You may have heard more talk recently about the virtual collapse of the mainline Protestant churches in the United States, and maybe even predictions that the Catholic Church is headed to a similar fate.
From 1958 to 2008, mainline denominations’ membership dropped from over 50 percent of American adults to 15 percent. And, worse, their membership is steadily grayer. From 1998 to 2008, there was a decline of 22 percent in church attendance of adults with children under 18.
The situation of the Catholic Church in the United States is not so dire. According to sacrament records, about 25 percent of all babies born in the United States each year are baptized Catholic. About 85 percent of them return eight years later for First Communion. Sixty percent return for Confirmation.
Those numbers are astonishingly high, considering all the talk about America becoming a post-Christian, secular society.
But don’t gloat too quickly.
First, the number of Catholics leaving the Church is massive (remember the much touted statistic from a study last year that one in 10 Americans is a former Catholic).
Second, regular participation in the sacramental life of the Church is a baseline indicator of an engaged Catholic, and by that standard we’re not doing so well. Only about a third of Catholic Americans go to Mass each Sunday, and only about 12 percent go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation more than once a year.
Third, like the mainline Protestants, the Catholic Church is having a difficult time retaining young people, even the ones who manage to make it through Confirmation.
The mainline Protestant churches’ approach to attracting youths — primarily offering opportunities for fellowship, and volunteerism and service — are worthwhile but ultimately insufficient. In the Catholic context, what is needed is showing the beauty and relevance of the Church in beginning and pursuing a living encounter with God.
The U.S. bishops are aware of the urgency. They recently overhauled their framework for catechesis in Catholic high schools, and in coming years, the newly developed curricula should have a beneficial impact. But only 12.6 percent of Catholics of high school age are in Catholic high schools, according to an estimate by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
For them and the other 87 percent not at Catholic high schools, what will be central is passing on a sense of Church. With so many other paths out there claiming to lead to enlightenment and happiness, and with a general bias toward relativism and away from objective truth, can young people answer for themselves or others “why the Catholic Church”? Is it the fullness of truth revealed, or simply one more flavor of spirituality?
In our quest to find the most effective way of communicating the faith to those we encounter in a way that engages them, these are questions that each of us must never stop asking.
And while it is true that young people are the future of the Church, the secret to reaching them is to reach their parents (and those who are about to become parents).
Only a tiny fraction of a typical American parish’s catechetical energy and resources — both formal and informal — are devoted to faith formation for adults, many of whom received poor catechetical grounding growing up, and need a chance to renew and deepen their faith.
No parish program for children is sufficient to replace the day in and day out example of a parent in passing on the faith. Reach the parents and grow the Church.