Over the past 50 years or so, a profound change, other than that effected by Vatican II, has taken place in the Catholic Church. It might be described as the phenomenon of “vanishing Catholics.” The Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, has identified four major challenges facing the Church today. First on his list is the exodus of young adults from the Church. According to recent demographic surveys, it seems there are presently 30 million people in the U.S. who identify themselves as “former Catholics.” That figure is both surprising, and, for Catholics, disheartening. It represents a little less than 10 percent of the total population of this country. It also means that had those persons remained Catholic, approximately one in three Americans would be identified as Catholic. Only two religious groups represent a larger percentage of the U.S. population: Protestants (cumulatively) and current Catholics.
This phenomenon is disheartening not only for bishops and priests, but also for faithful Catholics generally. Many older Catholics are saddened at the sight of their children and grandchildren abandoning the Church.
Questions naturally arise. What has caused such a massive defection? How might one account for this phenomenon? It hardly seems possible that any single factor could explain a phenomenon of such magnitude. Various reasons for people leaving the Church are well-known. Many of them have been operative from the earliest times of Christianity. In his first letter to Timothy, St. Paul reminds him that “The Spirit has explicitly said that during the last times some will desert the faith and pay attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines …” (1 Tm 4:1-7). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of dissensions and divisions among the faithful (1 Cor 1:10-16).
From the first centuries up to modern times, there have been doctrinal differences (heresies) which led to great numbers separating themselves from the Roman Catholic Church. Many others have left the Church for what can be described as practical reasons, rather than doctrinal differences.
Among the latter, there are many who separated themselves from the Church because of marriage problems. There are those who left because they became greatly dissatisfied with inadequate preaching, uninviting liturgy, and minimal hospitality in their parishes. It seems worth noting that expecting church attendance and public worship to be therapeutically satisfying often leads to disappointment and eventual alienation.
Not a few have left the Church because of real or perceived mistreatment by bishops or pastors. Reactions have a way of becoming overreactions. An overreaction to clericalism and paternalism in the Church resulted in autonomy becoming absolute. Evelyn Underhill offered a helpful analogy in this regard. She likened the Church to the Post Office. Both provide an essential service, but it is always possible to find an incompetent and annoying clerk behind the counter. Persons who expect all representatives of the Church to live up to the ideals proposed by the Church will typically become disillusioned and leave. Persons with such expectations would have left the Church of the Holy Apostles.
Most recently, a cause for many leaving the Church is the scandal of clergy sexual abuse. This has been a stumbling block not only for those directly affected, but for Catholics generally. Because of the questionable role played by a number of bishops, their moral authority is diminished. The time when bishops could command is past. Now, they can only hope to persuade and invite. Loyalty to bishops had been widely identified with loyalty to the Church. As the former loyalty diminished, so did the latter.
Clearly there are times when the Church is more of an obstacle than a help to faith. At Vatican II, the Council Fathers pointed out that the Church is always in danger of concealing, rather than revealing, the authentic features of Christ. Often enough, members of the Church’s leadership have been guilty of a sin typical of many religious teachers—namely, being more concerned about preservation of their authority than about the truth.
While specific reasons can be cited, it is helpful to recognize several underlying attitudes that are operative. (1) There is an anti-dogmatic spirit which is suspicious of the Church’s emphasis on fidelity to traditional teachings. (2) There is the widespread belief that one can be free to ignore, deny, or minimize one or more received doctrines without feeling compelled to break with the Church. (3) There is also the belief that, guided by their own conscience, regardless of how that matches—or fails to match—generally accepted Catholic teaching, persons can develop their own understanding of what it means to be Catholic. Someone has coined a phrase that describes persons with those attitudes, calling them “cafeteria Catholics,” i.e., those who pick and choose what to accept of official Catholic teaching and ignore the rest….
Obviously, the Church must work at removing any obstacles to reunion. With Vatican II, that work was begun. The Council recognized the Church is semper reformanda, always needing to be reformed. The actual return of individuals requires something more than an adjustment in Church practices or new programs. It is a matter of God touching the individual with his grace….
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