The secularizing shifts evident in contemporary U.S. American society show no signs of slowing. In 2019, only 14% of all U.S. adults said they never went to church. But in 2020, that number jumped to 53%. That was an almost 40 point jump in less than twelve months. The shift continued throughout 2021.

While Christians continue to make up a majority of the U.S. population, with about 63%,  their share of the adult population is 12 points lower in 2021 than it was in 2011. Currently, about 29% of U.S. adults are religious “nones” – people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious identity. 

Contrary to what some people think, Muslims currently make up only about 1.1% of the total U.S. population. But the projection is that by 2050, they will make up 2.1% and surpass the U.S. Jewish population which is now about 1.9% of the total U.S. population and is not expected to greatly increase. 

For some time now, surveys have shown that younger U.S. Americans are less likely than older adults to attend church, believe in God, or say religion is important to them. 

According to the Gallop National Poll over 72% of U.S. Americans say that religion is losing its influence on the U.S. way of life. But what do they really mean by that? 

Some people, like the white Christian nationalists, want religion to control just about every aspect of U.S. national life. Separation of church and state is, for them, a grave error. But a theocracy is not a democracy. Theocracies are inhumane and abusive. They also blaspheme God, using God to manipulate and oppress human beings. 

Is the ongoing U.S. cultural change bringing a crisis for Christian churches? Everything depends on how one should understand such a “crisis.” Membership is decreasing. Should one regret it? Or accept it as a fait accompli? Or should one take the polarization road and launch a counterattack? 

What some see as crisis I see as a challenge. I ask: what does the proclamation of the Gospel mean in our rapidly changing cultural situation?

Cardinal Jozef De Kessel, the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and a bishop whom I greatly respect, said perhaps the real question is not so much whether the church can maintain its current membership, but whether the church can also attract new people. That would show the credibility and vitality of the church. Not so much by the number of participants that one still maintains; but whether a person, who is fully integrated into our contemporary secular culture, can be touched by the power and beauty of the Gospel as proclaimed and lived by the church. 

Much indeed depends on the perspectives of those who proclaim-and-live the Gospel.

Sometimes people forget what Christianity is all about. Christian Faith is not about doctrines but about a shared experience and a way of life. Jesus taught by being with and affirming other people. He was hardly a doctrinaire authoritarian.

On Epiphany, January 6, 2022, I was pleased that Pope Francis asked: “Have we been stuck all too long, nestled inside a conventional, external and formal religiosity that no longer warms our hearts and changes our lives?” Then he continued: “Do our words and our liturgies ignite in people’s hearts a desire to move towards God, or are they a ‘dead language’ that speaks only of itself and to itself?” Very good questions. But, of course, questions that demand not just more words but concrete institutional and personal action. 

Too many church leaders are great advocates for clear-cut doctrine but fear their own and others’ ongoing human experience. I remember an after-dinner chat with a U.S. archbishop bishop, now deceased, who visited our university for a few days. He and I had known each other for a many years. One evening I asked him: “Do you ever think about the not always so easy life experiences and questions of people in your diocese?” I mentioned divorced and remarried who are no longer allowed to receive communion; young priests who are very unhappy being celibates; other priests who are gay; and all those well educated and pastorally trained women who feel called to ordained ministry? 

Sorry to say the archbishop found my questions, more than a bit annoying, and totally inappropriate because, as he said rather emphatically: “one should not think about such things and I am not that interested in even discussing these things. Good Catholics don’t question. They follow the rules.” 

Contemporary church leaders – well all of us  — really need to listen to what people are experiencing and saying, as they go through life’s changes and developments. 

And we all need ongoing education. Some need major remedial education. Not just in theology but in our anthropological and psychological understanding and perspectives about ongoing human development. Change and new understandings are facts of life. We would not go to a cardiologist whose cardio-vascular understanding is 1950s vintage. Why should we do it in the church?

As part of ongoing formation for church leaders I would stress the importance of spirituality and spiritual direction. People today don’t need more dogmatic indoctrination. They do need spiritual insight and direction. In the depth of our human experiences, people need help discovering the Divine Presence. 

Right now I am reading Gabriel Moran’s book: What Happened to the Roman Catholic Church? Moran (1935 – 2021), theological scholar and educator, died in October this past year. He had such a profound understanding of human experience and spirituality – because of his own spiritual journey as a Christian Brother, provincial Superior, professor, and later as a married man. He was one of my own theological heroes and guides. 

Reading Moran’s final book, which is truly an institutional and a personal memoir, his words ring so true for all of us. (I will come back to his book in a future post.)

“The presence of God is the experience of the depths of presence in which we realize that we have barely begun to grasp the mystery of existence. We inevitably live most of the time on the surface of reality as we move through our mundane existence. But there are moments, if one is attentive to them, when there is an opening to a level of being that we are usually oblivious of. It can be a moment that is profoundly shaking such as the death of a close friend. But it might also be the scent of flowers or the sound of a voice that throws open the mind to a usually hidden universe.”

Every good wish for the New Year!

  • Jack

11 thoughts on “A New Year and New Religious Trends

  1. As always, I respect your learned and correct assessments of where Christianity has been and in what direction it should be headed in the new millennium. Yes, the future should be about “the importance of spirituality and spiritual direction.” While you know I object to the inclusion of a quote by the present pope – a man who never puts his money or action where his mouth is – the inclusion of quotes from Gabriel Moran’s book more than compensates like “there are moments, if one is attentive to them, when there is an opening to a level of being that we are usually oblivious of.” Well done and I look forward to more posts on Moran.

  2. Thanks, jack for your usual thought-provoking essay. I was disappointed that it ended where it did : ) — I will be looking forward to your future reflections on Moran’s works. Also, your phrase “whether a person, who is fully integrated into our contemporary secular culture, can be touched by the power and beauty of the Gospel.” Really a challenge!

  3. Dear Jack,

    Welcome back and, hopefully, a happy new year to you and Joske.

    This reflection really touched me because of the essential question it forced me to ask myself: Is my faith sustaining me in these times of social upheaval? Or, perhaps, more correctly, Is my PRACTICE of my faith truly making a difference where I can in these times of social upheaval? I confess to discouragement with the detachment that I feel with the form and ritual of religion as a meaningful way to know that I am being what Jesus calls us to be. I suspect some of the “none-ness” that is growing today comes from the dichotomy between the words we read/hear and the practice we see in many Christians today. I would echo Betty’s observations but apply it well beyond the Pope. These are times when we Christians should, to use the vernacular, “Put up or shut up!” We must live like Jesus.

    “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

    Peace,
    Frank

  4. I’m reading his book now. I’m learning a lot, thinking a lot, and feeling some of my own views “validated”. Thanks for telling me about it.

  5. Thank you for this excellent reflection. I found your conversation with the now-deceased archbishop very disturbing. Here we are in the midst of the synodal process and I am quite sure that that bishop’s response is probably shared by other leaders in the church. In one article I read, one bishop referred to the synodal preparations as “garbage”! I pray the Holy Spirit will will be working overtime to inspire more in the church to embrace this Synod. Take care…

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