American Catholic Decline

According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of U.S. Catholics who consider themselves “strong” members of their church has never been lower than it was in 2012.

Nearly a quarter (27%) of American Catholics called themselves “strong” Catholics last year, down more than 15 points since the mid-1980s, and among the lowest levels seen in the 38 years since first measured by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.

The decline among American Catholics is even more noteworthy when compared with American Protestants, whose strength has been rising in recent years. About half (54%) of American Protestants – double the Catholic share (27%) – described their particular religious identity as strong last year, among the highest levels since1974.

Over the past four decades, church attendance has declined among “strong” Catholics as well as among Catholics overall. The share of all Catholics who say they attend Eucharist at least once a week has dropped from 47% in 1974 to 24% in 2012; among “strong” Catholics, it has fallen more than 30 points, from 85% in 1974 to 53% last year.

Among Protestants as a whole, however, church attendance has been rather stable, although the percentage of those who attend at least once a week was higher in 2012 (38%) than in 1974 (29%). Self-reported church attendance among “strong” Protestants has fluctuated; but the share of frequent attenders was not significantly different in 2012 (60%) than in 1974 (55%).

So what’s going on with U.S. Catholics?

In a word: increasing numbers don’t feel at home in their church and are finding supportive communities and more contemporary expressions of belief in other traditions. (Most of my nephews and nieces, for example, are now actively engaged in other Christian churches.)

American Catholics are generally delighted with Pope Francis. On Sunday morning, however, they find liturgical English a pious consubstantial cacophony. They see red flags as priests get older, as familiar parishes close; and as younger priests parade around their parishes, enamored by a nineteenth century clerical ethos. They applaud the pope but find their bishops incredibly out of touch with the realities of daily life. John Myers in Newark and John Nienstedt in St. Paul are symptoms of a credibility problem not exceptional deviations.

Change is possible; and change is necessary. At every level of church life: from the parish in Southwestern, Michigan where the young Legionnaire of Christ pastor now insists on Latin masses; from the East coast parochial school, where a beloved teacher is suddenly fired, because she openly lives with her gay companion; to the West coast chancery, where the shredder is devouring records of pedophile clergymen, shifted from parish to parish, as their bishops pretended not to know they were raping Catholic children.

Change is possible; and you and I are the agents of change: blowing whistles, demanding accountability, and supporting genuinely pastoral men and women.

And let us be a contemporary church. Regardless what kind of pope, it is still primarily our responsibility. Let us not lose the ability to adapt to the needs of women and men in an ever-more-changing world. Let us be church and offer generations Y, X and the baby-boomers an attractive faith vision for today and for tomorrow.

In all of our churches, let us replace the Exit signs with Welcome signs.

The Gospel does indeed proclaim: “Where two or three are gathered, there I am….” There indeed we find our faith and our credibility as church.


Pope Francis: His Theology of Women



I appreciate and welcome the pastoral style of Francis, our still-revealing-himself Bishop of Rome; and I applaud his rejection of the Renaissance-princely garb and grandeur that so characterized his gold-embroidered and red-slippered predecessor, and more than a few men with red hats.

When it comes to women, however, Francis really needs some theological updating.

The Bishop of Rome is calling for a “theology of women.” I fear however that he is simply resuscitating and trying to re-package the short-sighted viewpoint of his papal predecessor John Paul, called The Great.

In a three-day event sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Laity, launched on 14 October, approximately 100 women from across the globe gathered in Rome to discuss Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Mulieres Dignitatem, issued twenty-five years ago. The theme of the conference: “God entrusts the human being to the woman.” To the woman……

The speakers emphasized Pope John Paul’s biologically-bound understanding of male/female complementarity. Women and men have complementary natures, he taught, and their “diversity of roles” in the church and in the family are a reflection of that reality. He stressed that women’s biology orients them toward acceptance and receptivity (i.e. men insert and women receive): the creation and nurturing of new human life.

The “feminine genius,” the pope taught, includes qualities such as receptivity, empathy, protection of life, sanctity, and modesty. John Paul saw the feminine genius as the answer to the “culture of death” inherent in contemporary society’s penchant for abortion, contraception, and euthanasia; and he exalted Mary, Mother of God, as the prime example of the feminine genius: a humble, generous, faithful, and a long-suffering mother.

In 1994, to officially stamp-out rapidly spreading deviant behavior and unorthodox thought and teaching, Pope John Paul II declared women’s ordination a closed matter. Pope Francis of course has reiterated that same papal teaching, so clearly expressed in John Paul’s letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance…I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

The Roman Catholic prohibition of women’s ordination argues from a perception of divinely-constituted gender roles: the belief that masculinity was integral to the ministry of both Jesus and the apostles. Being a woman is fine; but if a human is going to act “in persona Christi,” one needs male genitalia. The Incarnation is more male than female?

Pope John Paul, Pope Benedict, and apparently Pope Francis have all believed there is an essential difference between male humanity and female humanity and therefore, while some human functions are interchangeable between men and women, others are not. So…..males are necessary for priesthood just as water is necessary for baptism, and bread and wine for Eucharist, because that’s the way Jesus set it up.

All of this is summed up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (issued by Pope John Paul in 1992): “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination.” The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.”

But what about Pope Francis’ call for a “theology of women”? Do we need a “theology of women” distinct from a “theology of men”? I think not. What we need, I suggest, is an officially updated understanding of the Christian Scriptures and early church history.

Francis appears to be a courageous and humble fellow. I don’t want to hear him reiterate the old theology of women, however. I want to hear a humble and official acknowledgement that the old Roman Catholic arguments against male/female ministerial equality are based on an archaic, incorrect, and unacceptable understanding of early Christian history.

Jesus did not establish nor ordain a clerical old boys club. There were male disciples and female disciples, male apostles and female apostles. In Romans 16:7, for instance, we read: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”

Junia’s female name was considered such an appalling anomaly by later medieval readers of Romans that when manuscripts were copied and recopied by pious males over the centuries the name Junia was frequently changed to a masculine form!

Paul of course calls himself an apostle. And he had no reluctance listing and acknowledging the male and female leaders in the early church. Nor do we see any hierarchical distinctions based on biology or gender. Among the people whom Paul lists in his Epistle to the Romans are Phoebe, the deacon in the Church of Cenchreae; Prisca, a “fellow-worker;” and the women Tryphaena and Tryphosa, who are “workers in the Lord” – the ministerial term Paul also applies to men in the same passage.

Today of course, we know that ordination as we know it did not exist in the early church; and scholars stress that the women and men, who were leaders of early Christian communities, were the same leaders who presided at Eucharist as well.

In the third chapter of Galatians, remember, we also read: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Returning for a minute to the teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, one could ask: what about “the Twelve”? Very often those who oppose women’s ordination argue that Jesus’ twelve apostles were men therefore all priests and bishops should be men. Well, there is a problem here.

Strictly speaking, the twelve apostles were not the twelve apostles: they were “the Twelve” who happened to be apostles. Their chief purpose was not to be the listing of Jesus’ apostles but, in Jewish-Christian imagery, a sign that Jesus was instituting a New Israel with its twelve tribes. (Even the various lists in the Christian Scriptures giving the names of the Twelve are problematic, but we can’t get into that today.)

Yes indeed, let us honor and celebrate women in the church, as we should honor and celebrate men as co-workers in the life and ministry of the church. Creating a specific “theology of women” may in fact be detrimental to guaranteeing the equal status of all in the Body of Christ.

And a final note: Any serious reflection on women in ordained ministry must seriously take into consideration the pastoral experience and witness of all those women currently exercising ordained ministry. Here I think of the ordained women in the Women
Priests Movement, ordained women in Anglican and Episcopalian churches, and of course in a great many Protestant churches. Their ordained ministry is authentic and genuine. The Church of Rome could in fact learn from them….

Now we need to get the message to Pope Francis. Maybe someone should call him on his mobile phone.


An Agenda for the USCCB


Yesterday I had a look at the agenda for the November 2013 meeting of our USCCB. Gathering again in Baltimore, they will elect a new president and vice president and designate leadership people for various committees. I am curious of course to see who will follow Cardinal Dolan as USCCB president. I don’t think it will be an African American. It would be exciting however to have two black presidents in DC.

Other USCCB November 2013 agenda items include:
•  Discussions and votes on the 2014 Conference budget and 2015 diocesan assessment
•  Consultation on the sainthood cause of Mary Teresa Tallon, Servant of God
•  Discussions and votes on the Misal Romano, the Spanish translation of the book of prayers at Mass
•  Discussions and votes on the draft translations of the Order of Celebrating Marriage and the Order of Confirmation
•  An update by Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone on the Promotion and Defense of Marriage
•  Presentation for a proposal to develop a formal statement on pornography
•  Presentation by Bishop Gerald R. Kicanas on the work and strategic priorities of CRS
•  An update and discussion on the Call to Prayer for Life, Marriage and Religious Liberty
•  Discussions and votes on proposed revisions to the USCCB handbook and regulations

I mean no disrespect but I found much of this agenda, shall we say, avoiding major issues confronting our U.S. church. So I decided to create my own agenda……

I call my USCCB agenda “Projects for Revitalizing Catholic Life in the United States….A Modest Start.”

My agenda has four points for discussion and action:

(1)  Overhauling and Redesigning ordained ministry:

This requires:

–       Dropping celibacy as a requirement for ordained ministry

–       Starting to ordain men, married or single, who have proven ministry skills

–       Ordaining women, with proven ministry skills, to be permanent deacons

–       Reconfiguring parishes so that they sustain smaller and more intimate communities of faith

–       Re-examining the current way candidates for ordained ministry are educated and trained. Is the current seminary structure a healthy way to prepare people for ordained ministry today? I really don’t think so……

(2) Education and formation about human sexuality

Launch a nation-wide human sexuality continuing education program for bishops and priests. Ideally local bishops and priests should meet at the diocesan level with experts in psychology, anthropology, sociology, and theological ethics to better understand our changing understanding of what it means to be a sexual person.

(3) Politics and Public Belief

Launch a continuing education program for all members of the USCCB about what it means to live responsibly in a values-pluralistic society.

Key issues to be examined:

–       The role and responsibility of religious institutions in a pluralistic society

–       Understanding the nature and formation of public morality in a pluralistic society and how it can be distinct from personal and confessional religious and ethical positions

(4) Listening to tomorrow’s believers

Launch a nation-wide listening program, inviting young women and men in Generation Y and Generation 9/11 to meet at parish and diocesan levels to explore and explain their deepest thoughts about God, Jesus, church, and belief today.


This agenda is only a start of course. Future agenda items could cover issues like:

(1)        Calling an advisory and decision-making council for the U.S. Catholic Church

(2)        Establishing mechanisms for the election of pastors and bishops

(3)        Establish on-going theological education programs for people at all levels in the church

(4)        Re-examining the role of Catholic education in U.S. society

As Pope Francis said recently: “God is in history, in the processes.

We must not focus on occupying spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run, historical processes.”