Friday, February 29, 2008

Americans increasingly unchurched; Catholics falling away fastest

Findings from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life about Americans becoming increasingly unchurched were the subject of several news stories in the past week; this link to Margaret Ramirez' February 26 article for the Chicago Tribune is representative.

Ramirez writes that, "More than a quarter of adults, or 28 percent, said they had left the faith in which they were raised. If changes among types of Protestantism are included, 44 percent have switched affiliation."

It used to be the case that a young man, eager to get ahead in the world, would leave the church of his boyhood and join the Presbyterians or some other mainline Protestant denomination as he climbed the corporate ladder. If he climbed high enough, he would become an Episcopalian. A certain amount of church-swapping has been part of American culture for decades.

Ramirez reports, "The three largest religious groups, the study found, are Protestant evangelicals at 26 percent, Catholics at 24 percent and historic mainline Protestants at 18 percent."

Catholics are holding their own in terms of national percentages -- but only because the Church's losses have been "largely offset by Catholic immigrants entering the country, most of them from Latin America." Meanwhile, nearly one in 10 Americans is a former Catholic.

Ramirez' article doesn't explain why the Church is hemorrhaging communicants. If asked, the usual suspects would presumably voice their usual theories. The media would blame the clerical sex abuse scandals and the squishy-soft bishops who tolerated -- and even facilitated -- continued abuse by sheltering abusers and moving them from place to place. Conservative Catholics, like Karen Hall (whom I've only recently begun reading) or Tom Roeser, would blame Vatican II in general and, in particular, squishy-soft, liberal bishops who, in their zeal to embrace social justice issues, have forgotten the Gospels. Liberal Catholics, like Fr. Andrew Greeley, would blame squishy-soft, conservative bishops who, forgetting the Gospels, wage "wafer wars" and flirt openly with conservative Republicans even though (in the liberals' view), except for abortion, the Republicans are "wrong" on every social justice issue.

There is merit in each of these theories. But if the Church could survive the Renaissance Popes, it can survive modern American bishops.

The media's position can be dealt with easiest: Child abusers may be found anywhere there are opportunities to isolate and take advantage of children. Protestant youth ministers, scout leaders and public school teachers have also been caught and brought to judgment, but there is no hierarchy them to rescue them and move them to new fields of opportunity. Now at last the bishops' aiding and abetting has been exposed; they will not be able to get away with it easily in the future, not for a long time anyway, and they have been made painfully aware of the costs of their misdeeds. The bishops who sheltered abusing priests and nuns were obviously neither moral nor courageous, but they and their successors understand the value of a dollar. They don't want to shell out more dollars in civil judgments, not if it means selling their mansions and otherwise curbing their lifestyles. The worst, I hope -- I pray -- is over.

That leaves the theories espoused by liberal and conservative Catholics.

One side sees the American Church becoming indistinguishable from any other fading mainline Protestant church -- conforming the Magisterium to political whims and fads in the name of social justice. The other side sees the American Church blending into the Evangelical Right. What both sides are really sensing, I think, is a loss of Catholic distinctiveness.

Being Catholic has always meant being different, somehow. And we were different because of our schools.

In Chicago, Catholic schools have closed at an alarming rate since my own children have been born. All five of my children graduated from Catholic grade schools. All five will graduate from Catholic high schools (three so far). But where will my (as yet unborn) grandchildren attend school? How can they hope to afford a Catholic education for their children?

The loss of vocations after Vatican II crippled the Catholic schools. The nuns who taught my generation left their orders, or have died off. There have been few new nuns. One by one the religious orders have pulled out of parishes. Lay teachers have tried to take their places -- but they have to be paid something. The nuns received next to nothing.

Full disclosure: My wife is a Catholic school teacher. She could make much more in the public schools but she chose to be in the school our children attended. Before she began to teach there, I was on the parish school board. Easily 90% of the school's operating budget was taken up by teacher salaries and benefits. We couldn't negotiate those costs; they came from the Archdiocese. We could only cut positions. Employee costs and benefits weren't an issue when there were nuns. This is why the cost of Catholic grammar school has gone up from a few hundred dollars a year to several thousand. In the Chicago area, Catholic high schools cost roughly $8,000 to $11,000 per student per year.

At one point the Cardinal suggested that Catholic teachers should be paid equally as their public school peers. Sounds good for me, right?

Wrong. Such an increase, if it had been mandated, would have destroyed the Catholic schools overnight. No one but the very richest could have afforded them.

I've been fortunate to get my children through so far. It would not have been possible without an inheritance (all gone now). And I'm a lawyer -- not a particularly successful one, true... but still a 'white-collar' professional. How much more difficult is it for those less fortunate that I've been to send their kids?

The answer is that it's been too difficult. And a generation of kids has come to adulthood with no practical Catholic education at all. These numbers are growing... as are the ranks of 'former Catholics.' Coincidence? I think not.

CCD is not the answer. Another disclosure: My wife has begun teaching CCD classes at our parish this school year. Classes meet in the parish school for an hour on Wednesday afternoons. The students are the "publics" -- the kids who attend public schools -- and, being normal kids, the last thing they want is another hour of school. Their parents don't attend Mass -- good heavens, too many of our parish school families don't attend Mass regularly -- but Catholic guilt lingers after all other vestiges of the faith have gone. Still, what Catholic identity will these kids have as adults?

Liberals, conservatives, take heed: While you fight amongst yourselves another generation is being lost to the Church. Put your energies to work building school endowments -- and figuring out airtight means for greedy, grasping bishops to keep their squishy-soft hands away from those funds.


Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

my grandchildren all go to private schools and trust me, i KNOW how expensive it is. good luck!

smiles, bee

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Is it not because schools are getting very anti praying and anti religious?

Dave said...

There are two parts to the post, those leaving organized religion and then the cost of religious education.

I can't speak to the Church as I grew up in another, the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Maybe more words means better stuff.

The last time I was in one of their buildings was for my cousin's son's wedding. I mostly remembered the liturgy. It was pleasant.

The reason I'm not a communicant (I like that word) is that my family's style of Christianity lost touch decades ago with what I think a religion ought to be.

I grew up in our Church, grade school, high school, college. Other than kindergarten, the first non religious school I went to was graduate school, then law school.

What I discovered was that our Church was a social organization. Upwardly aspiring, but a large clique none-the-less.

I'm a bit intrigued with some of the "new" church movements, decidedly lower case movements. You might want to read Keith at

He's an interesting guy working out his religion.

As to the second topic, cost, per hour of participation, Catholic education is cheaper than unleaded gas, even premium.

Lahdeedah said...

I'm going to be annoying.
I grew up Catholic, spent two years in Catholic school, (like you said, the cost, it was too expensive even then) but I'm not married to a Catholic, and the times I tried to get my daughter to be baptized Catholic required so much red tape and so many 'rules' I decided it's not worth the effort.

Seriously, too much paperwork. The Catholic Church, for all its attempts to gain new memberships, is very restrictive.

My husband isn't going to turn Catholic, he didn't even have a religion growing up, and he certainly isn't going to go through hoops to get my daughter batpized Catholic, since in his mind, the very fact he has to jump through hoops is a reason against Catholicism.

Granted, it would have been easier to marry a Catholic, I know I know... so, my kids visit the Episcipalean church. They don't require so much paperwork.

It also doesn't help that the Vatican is back to saying that all other churches are defective and also, the new display to try to show a 'softer' side of the Inquisition. Now, I understand a lot of it is the Media, but I honestly think the Church needs some serious public relations initiatives.

Yet, for all of that, I identify myself as Catholic. I'm not even disgruntled, angry or bitter (like many ex-Catholics) I just think it's sad the church is so 'forbidding' to those that dont' understand it.

The Curmudgeon said...

Bee -- College is more than halfway done... we're finally over the hill... the only question is whether I'm on a steeper downhill slope personally.....

Jean-Luc -- there are those who are hostile to religion and praying... but I always say they'll never stop praying in school as long as they still give math tests.

Dave -- there's a certain comfort in familiar ceremony, isn't there?

Ladeedah -- In my experience, the Church's bark is worse than its bite: I remember being very put off by Baptismal preparation sessions a quarter century ago, after Older Daughter arrived. Turned out there was a group of grandmotherly ladies that took the opportunity to fuss over every new arrival in the parish. And they sewed little gowns for each of them to wear on the big day, too, so it wasn't just for them to coo.

Shelby said...

I grew up Southern Baptist, and have just recently become aware that Catholics are by and large -superb. (I am now a recovering Baptist).

I must say, the cost of private Catholic schools (and most any private school) is shocking.

Unknown said...

1 in 10 Americans are former Catholics? Wow...they don't know what they are missing, says the convert. We do a really good job of hiding that huge treasure box with all the goodies...Found your blog while researching for a new evangelization outreach at our parish...I agree with Lahdeedah that the Church does need some major public relations outreaches. As to Catholic education, I sacrifice greatly for my daughter to go to Catholic school. It is extremely expensive, but is less than a "regular" private school.