A Lament for the Diminishing Church

I suspect that experiencing the suffering and diminishing Church of today is more difficult for those of us who are older. There are two reasons for this: First, the scandals, decline, and disorder happened on our watch; we clergy especially have a lot of repenting to do over what we have done and what we have failed to do. Second, we remember a time when things seemed better, when the Church was strong and growing, when she was more certain of herself, more dignified. Obviously, it was not a sinless time, but things seemed more unified and orderly. This is not mere nostalgia; the numbers bear out the truth. By nearly every measure, Catholics were more cohesive and more loyal to the Church. Consider Thomas Reeves’ description of the Church in the 1940s in his 2002 book America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen  (a book well worth reading):

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Catholic Church in America blossomed. Traumatized by the blatant anti-Catholicism of the 1928 presidential election, Church members had responded by creating separate Catholic scholarly organizations, professional societies, book clubs, trade unions, even summer camps. … The hostility evidenced by Protestants stemmed partly from the fact that the Catholic Church was thriving.

In 1940, there were nearly twenty-three million Catholic communicants in America, almost three times as many as the Methodist Church could claim, and the Methodists were by far the largest Protestant denomination in the country. Catholics outnumbered any single protestant denomination in thirty-five of the forty-eight states.

Mass attendance was in the 75 percent range or better (in contrast to the flagging attendance in increasingly secular western Europe). In Philadelphia churches, for instance, especially those with second and third generation American families, attendance at Sunday mass hovered around 90 percent. Charles R. Morris, an able historian of American Catholicism, described the appeal of the Mass: “The total experience—the dim lights, the glint of the vestments, the glow of the stained-glass windows, the mantra like murmur of the Latin—was mind washing. It calmed the soul, opened the spirit to large, barely grasp Presences is and Purposes. For a trembling moment every week, or every day if they chose, ordinary people reached out and touched the divine.”

Latin liturgy, Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, meatless Fridays, fasting before Mass, the rosary, the Baltimore Catechism, retreats, the novena (in 1938, 70,000 people attended 38 novena services at our Lady of Sorrows in Chicago every week), kneelers, large families dressed in their Sunday best, mantillas, and chapel caps, religious in habits, statues, large gothic or baroque churches with dark, quiet places and side altars, elaborate priestly vestments, the smell of incense, the sound of bells at the Consecration, the feeling of awe at the miracle of Transubstantiation—these were all common features of the American Catholic world in the time of the Church’s fastest growth and greatest self-confidence.

Parochial education was booming; in 1943 there were over 2 million pupils in almost 8,000 schools, and 16,838 men in Catholic seminaries. Some nine million people subscribed to 333 Catholic newspapers in 1942. More than a hundred publishing houses were linked with the Catholic Press Association. There were 726 Catholic hospitals.

Protestant paranoia was in some sense justified by the strong spirit of evangelism reflected in the “Make America Catholic” movement. Catholics reported about 86,000 converts annually in the United States. A serious attempt to reach African-Americans was underway. Urban laborers were increasingly attracted to the pro-labor teachings of Leo XIII, the “Pope of the working man.”

Many liberal intellectuals were outraged by the Church’s prosperity during this period. … Attacks reached their crescendo in 1949 and Paul Blanchard’s best-selling book American Freedom and Catholic Power. Begun as a series of 12 articles in The Nation, Blanchard’s book called the Catholic hierarchy rigid, medieval, fascist, totalitarian, tyrannical, bigoted, un-American, arrogant, dishonest, and the enemy of science and objective learning. He said that Catholicism conditions people to accept censorship, thought control, and ultimately dictatorship. There is no doubt the parochial school, whatever may be its virtues, is the most important, decisive instrument in the life of American children. Blanchard called for a “resistance movement” to prevent the Church from taking over America and crushing “western democracy and American culture” (pp. 163-167).

Yes, those were, at least to an external observer, the halcyon days of the Church in the United States. Tomorrow’s post will center around the Church in Europe, where in this same period the situation was quite different: the two horrifying World Wars had severely shaken the faith of Catholics there, and the number of practicing Catholics was plummeting. In America, a similar decline would wait another twenty years.

Something must have been going on under the surface for the Church to have collapsed so quickly. As a Church we were certainly ill-prepared for the cultural tsunami that hit in the 1960s. Wave after wave rolled through, sweeping away all that was familiar. The waves of the sexual revolution, radical feminism, rebellion against authority and tradition, drug use, no-fault divorce, abortion on demand, the normalization of fornication and homosexual acts, cohabitation, and now the bizarre world of “transgenderism.” Yes, wave after wave; it was a rapid destruction.

The roots of modern ills stretch back philosophically to the close of the Middle Ages, as the rise of Nominalism spun an ugly, though intricate, web through Descartes, Locke, and Hume, and ultimately to Nietzsche and Nihilism or Sartre and Existentialism. In effect, we increasingly stepped back from reality, either in nihilistic madness declaring that nothing has meaning, or in existential hubris claiming that we make up our own meaning. Like a witch’s brew, this was bubbling in the background.

In the Church, we sought to resist this through the Counter-Reformation and later through resistance to Modernism, but during the bloody and revolutionary 20th century we lost ground and increasingly compromised with the world. We allowed our ancient, distinctive Catholic faith to slip through our fingers.

While the Second Vatican Council was surely a major battlefield, the war was bigger and older than that (for a thoughtful treatment of this period I recommend reading Roberto de Mattei’s book The Second Vatican Council, an Unwritten Story). For, truth be told, the ones sowing revolution inside the Church were raised in the “old system”: the Latin Mass, the old Catechism, regimented seminary formation (usually in Latin).

The college students sowing the cultural revolution were also raised in the old system: prayer and the pledge of allegiance in the schools, and for Catholics, the Latin Mass, parochial school with uniforms, and solid catechetical foundations.

So, even in those halcyon days, something was brewing. It seems that the external glory of the Church in America during the 1940s and 50s was three thousand miles wide but only two inches deep. When the earth shook with our indignation in the 1960s, things broke up quickly. Angry rebellion was everywhere; iconoclasm was widespread, and we congratulated ourselves as the wrecking balls hit just about everything.

Something came over us that was bigger and went further back than this four-year council. Some of us like to point to the vision of Pope Leo XIII in 1884 and the hundred years of trial that God permitted for the Church. As the years tick on well past one hundred, I wonder if the explanation isn’t more complicated and mysterious; God’s providence is often paradoxical. One thing is clear to me: we are under a period of pruning and punishment for our sins. Ten years ago, I had no idea the rot was so deep. It is so much worse than I ever thought then, and I am convinced we are going to see a lot more exposed in the next few years.

I sit before the cross in the rectory chapel frequently these days. Even as I type this, I am near it. Often, I just sigh. There are no words to express the grief I feel for the Church, the Lord’s Bride, and my Mother. How we, her children, have soiled her beautiful garments and torn at them! But she is always the Bride and never the widow; her Groom lives forever.

Here in this chapel, in the Eucharistic Presence of the Groom, I await the renewal He will surely bring. I am aware that more purification may be needed first, and so I wait, I sigh, and I accept my share in the purifications.

The following motet is by William Byrd:

Ne irascaris Domine, satis,  
et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae.
Ecce respice populus tuus omnes nos.

 Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta.
Sion deserta facta est,
Jerusalem desolata est.

Be not angry, O Lord; enough.
and remember our iniquity no more.
Behold, we are all your people.

Your holy city has become deserted.
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem has been made desolate.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Lament for the Diminishing Church

19 Replies to “A Lament for the Diminishing Church”

  1. Father – I’ve been trying to understand William of Ockham, Nominalism, and why it has been so detrimental to the Church. Could you please explain? Thank you.

    1. I’m very sad to have missed that beautiful time. These days we Catholic homeschoolers have made something of a “Benedict option,” outpost society amongst our families, which is really great (we reach out and befriend others as well, but raise our kids mostly “together” so they can learn & live their faith until they’re experienced enough to defend it).

      However, secular atheistic society encroaches on us and viciously preys on our children so much, especially as they get older and have to deal w/media and wider society, that it’s not nearly the same as having a wide, solid Catholic &/or Christian community surrounding you. How beautiful it would be to have whole Catholic neighborhoods or towns for our kids to roam in again.

      I fear we’re in for persecution soon…and not many of us, or our kids, are going to be ready for it.

  2. Thank you for saying that the glory of the “old Church” was only 2 inches deep. I was born in 1969 and have no memories of that Church, but based on what I have seen and heard from my elders, the piety and faith of that Church was based largely on what they were told to believe and do. St. Augustine believed that we should try to understand what we believe. If we believe something only because we have been taught to believe it and without really understanding it, we risk thinking it is only a matter of opinion or risk basing it on the confidence we have in the teacher. The anti-authority and relativistic mentality of the 1960’s washed away the foundation of that kind of faith. The Church’s foundation was strong, but the glorious building wasn’t properly attached to it. Had the children in the parochial schools been taught Aquinas and Augustine, had they been taught to reason and understand, had they been introduced to the saints as real people (and not just pious statues and myth-like stories), perhaps more of the building would have survived the flood.

    1. There is a vital difference between belief and faith. It is the lack of faith, expressed in the abandonment of the sacred, that is the primary reason for the collapse of the Catholic Church.

  3. You are doing your part. That’s all any one person can do. The banners of Light and Darkness are unfurled for all the world to see.

    It seems we are fast-approaching the time when Grace will be less experienced due to the coldness of human hearts.

  4. Mary, you’re right on all counts as far as I know. I was born in 1957, so had no “Baltimore Catechism”, although my brother, who was 5 yrs. older than me, did. He left the Church as soon as he graduated from 8th grade. I had 4 yrs. of “The Christian Inheritance” series which had bold, ugly, formless people in its pictures. That’s all I remember of it. The Mass was in Latin until 1967 or 1968 in our archdiocese. We understood absolutely nothing that happened at our First Communion & Confirmation Masses–ZERO! It was memorizing syllables of Latin so we could sing the hymns. I had to go to a public school for a year for speech therapy. When I returned, the Sisters were wearing short habits & beginning to return to their baptismal names–not all of them, but most of them. Religion class was now social justice junk. I remember being dragged down to a porn shop a couple blocks from our parish to picket it. All of us were forbidden by our parents to go near that place, so when we all went home & told our parents what happened, our dads confronted the pastor & priest! Didn’t go well for either one! One of the associate pastors was our religion teacher & we were taught junk. Fortunately, the parish Masses remained very traditional & reverent. Even with the Novus Ordo, they were celebrated ad orientem for the most part, & we had beautiful Sunday High Masses that frequently used some Latin! Only the school Masses were “hootenany” Masses as they were called then–school kids playing guitars, tambourines, etc. Junk songs that we mocked on the playground after Mass. Our older siblings who had the Baltimore Catechism, etc. left the Church in larger numbers than we did. I hated anything on my head, so getting rid of those stupid veils was a relief for a girl like me. God wants us to worship Him in a reverent manner with all our attention on Him. He wants us to spend time with Him in prayer each day–not vocal prayer, but getting into our hearts to seek Him. We’re supposed to unite ourselves with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass–all our sufferings, joys, everything in us should go on that paten & be offered to God. You don’t need Latin in order to do that. I’ve been married 36 years & my husband & I raised six children–5 of whom are still faithful Catholics; one was sexually abused by a Legionnaries of Christ priest, so he’s recovering from the horrors of that & slowly making his way back. Our kids most often worshipped at very reverent NO Masses growing up. They all have attended a Tridentine Mass, but prefer to be able to understand & hear the words of the Mass so they can participate in It. To each his own, I guess. I hope this helps you! God bless you, Mary!

  5. Monsignor Pope,
    Please know that you are not alone in this lament. My wife and I join our tears and our prayers with yours. And we are especially grateful for your witness of faith and the light it brings in these troubled times. Please keep writing. And we’ll all keep praying. Jesus we trust in you.

  6. It just has to be true that there were serious problems in the pre-conciliar Church, for the reasons given in this post–the craziness that arose came from that pre-conciliar Church. But are there any good studies of the nature of those earlier problems? And were they widespread, or did they afflict only certain people (the ones who got hold of the reins in the 1960s)? I was born just as the Council was ending, so it’s all ancient history to me–but I really want to know. It matters, especially because a lot of young people nowadays want to go back. I worry they don’t know what they are asking for.

  7. “…what we have failed to do.” That describes the Laity too. We use to fill the Churches with children. One baby would cry, and other babies would join in, like a chorus. Small children would run in the Church until caught by their parents.

    I attend the very early ‘old geezer’ Mass. Once in a while, a lone baby cries for the missing brothers and sisters. … The Spanish Masses are more like the Church of just a few years ago.

  8. Catholic flash mobs. Spread the Word. Don’t just sit there whinning. Get up and do something. Too many sit at their computer analyzing the next breaking news. Be the news. Make faith exciting. Take it to the streets for the times they are a changing. Sheperds don’t work in a barn and sheep don’t eat in one.

  9. Father, I am about to turn 60. My father and his father had been watching the storm clouds early to mid 20th Century. Vatican II was the flower of the weed that had been growing for centuries. The Church was well and truly infiltrated early 20th Century thus the sudden collapse in the 60’s, which was timed with precision. My whole life has been under the shadow of the enemy but I had the benefit of good parents. The temptation to discouragement is pressing but we have been chosen for this battle and are the perfect people for this moment. There is still much good in the world. There are still Sacraments. There are still good Priests and young men and women saying yes to a genuine religious vocation. The enemy is arrogant and proud, and this goest before the fall!

  10. Well maybe the reverse is happening now. When trees get too much water the roots don’t grow very deep and when a drought comes along many die. But he ones that survive drive their roots even deeper.

  11. I share your sorrow, Msgr. Pope. I agree with everything you wrote with one exception. Having been born in 1951, I can say the faith of my friends, family and neighbors was not two inches deep. I don’t think it was the shallowness of our faith in that time that led to the wholesale destruction. I believe it was the complete revolution of respect for the Real Presence in our Catholic Churches that was imposed on us by the dramatic changes in the liturgy. At the very time when reverence and belief in an unchanging God present in our Catholic Church was most needed to combat the secular revolt against moral standards…we threw out crucial traditions, customs and practices that could have been just the thing to shield us and protect us. All of the bells, incense, the silence, the genuflection, the processions, that we see in your video weren’t necessary for God…..they were necessary for us. The changes were too sudden, too extreme, and replaced with nothing to engender the same deep respect and reverence in the hearts of the parishioners. Everything was turned upside down. I can only imagine what would happen in a family if that kind of wholesale revolution happened almost overnight and all the family traditions, parental roles, customs, ways of expressing thoughts and feelings were jettisoned and a whole new paradigm was imposed. Any sociologist or psychologist would say even strong families would be hard pressed to maintain the same cohesiveness.5

    1. That is what has happened in most families. Parents who stay eternal teenagers have given their children over to self government.

    1. Yes, well said. Original grace certainly implied reciprocity of gifts, so that self denial made sense, because ones good faith was returned by the other, and never were we more free. Without belief in God, people serve themself. Reciprocity in gifts that is grace rests on God.

    2. When man is more important than God, to us, neither priesthood nor marriage is holy. Those two states imply self denial in service of God, and reciprocity of gifts according to grace. Without God, instead there is self gratification, and priesthood or marriage is reduced to law.

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