Dear Holy Father

Most Holy Father: 

I imagine you’re hearing from quite a few people these days, so I’ll be brief. I write for two reasons. First, to promise prayers as you take up that most awesome of offices — Vicar of Christ — and then to tell you about the present crisis of the Church in the United States. I don’t expect you to solve our problems — that’s something we American Catholics must do — but I do look to you for guidance and support. 

American Catholics
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This crisis is the most serious the Church in the United States has faced in over two centuries. Yes, Catholicism is in better shape here than in Europe, but even so, our numbers are way down — Mass attendance, Catholic marriages, priestly and religious vocations, enrollment in parochial schools, and nearly everything else that counts. Not surprisingly, the opinion polls show widespread ignorance, confusion and alienation among American Catholics.  

On paper, of course, our population figures are impressive. Apparently there are 75 million of us. But if numbers ever deceive, this number certainly does. Only about one in four bothers to attend Mass weekly, with the rest coming to church occasionally, seldom or not at all. Do some math, lower the result by 5 million or so to allow for age and health, and you get maybe 20 million people truly engaged with the Church. 

Even 20 million are a lot. But the researchers say there are 22 million ex-Catholics in America. One in three who was raised Catholic has left. Considered in that light, 20 million doesn’t look so great. Even many loyal Catholics are starting to wonder if the Church here is in irreversible decline. 

It’s a truism that there are no easy answers to all this, but that may be only an excuse. To a great extent, the answers are already in place. We don’t need new answers. We need to take seriously the answers we’ve got.  

At the top of the list is the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness. You, I and everyone else in the Church are “called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love,” and in responding we help promote “a more human manner of life” in the world. Simple when you think of it: we’re all supposed to be saints. 

And indeed even now there are among us many good and holy people, genuine saints in the making. By and large, though, in most American parishes the standard of spiritual excellence for the laity is pitched awfully low. The problem isn’t that too much is asked of lay people, but too little. Quite a few of those 22 million who’ve left the Church may have drifted away thinking it didn’t matter much. But tell people they’re called to be saints, provide them with means for doing that, and the story could be different. Many may still say “not interested,” and others may say “some other time,” but some may see being a Catholic Christian as an option worth taking seriously. 

American secular culture — into which Catholics have so enthusiastically assimilated — is obviously a huge obstacle to this. We’ve been reminded of that again by the media coverage and commentary since Pope-Emeritus Benedict resigned. Some of it has been quite good, but a lot has been clueless and no small amount of it has been downright vicious — a strident secular chorus ridiculing, attacking, even threatening the Catholic Church for not endorsing secular mores on matters like same-sex marriage and women’s ordination.  

Yet the crisis brings with it an opportunity, as well as a need, to explain and defend Catholic teaching on these and other matters.  

Unfortunately, some who ought to be doing that seem too embarrassed or intimidated to speak up. In their heart of hearts, do they think the secularists are right? At least the public dissenters are up front about their dissent. 

At the same time I must admit that the Church’s credibility — and therefore its ability to teach convincingly — suffers from flare-ups in the embers of the sex abuse scandal and is compromised by clericalism and unnecessary secrecy. When will those self-indulgent anachronisms finally be expunged from the life of the Church? It would help a lot if you could say a word on behalf of that. 

Discouraging? In the short run, perhaps; in the long run, no. I end this note with something the British convert and author Robert Hugh Benson once wrote about the situation of the Church “a thousand years hence,” which he predicted would be essentially “the same situation that we have now.” 

“On the one side will stand human society ranged against her, in ranks and companies of which hardly two members are agreed on anything except upon opposition to her. ... And on the other side will stand the Church of the ages, with the marks of her Passion deeper than ever upon her … despised and rejected, and yet stronger in her divine foolishness than all the wisdom of men.” 

You have the Lord’s word for it, Holy Father, the more you’re faithful to what he asks of you, the more the world will hate you. May he grant you courage and strength. You’ll need them. 

Yours in Christ, 
Russell Shaw  

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.