The road the Church walks, as foreseen by Benedict XVI “The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals.” Father Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, made these comments about the future of the Church in a radio address on Christmas 1969.

Now, half a century later, his perceptions have become reality. Sexual abuse of children and adults by priests and bishops and their coverup has shaken the Church at all levels.

Prophetic speculation

When tranquility is restored — although it appears distant — what will the Church look like, particularly in America? Father Ratzinger’s speculated:

“From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much.” 

In 1970, according to data from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, there were 7 million people (3.4 percent of the population) in America who had been raised Catholic but no longer identified with the faith. Today, there are 30 million (9.2 percent of the population) who are fallen-away Catholics.

“She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity.”

From 1970-2017, the number of parishes declined only slightly, from 18,224 to 17,156, but 3,552 of today’s parishes do not have a resident priest. The number of elementary schools decreased from 9,366 to 5,178; secondary schools from 1,986 to 1,201; colleges and universities from 279 to 225; and hospitals from 727 to 545.

“As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges.”

The number of adherents will likely decline in the future as the next generation is not being educated in the faith. Even as the number of parishioners has increased by 43 percent since 1970 — driven by the overall population growth — the number of students in Catholic elementary and secondary schools dropped from 4.4 million to 2.0 million, and students enrolled in parish religious-education programs declined from 5.5 million to 3.0 million.

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“In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.”

From 2000-17, the number of baptisms, first Communions, confirmations, marriages and conversions all declined significantly. With the shame of the abuse scandals, the marginally faithful may fall away. Those who convert in the future will do so because they view the Church as the way to their salvation, despite the failings of its ministers.

Division wounds

While many of Father Ratzinger’s conjectures about the future of the Church have come about, there undoubtedly will be further upheavals before equanimity is restored. His comments were made just four years after the Second Vatican Council, in which he participated as a peritus, or expert, for the archbishop of Cologne.

Changes resulting from the council had barely begun, but theologians were already interpreting the findings of the council in divergent ways. Some viewed them in the light of Scripture and Tradition, while others saw them as an opportunity for radical change in the spirit of the council.

The divergent views have never been reconciled, and the current turmoil caused by clerical sexual abuse has given each side an opportunity to advocate for its ideas.

Many in the hierarchy have conflicting views on the involvement of the Church in society, its administration, the distribution of authority, the priesthood, the role of women, the importance of celibacy, the possibility of married clergy, reception of the Eucharist by those who are divorced and remarried without a decree of nullity, and other issues that once were thought to be long settled.

Until the dogmatic disputes are settled, there will be continuing strife. But we must have hope and persevere in faith. For, as the future pope assured us, “when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.” It will arise, he said, “from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith.”

Lawrence P. Grayson is a visiting scholar in the School of Philosophy of The Catholic University of America.