2 October 2016

The Public Religion Research Institute, in Washington, DC, has published an updated report about the “nones”: the religiously unaffiliated. Today 24% of all U.S. Americans, and 39% of young adults aged eighteen to twenty-nine, say they have no religious affiliation. The “nones” are now the largest “religious” group in the United States

Linked with the rise of the “nones” is yet another trend: an ongoing exodus out of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. U.S. Catholics have now experienced the largest membership decline of any Christian group in the country. While about one third (31%) of U.S. Americans indicate they were raised Catholic, less than a quarter (21%) currently identify as Catholic. When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, 25% of the U.S. adult population was Roman Catholic. 

Mainline Protestant churches are showing a decline in membership as well; but nothing compares with the current Catholic exodus. Daniel Cox, the Director of Research at the Public Religion Research Institute, notes that 36% of all U.S. Americans who have left their childhood religion were Roman Catholic. While, as I indicated above, 21% of the total U.S. population currently identifies as Catholic, only 15% of young adults ages 18–29 say they are Catholic. Not a particularly encouraging trend for Roman Catholic leaders, strongly Republican but now scratching their heads about what to do about a presidential race between one candidate whose views on immigration clash with decades of Catholic pro-immigration work, and another who supports same-sex marriage and expanded access to abortion and contraception. 

Today 60% of those who have left their U.S. church of origin say it was because they stopped believing that church’s teachings. Interestingly, the “nones” who were raised Catholic — more than the people who have left some other religious tradition — cite the Roman Catholic Church’s negative treatment of gay and lesbian people (39%) and the still festering clerical sexual-abuse scandal (32%) as their primary reasons for leaving their church. Sorry to say, given the high rate of Catholic disaffiliation and the fact that one-third of Catholics indicated clergy sex-abuse as their primary reason for disaffiliation, the Catholic exodus can be expected to continue as more revelations about hidden abuse scandals become public.  

Another point that the Public Religion Research Institute study makes clear is that while the “nones” are often portrayed as “seekers” or “spiritual but not religious,” the data presents a more uncertain picture of what is happening. Nearly 60% of the unaffiliated are what the Public Religion Research Institute calls “rejectionists”: they “say religion is not personally important in their lives and believe religion as a whole does more harm than good in society.” Another 22% are “apatheists. ” They say “religion is not personally important to them, but believe it generally is more socially helpful than harmful.” Contrary to what one often reads about the “nones,” only 18% were found to be “unattached believers.” That means that religion is unimportant for a good 80% of the “nones.” As Daniel Cox observes: “The bulk of the unaffiliated are not carrying on faith traditions or seeking different types of spiritual activity. Most don’t give a lot of thought to religion and God in general.”  

Is there a future for the Roman Catholic Church? Of course there is; but then some important remedial steps have to be undertaken. Church leadership has to constructively and effectively respond to what I call level one big issues and level two big issues. If this does not happen, the Catholic eclipse will be pervasive and long-lasting. 

I begin with the level two big issues. 

At the top of this list is human sexuality. The institution, whose key leaders are mostly old men who – from the time they were very young men — have officially signed-off on sex, has a major difficulty understanding human sexuality as a human good. We are all sexual people; and our sexuality is more than just genital procreative behavior. It is the way we experience ourselves, the way we express love and affection, the way we bring life to each other and bring new life into the world. It is the way we experience human pleasure and find contentment. It is natural and good; and some people are “gay” and some people are “straight.” Most people, my sexologist friends tell me, are somewhere between being totally one way or the other.  

While 86% of the baby boomers consider themselves “completely heterosexual,” one third of the Millennial generation consider themselves “less than 100% straight.” According to recent studies by the Pew Research Centre, ABC News, and the Washington Post, well over 80% of the Millennial generation say they believe gay and lesbian individuals should be accepted by society and allowed to get married if they so choose. 

Related to the human sexuality issues of course are issues of gender roles and gender identity. I wish we could move beyond discussions about “women’s roles” and “men’s roles” in the church. This is not a healthy way of thinking or speaking. We are a community of faith; and all believers in the community share and participate in the community’s life and ministry. Galatians 3 reminds us: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Establishing separate categories and ranks in the church is not what we should be about. 

The final issue in my list of level two big issues is gender identity. As an old observer of human life, who tries to stay current as well, it is very clear to me that human beings are much more than simply individuals who were born with a penis or a vagina. One of my classmates, when I was a freshman in high school, was a young man. Many years later we met again. He – SHE – is now a married professional woman, leading a very happy life. My eyes were opened in more than one way. Gender identity is an important issue for thousands of people. There is nothing decadent or immoral about it. Some people scoff at or make fun of Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner the Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete. I think we still have a lot to learn about human identity….. 

Now moving on to the level one big issues: 

As individual believers and as institutional leaders, we need to seriously and honestly reflect about who God is for us today. Too much of our traditional talk about God does not connect with people today. Perhaps we forget that all God-talk is anthropomorphic. God is just as much “Mother” as “Father.” For me God is more like a traveling companion. Nevertheless, there is no Heavily Father sitting on his throne up there above the clouds. There is Reality right here and right now.  

Connecting with us, loving us, and sustaining us from the deepest dimension of Reality is the Sacred. It is deeply personal and intimate. All the great mystics attest to this. We need to adjust our perspectives on Reality and how we describe and live with it. How we travel in time with it and celebrate it. The old dichotomies – as my older priest-philosopher friend often reminds me – are no longer appropriate or acceptable: dividing Reality into “transcendent” and “immanent.” Or into the “physical” and the “metaphysical.” Or even cutting Reality into “sacred” and “profane.” Reality is a unity. There we discover “God with us.” Now we need to explore and explain and better express that for ourselves and for contemporary people. It is the number one task for contemporary theologians. 

Helping us with our level one big issues of course is the absolute necessity of an historical/critical understanding of our scriptures; but not just our scriptures. We need an historical/critical understanding of church teachings, church structures, and moral imperatives as they have developed and changed over the centuries. No small task. And not always easy because some new discoveries can be temporarily disorienting and disconcerting. I still remember being a terribly upset little boy, sitting with my parents restlessly staring at our Christmas tree, when it dawned on me that Santa was a fantasy. Later I began to smile, when I realized all the more that I had a very loving mom and dad.  

We are never too old to realize that we still have much to learn. This is a grace not a vice. 

We can resonate with T. S. Eliot’s famous observation: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” 

22 thoughts on “Reality and Religious Realities

  1. As always, Jack, well said. You have correctly described both the problem and the solution. Jesus gave his followers the mandate to bring the Good News to all nations. However, that Good News needs to be, as you say, “who God is for us today.”

  2. Thank you again for bringing credence to what is in my heart, and on my mind. It helps so much to know that others, whom I respect, share my thoughts. Well thought, and well said, my friend. Looking forward to next week. Have a wonderful week.

  3. One of your most profound and spot-on reflections, Jack. It deserves to be read in chanceries and seminaries throughout the U.S.

  4. Excellent..points spot on target with reality. (Pope) Francis is a great man, a merciful pastor, leader and a great pr man for the truth of Jesus’ gospel of love. However, I still see little change in the institutional church, bishops or archaic theology which is so irrelevant to where people actually live inside! We have to start realizing that scripture, in all it’s sacredness, was indeed written by men with an agenda for their times and can be fluid in interpretation for our times..Contrary to the belief of some, God did not come down on a cloud and write it (scripture) with a permanent golden pen that can never change. But change we must to survive, grow and flourish with all the potential that is truly there! If it wasn’t for Jack (Dick) and Bishop Jack Spong, I would be very discouraged by now.

  5. “We need an historical/critical understanding of church teachings, church structures, and moral imperatives as they have developed and changed over the centuries.” So refreshing to hear a sensible view on this issue. There is and has been far too much doctrinal fundamentalism in the RC Church. But I don’t hear it changing from the teaching of the recently ordained priests.

  6. Bob Rowe, I echo your comments. I have read several of Spong’s books, and I couldn’t help but think of his writings as I read this particular blog post of Jack’s. And Jack, I become very disheartened when I see the young men just out of seminary preaching what I now consider to be heretical for our times. I’m mostly frustrated, but also appalled and angered that they’re still focused on the “magisterium” and the silly pre- and renaissance rules that were made to promote and keep the powerful in their positions. My first real awakening was about 30 years ago when I read what I consider the seminal (at that time) book of my life, “A Distant Mirror,” by Barbara Tuchman. She would not be considered an author friendly to the church, but gave a very realistic view of institutions of that day that sought power for their own ends. It was eye opening as your writings and Bishop Spong’s are for today.

  7. Hello Jack, years ago my husband John and I, met you when we attended a Summer School at Leuven. I remain ever grateful for the opportunities provided by you and staff. It is wonderful to hear your views afresh.

  8. As usual., Jack, right on the money. A must-read for our parishioners.


    When will we see you again ?

  9. Just when I felt I was the only one searching to understand the historic teachings with my belief today, “Relief!” I find a disconnect between the Presence within, leading me inward to freedom, and the constant repetition of dysfunctional religion.
    Thankfully, I choose to follow the Presence within. I find that Presence connecting with the Universe, all things, and all people who also manifest this same Presence.


  10. greetings jack – it has been a long time since we met up in Leuven – twice – I was that bloke who wanted to do some studies with your guidance
    now just finished a role as Director of Mission for Christian Brothers in Oceania and will do some time at Australian Catholic University to finish efforts at formal things Church
    love the article and will try and keep in touch
    where are you now and is this your main ministry
    blessings as ever


    1. Dear Bill

      I remember you very, very well and have thought about you many times. Very positive thoughts. I am now an older retired professor, still live in Leuven, and doing a lot of lecturing and writing. Please note my personal email jadleuven@gmail.com

      Please stay in touch. My very warmest regards

  11. Good reflections, Jack.  I found one element missing:  contemplation.  I think that is the experience that both corrects and unifies the disparate elements you mentioned.  Here comes Thomas Merton!

  12. “cite the Roman Catholic Church’s negative treatment of gay and lesbian people (39%) ”

    That may in large part be the result of the currently prevalent paradigm in US education.

    Yes, the Church needs to make revisions to its Augustinian sexual pessimism and hatred of pleasure (drawn from ancient pagan schools of thought) and stop burdening marriage.

    “We can resonate with T. S. Eliot’s famous observation: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” ”

    Yes, this was also quoted in the Magus (movie, 1968). It is a good quote.

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