The American Church

Question: During a parish study group recently, we discussed the possibility that there is so much liberalism in the Catholic Church in the United States that parts of the Church might sever their ties with Rome and create an independent American Catholic Church. Do you think this is possible? Also, why aren’t bishops and priests tougher when preaching true doctrine? We all thought the Church is too soft on people nowadays. 

— Name and address withheld

Answer: I see no evidence of a slippage of parts of the Catholic Church in the United States from its ties to Rome. On the other hand, if one conducts an Internet search one find a variety of separatist American Catholic churches. These came into existence in the 19th century, and separation will continue into the future. In the case of many of these churches, the adherents amount to a few hundred people, with leaders mostly in invalid orders. 

The splitting of churches from each other has been very much a feature of Christian history, especially in the centuries since the Protestant Reformation. The great danger in Catholicism at the present time is not the formation of separatist churches based on liberal principles, but rather a great falling away from the practice of the faith on the part of many Catholics. Recent studies show that more than one-third of American Catholics have either left the Church, no longer describe themselves as Catholics or have simply drifted into nonpractice and nonbelief. In this regard, the Catholic Church here is facing a massive crisis of faith, and I worry what things will look like 20 years from now. 

I regard myself as a pretty good analyst of religious and cultural trends, but I’m at a loss as to why things are deteriorating so quickly in the Church. I often come across people who were “raised Catholic” but no longer have an association with the Church or, even more mysteriously, people who have no particular beef with the Church and are just drifting away. Those raised in the 1960s and after can hardly complain of overly rigid Catholic schools and hell-and-damnation preaching, catechesis and confessional practice. This general drift that’s difficult to explain worries me the most. 

Your study group thinks that bishops and priests should be “tougher” in preaching true doctrine. I have never had the conviction that being tough on people, either collectively or individually, bears much fruit. Challenging, yes — tough, no. I am all for bishops and priests preaching true doctrine, but it must be done in a way that wins people over, is compelling and reaches people’s more noble impulses. The “new evangelization,” promoted by Pope John Paul II and continued by Pope Benedict XVI (who has set up a new pontifical council to advance this cause), does not promote a form of evangelization that is highhanded, authoritarian and harsh. For the future, the resources of the Church need to be channeled into learning to speak to the language and values of the culture. Too often, Church leaders are speaking a foreign language as far as the culture is concerned, and it finds itself preaching to the choir (the practicing Catholics) and endlessly repeating the familiar and the tried to only modest effect. 

How to preach the Gospel, doctrine and the Catholic moral tradition in a manner that is strong, faithful and free of compromise and yet actually gains traction in our (American) culture — that is the great challenge that faces the Catholic Church in the United States. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.