Going…Going…Gone???: Church Trends

Perhaps not gone; but a new study of cultural-religious trends in the United States points to a seismic shift in U.S. Religious engagement.

Churchless, a new book by George Barna and David Kinnaman, draws on more than twenty years of research and more than twenty nationwide studies of the “unchurched.”

I read the book a couple days ago and strongly recommend it. Great material for an adult discussion group….The United States is undergoing a major shift in religious interest and practice. The findings (which resonate with other studies of religious trends) are a clear challenge to religious leaders. For an ever-growing number of contemporary Americans (and Europeans and others as well I suspect), the old theology, the old rituals, and the old institutional church structures just don’t communicate the good-news of Jesus anymore. Critical institutional leaders, I guess, can just dismiss studies like this; but they do so at their own risk….to say nothing about ignoring their vocation as messengers of Christ. The impact of what’s going on here will be far bigger than the sixteenth century Reformation.

The percentage of unchurched adults in America, since 1990, has risen from 30% to 43% of the total population; and the numbers are rising. It is a major religious climate change. The Barna study highlights five religious trends, which I briefly summarize:

1. America is becoming post-Christian.
Nearly two-fifths of the nation’s adult population (38%) now qualifies as post-Christian. In other words, in spite of our “Christian” self-descriptions, more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice. Traditional religion leaves them cold; and the younger the generation, the more post-Christian it is. Nearly half of the Millennials (48%) qualify as post-Christian compared to two-fifths of Gen X-ers (40%), one-third of the Boomers (35%) and one-quarter of the Elders (28%).

2. People are less open to the very idea of church.
Barna research suggests that the unchurched are becoming less responsive to churches’ efforts to connect with them. Barna’s tracking data stretching back to the 1990s reveals a slow-growing calcification of unchurched people toward churches. For every outreach method surveyed, the unchurched are less open to it today than they were two decades ago.

3. Churchgoing is no longer mainstream America.
Churchgoing is slowly but incontrovertibly losing its role as a normative part of American life. In the 1990s, roughly one out of every seven unchurched adults had never experienced regular church attendance. Today, that percentage has increased to nearly one-quarter. Buried within these numbers are at least two important conclusions: 1) Church is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to millions of Americans, and yet 2) the churchless are still largely comprised of “de-churched” adults: people who once found meaning in church but not anymore.

4. There are different expectations about church involvement.
Another intriguing shift among the churchless has to do with their expectations about church involvement. In the early 1990s, nearly 7 out of 10 adults, if they were to visit a church, would be most interested in attending the Sunday service. Today, weekend worship services remain the most common entry experience, but only slightly. Only 57% of churchless adults say they would be interested in attending some firm of Sunday worship. Today’s unchurched are more likely to say they would prefer attending some activity other than the Sunday services.

5. There is skepticism about the churches’ impact on society.
When the unchurched were asked to describe what they believe are the positive and negative contributions of Christianity in America, almost half (49%) could not identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community, while nearly two-fifths (37%) were unable to identify a negative impact. Of those who could identify one way Christians contribute to the common good, the unchurched appreciate their influence when it comes to serving the poor and disadvantaged (22%), bolstering morals and values (10%) and helping people believe in God (8%). Among those who had a complaint about Christians in society, the unchurched were least favorably disposed toward violence in the name of Christ (18%), the church’s stand against gay marriage (15%), sexual abuse scandals (13%) and involvement in politics (10%).

Perhaps our religious leaders (at all levels) should stop telling people what to do and start listening to them instead. Start to really listen to them…..especially to young people….listening to their contemporary lived experiences and their genuine search for meaning and purpose in their lives.

We used to say Vox Populi Vox Dei: the Voice of the People is God’s Voice.
We just need to open our ears…….


Speaking of the Devil : Polarization in the Roman Catholic Hierarchy

The Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, is “very disturbed” that there are debates about official Roman Catholic teachings about people with a same-sex orientation and remarried Catholics receiving Eucharist. In fact, Chaput said in a New York, earlier this week, that this month’s Vatican summit sent a confusing message; and he stressed that “confusion is of the devil.”

“I was very disturbed by what happened” at the synod, the Archbishop said. “I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.” Archbishop Chaput also condemned gay activists for their “dishonesty” and “hatred” of gay marriage foes; and he said portrayals of them as homophobic are “dishonest and evil.”

Over in Providence, Rhode Island, Bishop Thomas Tobin offered his “random thoughts” on the recent Synod of Bishops: “In trying to accommodate the needs of the age, as Pope Francis suggests, the Church risks the danger of losing its courageous, counter-cultural, prophetic voice, a voice that the world needs to hear,” he wrote. “The concept of having a representative body of the Church voting on doctrinal applications and pastoral solutions strikes me as being rather Protestant.”

The Bishop of Providence did have kind words for Pope Francis: “Pope Francis is fond of ‘creating a mess.’ Mission accomplished.” His highest praise, however, went to Cardinal Raymond Burke: “Wherever he serves, Cardinal Burke will be a principled, articulate and fearless spokesman for the teachings of the Church.”

If he hasn’t already done it, Cardinal Burke will soon be emptying his desk and handing-in his office key at the Apostolic Signatura. Burke, well-known for his high Renaissance ecclesiastical dress, finds Pope Francis far too lenient with liberals who would water-down Catholic teaching. He and other far-right bishops were highly critical of the open-minded interim document released halfway through the recent synod. That report had suggested that the Catholic Church should be “welcoming to homosexual persons” and open to lifting the no-Communion ban for remarried divorcees.

Burke has accused Pope Francis of harming the Church by allowing free-ranging discussions on key contemporary issues. For Cardinal Burke homosexual men and women are “intrinsically disordered” and homosexual acts are “wrong and evil.” Perhaps “intrinsic disorder” is in the eyes of the beholder? A majority of U.S. Catholics, today, now favor same-sex marriage.

Nevertheless….Roman Catholic hierarchical polarization is a fact of life. Perhaps it is good to shake-up the institution from time to time. A continually reforming church is a healthy thing. Let the discussions continue, let transparency be the operative value. Let us think, reflect, and debate at all levels in the church. I think the Holy Spirit thrives in this kind of environment.

Blaming the devil for opposing Catholic viewpoints? Maybe we are simply too close to Halloween…….


Young U.S. Catholics on the Move

Sometimes I fear the Catholic Church in the United States will soon be a conglomeration of grey heads, far-right political protesters, and assorted other people who resonate more with a nineteenth century ethos than with contemporary realities. The final report from the recently concluded synod in Rome – hopeful midway – is less encouraging at its conclusion.

My reflection this week, however, is about young Catholics. While the Vatican vacillates about accepting gays, the Pew Research Center reports that nearly 85% of self-identified Catholics (between the ages of 18 and 29) believe gays and lesbians should be accepted by society. And 75% are in favor of same-sex marriage.

One of my friends reacted to the Pew finding with the comment that “these young Catholics are hardly Catholic.” He may have a point. Another recent study indicates that 80% of today’s young Catholics will have left the Catholic Church by the time they are 23. Change in the wind….

In any event, I have gone back to re-read a book I may have mentioned earlier: Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church. (Oxford University Press) The book is based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, which in 2002 began to study the evolving religious values of 3,290 young Catholics, when they were 13 to 17 years old. They are now, of course, young adults between the ages of 23 and 27.

The book offers some sobering realities. Like climate change, we can begin to take things seriously or ignore the findings and let things – people – go.

• Young Catholics are less knowledgeable about their faith. They don’t understand it, and it doesn’t draw their interest.

• They are more lived-experience-based than church-teaching-based. Their own experiences and those of their peer group shape their understanding of Christian truth and value.

• While they tend to solidly affirm central Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ, they clearly disagree with the church when it speaks about human sexuality, gender differences, birth control, and abortion.

• In general the church does not play a big role in their lives; and they are increasingly less involved in it, e.g. regular liturgical participation.

• Like a growing number of Americans, young American Catholics see themselves as “more spiritual than religious.” Yes I know, this phrase invites a lot of reflection….

• Young American Catholics therefore are more open-minded about and tolerant of people who belong to other Christian traditions and other religions. The Catholic Church for them is simply one denomination among many. It may be of value today but perhaps not tomorrow.

Older Roman Catholics….and Roman Catholic leaders….have a lot to ponder these days. Putting heads in the sand is very tempting.


Contemporary Catholic Belief: Change in the Air?

On October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican council, much to the dismay of his nemesis Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ottaviani would work hard to undermine and derail the work of the council. In the end, of course, John’s vision prevailed. History here offers a contemporary reminder.

Theological polarization at the managerial-hierarchical top of the institutional church is nothing new. Fifty-two years ago, it was Pope John and people like the Belgian Cardinal Suenens on the “progressive” side. Today we see Pope Francis and people like Cardinal Kasper in theological dissonance with “conservative” hierarchs like Cardinal Raymond Burke and the current head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who warn that adherents to the Kasper viewpoint are “heretics.” So what is going on here?

John Allen, formerly of the National Catholic Reporter and now at the Boston Globe and most recently as well at Crux, says it is the reappearance of “gradualism” in Catholic theology. In fact “gradualism” is a euphemistic way of saying that life changes, our understanding of life changes, and therefore our theological and ethical understandings change. Our developing understanding of the human condition has always had major theological and ethical implications. Fifty years ago, we called that “reading the signs of the times.”

Frankly, I really don’t like using the terms “conservative,” “traditional,” and “liberal” or “progressive.” They don’t help today. Many of my friends call me a “progressive” Catholic, yet I would contend that I am very much anchored in Catholic “tradition” and trying to “conserve” it.

A far better way of understanding contemporary Catholic polarization is to see two approaches to living-out our faith today: (1) a theology of unquestioning adherence to official doctrinal formulations — many more than a thousand years old; and (2) a theology that reflects on contemporary lived-faith experiences.

Cardinal Müller would strongly uphold the first approach. Cardinal Kasper the second. Although it is still difficult to clearly read what is gong on at the Synod in Rome, there are indications that more than a few bishops would now align themselves with Kasper rather than Müller.

This past Thursday, October 9, the head of the Canadian Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, for instance, said he saw a major shift — a new starting place for theological reflection — by bishops at the synod.

What’s happening within the Synod, Durocher observed, is that we are seeing a more inductive way of reflecting; starting from the true situation of people and trying to figure out, ‘what is going on here?’….We are finding that the lived experience of people is also a theological source…a place for theological reflection.

Not all Catholics and Catholic organisations, like “Voice of the Family,” are pleased with the life-based approach of people like Archbishop Durocher.

This morning, October 14, I read the reactions of Patrick Buckley, Voice of the Family’s Irish representative. He writes:

The Synod’s mid-way report represents an attack on marriage and the family. For example, the report in effect gives a tacit approval of adulterous relationships, thereby contradicting the Sixth Commandment and the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the indissolubility of marriage.

The report undermines the Church’s definitive teaching against contraception, by using the coded language of ‘underlin[ing] the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control.’ This language is the code of those who wish to reduce the Church’s doctrines to a mere guide, thus leaving couples free to choose contraception in so-called ‘conscience.’

The report accepts wrongly that there is a value in the homosexual orientation. This contradicts the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1986 Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.

Nevertheless….the days of the flat-earth society are over. (Even Medieval Latin has been finally jettisoned as Vatican-speak meeting language.) Lived-experience theological reflection is contemporary and real; and it challenges completely the rigid doctrine-based-rule-of-life approach of people like Cardinal Burke and groups like Voice of the Family. Their theology often leads to archaic solutions for contemporary problems, because it is so closed-minded and rigidly unchanging.

Catholic belief and official Catholic teaching do and must always change. We are discovery people, always on pilgrimage. And we believe that the Spirit of Christ had not abandoned us.

Unchanging Catholic teaching? Not my experience, actually. I remember when official teaching said women were inferior to men, that Protestants (like my Dad) were followers of a “false religion,” that the “ordained” were, thanks to their sacramental character, intrinsically superior human beings and on a higher spiritual plane than “ simple lay people.” I remember when the “insidious Jews” were denounced as “Christ-killers.” And I will never forget when eating a hamburger on a Friday was a one-way ticket to hell, unless one got to confession….But…..we grow in our understanding….and we move on.

A word of warning: when reflecting about doctrine-based belief and contemporary-life-based belief, I am not saying it is matter of choosing one system over the other. It is both and…… The “and” is that each theological approach must critique and help clarify the other. That is no small task. It demands and requires mutual respect, clear and open dialogue, and a great deal of humility. No one has all the answers. We travel toward the truth….and we must travel together. That is the nature of a community of faith.

I really don’t know what will finally result from the current Synod in Rome. I don’t know what the lasting impact of Pope Francis will be. I have no doubts however that contemporary Roman Catholic management people have now accepted the fact that theological pluralism, like multilingualism, is now a contemporary Catholic reality.

Who knows what this will bring?

I had a dream last night….A future head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith went on Vatican radio and television and solemnly proclaimed: “Progress in Catholic belief is now our most important product.”


Youthful Inspiration………An Unfinished Reflection

Several images of highly motivated young men and women passed through my old head this past week.

The first was of John Condon, at his grave outside Ypres, Belgium. John was a fourteen years old soldier, killed in the “Great War.” I spent about fifteen minutes at his grave – alone and with old-man watery eyes. What motivated him? Who inspired him? He lied about his age so he could leave his parents and friends and go to war. What we’re his life dreams?

Later that day, my son, two very good friends visiting from Michigan, and I passed along the graves of tens of thousands and tens of thousands and tens of thousands of young men who gave their lives in WWI fighting the “enemy.” Their inspiration? Many of them, when one reads the notes they left behind, were highly idealistic….Others of course went because they had to.

On our Ypres visit that day, we stood as well at a mass grave — a bit larger than my living room — containing the remains of twenty thousand First World War enemy (German) soldiers. In their own way, they too were once young and idealistic. In another corner of the same cemetery, the somber graves of a group of soldiers, who had been the best and brightest graduates of the University of Berlin. The enemy.

Simultaneous memorials….The same day the four of us were visiting WWI burial sites In Belgium, my friends (high school and college classmates) back in Detroit were gathered for the funeral of our classmate and friend, Father Charlie.

Charlie and I were once idealistic young seminarians, answering our own calls and entering Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary at age fourteen. Answering our own calls took us in different directions. The calls nevertheless were real. About that I have no doubts. The year Charlie was ordained, my wife and I celebrated our engagement. We have now been married close to forty-five years.

Getting home and checking end-of-the-day news on my little iPad, I marvelled at the energy and courage of youthful pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Their leader a charismatic young man about sixteen years old. Who inspired these young people? From whence their courage to protest? What will they do when the protest is over?

The next morning’s newspaper had a major report about another kind of youthful protest. Driven by grievances, resentments, and frustrations, young second generation immigrants in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Germany who are now signing-up and becoming heartlessly savage and cruel young soldiers in support of the Islamic State. Their inspiration? Who motivated them? Why? All very young men and very young women. Leaving family and friends. For a cause they find noble?

Last night, before going to bed after a long and busy day, I read a few pages from the Gospel According to Mark. I thought about those other young young men and women – in their late teens – who followed Jesus from Nazareth. Today we call them disciples and apostles.

Where do young people today find their inspiration? Who or what motivates them? Who or what animates them to such a degree test they are willing to sacrifice their young lives?

And of course….what is our responsibility – as individuals and as church – in all of this?

Frankly, I have no simple answers…..

May Charlie, old friend and once also young and idealistic, rest in peace.