Analyzing the decline and/or success of American religion in general - and of American Catholicism in particular - has become a staple of contemporary religious journalism. When I read the Pew Forum's 2008 "Religious Landscape Survey" last fall, I even devoted my pastor's column in the parish bulletin one week to its implications. So it was with interest that I read what veteran Vatican analyst John Allen had to say about it in his blog last week.
What Allen calls "the banner headline" is that there are now some 22 million ex-Catholics in the U.S. In itself that is hardly news. It has long been observed that, in terms of numbers at least, ex-Catholics could easily be counted as a major denomination in its own right; and that, were it not for immigration, the shrinkage of the Catholic Church in the U.S. would be much more dramatically evident. Numbers, of course, are just that - numbers. It is their interpretation that is interesting - and relevant to any future plan of action. Not surprisingly, given the internal ideological polarization of American Catholicism, interpretations vary - typically in accord with the interpreter's ideological predispositions. So it was interesting to read Allen's blog, based on his conversations with the Pew researchers themselves.
Personally, I found their interpretation somewhat mixed. On the one hand, they stress the fact that losing members is part and parcel of the American religious landscape, and that the Catholic Church (while losing many members) does not seem to be doing so disproportionately in comparison with other religious groups. So the key element in their analysis is the Church's apparently poor performance in recruiting new members - its ratio of recruitment to retention - all, of course, still somewhat obscured by the effect of immigration, which has kept Catholics at about one-quarter of the U.S. population despite its losses in members and failure to recruit replacements. On the other hand, however (and this to me seems the more problematic part of the analysis), the analysts suggest that the Church is serving is current members well enough, thus confirming that the pastoral problem facing the church is its failure at evangelization.
The analysts ascribe much of the movement out of the Church to life-cycle changes. Some 2/3 of ex-Catholics leave by age 23. Some become Evangelicals (1 in 10 American Evangelicals is a former Catholic). Others enter mainline Protestant denominations. Many others affiliate with no church. The analysts attempt to be even-handed in regard to "conservative" vs. "liberal" explanations and place a lot of emphasis on non-ideological "drift." (71% of those who are "unaffiliated" apparently fall into that last category). Even so, the data seem to support a moderately "conservative" analysis. Prescinding from such unsurprising factors such as marriage to a non-Catholic, it has to be striking that so many Evangelicals are ex-Catholics. Whatever their motives, it's hardly likely that they became Evangelicals out of anger at the Church for its not having fulfilled some "liberal" agenda. Perhaps more to the point, the fact that so much of the Church's losses occur at the cusp of adolescence and young adulthood at least reinforces the "conservative" critique of American Catholic religious education. Other factors are certainly in play to be sure, but the pattern - especially the "drift" hypothesis - seems to confirm the failure of religious education (something probably self-evident to most Catholics outside the religious education establishment). Of course, it could be that it was always thus. I know plenty of people of my generation who, like me, went to Catholic schools and received a solid foundation in the faith, but then drifted away after the 1960s. Certainly, catechism by itself is never enough in the absence of institutional and cultural support for the faith - precisely what self-destructed at the same time religious education self-destructed.
All of which brings me to the peculiar claim that the Church is serving its existing members well. Even granting the cultural context in which Americans easily switch religions, it simply has to be seen as a major pastoral problem when so many Catholics do so. That so many younger Catholics do so certainly suggests the possibility that, however well we may be serving older generations, we are not serving younger Catholics as well. Again, perhaps it was ever so. For a long time, I think, we have relied on the life-cycle - specifically getting married and having children - to re-integrate younger Catholics into regular observance, and we all know what has happened to that once-normal life-cycle pattern and any expectations based upon it. (All the more reason, perhaps, to emphasize - as I suspect "conservatives" are increasingly more likely to be attentive to - the need for a more adequate and complete catechesis that can compensate for the lack of the familial, social, and cultural factors that used to supply in its place!)
Finally, for all the attention lavished on RCIA these last 30+ years, the analysts certainly seem correct in highlighting the systemic weakness of Catholic recruitment. That said, however, the pattern of systemic loss - especially that due to "drift" - needs to be recognized for the profound pastoral problem that it is.
In the 19th century, Servant of God Isaac Hecker sought to highlight the essentially evangelizing mission of the Church. He was always acutely aware, however, that for the Church to attract outsiders to it, its inner house must be in order. Just as grace builds on nature, a Catholic community with a vibrant evangelizing mission must, first of all, be a vibrant Catholic community, its vibrancy rooted in the best possible quality of pastoral care and formation for all its members.