Is Catholicism in the United States healthy or in decline?

I recently came upon an interesting assessment of the state of Catholicism in America (thanks to the blog of Elizabeth Scalia, aka “the Anchoress”). 

Here’s a taste of it: 

“At the present time, more than in any preceding age, Roman Catholics are seen to lapse into infidelity, and Protestants to be converted to Roman Catholicism. If you consider Catholicism within its own organization, it seems to be losing; if you consider it from outside, it seems to be gaining.” 

Here’s the surprise: These words were published in 1835 by famed political scientist and social observer Alexis de Tocqueville. A Catholic himself — at least at the beginning and end of his life — the Frenchman was intrigued how well Catholicism seemed to be doing in the “most democratic country in the world.” The result of his tours of the country in the early 1830s was his classic, “Democracy in America.” 

Tocqueville’s insights are surprisingly accurate in light of intervening historical events. (One of his more astute predictions was the Cold War, a good century later: “There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. ... Each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.”) 

Tocqueville might also feel vindicated today by his observations of our Catholic brethren nearly 200 years ago. Catholicism in the United States is both booming — it is the single largest denomination — and in crisis — fallen-away Catholics represent the second-largest “denomination.” 

And there are other apparent signs of contradiction. Catholicism is very well assimilated into American social life. Consider that the vice president, the House speaker, the House minority leader and six Supreme Court justices are Catholic. 

Yet many Catholics “are seen to lapse into infidelity,” as Tocqueville would say. Weekly Mass attendance hovers around 22 percent. And even 40 percent of weekly Massgoers report going to confession less than once a year or never. There’s a dramatic decline in the number of Catholic schools and the students taught in them. 

So what was Tocqueville’s explanation and proposed solution? He thought Catholicism had a mysterious draw, even for people disinclined to belief of any sort. 

“Many of the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church astonish them, but they feel a secret admiration for its discipline, and its great unity attracts them. If Catholicism could at length withdraw itself from the political animosities to which it has given rise, I have hardly any doubt but that the same spirit of the age which appears to be so opposed to it would become so favorable as to admit of its great and sudden advancement.” 

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