholics who attend Mass today was a number that is going to drop quickly, as the last generation to be widely taught that missing Mass is a mortal sin steps off the scene. It would seem that the stage is happening for that.
Here are some excerpts from the CARA blog written by Mark Gray:
…Despite a decade of turmoil and change, many things among the adult Catholic population have remained quite steady. Mass attendance levels have shown no significant change since CARA began measuring these nationally…. Affiliation has hovered just under a quarter [25%] of the population for decades with a considerable number of reverts coming back to the Church after leaving in their youth. Immigration has also bolstered Catholic ranks—albeit not to the magnitude most assume. But there is also a potentially significant problem looming.
From 1995 to 2004 there was about one Catholic infant baptism for every four births in the United States. This is how Catholicism remains a quarter of the population…..[But]…The U.S. birth cohort for 2011 was 20.1% Catholic. It has never been this low in the post-World War II era.
This leads to two possibilities-one being more likely than the other:
1. Catholics are just as likely to baptize their children now as in the past but they are having significantly fewer children than non-Catholics. Possible but unlikely.
2. Catholics are just as likely as non-Catholics to have children but are less likely to baptize these children than in the past. More probable.
The type of ground being lost by the Church will not be easy to make up. Without many baptisms of tweens and teens the Catholic population percentage will begin to decline later in the next decade as older Catholics…pass on to be replaced in the adult population by these smaller percentage younger cohorts.
But the news may be even worse. Not all those baptized remain Catholic as adults. Many who leave the faith do so before reaching the age of 18….It is true that the Catholic retention rate is among the highest of any of the Christian faiths. But this has also been declining in recent years.
Why is this happening? It’s difficult to say. Jumping to “common sense” conclusions can often lead to embarrassing results once the data are all in. Recall that…many seemed to think that the Catholics who had left the faith must have done so in response to clergy sex abuse of minors…a follow-up study in 2009 found that few who had left cited this as a cause…I’d also be hesitant to say this is simply secularization (another favorite theory of those who report/comment on religion but who seem mostly unaware of the academic research on the topic) as it does not appear some of these parents are personally leaving the faith themselves.
There are other possible explanations:
1. Are some Catholics in interfaith marriages navigating the baptism decision differently than Catholics who marry other Catholics?
2. Are Catholics who have children outside of marriage less likely to baptize them as infants?
3. Are many foreign-born parents taking their infants to their country of origin for baptism?
4. Has there been a shift in culture regarding the appropriate age for baptism?
5. Has a reversal of immigration patterns since the recession led to fewer Catholics of child bearing age in the U.S. population?
6. Are changing conceptions of God, heaven, and hell creeping into baptismal decision making (i.e., “my child doesn’t need baptism right away”)
7. Is this simply a case of Catholicism losing its “periphery” with self-identified Catholics who used to baptize children but rarely go to church no longer even choosing to baptize (…while maintaining their own Catholic identity)?
We may one day call the post-2004 Catholic cohorts the “Baby Buster Generation” if current trends continue. I am often one to caution overreactions to any piece of data. But its hard not to think that there is a pressing need to solve this mystery. Oddly it’s not about what so many others highlight about Catholics personally leaving the faith. Instead it’s about too few infants entering it.
These are excerpts, the Full article by Mark Gray is here: The Growing Mystery of Missing Catholic Infants.
I would choose to highlight # 6 just above since I tend to think in pastoral terms. I also highlight it because, frankly, I find very little sense of urgency among Catholics in anything related to death, judgement, Heaven and Hell.
After a fairly steady diet of the “everyone is basically going to heaven” mentality in the last fifty years, it is pretty hard to rouse Catholics as a group to any sense of urgency, or that their decisions ultimately matter all that much. To most Catholics whether a person goes to Mass or not, prays or does not, is baptized or is not, goes to confession or does not, none of this really seems to matter much. In the end God is just going to take every one in except a few very mean people like Stalin and Hitler.
Never mind that all of this runs directly counter to the consistent Biblical teaching, most of it right from the mouth of Jesus. No one loves us more than Jesus Christ, and yet no one spoke of judgement, and Hell more than Jesus. And frankly he spoke of it in vivid and even shocking terms! The parables of judgement and the utterances of some very vivid and shocking phrases such as
- I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Mat 7:23)
- Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Mat 25:41),
- Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ (Lk 13:25)
- And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matt 25:30).
- Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matt 7:13-14)
But never mind all this. The modern Catholic has either forgotten all this, thinks of it merely as an exaggeration, or has collected teachers to tickle his ears and tell him that what the texts plainly say and teach, they don’t actually mean.
So why come to Church, why hasten to receive sacraments? And who really needs to get their baby baptized in the first weeks after birth as Canon Law requires (canon 867; cf also Catechism # 1250).
There is very little urgency among Catholics for anything, very little sense of drama when it comes to the decisions people make.
Are we clergy to blame? Sure. We’re not the only ones, frankly a lot of lay people don’t really want to hear too much of the unvarnished truth either, and some can give the few clergy who dare to utter it a real headache for doing it.
But in the end we clergy have failed to sound an alarm. And, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? (1 Cor 14:8) Somewhere along the line we stopped talking about sin and its consequences, or of the necessity of grace and the sacraments to even stand a chance of overcoming stubborn, sinful and disordered human drives. The medicine of the sacraments only makes sense if I know that I am sick and that the Sacraments can help.Yes we clergy, at least collectively have failed to sound an alarm. Centuries ago, Pope St. Gregory reproached such silence with these words: Anyone ordained a priest undertakes the task of preaching, so that with a loud cry he may go on ahead of the terrible judge who follows. If, then, a priest does not know how to preach, what kind of cry can such a dumb herald utter? …The Lord reproaches them through the prophet: They are dumb dogs that cannot bark. (Pastoral Guide, (Lib 2, 4: PL 77, 30-31))
Now again, I don’t have all sorts of survey data to back up my hunch about the reason for the drop that seems to be occurring. Take it for what it is, the hunch of a pastor whose been at the helm awhile.
I will say, I have tried to be very frank with my people over the years. I am well known to say, “Go to Mass or go to Hell” (i.e. missing Mass is a mortal sin). I am also always quoting John 6:53 “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood you have no life in you.” I am also (in)famous for my funeral sermons wherein I usually hit hard with a come to Jesus talk. I was not born yesterday and I know that most people at most funerals are unchurched, so I exhort them at one of the few times I have them as a captive audience.
In the end there are probably a good number of reasons for the drop. But something tells me it is long past time for some unvarnished truth, truth given in love to be sure, but dainty and subtle methods have been tried and found wanting.
Here’s an excerpt from my (in)famous funeral sermon: