Catholicism Columns Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

What’s wrong with American Catholicism

Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gather for the USCCB's annual fall meeting, on Nov. 12, 2018, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

According to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, American Catholicism is in crisis because its leaders “cannot agree on what progress means” and are so divided theologically that one side doesn’t trust the other to lead the way forward.

Douthat begins his Sunday column by claiming that the iteration of the abuse crisis that began in Boston in 2001 did not have “an obvious long-term effect on the practice of the faith,” then goes on to say:

Yes, American Catholicism has lost millions of its baptized flock over the last 50 years. But that decline was steepest in the 1960s and 1970s; by the turn of the millennium, some trends (attendance at Mass, for instance) had stabilized, and the number of Catholics marrying in the Church and baptizing their children had settled into a slower decline.

Behind this recitation lies the narrative of a Catholic Church led astray by the Second Vatican Council (steep losses in the 1960s and 1970s), but so set to rights by Saint John Paul the Great that not even the horrific revelations set in train by the Boston Globe could upset the ecclesiastical applecart.

Don’t believe it.

Self-identified Catholics were 25 percent of the U.S. population when Vatican II wrapped up in 1965 and they remained so until 2005, keeping pace with a growing U.S. population. Between 2000 and 2005, however, native-born Catholics (overwhelmingly white) began leaving the Church in droves, declining from 21.5 percent of the population to 19.7 percent.

The difference was made up by non-native Catholics—Latinos for the most part. Meanwhile, the loss of white Catholics has continued apace. I’d call that a good candidate for an obvious long-term effect of the abuse crisis.

If you take a look at the “Frequently Asked Questions” page of Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate (CARA), you’ll find that church marriages declined 18 percent in the 1970s and 36 percent in the 2000s. You’ll also find that baptisms of children and adults held reasonably steady until 2005, when they began to decline precipitously.

As for Mass attendance, its big drop came in the 1990s, not the 1970s, and this points to a deeper truth. The weaknesses in American Catholicism have more to do with overall trends in American religious identification and participation than they do with anything that’s happened in the Catholic church per se.

Beginning in the 1990s, increasing numbers of Americans have disengaged from religion, across the board—Jew and Gentile, black and white, rich and poor. Just as regional differences persist, so do the circumstances in particular religious communities. The recurrent abuse crisis has not done American Catholicism any good. Nor has the priest shortage. Nor has conservative resistance to the agenda of Pope Francis.

But American Catholics have been like other Americans in losing interest in religion. In his column, Douthat quips that “the liberals think the conservatives want an inquisition, the conservatives think the liberals want Episcopalianism, and there is some truth in both caricatures.”

There is more truth in refusing to believe that either approach can end the crisis.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

87 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Good question.

    The answer: Modernism in its various forms…relativism, hedonism, positivism, scientism, liberalism, utilitarianism, materialism, deconstructionism, personalism, marxism, etc) has entered the Church.

    As Pope Pius X said: “Modernism is the compendium of all heresies.”

    Smoke all around us.

    Who can doubt that evil would attack the Church, which has the Eucharist and Sacramental Confession, and until recently defended the family and ordered sexual relationships.

  • I think, Dr. silk, that there is another issue at play here, one gone over thoroughly by Mark Shea at Catholic and enjoying it. He believes, and I think with good reason that there is a battle between people who see the Catholic Church in all it’s authoritarian glory as the only way to go, who think Francis is a flaming liberal, who think that Vatican 2 was header by the anti christhimself, and so forth…And everyone else.

    Basically, a battle between the far right and the moderate left. But they are defining the left as so many far right people do— as anyone even slightly to the left of Atilla the Hun.

  • The problem with American Catholicism is that American Catholics don’t want to be Catholic – they want to be anything but; yet they still identify as such.
    ThomasA is correct – Vatican II and the influence of modernism by the church hierarchy turned faithful Catholics away in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Those once devout Catholics left the church and took their kids with them – who are now in their 40’s and 50’s with adult children of their own.
    I’ve said it here many times; the change in the rubric from the Tridentine mass to the novus ordo mass is immeasurable. It is not the language nor the direction the priest faces that it is the issue – it is the reverence to God and the humility of a sinful people that was replaced with a banquet celebrated by priests who made the mass about themselves or their personal beliefs. For Catholics, the mass IS the church.
    That turned off Catholics who didn’t teach the catechism to their kids, didn’t go to church nor enroll them in catholic schools.

  • Interesting that relativism is used as an epithet, yet religious conservatives have the most relativistic morality of them all. All acts are excusable if you claim its God’s will. No sense of moral thinking or consideration.

  • Try and look past the “conservative/liberal” divide. Not everything reduces to simple partisan politics.

  • In Ancient Israel, when wealth grew, religious fidelity waned. In the Book of Revelation, the rich Laodiceans were rebuked for their lukewarmness (“I am rich, increased in wealth and have need of nothing, but you are poor, miserable, blind and naked”). The problem is modernity, as the foundation, and an American default philosophy of materialism, consumerism, hedonism. Of course, there are other issues too, but they grow from this soil of modernity, IMO.

  • There is no doubt that many of the cultural changes of the past four centuries have not been friendly to the Church. And if you want to call those changes evil and heretical, that is of course your right. On the other hand, if people no longer want to play in a thousand year old sandbox, maybe the problem lies at least in part with the sandbox.

  • Its partisan politics which is cheapening religious belief. It is the source of the problem. Trying to entangle church and state diminishes respect for both.

    Reducing it down to who you are supposed to hate and who you are willing to lie for. Morals giving way to expedience and demands on others.

  • In a Tridentine Mass:
    -everything is in Latin,
    -the priest conducts the liturgy facing East, leading the community who are behind him
    -everything happens strictly and precisely according to the rubrics (instructions)
    -the congregation follows the Mass in private prayer and doesn’t play an active part
    If the clerics, hierarchy, and pope can’t follow their own catechism, why willingly subject innocent children to whatever mortal sins these leaders care to dish out? The catechism clearly establishes types of sin, correct?
    In 2002 I was living just outside of Boston when the shit finally hit the fan. Decades and decades of rape and abuse exposed. It kind of made that massive tome of rules more like “do as I say, not as I do”… or else. It was as if the era of impunity ended but the climate of blame the victim remained. When will atonement arrive?

  • American Catholic Church, Australian Catholic Church, Mexican Catholic Church, German Catholic Church… Which of these titles seem made up to you? There is the CATHOLIC Universal Church. Nationalizing the Church has always failed dismally, and continually fragments society.

  • “Take your meds”
    Isn’t this the kind of thing Silk wasn’t going to allow anymore? She makes a point. Rather than address her point, your response attacks the person. An ad homonym response is usually an indication of the weakness of the responder’s position. It tells us more about the responder’s position than it does about the targeted comment.

  • Dr. Silk seems rather selective in which comments he deems offensive, usually allowing those from the right to pass, while shutting out those from the left.

  • Maybe Silk is finding it more complicated than he anticipated and is having trouble with his parameters.
    On the other hand, this is an obvious personal attack, and if he lets it stand you may well be right.
    An aside – there is getting to be a lot of good stuff on the menu at Monica’s Café.

  • And you have failed to take the high road and enlighten someone studying your catechism and the hysteria generated by Vatican II.

    My point: the authoritarian nature of Catholicism (and Judaism and Islam) allows for the sheltering of clerics guilty of mortal and venial sins yet marginalizes and maligns victims.
    You long for the return to the 1950s which is fine. But don’t drag the innocent back to those dark times when blind obedience, fecundity, and toxic masculinity were the standards of that day.

  • I don’t intend to take the high nor low road. If you could put your church and man hating prejudices aside for once, and actually read what I wrote; maybe you could understand what I’m trying to say.
    The article was about the loss of the faithful. My contention as a Catholic who has lived through this decline in the church is that it leads back to Vatican II and the paradigm shift from the Tridentine mass to the novus ordo mass (and all the confusion and rejection that comes with a major change within a major organization.
    You on the other hand clearly do not understand the context of the mass; much less the Tridentine mass, other than the fact that it is in Latin and the priest faces away from the faithful.
    On a side note; which I do not expect you nor the local agitators on this page to understand- the Tridentine mass is God-centric; while the norvus ordo mass is man-centric. This is a critical point that you and most poorly formed Catholics do not and will not understand because it requires a bit of understanding of the catechism and a large dose of humility.
    Regarding the authority of the priest. Priests, like police officers, judges should wield some authority. However, with that authority comes responsibility. And as we all know, priests, cops, government officials, doctors all take advantage of their authority and the trust placed in them.
    I had said many times before that I am all for destroying those unholy priests and bishops who are destroying the RCC.

  • Always.

    Most adults no very little about modernism. They wrongly conclude it just means rational, scientific approaches, etc.

    They don’t understand the Modernism that hid within modernism (lower case).

    “m”odernism brought science, brought rationality, brought a focus on material betterment.

    “M”odernism brought a rejection of immaterial reality, the soul, God, it overclaimed that all sources of truth had to come from science (not logic, not rational inquiry, not revelation), and its focus on material betterment over focused on the senses, the now, “experiences”, temporal events.

    It led to various ills, such as “scientism”….where people relegate their own search for truth and meaning to “scientists”, waiting for them to come down from the mountain with truth!

    Then “post-modernism” finished off our brain, saying that modernism and rationalism defined too much, and it led quicky to relativism and a rejection of all truth, not egocentrically determined!

  • Thank you for a cogent and accurate, for the most part, reply.

    I think you are absolutely right that the modern tendency to rely on an exclusively empirical epistemology has been an unhealthy development for the spiritual life of our culture.

    On the other hand, the “Modernity is Evil” mindset has been very unhealthy for the Church. It produced Humanae Vitae, at best a mistake that in practice taught the laity to ignore the authority and teaching of the Church. More importantly, it generated an institutional paranoia in the hierarchy that produced the disastrous cover-up of abuse, a disaster that goes on and on and …

  • It is interesting how institutions blame everything but themselves for the problems they are having. This goes for business, religious, political institutions. The more entrenched the institution the greater the scapegoating, blaming everything on someone else!

  • Because I worship God because of love, not fear. God loves you, me and everyone and calls us all to conversion so that we can be healed and enjoy Him forever! : – )

  • a lot of people do not want to be associated with the meanness of spirit exhibited by so many Catholic web sites and trolls. The far right thinks the Catholic church is necessary for getting to heaven and electing abortion ally politicians (no matter how nasty they are). Who needs all that> Most Catholics long ago gave up thinking that being a Catholic is necessary to get to heaven, or is at least the best way to heaven, and the only church Christ would fully embrace. Unless they see clergy and prominent lay people act a lot more compassionately or at least moderately, many Catholics cannot believe that the Catholic church is holy and worth supporting. From the public face of the Catholic Church (politicians and trolls and pundits, not the bishops), the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit do nor reside in the Catholic church. This skepticism is especially true among the young. But many of the you8ng are simply bored with Catholic wotship. Either way they bolt.

  • What about mean-spirited and little evvidence of the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. Nope, they don’t matter, hjust often nasty “defense” of doctrines.

  • I think one problem is that Catholicism became institutionalized AND the preservation of the institution (the wealth and political power) became more important than doing what the institution was created for in the first place–to help people find their way in the world.

    Institutionalism creates cultures that are afraid of change, and create policies that prohibit new ideas, ignore advances in Science and understandings of History, create the attitude and institutionalize the idea of infallibility.

    I think it is the idea of infallibility and the hubris of exceptionalism (that they are better than everyone else, the sole posessors of TRUTH) that have been the downfall of Catholicism and many other religions.

  • Wrong again.

    The mission of the RCC is to unite the human race for the glory of God and to be the instrument for the salvation of all.

    The church and the faithful focus on God and the next life. You on the other hand, focus on yourself and this life.

  • “Take your meds” does not come close to meaning “calm down”. It means, without equivocation, “there is something psychologically wrong with you”. But since you interpret it to mean ‘calm down”, that means the rest of can also use it?

  • “The church and the faithful focus on God and the next life.”
    That would explain why the Church’s leaders from all over the world are going to be meeting in February to try to figure out how to explain the fact that the Church covered up a bunch of child molesters in this life.

    “The mission of the RCC is to unite the human race for the glory of God.”
    And the RCC has done such a spectacular job of doing exactly that in Ireland and Chile.

  • All of the unholy bishops will stand before Christ and answer for what they did (and didn’t do) to the victims, the church and the faithful.

  • So it is Christ’s problem, not yours or the Church’s? That is very convenient. There is always Someone to lay it all off on. Good thing Jesus didn’t say, “Not my problem”.

  • I as well as others on these pages; as well as other faithful bishops have spoken very clearly on their feelings of the homosexual and pedophilia issues among the RCC priesthood and complicit hierarchy.
    Unfortunately (as you well know) there is a battle between those in Rome that wish the church to accept homosexuality and those who feel that it is the cause of the church’s current problems.
    As a faithful Catholic, the bishops will feel more and more pressure to honestly address the issues; at least we hope.

  • I am beginning to think you are right that Silk does have a double standard. Or maybe he and Parker12 are drinking buddies. But it is his sandbox, and if he is going to let Parker12 personally attack people, it is his choice.

  • Dr. Silk’s post doesn’t really answer the question, “What’s wrong with American Catholicism?” The post references some interesting statistics, which are a mixed bag, depending on which narrative is being proposed, but assumes that what is wrong (if anything) is measured by those numbers. One can imagine a church (any church) that is growing, but has lots of problems and is doing many wrong things. Patrick’s comment about the Laodiceans is relevant here. One can also imagine a good church (any church) that is doing things right but nevertheless is losing members, but where the fault lies with the general population and the Zeitgeist, not the church.
    Whether conservative resistance to (or liberal criticism of) the agenda of Pope Francis (or any pope) is doing any good or bad depends on whether you believe his agenda is good or bad, a question not addressed in the post. Church statistics could go up under a “bad pope,” as they may well have done historically, and vice versa.

  • I believe Catholic Church is 501c3 government church. I have also thought of Catholic Church as “owned” by the Jews. This is because of policy of church, which states that Jews do not need to “be saved” or “born again” . They can get into heaven without Jesus.This is what Luther called “Babylonian Captivity of The Church”. See Revelations 17-18. The religious establishment of today is the same as it was in Jesus’ day. A coalition of Judaism & Rome, which includes all government churches. Christ The King this Sunday. “The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, commonly referred to as the Feast of Christ the King, is a relatively recent addition to the Western liturgical calendar, having been instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI for the Roman Catholic Church… in response to growing secularism” Gospel John 18.33-37 paraphrased:. ” Jesus said, “My Church/kingdom is not of this world….”

    Rome is the Fourth Beast of Daniel 7 vision during Babylonian Captivity.. It is also read this week in lectionary churches. See commentary & comments Working Preacher. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3886

  • What’s wrong with American Catholicism is the same as what is wrong with Catholicism worldwide :

    You can fool some of the people some of the time –
    You can fool all of the people some of the time –
    But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

    So sayeth the Internet….

  • How about that! A billion Christians on the planet and I’ve perhaps found the only one who isn’t afraid of the Christian deity.

  • Well, see, there you go, you have finally met him! If you love Him now, you will have no fear on the Day of Judgment when God will scrutinize our lives and discuss with us the good and bad we have done.

  • Preposterous. A gross twisted caricature of the Church’s message and mission and history you paint. Do some study.

  • WRONG Parker. I don’t focus on myself. I do focus on this life, it is the only one we (that means everyone including you) have. I focus on helping people broaden their understanding of this world and how it works and of the great diversity of people that inhabit it.

    One size does NOT fit all when it comes to Religion or Spirituality. Each person has to find and follow the path that works for them. The error of the Catholic Church is in thinking that they are the ONLY “instrument for the salvation of all”. They are just one tiny piece of it!

  • You focus more on yourself than Obama. And, I think you should stop trying to “help” people broaden their understanding of anything. Your prejudices will only confuse them.

  • Every age has had its horrors. But the modern times also have its rewards.

    What we have in the modern era is not all evil, although we don’t yet know how to use the scientific, mechanical, industrial might we now have or how to draw lines around the cultural changes that have occurred. One dilemma is how to have a democracy in which all are created equal. We do cure diseases, know how to clean sewage and get clean water to people, how to reduce the burden of hard physical labor for a minimum existence and create the possibility of a better life for everyone. We don’t know how to actually live in a democracy that claims “all men are created equal” but more people are living better under democratic principles than did under old ideas of divine right kings backed by powerful religious institutions.

    There was materialism, consumerism, and hedonism in the past – all were just the purview of a much smaller group, the ones with all the power.

    We are not going back to a time of divine right kings, women with no power, an uneducated populace. We do not live in a time when few people ever left the villages in which they were born, few traveled (especially women), and few from one kind of culture met those of another culture – unless it was for purposes of war/conquest. We are not going back to a time when Popes or heads of any religion can divide up continents so that divine right kings can kill and enslave people, bring disease and death, and virtual destruction of “less advanced” cultures. Although, we have come close to this same sense of “divine right” in very powerful modern but flawed democracies and pseudo-democracies. Pre-modern is not “better’ for most of us to live in.

    What can Christianity do in these times? Dig deeper into what Jesus said and did and how we envision God, creation, our relationship to God and neighbor. What was once good enough is no longer good enough – in tenets of faith or in worship rituals. We need a new vision of how to live together, how to respect one another. I do believe it must be centered on ideals of love and justice – Christianity should have no problem with that.

    The hardest part is to give up on the idea that they have had a perfect understanding in the past and that we will create some perfect solution for all time in the future. Incorporate into an understanding of the Christian faith that we evolve, learn, grow, change – because we do. And that evolve, learn, grow, change is not just for the life to death span of a single individual – although we need that we also need an understanding that humanity, life, the universe evolve, grow, change and how to cope with that. Imagine that the Second Coming of Christ will occur when the last star in the universe burns the last hydrogen atom – and the universe goes dark. We need religion to help us understand how to navigate into evolution.

  • Our forefathers shed classical mythology for the truth claims of Christianity. They did so because those truth claims seemed to be vital for survival. If their descendants today are shedding Christianity, why should anyone assume that the truth claims on offer by modernity be any more lasting, or necessary for our survival?

  • I agree with you about the inherent weakness of ad hominem replies. FYI, I occasionally ask, “Taken your meds?” when a fellow blogger comments in incoherent fashion as if s/he was “on something”. I think our fellow blogger used “Take your meds” inappropriately since “NavyLady” was coherent in her observation about the church. One can only surmise that “Parker12” did not like the reply from “NavyLady” and thus relied on the ad hominem approach.

  • I recall reading somewhere years ago that the decline in Catholic church attendance *before* Vatican II simply was the return to attendance levels before WWII. We know that vocations typically increase after a war but then gradually decline later. War, in short, increases church attendance and vocations for its duration.

    Contrary to your assertion, the Novus Ordo liturgy brings back the assembly’s proper role in worship. The Tridentine mass elevates the ordained and minimizes the role of the assembly (I know because I served at this older service several years before Vatican II and have acquainted myself with a basic history of Catholic worship). In November 1969, Paul VI declared that implementing the Novus Ordo liturgy was an “act of obedience” to Vatican II. He noted that Catholics would no longer be encouraged to pray privately their own prayers during community worship. The Novus Ordo encourages participation, not the passivity characteristic of the Tridentine liturgy with which I grew up.

  • “since ‘Navy Lady’ was coherent ”

    That is what really stuck out for me. Her comment was coherent. To accuse her of psychological impairment and incoherence was completely out of line.

  • You don’t focus on yourself?? Huh, 6 billion people on Earth and I found the one person who does not focus on herself!

  • The malaise in the Catholic church is the same throughout most advanced countries. However, in some countries, the comparative decline in Catholicism has been overshadowed by an even greater decline in other Christian churches.

  • The fact that you are unable to distinguish between adult sexuality and sex abuse means that you are part of the problem. Grow up.

  • What you write is good Susan and I appreciate your ability to speak truth to power. It appears to me because the catholic church is addicted to power it is not apparent that they are actually underdeveloped human beings. The more and more the church leadership is dependent on others to affirm their value there is progressively less and less of value about them to affirm. It seems to me, even paradoxically, there is much to admire about you because you embody excellence. My admiration of you is because of your own value as a person and it appears you are not dependent on applause and admiration. You appear to live within your own center of gravity. This plants seeds of your own interiority and your own identity. In your special qualities, it allows me to affirm your firm foundation within you, which is motivating others to develop their center. I recognize your center in what Meister Eckhart called the “spark” in the soul and to me this is your admirable quality. This spark is your value that needs no special achievement, just your center of being available to help others and your ability to help me.

  • Not even close. Quite the ego you have to have wrote it. No, it was hardly OUR forefathers. As you are well aware, our country is only 200 years old. Mythology was “shed” hundreds of years before our forefathers were born. And Christianity, BY IT’S OWN DEFINITIONS, is not based on “truth,” rather “faith.” Faith means I accept something as true without knowing if it actually is. I can’t believe this deity worshipper, Conversus, doesn’t understand 1st grade level deity worship concepts. If you are going to worship deities Conversus, please develop a better understanding what you are actialltdoing.

  • You didn’t understand what he wrote. If you’re going to correct people, you should make a bona fide attempt to actually represent what they say. He said that discernment of truth, not truth itself, is time-conditioned.

  • Yeah, no wonder you are always puzzled. Um, Jesus says “Not my problem billions of times per day, ACCORDING TO YOU. Everytime a 5 year old is viciously raped, you do know that Jesus watches the entire thing, right? Cuz you’re kind of pretending that you don’t believe that. He does “count each hair on our heads, and watches everything, death of a sparrow, blah, blah. What does Jesus do as the kids are about to be raped? Not much. It isn’t his problem because those pesky 5 year olds should toughen up and be more pious. Can’t believe it takes an atheist to explain the role of the deity 101 to this Sunday morning deity worshipper!

  • Grow up yourself you twerp by changing “The fact that” to “My opinion that…” You have no idea if he is “unable” or rather “chose not to.”

  • Anytime someone states something as utterly ridiculous as “the far right thinks” something, dismiss their credibility. This commenter was either too lazy and/or too afraid to spend 2 seconds adding “some on” before “far right.”

  • No, HE nor YOU understand what he wrote. I understood perfectly well. Please point out where he WROTE (not “said,” because he didn’t talk) or implied “discernment” in the comments I was responding to.

  • I can read. I know what he wrote, and he’s written it before. His purpose is to slam gay people, not deal with his organization’s chronic sex abuse problem.

  • Thank you Syd. I won’t let what you said go to my head! Or at least I will try not to let it! I am a threat to many people as witnessed by Parker12s comments. Hillary and Nancy Pelosi (sp?) and many other strong, independent minded women are threats to people that don’t have what they have.

  • Yes, yes, and yes Susan, as It is natural to affirm you and it is natural to affirm your special qualities. I also do not think you will take my words to your “head” to feel superior, as your naturalness of you appears to be one of your special qualities. You appear to be a good social person, even placing power where it needs to be, and to a certain degree we need this good from you. Your power is naturally there as a good for all of humanity and this will be our acceptance of nature and nature’s way, which is all very good.

  • The far right in the Catholic church is unified on getting to heaven, and electing a certain type of politician (including Trump). Perhaps I should have said “the vast majority.” Saying “some” would be deceptive.

  • And what about the bishops covering up abuse of children?

    Help me out here: didn’t Jesus have something to say about people who harm children?

  • Did you notice that FHRITP called you a twerp? I guess that’s his understanding of the teachings of Jesus about how to respect others.

  • Fortunately, the influence of religion in American life is waning–and rapidly. The voters elected something like 145 individuals who were gay, bi, or trans.

  • Are you sure that all the bishops covering up for the child abusers are themselves homosexual?

    Oh, and what about those priests who abused *girls*? Are they homosexual too?

  • The people that brag about their relationship to Jesus are usually the same people who are far removed from Jesus.

ADVERTISEMENTs