A Recent Look at the Numbers Says it’s Time for Some Unvarnished Truth

021113-pope-2Some 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

  1. I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Mat 7:23)
  2. Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Mat 25:41),
  3. 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)
  4. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matt 25:30).
  5. 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:

22 Replies to “A Recent Look at the Numbers Says it’s Time for Some Unvarnished Truth”

  1. I’m glad you aren’t canonizing those who you are burying, Msgr. So many priests do.

    I’m the oldest of 16 children born in 18 years. I am 68 and my youngest sibling is 50. Between us, we have 40 nieces and nephews and 45 grandnieces and grandnephews – so far. I love them all and I know, in their own way, they love me. BUT I am the crazy sister/aunt/grandaunt to most of them. I was educated in a different time – pre-Vatican II – I lived in a different world and we don’t talk the same language. We are broken into three groups – the older – the middle – and the younger sibs. Twelve of us are still alive so we are pretty much broken into 4-4-4 (four conservatives, four independents, and four liberals) and this is in religion as well as politics. There were nine girls (now eight) and the first five were girls. My father was strict and so was the world about most things. My poor father died when he was only 52, leaving my mother to raise ten children alone at a time when big families were no longer seen as wonderful as they had been when I was little. Mom was overwhelmed and was not the disciplinarian my father was so the middle and younger sibs got away with things that would never have been tolerated when the older sibs were young. They were not taught what we older ones were taught. Even though we all went to Catholic school, the last eight don’t know – or care much – about what the Church teaches – and their children and grandchildren are being raised with the same indifference to sin. We have children born out of wedlock and the parents wait years to get married so they are thin and have the money for a big wedding – IF they get married. Most do but they divorce easily. They don’t want to be judged so they don’t judge anyone or anything – and they think those who do are bigots. It is painful to be seen as the right-wing religious fanatic but, I guess that is what I am. I pray for them and hope they will come to see the importance of putting the Lord in the center of their lives. Jesus, I trust in You!

  2. >After a fairly steady diet of the “everyone is basically going to heaven” mentality in the last fifty years …

    You got that right. Especially at funerals. It seems like the only requirement to get to heaven is to die.

    In terms of lower church attendance, I would not downplay the impact of the homily. It’s hardly worth getting out of bed to listen to most Catholic homilies, and if you have to be insulted by the childish music first, … well.

  3. Number 1 intrigues me, as a revert to the Faith who is married to a Protestant. Our first child was baptized in a Protestant communion months after he was born. Our most recent, after my reversion, was baptized within weeks in the Church.

  4. I wish you were the priest at our church. I love him dearly, but he doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or ruffle any feathers. We need to be ruffled! God bless you for leading the way.

  5. As you have often taught Msgr. Pope, God has a different view of time. Our world has such short attention spans that it will take an enormous amount of teaching and preaching to get us back to a lived Faith. I converted in the late 90’s at a church with the most shockingly liberal religious orders having responsibility for the parish. We have moved since then but I have heard that they actually had a Right to Life drive by the Knights of Columbus. This was at the church that did not publicly recognize the passing of Blessed John Paul the Great. The same Knights council that talked about wanting a real Pope who would finally let priests marry. Now they are changing after a slow introduction of some orthodoxy. We need reform and renewal. We need the intercession of the Saints and the breath of the Holy Spirit but it will get there.

    My son’s generation will be so much more on fire for the Lord and his Church. He is at Christendom College and it is so natural there to be passionately Catholic. The alarm has been sounded and we need to continue the battle lead by priests like yourself. God’s time can be hard for our human hearts to understand but I look at my old parish I know the Holy Spirit is at work.

  6. I am Lutheran and my husband is Catholic. Our daughter was baptized at the age of 5 weeks as a Lutheran, in part because we were more involved with my Lutheran parish’s music ministry at the time. When my Lutheran parish relocated to another property, we changed Lutheran parishes.

    At the time we made that change, we attempted to become more involved with my husband’s Catholic parish so that our family’s contribution of time/talent between our two church homes was more balanced. Unfortunately, those attempts were largely ignored. With the arrival of a new priest about 18 mos ago, our Catholic church seems to be doing a better job at encouraging and responding to parishioners’ involvement in various ministries, but it’s going to take some work to engage those whose previous expressions of interest were met with indifference.

  7. Monsignor, I admire your courage and commitment in speaking out in a time when truth is unpopular. So many people are afraid to say anything that will “offend”. Catholics have an unhealthy amount of “fear of man” and not enough “fear of God”. As you say, we need to be in prayer – for ourselves!! I found a great video on Youtube called the Chaplet of St. Michael that I have been praying. Too many of us (clergy and laymen) are sitting in the sidelines instead of battling at the front line.

  8. The Protestant reformation ruin everything. Once transubstantiation was rejected it was down hill from there. 500 years of protestanism caused the deterioration of faith. We need to get back to the supernatural. A story is in order, a story that everyone can understand. Watch, I guarantee it, a Miracle will happen, and the Eucharist will be the centerpiece of the new evangelization!

    1. ‘High Church’ Protestants (Lutheran, Anglican, &c.) believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as well. They are more akin to Eastern Orthodoxy in that they tend to insist that the exact mechanism is unknowable, and so belief in a /particular/ mechanism, method, or explanation cannot be a requirement of faith.

      The major theological explanations are transubstantiation–complete transformation of essence, leaving only accidents of bread and wine–and consubstantiation–infusion of essence, completely present ‘with, in, and under’ the bread and wine, but not eradicating their essences or accidents.

      But those are just two popular teachings, in the last analysis most Protestant (and Eastern Orthodox) circles it is simply regarded as a Mystery.

      1. Even if the Protestants “Lutheran, Anglican, etc.” do believe in the Real Presence there so called “mass” is nothing but empty ritual because they do not have Apostolic Succession. Thus, they have no power to confect the Eucharist. The Orthodox Church is not the same as the Protestant denominations.

  9. Dear Monsignor: I think Mark Gray is missing a critical point 8. His own research at CARA shows that the marriage rate for Catholics is now one half the rate of the general population. That’s right. One-half. So it is no mystery where the infants are.

    When you look at Catholic marriages, you have to assume first that the number is so low because many Catholics are marrying outside the Church in non-Church weddings.

    But even for those Catholics marrying a fellow Catholic in church, the available evidence shows that the bulk of these have no respect for Church teachings on contraception, cohabitation, pre-marital sex, and marrying another Catholic. Even going to mass is an after thought.

    Meanwhile, for those of us who are daily mass Catholics and who do respect Church law concerning marriage: words cannot express how difficult it is to get married. There are so few of us. We are a minority at most parishes. Even at those parishes we are frozen out and ostracized. There are no good offices by married couples who understand our troubles and help us with introductions. So many Catholic couples with sacramental marriages cohabited right up to their wedding day. They have no idea what it is like to be alone with no prospects for years on end. Priests never say an encouraging word for the long-time singles.

    There are those among us who would welcome children but we can’t find spouses. It is painful and demoralizing to be alone in a supposedly family-oriented parish as we reach that age beyond which we can never have families of our own.

  10. Msgr. Pope,

    Regarding #6, is it possible people are responding rationally based on what they’ve been taught? If they are taught it isn’t a big deal, then not treating it as a big deal makes perfect sense.

    What I am suggesting here is not merely a failure of the Church to communicate Her teachings in changing times effectively (eg, “We have to try harder…”) but that often the teachings coming out of the curia and from the clergy over the last 50 years have been wrong. Even in the best cases it is contradictory, shall I believe Rahner or Garrigou-Lagrange? Fr. Barron or Msgr. Pope?

    “In what way will those who have not heard of him believe in him? And in what way will they hear of him without preaching?”

    This verse is a commission for the Church and the clergy, but it can also be an accusation when it is not appreciated seriously. I don’t think it is stretching the text too far to say that St. Paul meant not only that they should preach anything, but that they should preach the truth.

    In no way is this to deny personal responsibility–we all stand before God in individual judgment–but it is a curious and lamentable state where the individual has to read the Bible to find out what the Church ought to have preached, but didn’t.

    1. To correct that, I do not mean it is a lamentable state to need to read the Bible. Reading the Bible is a wonderful thing. I mean ‘lamentable’ only in the above context regarding Church teaching.

      These are difficult times. Even taking it all the way to the top, it is hard to read Nostra Aetate and Dominus Iesus and come to any compelling, non-torturous understanding that they are saying the same thing. Pope Benedict XVI (I am sorry to see him go) said something on similar lines lately.

  11. I have seen that unless I attend a chapel where the Latin Mass is offered there is no mention of the Four Last Things; the difference between grace and nature and the necessity of the former to get to Heaven; the Real Presence of our Lord in the Eucharist; the necessity of confession and the absolute need to pray and struggle to live an authentic Catholic life. The supernatural has been pretty much expunged from the Church in many places and the faith has been reduced to a bunch of moral teachings about loving ones neighbor and little else. I would also add that the near total acceptance of evolution on the part of Catholics has rendered both the Fall and the need for a Redeemer nothing more than myths from a past age in the hearts of many.

    The good thing is that there are many young priests out there today that are not associated with sedevacantist groups or the SSPX that are entirely orthodox in their faith and their approarch to preaching. Most are in Latin Mass chapels affiliated with the FSSP, ICK etc. but from what I’ve heard some priests coming out of diocesan seminaries that only offer the New Rite are orthodox and not afraid to preach the unadulterated Faith either. The way I see it what our Holy Father said so many years ago about a small Church is going to be the way of the future. As the late great Father John Hradon S.J. once said at the tail end of the last century “only heroic Catholics will survive in the 21st century” By heroic Catholics he meant laymen, priests and bishops, in short, all of us. A pseudo Caholicism that dumbs down the faith will not survive. Unless Christianity is absolutely a matter of eternal life and eternal death than what’s the point? The places that drive this home not just with words but with actions will survive and thrive even under persecution; the places that d not will quite simply go the way of mainline Protestantism—slide into the dustbin of history.

  12. Wow, your Mass declaration is extraordinary! Nice to see some real truth that we can believe in.

    I use John 6:53 sometimes with my broad based Christian children and their spouses. It always causes a stir that leads to a gentle “agree to disagree” conclusion so far. I have brought in one spouse through RCIA and hope more will follow. On the bright side, they do go with my wife and I to church at Christmas and Easter. Funny, two of them are relentless advocates of their Evangelical church (I must say, they are very holy and do good works). Although my prayer is for their return to Catholicism, I am blessed that they believe so firmly in Jesus.

    I think you may be to dismissive in your “blame” paragraph. My hunch is that the remaining faithful in the pews are thirsting for some real Catholic truth.

    I like Justin’s first paragraph analysis above too. Seems like an honest appraisal that hits home.

    Thank you.

  13. My wife is currently going through RCIA and the leader is a Nun (SSJ) who is fond of telling us that women should be ordained and that hell is what you experience in your last moments on your death bed. I being an OLD Catholic told my wife that it’s not going to happen and that HELL is real, that our Nun can have her opinions but not everything she says is to be taken as Gospel. I only post this to reinforce what you said and personally I think it has to change. I don’t think we need hell, fire and brimstone in the homily but some unvarnished truth would go along ways.

  14. I hate to wade into this, but I thought I would relate some of my experiences with the Church and why myself and my friends of the younger generation find fault. It’s not about the pedophilia (although that is a wonderfully obscene reason for some people to rally against the Church).

    I was raised Catholic and one reason I left Catholicism (at a very early age) was because every Sunday was nothing but “preaching to the choir”. There were no meditations on scripture, no poignant lessons on life. It was mostly Sunday after Sunday of “you are going to hell if you don’t attend Church” (we were all there) and “you are all going to hell if you don’t donate money” (we all gave, even our pennies). This was in addition to the admonitions we had to endure in school, on the street, and any time there was a funeral or the dreaded yearly “house blessing” wherein you had to entertain AND donate to get the blessing. I don’t appreciate blessings, ostensibly from God, being held ransom.

    I had a keen interest in the Bible and Bible studies. Was I permitted to delve deeply into the Bible? Sure, on my own. Because I am female, there were no Bible classes, no way for me to participate in the faith, unless it was as a drudge for the priests or to help clean the convent. Some of the nuns thought I would become one. That stops looking good when one realizes the 60+ year old nuns (many in their 80’s) are walking up and down 3 flights of stairs, have taken their vows of poverty seriously (no vacations that I ever heard of – maybe they did), and in general led what I would call a pious life. Admirable, but when the priests were living right next door with an elevator, car at their disposal, lay women to cook and clean for them, & yearly vacations, one starts to question the point in being pious or female in the Church.

    But it’s worse. The aforementioned car? Well, that was bought so that the priests could do one of their most sacred duties: last rights. That was the excuse. The hospital was 3 blocks from the rectory. I can’t tell you how many people of our acquaintance died without last rights because it was 1 am and they were too tired to drive down or the person (or family) didn’t attend Church regularly enough (rather, didn’t donate enough). It was vindictive behavior. I’m back to “it’s not a blessing if I’m paying for it”. This wasn’t in some dinky country parish, this was in a big city. I know they can have a lot of people in them, but we had many priests at the time, more than enough to do their duty. Never mind the constant barrage for money or the horrible management of the parish’s finances or the outright lies we were told, there is never a feeling of welcome and always a feeling of being held up at gunpoint.

    Not much has changed in the various Catholic churches I visit today. One must be an active parishioner to receive any spiritual benefit from the Church. Priests don’t have time to speak with one of the lost flock – they are too busy with whatever is going on in their lives (with the exception of one single priest I met). No blessings, no confessions, no nothing. Unlike other faiths, no effort is expended to recover or convert a person. Sometimes people come to God at weird times. I get it, you guys are busy doing whatever it is you do and people are annoying, but I never feel more intrusive than when I try to talk with a Catholic priest. I was raised Catholic, so I feel like one, but I find other faiths are more willing to reach out to me than Catholics. There is this attitude in the Church that you are right, everyone else is wrong, and if you want to be saved you must crawl over broken glass, beg for forgiveness, and throw copious amounts of money around. That attitude needs to go if you want to survive.

    One friend decided to convert to Catholicism. She was divorced for over 10 years (was not Catholic during her marriage or divorce). In order to finish becoming a Catholic, she had to complete a litany of offensively intrusive questions regarding her marriage & the divorce, incessant nagging about saving the marriage, somehow force her ex-husband to fill out the same forms AND pay $600 for the privilege. That’s on top of the fees she was paying for classes, etc. Really? Do any of you think she finished becoming Catholic? I want to say she made all this up & maybe she did, but she was so determined to come into the faith, I believed her. I also laughed at her. I wouldn’t do it, no one else that I know will either.

    Baptisms down? In my experience, if there is a funding shortage in one area (say Sunday donations), the Church is very quick to make it up in others (like Baptisms). It’s punitive and it will retard people’s participation in the action. If it costs me $5,000 to use my parish church building for a wedding, guess what, I’m getting a lay marriage. If it costs $100 to baptize my baby, I’m not baptizing. I know money is needed to run things, but there are certain things I expect my church to do for free (or at cost), namely, those things that keep me in the faith. In every transaction with the Catholic church, the number one consideration is money (the second is political gain – but that’s for later). It’s first on the table and nothing else is discussed until that ransom is paid. I don’t have that experience in other churches. Something in your priestly training has gone horribly wrong. It would be nice to see it fixed but I’m not holding my breath.

    1. Your remarks show a general cynicism. Just quickly, priests have sick calls at more than the local hospital, no parish is going to fund itself on stipends for baptism or any other sacrament for that matter, we lose money on annulments, (the requested donation only covers a small amount of the actual cost and it is only a donation that is requested, the annulment is still processed even without a dime) etc., I could go on answering your cynical charges but the point is, they are cynical for the most part indicating an attitude of the heart that is unbecoming and also indicates that having a lengthy conversation with you about any of these matters will not likely bear much fruit.

      IOW The Pharisees made many changes against the Lord like yours: that he was a glutton and a drunkard, that he associated with known sinners, that his rules either went beyond what they thought reasonable, or fell short of what was their agenda and so forth. But the real problem with them wasn’t that the particular, but that their hearts were closed (e.g. Mk 3:5). I fear this to be the case here and hope I am wrong.

      Finally, you claim to speak for a generation, a capacity which I doubt you possess. There are many and diverse reasons people from every generation have drifted and I have discussed these openly on the blog. For my part I observe many younger people who are very devoted to the Church. It is not as simple and surely not as cynical a picture as you describe and Mainline Protestant denominations that have largely adopted your vision are even further eroded than the Catholic Church.

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