A new Pew study notes that membership in the Catholic church has declined over the last twenty years in the United States. The report reaffirms what was noted in Pew’s 2015 study: “the greatest net loss, by far, have been experienced by Catholics.” 41% of people who say they were raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic.
Pew’s explanation is demographics. The loss is an exponential decrease in religious affiliation among younger generations. The decrease cuts across racial groups, although whites are leaving at a faster rate.
The statistics still need some explanation. As an economist friend reminds me, “numbers tell a story.” These numbers tell of a mindset that currently pervades the church. It is a focus on the “constituent good.” While the common good seeks the good of each and the good of all, the constituent good seeks the good of some to the neglect of others.
The constituent good is operative in the sexual abuse scandal. Since The Boston Globe stories broke in 2002, Catholics in the United States have become painfully cognizant of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and cover ups by bishops. The 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and the 2020 Vatican Report on Theodore McCarrick reminds Catholics of these ongoing problems and failures. All of these point to how priests used their power to benefit themselves, and fellow clergy used their power to cover up these moments to the detriment of victims. It is a clericalism not in the sense of people honoring clerics but in the sense of clerics using their power to protect their own group to the detriment of the rest of the church.
The constituent good is operative in the ongoing alignment, born of the culture wars, of public Catholicism with the Republican party. It has been built from conservative Catholic outlets working with conservative political outlets. It has been fueled by the public voices of conservative bishops. It has meant the removal of people from Catholic outlets who did not adhere to conservative party lines, from radio hosts to presidents of Catholic universities. Instead of revitalizing the faith, this work has made politics the faith. In doing so, one group in the church, a group defined by their political affiliation, has been advanced to the neglect of the rest of the church who differ politically.
Younger Catholics have clearly felt this constituent good as they are the ones leaving in such high numbers. In Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, Robert McCarthy and John Vitek discovered that youth did not so much as drift away from Catholicism but made a choice based on an accumulation of negative experiences. The overall feeling was one of being judged and evaluated, of not belonging to the community. It has come from parents and parishioners, but the result was that parishes serve the old to the detriment of the young.
There are many causes for the constituent good mentality. Some of them are cultural, including the divisiveness that has governed U.S. Politics since the 1980s, the changing racial makeup of the culture that has threatened the privilege of the dominant group, and the rise of social media outlets that are fueled by vitriol. Still, the church should be more active in its resistance to this mindset. It is, after all, a community that is committed to the teaching of Jesus who, repeatedly, indicated that we will be measured by our treatment of others. Our sins are forgiven as we forgive others. We will find ourselves at the right hand of God only if we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned. We find that however we treat others is how we are treating Christ. We are measured by how our actions affect each and all.
What might a church governed by this common good look like?
For sexual abuse, reform has been underway for a time. Voices of the Faithful continue to push for more transformation and accountability. Jean Bartunek, Mary Ann Hinsdale, and Jim Keenan’s Church Ethics and Its Organizational Context: Learning from the Sex Abuse Scandal in the Catholic Church provide a whole collection of essays detailing needed structural changes. Alongside this, a mentality shift is needed. Priests need to think not about their group’s good but about the good of the whole. I’ve seen this. When I was growing up, our local priest regularly visited families in the parish. Like a circuit rider, he would stop by for a chat or a drink. Sometimes, he would pick up food and bring it over for dinner. He worked to build community by paying attention to everyone. I saw this in the priest at my current parish. In his orientation of altar servers, he told the boys and girls that he was yelled at the first time he served. He uses the story to say that he would never do this because it would go against God who is joyful that they are here.
The work on disentangling the political alignment of the U. S. Catholic church with the Republican party has begun. The reporting of Heidi Schlumpf detailing the financial links between these organizations is a start. Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt’s #blackcatholicsyllabus has highlighted the true diversity of faithful Catholics, as does Nichole Flores in her forthcoming The Aesthetics of Solidarity: Our Lady of Guadalupe and American Democracy, the works of Hoon Choi on masculinity and Korean culture, Craig Ford on LGBTQ+ issues and natural law, Charlie Camosy’s Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People, and countless others. Together, these point to the inadequacy of political categories for capturing the Catholic faith and a hope for the Catholic faith to transform society for the betterment of each and all.
It is also imperative to bring about a concern for the common good within local parishes. We should follow the advice of Mister Rogers, the famous television show host who hails from where I work, for success: “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” We need to turn to those around us and be kind and welcoming. During the pandemic, my pastoral associates reached out to everyone in the parish via phone and email to see how they were doing and if they needed anything. They developed any number of virtual gatherings to sustain the community during lock down. Constantly, these women reached out (and continue to reach out) to care for the parish.
We in the pews need to do this too, especially for those in our midst who might not feel like they belong or feel like they are being judged. I remember bringing three young children to church. It was always stressful. I worried about disrupting other people’s experience at mass. Once, there was on old man who sat in the pew in front of us. After a particularly squirmy mass, the man turned around and looked at my children. I thought he was going to wag his finger at them. Instead, he said, “it was so wonderful having you children at church today, and you were so good. I’d like to give you a present.” He pulled out $20 and told them to buy something fun. It was a small gesture. As a parent, it relieved so much of my anxiety. My children thought it was some sort of miracle and still talk about it almost a decade later.
There is difficult work to do to change from a constituent good mindset, where we seek the good of our group first, toward a common good mindset, where our good is mixed up with the good of others and the good of the whole. It requires systemic changes, expanding our understanding, and daily acts of kindness. For Catholics, it is essential though. It is not just that the church needs to turn around demographic decline but that the church should be embodying the reality that God loves us, that despite the challenges and threats we might face, nothing can separate us from the love of God. We should live by this, treat others according to this truth, and share it with others. It is this that will bring about the good of each and the good of all.
Robert McCarty and John Vitek, Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics (Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s Press, 2018).
Jean Bartunek, Mary Ann Hinsdale, and James Keenan, Church Ethics and Its Organizational Context: Learning from the Sex Abuse Scandal in the Catholic Church (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006)
Charles Camosy, Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2019).
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – Office of the Attorney General, “Diocese Victims Report,” https://www.attorneygeneral.gov/report/.
Massimo Faggioli, “The Cultural Disarmament of Progressive Catholic Bishops,” National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 2021, https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/cultural-disarmament-progressive-catholic-bishops.
Nichole Flores, The Aesthetics of Solidarity: Our Lady of Guadalupe and American Democracy (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2021).
Shadi Hamid, “America Without God,” The Atlantic, April 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/04/america-politics-religion/618072/.
Mark Pattison, “Fired EWTN host Gloria Purvis: ‘I will never, ever, ever have regrets’ for talking about racial injustice,” America: The Jesuit Review, January 4, 2021, https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2021/01/04/gloria-purvis-fired-ewtn-racial-justice-239638.
Kate Peterson, “Amid Controversy, Ave Maria University President Will Step Down in 2020,” The Catholic World Report, October 12, 2018, https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2018/10/12/amid-controversy-ave-maria-university-president-will-step-down-in-2020/.
Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” May 12, 2015, https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/.
Pew Research Center, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” October 17, 2019, https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.
Heidi Schlumpf, “The Rise of EWTN: from Piety to Partisanship,” National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 2019, https://www.ncronline.org/news/media/rise-ewtn-piety-partisanship.
Secretariat of the State of the Holy See, “Report on the Holy See’s Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to the Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017),” November 10, 2020, https://www.vatican.va/resources/resources_rapporto-card-mccarrick_20201110_en.pdf.