A Gallup poll released on Monday, March 29 , 2021, indicates that the proportion of Americans who consider themselves members of a church or synagogue has now dropped below 50%. The results highlight a dramatic shift away from religious affiliation in recent years, and among all age groups. When Gallup first asked the question in 1937, church membership was 73%. 

Organized religion in the USA is clearly in recession. In the case of Judaism, the indicators  include declining synagogue membership, a general disinterest in traditional religious practice and belief, and decreased belief in God. In USA Islam, by the way, a substantial share of adults who were raised Muslim no longer identify as members of that religious tradition. Unlike some other religions in the United States, however, Islam gains about as many members as it loses, due primarily to immigration.  

In terms of US church membership, Protestants show a 9% decline from 73% to 64%. Catholics, however, have the greatest decline with 58% indicating church membership, which is down 18 points from 76% in a previous Gallup survey from 1998-2000. Already in 2015 a Pew Research report noted that nearly 13 percent of all Americans are former Catholics.

US Catholicism is a divided house, as we have seen in recent Catholic support and Catholic opposition to the second US Catholic president: President Joseph Biden. 

The contemporary Catholic reality is that most American Catholics, today, do not agree with official Catholic teachings about key moral issues.That official teaching still stresses that artificial contraception, homosexuality, and abortion are “intrinsically evil.” Nevertheless, more than half of today’s US Catholics, 56% as of September 2020,  said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. More than 82% say birth control is morally acceptable; and 61% said in a 2019 survey that they favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry. Same-sex marriage of course became legal across the United States following a Supreme Court ruling in 2015.

Most of today’s American Catholic bishops were not educated and shaped by the pastoral focus of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) but by the rigid dogmatism of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For them obeying institutional directives comes first and they tend to be right of center or very far right. Many strongly supported the former US president, Donald Trump. Most are not positively influenced by the opinions and beliefs of today’s US Catholic laity; and are busily closing and consolidating parishes, closing schools, and worrying about bankrupsies. But asking why? Speaking at a book launch in Munich in 2011, the Swiss theologian Hans Küng, who died on April 6, 2021, said that, at that time, the Catholic Church in the United States had lost one-third of its membership. “The American Catholic church never asked why,” he said. “Any other institution that has lost a third of its members would want to know why.” Institutional self-examination is important….

I mentioned in a recent email to a bishop acquaintance, whom I have known for a many years, that we used to say “vox populi, vox Dei,” — “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” His response was a friendly note, but in bold type he wrote: “When it comes to morality, the voice of the bishops is the voce of God.” He also informed me that, since he became a bishop, he has not had to read any contemporary theological books, because the Holy Spirit guides him.

Thinking about Catholics leaving the church, an American priest friend asked recently: “After the pandemic when we are all back to ‘normal,’ I wonder how many people will really start attending church again?” That is a good question. Some of my friend’s parishioners told him they liked and respected him; but they did not miss going to church, due to Covid 19 restrictions. They also said they really don’t resonate with  “zoom liturgies,” because they focus too much on “the priest just doing his thing at the alter.” 

Most researches at Gallup and Pew Forum suggest that a continued religious membership decline in future decades seems inevitable, due to much lower levels of religiosity and church membership among younger generations.

So what is happening? 

To some extent, US culture, norms, and patterns of social behavior are always in flux and religion is part of the ongoing cycle of change. I think, however, something more significant is happening today. In the past, if Americans didn’t like a particular form of church, they simply created a new one. A few years ago even Catholics started doing that. Now more people are simply leaving rather than creating or joining new communities.

As fewer Americans say they are members of a church, some critics say this is just part of a generalized secularization trend. The reasons for this are debatable and complex. In general, however, I think laying the blame on “secularization” is a cop out. The whole point of the Incarnation is that we really do find the sacred in the secular — but that is a discussion for another time.

Other reasons for people dropping out, of course, are: clerical sexual abuse, which is not just a Catholic problem; institutional religious opposition to LGBT people and gay marriage; the blending of religion and politics along lines of far-right politics or theocracy; and institutional misogyny and racism.

The underlying issue in all of the above reasons for dropping out, I suggest however is an institutional disconnect from people’s hunger and thirst for a contemporary spirituality. Spirituality should be our way of life: a real life awareness of  Divine Presence. Many come to church looking for warm living bread but find instead cold old stones. 

My friend, Joseph Martos, who passed away a couple years ago, wrote an excellent book about spirituality and meaningful contemporary ritual:  Honest Rituals, Honest Sacraments: Letting Go of Doctrines and Celebrating What’s Real. 

Symbol, ritual and music connect us – should connect us – to the depth of Reality. I always appreciated symbol, ritual, and times of reflective silence in my Catholic tradition. To be effective, however, they have to be rooted in contemporary life experiences and not in some kind of resuscitated medieval culture

I will share a little personal story and then offer a bit more explanation of what I mean.

A couple years ago, on the evening before Pentecost, my wife and I attended a concert of sacred music in a small local church. The church was packed, with about two hundred people. The concert was marvelous and deeply moving. 

When the concert finished, no one applauded. No one moved. People sat there in deep reflection for a good ten or more minutes. I whispered to my wife: “This is amazing – a deeply meditative group experience.” A few minutes later, the somewhat agitated pastor stood up, looked at his watch, and then spoke to the congregation: “Ok everybody. The concert is over. It is getting late. Time for you to go home. I need to get some sleep. Big Pentecost Mass tomorrow!”

Slowly we all got up in silence and peacefully walked out.

The next morning, I attended the Pentecost High Mass at which the pastor presided. He was a good man but lived in his own small clerical world. For Pentecost there were about twenty people present for Mass. Many showed little enthusiasm, especially when the pastor – never looking at the congregation — read his long homily from a printed leaflet. After Mass the pastor was at the church door wishing everyone a Blessed Pentecost. As I walked out, I went up to him wished him a Happy Pentecost and remarked with a chuckle that he had had a full house for the Saturday evening concert. He smiled but then rather seriously said: “All the heathens came here last night.” I smiled back and said in a friendly way: “I don’t think so. They had a prayerful experience.” Hearing that he shrugged, grumbled something, and turned to greet the next person….

I think many people today are dropping out of institutional religion, for all the reasons indicated above but mostly because their church experiences too often leave them hungry for spiritual experiences and spiritual nourishment. They are hungry for a taste of the Divine, even when they may not know how to express that hunger. Their hunger is real.

This year on Easter, April 4,  I was thinking about the post-resurrection experience of Cleopas and the disciple, who was probably his wife Mary, on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus in Luke 24. They had an encounter with Jesus that touched them deeply but they did not at first recognize him. 

Luke writes that they met a fellow traveler who talked with them about the events in Jerusalem but then acted as if he were going farther. “But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’”

A healthy church gives people living bread, feeding not only their minds but warming their hearts as well: providing profound experiences in which they feel connected intimately to Someone larger than themselves. We call that the Sacred, the Divine, the Ground of Being or God. I remember the observation of Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations (1953-1961), and a deeply spiritual, almost mystical, man: “We die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” 

I suspect many people today feel like uncertain travelers looking for a map and a faithful guide. Christian leaders with meaningful words, symbols, and rituals can indeed give direction and a secure footing. They can enable people to enter into a deeper dimension of life, inspired by THE great Christian leader:  “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” John 10:10

  • Jack

16 thoughts on “Contemporary Religious Recession

  1. Thank you, Jack, for another thoughtful piece about the state of our Church and its failure to meet the spiritual needs of its people. If only our bishops were capable of hearing your insights! Hans Kung’s observation that “The American Catholic church never asked why” in regard to Catholics walking away applies also to The Australian Catholic Church and probably all countries, and reflects the Australian Church’s reaction to the condemnation of the Church by the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse for the Church’s cover-up and protection of clerical abusers – our pastoral leaders seem unable to see the obvious need for institutional self-examination. That, I think, reflects the loss of spiritual orientation.

  2. Excellent analysis of the problem and, what I agree, is the solution. Absolutely in every era and every culture, there are humans who “hunger for a taste of the Divine.” We will go where we can find it. Sadly, for so many Americans that is not to be found in organized religion. That said, I believe the future religion(s) will succeed.

  3. Oh, Jack, this was beautiful. Instructional but, more than that, eye-opening inspiration. Thank you so much for your thoughtful words.

  4. I think that belonging to an institution, a sports club, scouts, holy name society, child of Mary etc based on belonging and group adherence has passed away. Today we are flexible, do not really confess to alliances, yet there is a thirst for a deeper source which institutions cannot fill. Even family life, or lack of legal commitment has less stable influence than when I was young. I am now 86 and I see young people not accepting let alone believing credal statements. I think it will change as the pendulum always moves from side to side. Sadly what may emerge is a reaction and a return to thoughtless obedience without any commitment to life. True to the concept of evolution the pendulum does not stay in the middle, but unlike the church which prefers to remain in the past and cannot handle constant challenge to being pilgrim..
    I wonder what church will be in say 20 years ?

  5. Jack

    Great to have you back with another great reflection. I heard this week that the Church is planning a study in two years to address the decline in the number of people entering the religious life and priesthood. I guess decline in Church membership is not really about the Church. I had a lot of thoughts about why the problem exists. Your reflection offered a great deal of information. I cannot escape the conviction, however, that there can be no religious life or belief in the God presented to us by Jesus until people have a profound appreciation for intimacy. Throughout history, the Church has been in flight from human intimacy under the delusion that we encounter God through the supernatural. Your focus, therefore, on finding God in the secular world is the key issue, in my judgment. It is sad that the Church thinks of human existence as the secular world. Your reflection makes clear that people have not left the Church, the Church has left the people. The bishop caught in his own narcissism seen as the Holy Spirit and the pastor who cannot recognize the authentic presence of the Holy Spirit represent the problem that you have described so well. Until the structure of the priesthood changes completely, the Church, at least in America, will continue to decline. There are Catholics around, however, like yourself, who can continue talking about what constitutes a genuine religious life. The institution will do fine, if the psychological development needed for people to be religious is tended to.
    I was sorry to hear that Hans Kuhn has died, I had not heard this news, but I was happy to see that he died at Easter like another of our great Catholic thinkers whom the Church suppressed.

    1. Any thanks Tom. I always greatly appreciate your observations. It is so true: people have not left the Church, the Church has left the people.

      I wish we could drop from our language words like “supernatural” and “metaphysical.” Reality is so rich and many faceted. Warmest regards.

Leave a Reply