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.