Shrinking influence

I am worried. Catholic officials view the proposed U.S. Department of Health and Human Services policy requiring employers to provide contraception in employee medical insurance policies as an assault on religious liberty. How this will end may depend on how the Supreme Court views the new health care law, and what happens in the November elections. 

Quite possibly, as I devoutly hope, this unfair intrusion by government into religious activity, and into the consciences of citizens, will pass. 

My worry is beyond this matter. Regardless of its outcome, I fear that new measures offensive to religion well might come in the future. The details of particular cases in the future will play a role, each presenting moral questions that will have to be resolved. 

I worry that clashes between religion and civil authorities may come more frequently, and in circumstances never before imagined, because the prevailing attitude among Americans is less and less accepting of institutional religion and its various undertakings. 

Diluting what once was a very widely felt high regard for religious institutions is the movement now moving quite briskly through Western society in which denominational religion and institutionalized religion mean little. More important is personal, interior, often concealed private spirituality or religious inclination. 

Polls show that more and more Americans who see themselves as religious, or believers in a Supreme Being, distance themselves from churches, from any church, or even hold churches in skepticism, if not contempt. 

This is the most insidious reality. People simply now are feeling that churches are not important. 

It is a reality that has hit mainline Protestantism like an atomic bomb. It is less a problem for the Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church has nothing to cheer about. 

This social factor very much is gnawing at the vibrancy of Catholicism in America. (Some say the game already is lost in Western Europe where meaningful affiliation with organized religion almost is a thing of the past.) It does not take a hopeless pessimist to look at the present situation in this country and ask if we are on the same track. 

Catholic services are diminishing. Fifty years ago, every American city even of modest size had a Catholic hospital operated by nuns, and invariably these hospitals are closing. The trend is slow, but it is relentless. 

Balanced against the experience just after the Second World War, the Catholic school system is much smaller now, and it enrolls fewer students. 

In a word, the Church is not as obvious as it once was, and frankly its services, while still very commendable overall, are duplicated elsewhere in communities by efforts not guided by religion. 

In this country, weekly attendance at Sunday Mass now is a fraction of what it was two generations ago. This varies from place to place, but in some areas it is disturbingly low, and it is getting lower. 

It is disturbing because when people stop attending Mass, or go to Mass only occasionally, their sense of religion wanes. Why should religion mean anything, or provide any comfort, if a person never gives it a thought? Then comes the question of the children and their impression of religion. Then comes the question of their religious future and the future of the Church. 

Pope Benedict XVI has called for a New Evangelization. Catholics should answer his call first by looking into their hearts. What does religion mean to them? And, why is the Church important? It is important because Jesus founded it to enable us to be saved. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.