Hopeful, anyone?

Here‘s Tom Gallagher at NCR (where R stands for Reporter, not Register):

Catholic elementary and secondary schools are going the route of typewriters. Parishes are closing all over the place. Mass attendance is at an all time low and showing no signs of improvement. Catholics as a total number of the U.S. population is stagnant-to-declining and if we did not have non-documented folks coming into the U.S., we’d be moving towards a population of 15 million and not holding at 23 million+/-. Further, the fastest growing population for those who believe in God are those unaffiliated to a formal denomination and former Catholics represent a large portion of that number. …If we don’t identify new ways to organize ourselves, we’ll continue on the path to diminishment.

Here’s Margaret O’Brien Steinfels at Commonweal (subscription required) in their 85th anniversary issue last fall:

It’s not just that the Catholic subculture has disappeared, but the Protestant über-culture has disappeared as well. One of the reasons it was easy for Catholics to exist in America and flourish is that it was essentially a religious culture. But the mainline Protestants who formed that culture are going the way of the dodo bird. …Protestants’ capacity for self-destruction, especially the Mainline, is enormous. So the Catholic community today exists in the context of a larger culture that is also in worse shape than it was.  …How to be a religion in a culture that is increasingly not religious is a very complex sociological and psychological problem.

One can only imagine what the implications of all this are for the liturgy. One response, I suppose, is to place blame (“Guitar Masses drove them away…” “The conservative crackdown under JP2 drove them away…”). And that has its place, if it is accurate diagnosis of the problem and not just an excuse to grind one’s ideological axe.

Another type of response is more personal. It is to ask ourselves, How do we remain hopeful? How do we stay faithful? and be joyful? I look for wisdom to my Protestant brothers and sisters, and also to my fellow Catholics and fellow Christians in Europe, for they were hit by these challenges before we US Catholics were. I also look to young people going into liturgical studies and liturgical ministry – how do you look forward hopefully to your work in the church?

What wisdom do you all have for me?



  1. I think immediately of Romans 3:3-5: “…we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

    I trust that the Holy Spirit has been present in and among the Church for all time–even during the turmoil of the past years, decades, and centuries. I trust that the Spirit was guiding the Church at both the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council, even though I’ll never comprehend exactly how the Spirit was moving at each one.

    As a young liturgist, it seems I’ll be called to endure years of ministry filled with affliction, contention, anger, and polarization. But even at those times when the future seems most dire and I’m most confused and prone to despair, I remain faithful, hopeful, and joyful because I trust that the same Holy Spirit is still present now…and won’t be taking a leave of absence anytime soon.

  2. Secularism is eating away at our fabric, more so in Europe than here, more so in the northeast than in the south. But it is happening in the USA, north, south, east and west. I think our new state religion is godless secularism or godless humanism. Have you ever read the “Humanist Manifesto”? Much of the political debate and agenda today could well fit into the parameters of this little booklet and its ideology which is Utopian and bound to fail.

    In terms of the majority religion of the South, Protestants are succumbing to a lack of awareness or understanding of their Bible–same problems we have with our catechisis and a couple of generations of Catholics. They’re confused about their worship, more entertainment model oriented, their newer churches look like rock concert auditoriums. There is increasing fragmentation in Protestantism built upon congregationalism, a “consumer’s” model of finding a church home–traditional main line liberal Protestant denominations dying, non-denominational feel good, high community, power of positive thinking and positive theology based upon the power of material goods is growing. It is more apolitical, but certainly in the south, conservative politics take the front row seat, I suspect in the northeast liberal politics takes the front row.

    Maybe Pope Benedict is correct about Catholicism, smaller but more faithful. Time will tell. Holy Spirit is in charge for the long haul.

  3. My observation is similar to Steinfel’s. Some very significant percentage of Catholics in North America are mostly Protestant already and are very likely to follow the decline of the mainline Protestant churches. Catholics have always been surrounded by Protestantism. Since Vatican II much of the distinction between Catholic and Protestant has been erased. The difference in Liturgy, Architecture and Music between many parishes and the Lutherans and Presbyterians is minimal. Most Catholics have absorbed the post Vatican II heresy that “we have the right to follow our conscience” and think that there are some matters where the Pope, the Holy See and the Magisterium are just wrong and should mind their own business. To a very large degree, even among regular Mass goers, the world view and theology they hold is Protestant.

    So far these people have remained Catholic for some variety and mix of reasons probably including: grace, the real presence, habit, loyalty, family ties and stubbornness.

    I think it is likely that we are nearing a point with Benedict XVI, the new translation, new Bishops, younger more conservative Priests and the trends in the culture where nearly all of these Catholics will find themselves confronting the decision to be Catholic and adjust their thinking or to move on. I don’t know what the Holy Spirit has in store, but my guess is most will leave.

    However I refuse to be too fatalistic or depressed about the situation of the Church in the USA or even Europe. I certainly am distressed by the many baptized people who don’t live the faith including many of my friends and relatives. Although the top level statistics are terrible, on the ground there are many pockets of great strength in individual parishes, certain dioceses and some of the newer orders. Christ has not ceased to provide for his Church!

    1. “I don’t know what the Holy Spirit has in store, but my guess is most will leave.”

      You don’t know people. Inertia is much much much more powerful than you appear to realize. Those hoping the Church will get smaller and purer are suffering the illusion that ideologues suffer.

      1. I didn’t say I hope for “smaller and purer” Church. I do hope fro A church that is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

        I do realize that inertia is powerful, and that may be the biggest reason many people remain Catholic, and maybe it will be enough for them to ride out the “reform of the reform.” And maybe it will carry on through the next generation of poorly catechized, secular Catholics as well. My guess is that it won’t, that younger people today are less likely than previous generations to stick with a religion out of the inertia of family tradition. Which BTW is another Protestant trend that Catholics seem likely to follow – church shopping.

    2. Dear GNW Paul, I think you misread Steinfels. When she says that larger Protestant culture used to be a support to the Catholic church, she meant it as a compliment to them. You write almost as if Protestantism is something bad which US Catholicism is being infected with. If that’s what you are implying, such an unecumenical spirit is inappropriate on this ecumenical blog.

      1. Father Ruff

        I’m not intending to bash Protestants. Protestants are my brothers and sisters in Christ and on the whole are good people. Protestant churches are essentially good things. In some areas I think Protestants have strengths we Catholics need to learn from. The lack of unity among Christians is “bad.”

        Protestantism, in all of its variations, teaches a few doctrines that are very different from the Catholic Church. As a Catholic, I believe that Protestantism is in error. If stating outright that I think all Protestant churches teach error is too uncumenical for a blog post about difficulties in the Catholic Church then I think you prove my point.

        I do think that a significant fraction of American Catholics think about the Church and particular doctrines and disciplines in ways that implicitly adopt the Protestant errors (not all of which are identical in every Protestant church): rejection of the authority of the Church, individual interpretation of the Bible, the Bible as the final authority, and an individualistic understanding of Church and salvation.

        My point is that to the extent we have adopted a form of worship that looks very Protestant, have discarded Catholic devotions, and have allowed the laity to become comfortable thinking about the Church in a Protestant manner, we shouldn’t be the least bit surprised if we follow the trajectory of the Protestant Churches. Which Steinfels describes: “Protestants who formed that culture are going the way of the dodo bird. …Protestants’ capacity for self-destruction, especially the Mainline, is enormous.”

        The interaction between Catholicism and Protestantism during the past 4 centuries in North America has had positive and negative aspects. Yes, as Steinfels states there has been an aspect that in the most recent 100 years the overall religiosity of the American populace has insulated the Catholic population from some of the ravages of secularism as opposed to the fate of the Church in Europe. On the other hand there have certainly been negative aspects for Catholics living in a culture dominated by Protestant ideology.

      2. Father Ruff,

        Over the years I have interpreted that much of the changes of Vatican II were designed to be appealing to Protestants. I’m sure that many Catholics came to the conclusion “why should I settle for ‘Protestant lite’ when I can get ‘the real thing’?”

        This is the same problem that Coca Cola had when they tried to make Coke appealing to Pepsi drinkers and developed “New Coke”. It was a colossal failure. People who loved Coke stopped drinking it, and Pepsi drinkers stuck with Pepsi. It was a colossal failure.

        Coke re-marketed “Old Coke” as Coke Classic and it took off better than before. I’m hoping with Summorum Pontificum that people are being marketed “Catholicism Classic” which many of them have never tried. There are many who might like the taste and stick with it.

        My understanding of ecumenism is not to adopt the innovations of our Protestant brothers for the sake of doing so (or for the sake of filling the pews). We should adopt Protestant innovations because the Holy Spirit guides us to do so since all of us have a portion of the Truth (just some more than others). And I believe the Catholic Church has the most — or I wouldn’t be Catholic.

        If this makes me unwelcome here, I’m sorry.

  4. Our parish staff has a retreat day each year. Two years ago, we were discussing this problem of waning attendance, creeping secularism and the seeming lack of place that the church holds in family life.
    The retreat master said something that has given me hope for the past several years. He used John 15:1-2 and said that perhaps God was pruning away the branches which were not bearing fruit and pruning the faithful to bear more fruit, as Jesus said in these verses! It made a lot of sense to the entire staff and we continue to use the metaphor every time the topic arises.

  5. Be the change you want to see…

    A cliche, I know, but it’s what’s on offer. I’ll be graduating soon with my PhD without a decent job opportunity in sight. So I stay at my day-job in the IT field and blog away about a liturgically informed life and, so doing, inform other Episcopalians about the liturgy…

  6. Things do indeed, in human terms, seems pretty hopeless. The optimism of Vatican II, and of Gaudium et spes in particular, has proved utterly unfounded. A new religious spirit has not taken hold of the world, rather the world, or at least our part of it, is casting away religion more and more.

    But thankfully as Christians our hope is in Our Lord and in His words that He has overcome the world, and every time we celebrate the sacred mysteries, Heaven draws near and the Eternal Kingdom is in our midst.

    When the Roman Empire collapsed in the face of the wild barbarian hordes, no doubt Christians were much more terrified concerning the fate of Christianity than we are today. But within a couple hundred years, the barbarians had all been brought into the Catholic fold. Today there are promising signs from Africa and, in spite of schism and persecution, from China and even Russia. The Spirit blows where He wills, glory be to Him forever.

    1. I believe the hopefulness of Vatican II is still quite salient and providential. That’s one reason I am impatient with the dourness of some of my fellow progressives who have confused that hopefulness with particular incarnations of this or that that we’ve encountered and gotten overly attached to (however understandably) along the way.

      Our journey is like that of Abraham and Sarah: we journey and journey as God wills (we hope it as God wills, rather than as we will) and salute our destination from afar, and the moment that we feel we’ve finally found a permanent home on this mortal plane is the moment we should check to see who is kiddin’ whom. Oases of consolation are usually meant to be temporary. Keep on truckin’, as they used to say.

  7. I suppose I must pitch in with hope.

    “My hope springs from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” — not just Catholics and [mainline, liturgical] Protestants.

    The church is the sacrament of Christ not for itself but for the world. This world is not only met (and contradicted) in the Christian liturgy but also redeemed through Jesus Christ’s great work on the cross. Those who come to the eucharistic liturgy and eat the Bread of Life also become the bread of life given to feed many — in hospitals, in work places, in their homes, in the soup kitchens, and in fact everywhere where the World — which belongs to God — can be found. Most of all, we feed the world through our prayer. What the Spirit does with all those prayers for the world I don’t know, but I feel sure they are not wasted.

    So I don’t look at the numbers, but pray and act so that wherever the people of the world can be found, we the church can minister to their needs in the person of Christ.

    After all, we are commanded to pray many times in the Bible, but I don’t think there is a single commandment to worry. (Not that, historically speaking, that’s ever stopped us.)

  8. The SCGS* sentiment just slays me. Matthew 28 still contains the Great Commission, and the reality is that sinners too must be preached to, not just the saved. And hint: the whole world is waiting–get cracking.

    It’s curious that when society/Church/empire was perceived to be going somewhere in a handbasket, some early Christians centered on purifying themselves, went off to the desert, and there found the inspiration that gave us monasticism. What the self-styled orthodox offer in comparison is like an out-of-tune guitar compared to an orchestra.

    I’m very fortunate to work with college students. Along with our parishioners from the university community I see faith growing, faith in action, faith struggled with, and the Holy Spirit at work. I can'[t imagine a richer, more pregnant time to be Catholic.

    I can’t figure out despair, except that perhaps some of my colleagues or brothers and sisters in belief have gotten a little too self-absorbed. And as for the hermeneutic of obstruction, it helps to have a sense of humor.

    *Small Church getting smaller

  9. Todd,

    I wish I could share your optimism. Perhaps it is an imperfection of my faith that prohibits me from doing so. College students eventually move on; they get jobs, marry, settle down in communities and their idealism gives way to practical considerations. What I know is what I see: my wife and I seem to be the only ones on my block to attend church on a Sunday morning; none of my children, nieces and nephews (most have college degrees), attend church regularly. Yes, grace is said before a family Thanksgiving or Easter meal, but I suspect that is mostly in deference to the aging matriarch of the family. At least here in the urban East, “post-Christian” defines a societal reality.

  10. The decline of the Mainlines and the struggles of the Roman Catholic Church to get the faithful to attend Mass are both symptoms of the same issue: Christendom is over. If “hopefulness” hinges on the restoration of the Christendom culture that sustained these churches, then no, I am not hopeful.

    Thankfully, as many missional theologians have pointed out, (cf. Lesslie Newbigin), the end of the prominence of Christianity in the West in the form of Christendom does not mean the end of Christianity per se. Instead, in light of these cultural shifts, Christians have a greater opportunity for lifting up a faithful witness to the Gospel.

    To be disenfranchised from the cultural mainstream carries disadvantages, but many of those are trumped by the big advantage of no longer having to operate within the confines of Western power structures. Consider the first millennium of the Church’s history. The Church struggled yet survived during its first few centuries under much more hostile cultural conditions than the modern West. Few would define the peace of Constantine as an unqualified win for Christianity. The opportunities for the flourishing of the faith under Constantine brought with it many dilemmas, both dogmatic and pastoral. Cultural ascendency is not what it’s cracked up to be.

    Additionally, as Christians, we have good reason to remain hopeful because of the continued growth of the faith among the poor and disenfranchised of the developing world. There, Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism give voice to people who yearn for justice, freedom and supernatural power that they find in Christ. I think that the sacramentalism (overt in the case of Roman Catholicism, and de facto, yet obscured, in Pentecostalism) and the “spiritual realism” (what we would call “naivete” or “superstition” in the West) of the people of the developing world is something that can be brought back into Western Christianity. I don’t think that the deconstruction of symbol and the hermeneutics of suspicion have done very much for the Church in the West except make some feel rather impressed with their own “cultivated” values.

    To put these rambling thoughts together, and to relate them to matters liturgical, I am hopeful because all these tumults and crises will bring the Church (particularly in the West) back to the roots of its faith as expressed in worship. I am hopeful that this will inspire beautiful liturgies that humbly look for God to manifest His power in healing, justice and transformed lives (lest we hold to an outward form of godliness, yet deny its power). Yes, despite dwindling numbers and diminishing “cultural relevance,” I still believe that Christians have good reason to be hopeful and to express that hope in well-celebrated liturgies.

  11. I am hopeful, because God is in charge, and he knows what’s best for me. My job is not to fight Him, but to conform my will to His.

    I see evidence with explosions of vocations in religious orders such as The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist (who recently were interviewed on Oprah), and in the explosion of seminarians in orthodox dioceses such as Lincoln Nebraska.

    I love my Lord, and will worship him in the way my Church sees fit whether it suits my tastes or not, realizing that even if the priest is vested in a clown suit, that Jesus is real and present in the eucharistic species if ordained hands, valid matter, intent and the words of consecration are present.

    Our Church’s job is to teach the truth. This truth is exemplified in the Word of God, the actions of the priest who stands Alter Christus, and how we go forth to bring the love of Christ to the world. The Church’s job is not to sink to the least common denominator to maximize butts in the pews or dollars in the collection plate. People are hungering for the sacred, and if you give it to them, in the worlds of “Field of Dreams”, they will come.

    Also, I’m discerning a vocation to the Permanent Diaconate, and have completed the first of my first seven required courses, oddly enough, “The Theology of Vatican II”

    I am full of hope.

  12. Wile not denying the depressing state of affairs in some parts of the US, not all is doom and gloom. Where I live in the Archdiocese of Atlanta (the northern half of the state of Georgia) the Church is growing rapidly. We are building parishes and building schools and, last time I checked, we had thirty-six men training for the priesthood. We are multicultural, with significant numbers of parishioners from all over the United States as well as Vietnam, Korea and every Spanish-speaking country throughout Latin America.

    Those of us fully committed to our Church do sometimes fall into the habit of blaming anyone ( the people in the pews, Protestants, the ‘wrong’ type church leaders) and everyone (the secular culture, humanism) except ourselves for the problems we see. Three of the failures I see in our Church–and I could name others–are (1) a lack of hospitality and welcome in many parishes, so that newcomers find it difficult to feel they belong, (2) a lack of life-long catechesis and (3) parishioners who have no idea what their true abilities and gifts are and where and how to put them to good use to spread the Good News and build up the Church.

    Several years ago, Archbishop Wilton Gregory had the foresight to begin an in-depth planning process in our Archdiocese that called on the wisdom and experience of all the clergy and a large cross-section of the laity. The research and self-study over three years resulted in some major changes about how to be the Church in Atlanta. We see this as the beginning of new directions, which it will take all of us to implement: clergy, laity, parish staffs, Archdiocesan ministries and staff and the people in the pews. We are not basking in any rosy glow either, as it will be a long march with lots of prayer and hard work along the way to re-form ourselves more closely to the to the will of Christ.

    I am full of hope.

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