The following comes from a June 11 Catholic World Report article by Russell Shaw:
In its first “religious landscape” study in seven years, the Pew Research Center found membership dropping steeply in most Christian bodies except for Evangelicals, among whom the loss was much smaller. In seven years the percentage of American adults describing themselves as Christians fell by nearly eight points, from 78.4% to 70.6%, with the falloff especially high among young people. Meanwhile the religiously unaffiliated rose from 16.1% to 22.8%.
The decline was notably steep among adult Catholics, whose numbers, according to Pew, dropped from 54.3 million in 2007 to a shade under 51 million last year. In percentage terms, Catholics were 23.9% of the adult population in 2007 and are about 20.8% now. Furthermore, far fewer people are entering the Church than leave it (12.9% of American adults are ex-Catholics, 2% of adult Catholics are converts).
At the same time, it’s important to bear in mind that in an adult population of 245 million Americans, slightly over seven out of ten are still affiliated with Christian churches, including the Catholic Church. The U.S., in Pew’s words, “remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world.”
In a way, none of this is new. Religious affiliation and churchgoing have gone up and down in America for a long time.
Far from being the norm, the postwar 1950s were an exceptional boom time for American religion. There are many explanations for that phenomenon, but the most obvious is rooted in cold war realities. Locked in conflict with the officially atheistic Soviet Union, Americans spontaneously turned to religious faith and practice. Needless to say, the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s dealt a sharp check to that.
As for what’s happened lately, its self-evident cause can be summed up in one word: secularization. But that’s the kind of explanation that, in explaining everything, sheds light on nothing. Saying secularism causes the decline in religious affiliation is like saying the reason for the downpour outdoors is that it’s raining. So it is—but so what?
For Catholics, the possibilities for handling this situation and the challenge it poses boil down to two.
Accommodation is one. But although some degree of judicious change and adaptation is always necessary for the Church, accommodation would become a form of suicide for the Catholicism if it involved jettisoning essentials of faith. Mainline Protestantism did that in the 20th century and became a mere shadow of itself.
Forthright proclamation of the truth of the gospel is the other answer. By all means—proclaim it attractively, use new media, employ language people understand. But proclaim the truth of the gospel. In the end, it’s the necessary choice.