By Eric Sammons
Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine. His upcoming book Deadly Indifference (May 2021) examines the rise of religious indifference and how it has led the Church to lose her missionary zeal.
When I logged into Twitter on Easter Monday morning, I was pleasantly surprised. As anyone who has spent time on Twitter knows, timelines related to Catholicism or politics (as mine is) tend to lean strongly negative. Yet on Easter Monday morning, I was flooded with tweets celebrating new members of the Catholic Church. It was a beautiful reminder that God’s grace is always working in the world.
But (you knew there had to be a “but,” didn’t you?) this little oasis of good news can’t mask the fact that overall trends do not look good for the Catholic Church, particularly in America. And as I’ve written before, the trends are particularly bleak since the year 2000, with numbers cratering this century. A new Gallup poll shows that this recent downturn isn’t confined to Catholics, though.
Gallup has been measuring church membership in this country since the 1930’s, and from 1937 until 2000, the percentage of Americans who claim membership in a church (or synagogue or mosque) remained relatively stable around 70%. Yet starting in 2000 (there’s that year again), the percentage has fallen off a cliff, and for the first time ever, is now below 50%. There are now more Americans who deny church membership than claim it. We are officially a pagan nation.
The Catholic demographic drop is of course related to the overall religious drop—it both influences it and is influenced by it. If Catholics were not leaving the Church in droves, it’s unlikely that the total membership percentage would be under 50% right now. Yet it’s also likely that many of the cultural reasons people of all denominations and religions are headed for the exit are shared by Catholics who leave the Church.
Catholics have long speculated as to the reasons behind our own demographic crash. Most commonly put forward is the massive and systemic sexual abuse scandal that went public in 2002. And that scandal surely had an impact. Yet Catholic priests abusing children can’t necessarily explain why a Pentecostal would stop attending his church.
The impact of Vatican II is also suggested as a cause of the Catholic decline. By the year 2000, a full generation had passed since the reforms inspired by Vatican II went into effect. Perhaps the large drop-off is simply those reforms coming to their unfortunate fruition.
It’s beyond debate that at the very least Vatican II didn’t increase the number of Catholics in the country. And in fact, while Vatican II might not be the primary cause of the decline in membership, it probably accelerated it. Yet Vatican II was a particularly Catholic event, and so it’s hard to see how it would have much impact on church membership among non-Catholics, particularly Jews and Muslims, who are also experiencing declines.
So why are third-millennium Americans leaving religion? The honest answer is that I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. One cause of this difficulty is that often the reasons people give for why they left don’t match their actual reasons. In my own experience, I’ve found that people will give theological or philosophical reasons for leaving (“I couldn’t be part of a church that doesn’t ordain women” or “I no longer believe in the papacy”), but when pressed, they will admit their reasons were more personal (“I didn’t want to feel guilty for living with my boyfriend” or “I just stopped being interested”). Knowing exactly why people are leaving religion will likely never be determined on a macro level.
It’s likely a combination of factors, a perfect storm of anti-religious sentiment coming together to empty American churches, synagogues, and mosques. The impact of the Catholic abuse crisis may very well have seeped into other religious communities, as the constant barrage of bad news about religious leaders likely degraded the overall view of organized religion in the eyes of many. Further, the 9/11 attacks, committed by religious Muslims, could have also corrupted Americans’ views of all religions.
Another phenomenon of the early 2000’s, bolstered by the bad news coming out of organized religions, was the rise of the New Atheism. While this movement isn’t in the news as much anymore, it was all the rage twenty years ago, with notable figures arguing against all religion. It became fashionable to mock believers, and that surely had an impact.
A factor not often mentioned, but which could be significant is the rise of the Internet during this time period, particularly the rise of social media. Religion is one the strongest community-builders in existence, and many people are members of a local church mostly for the community aspects. Yet now a person can easily be part of a myriad of communities around the world with a few clicks. That sense of belonging that used to require a physical gathering can now be found in a Facebook group or a Reddit community.
Further, I mentioned before that the generation raised completely after Vatican II left the Church in droves. But of course Vatican II was a product of the 1960’s, when most of the western world was freeing itself from the supposed shackles of traditional religion. So even outside of Catholicism, many of the children who grew up post-1970 and were coming of age by 2000 could have been leaving not a religion ardently passed on to them by devout parents, but a faith only loosely followed in their homes.
And another possible factor: the rise in political religious fervor. This might be a replacement for a loss of religion, or a cause, but it’s certainly the case that many people now treat politics as their new religion. Consider the woke Leftist: his beliefs are more strident than the most extreme Muslim. And it’s not just the Left: on the Right, many spoke of Donald Trump in religious terms, giving his presidency salvific overtones.
Regardless of the reason, the question remains: what should Catholics do in response to this tremendous drop-off in interest in organized religions? The easy, lazy answer is to make the Catholic Church less religious-looking. Go with the flow, be more like the culture. But that’s always a losing proposition, as any honest Episcopalian can tell you.
I would argue that the proper response is counter-intuitive: become more explicitly “religious,” not less. Make Catholicism a clear alternative to the culture, not just another option among many. When religions try to ape the culture, they always lose, because the culture can always do it better. But the culture can’t do religion better. In fact, no one can do religion better than the one true religion, Catholicism. So instead of trying to be “relevant” and culturally hip, go the other direction. Zig when everyone else is zagging.
Embrace the fullness of the Catholic religious patrimony—devotions, high liturgy, smells and bells, sophisticated theology, and rigorous morality that stand out as distinctly Catholic. Yes, many moderns will not be attracted to it, but they aren’t attracted to a watered-down Catholicism, either. And I’ll wager that a significant portion of the populace is looking for something to fill the void that our non-religious culture can’t fill. A robust religion that is unapologetically counter-cultural might fit that bill. And as a side benefit, the Church can be who she is called to be instead of pretending that she’s something else, as she’s been doing for decades now.
It’s unlikely that we can halt the cultural degradation that’s currently happening in our now pagan nation. But we as Catholics can at least offer a clear life raft to those sinking into anti-religious despair. That won’t happen unless the Church offers a clear and distinct alternative to the world, one that unapologetically embraces the fullness of her religious heritage.