In 1741, the young Puritan preacher and theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758), warned that only God’s mercy prevented sinners from sizzling in hellfire like spiders over a candle flame. Edwards helped launch the first Great Awakening, a revival of Christian engagement and practice that lasted throughout much of the 18th century. Historians point to four waves of U.S. religious awakening between the early 18th century and the late 20th century. Each of these “Great Awakenings” was characterized by widespread revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers.
I wonder what Edwards would be thinking about U.S. Christianity today. In 2000, 80% of U.S. adults were Christian, with 54% of them Protestant and 25% Roman Catholic. The latest analysis of U.S. religious trends by the Pew Research Center, however, says U.S. American Christians could make up less than half of the U.S. population within a few decades. The 2015 report had projected that two-thirds of Americans would be Christian in 2050. But the 2022 analysis has projected that just 47% of the population would be Christian at midcentury under the likeliest scenario, and 39% by 2070.
Although it is difficult to get a precise figure, currently in the United States about 4,000 churches close down each year. Some get repurposed as shops, theaters, community centers, or apartments. Others just get demolished. Some are also closed, demolished, and the property sold just because the real estate has become so valuable.
For me one of the most interesting changes in U.S. Christianity concerns Latinos, where Roman Catholicism continues to decline. Although Catholics do remain the largest religious group among Latinos, their share among Latino adults has steadily declined over the past decade. At the same time, the percentage who are religiously unaffiliated has grown substantially over the same period. In 2022, 43% of Latino adults identified as Catholic, down from 67% in 2010.
When it comes to Catholicism in the U.S., major reconfigurations are already underway, especially when one looks at Roman Catholic ordained ministers (priests). New vocations and seminarians these days come most significantly from outside the USA. As CRUX editor and journalist John L. Allen Jr. wrote in CRUX on February 13th of last year: “If the church in the U.S. tomorrow had to kick out all the Mexican, Colombian, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, Nigerian, Ugandan, and Congolese priests serving in American dioceses, not to mention all the religious women from those places, it might as well put a ‘going out of business’ sign on the front door of almost every diocesan cathedral in the country.”
Since 1970, according to the Pew Research Center, weekly church attendance among U.S. Catholics has dropped from 55% to 20%, and the number of people who have left Catholicism has increased from under 2 million in 1975 to over 30 million at the start of 2022.
Thinking and talking about the great decline in U.S. Catholic involvement, one of my bishop friends observed, very much off the record, “My God who will pay our bills?” I chuckled and said “Maybe you have to start down-sizing. Sell your suburban episcopal mansion near the golf course and move into a small apartment in the city near the cathedral.” He was not amused. “But most importantly,” I said “My friend, we really do have to ask why people are leaving.” I also added “And, unfortunately, when speaking about many contemporary issues, church leadership has a credibility problem: politics, women, gay rights, and of course sexual abuse.”
Thinking about Christianity in general, another area where we see significant change is looking at young people and their belief.
The “Zoomers,” Generation Z, people born mid-to-late 1990s, is now the least religious generation yet. Today 34 % of Generation Z are religiously unaffiliated, a significantly larger proportion than among Millennials, born 1981 to 1996, at 29 %, and Generation X, born early 1960s to late 1970s, at 25%.
Fewer than 18% of the Baby Boomers, people born 1946 to 1964, are religiously unaffiliated. But only 9 % of the Silent Generation are religiously unaffiliated. The Silent Generation, also known as the “Traditionalist Generation,” is the generation preceding the Baby Boomers, people born from 1928 to 1945.
Certainly, new patterns of religious change can emerge at any time. Some of my friends say we have to get ready for the fifth Great Awakening. Could be. There are so many issues in our contemporary society: increasing gun violence, rising authoritarianism, homophobic hatred or antipathy, worsening economic conditions, etc. So many issues that can launch sudden social, political, and religious upheavals.
We always need to read the signs of the times, and then reflect on their implications for contemporary belief and behavior. “There are tranquil times, which seem to contain that which will last forever,” the German-Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) once observed. “And there are ages of change, which see upheavals that, in extreme instances, appear to go to the roots of humanity itself.” I resonate with Jaspers, and I would say that we indeed are in an extreme socio-cultural upheaval. So far the U.S. is setting a record pace for mass killings in 2023, replaying the horror on a loop roughly once a week so far this year. The carnage has taken 88 lives in 17 mass killings over 111 days.
Reading Acts of Apostles a few days ago, I read once again: “God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17) Yes. We need to share Visions and Dreams today. I thought as well about the young university student I mentioned last week. I truly believe we need to support and encourage young men and women to pursue their visions of a future Christian understanding, in times of great change. That’s my dream. I am not a pessimist. Church leaders should have listening sessions, inviting young men and women to share there thoughts about life and church today. We should not lecture to them. We should listen to them. Constructive dialogue begins with listening to the other. Asking “what?” and asking “why?”
Listening to the other was a key element in the ministry of my friend Archbishop Jean Jadot (1909-2009) whom I thought about this past week, while re-reading and sorting some old files. Jean Jadot was Apostolic Delegate to the United States from 1973 to 1980. (Two years ago my book about the Archbishop was published and is still available on Amazon: Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington.) From the time he was a young child, his family called him “Mr. Why?” because he was always asking questions. Shortly after his arrival in Washington DC in 1973, the “whys” of appropriate pastoral ministry for Catholics in the United States began to churn in Jadot’s head as he travelled, observed, and reflected.
Jadot had been appointed by Pope Paul VI (pope from 1963 to 1978). The more than a hundred men Jadot selected for U.S. Catholic bishops were ordained ministers attuned to the pastoral needs of people in their dioceses. After Pope Paul’s death in 1978, his successor, John Paul II, gradually became more and more displeased and perturbed at Jadot. He did not like the Jadot bishops. He told Archbishop Jadot he did not want “creatively pastoral” bishops. He wanted bishops who were “loyal and obedient to me in Rome.” Certainly Pope John Paul II and then Pope Benedict XVI did their best to eliminate Jadot-type bishops.
I remember visiting Jadot after he was removed from the United States by John Paul II. I asked him how he felt. He smiled and said “It is winter now. But spring will return.”
Jean Jadot, right from the start of his U.S. ministry, was strongly pro-American yet saw major American social problems developing; and he was committed to shaping an appropriate American Catholic response. In my visits and interviews with him over many years, Archbishop Jadot often spoke about his being present at grandiose, impressive, and yet almost medieval liturgies in cathedrals like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
The Archbishop said he often looked at the faces of young and older Catholics in the congregation and saw immediately that that kind of liturgy, for them, was just about meaningless. “Why?” he said, “Why can’t we be more creative with liturgical celebrations that truly engage and speak to contemporary people?” I nodded my head in agreement and added “Why can’t we be more creative in many ways: women in ministry, married ordained ministers, lay men and women in leadership positions, dialogue with Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, etc.” Jadot nodded his head in complete agreement.
I look to today’s younger Christian thinkers and activists to answer Jadot’s questions and many others. Perhaps the first thing we need to do is start listening more closely to them and to the disaffiliated. We must humbly admit that we may not have the best answers…and quite possibly they do. We cannot dialogue and work together to resolve problems and shape the future until we first of all practice attentive listening.