It is a new day, and it dramatically is affecting the Catholic Church, along with other religious denominations. No end is in sight.
Until now, a strong factor in very many Catholics’ religious lives was their attachment to a Catholic “culture.” Often, it involved family ties and heritage. Catholics tended to hold on to the Church because they were reared as Catholics by Catholic parents, likely attended Catholic schools and quite often viewed life from a Catholic perspective. Catholicism was part of their DNA.
This is changing altogether, and the change is picking up speed.
For example, look at two public figures recently in the news. Vice President Mike Pence is from a staunchly Catholic Irish-American family in Indiana, “Irish as Paddy’s pig.” He was an altar boy. He went to Catholic schools. Then, as a young man, he left the Catholic Church and became an evangelical Protestant. He has reared his children as Protestants.
The new Supreme Court associate justice, Neal Gorsuch, comes from a Catholic background. He attended Catholic schools. Then, also in early adulthood, he left the Catholic Church. Until moving to Washington to serve on the Supreme Court, he was a member of an Episcopal congregation in Colorado.
Without guessing about what is in these men’s hearts, it is a fact that they are two of very, very many people with similar experiences. Throughout the United States, men and women by the thousands, regardless of their Irish, or Italian, or Polish, or Spanish heritages, are leaving the Church.
“Former Catholics” compose the second largest religious group in this country.
Many other Americans still express association with the Catholic Church but irregularly if ever attend Mass and have views inconsistent with Church teaching. Almost always these are signs of the first steps out the door.
The same thing occurred in the past when Catholic immigrants flooded into this country. Many fell away from the Church. (Our histories rarely tell this story.)
What does it mean? American Catholicism in 50 years will be different. Catholics simply will not be as many as today. Catholicism will less visible. Catholic institutions will be fewer. Why? The children of today’s less than fervent Catholics, or of former Catholics, will not identify with the Church of their parents and grandparents.
Look at other denominations. Most are losing ground precariously. In my home diocese of Nashville, Tennessee, two new Catholic parishes recently formed. Once, new Catholic parishes had to build facilities for their use, but these two new parishes in Nashville simply bought, and moved into, buildings sold by Protestant denominations with severely dwindling congregations.
All this summons older American Catholics to awaken. Youth will no longer be satisfied with family tradition, or childhood attachments, or even with intellectual points, when it comes to religion. They will make their own decisions, very much moved by what they see as working.
Mature Catholics can have an influence, not always by theological argument, although Catholics must be able to explain our Church’s teaching, but if they display that being a faithful Catholic brings great rewards to lives and uplifts and beautifies human experience.
Love and live the Faith. Love the Church. Pray that all humbly will hear God’s Holy Spirit.
Five hundred years ago, St. Francis de Sales, a brilliant French bishop, said that Catholics could draw others to the Church, not by bitterness and demand, but by proving by their lives that Catholicism works.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.