Commonweal on whether the Church is finished

Peter Steinfels has stimulated a most interesting discussion on this at the Commonweal blog. Some monk has also chimed in, I see.

One or the other reader of PrayTell has questioned why we cover larger church issues, including scandals, on this liturgical blog. The editorial committee talked it through and agreed that the liturgy doesn’t really have much significance if it ignores what’s going on in the church and the world.


  1. My thought is that many Church professionals of a certain cohort are witnessing their work being questioned and in some cases discarded by the wider Church and the hierarchy. We see this with the former ICEL but it is taking place in other areas too. Given the pastoral result of much of the work my question to them is “Why are you surprised?”
    Some, certainly not all Church professionals, have given their careers to Church work but have been unable and sometimes even are uninterested in inculcating that faith in their own children. Some Church professionals are more comfortable around mainline Protestants than fellow Catholics who may not share their socio-political/ecclesiastical point-of-view.

    Regrettably, the recent rejection is often taken personally and is channeled into anger instead of being received as an opportunity for introspection, It may even have redemptive value in the mystery of Divine Providence.

    1. Robert, the post is about the vitality of the Church. How is your critique of church professional related to the post? Am I missing something?
      “Given the pastoral result of much of the work” – do you have any data to show causal relationships (I think we’ve been over this ground many times, but you still seem to repeat the same things). I’ve seen data that Humanae Vitae led to specific demographic losses, but I haven’t yet seen you present data for the causality you claim.
      “Some Church professionals are uninterested in inculcating that faith in their own children” – I’ve never met such a person in my entire life. This sounds like slander.
      Speaking personally, whether I’m confortable around people has to do with whether they’re polite, kind, respectful, funny, entertaining, stimulating, inspiring – so, yes, I’d rather hang around mainline Protestants, or atheists for that matter, than any number of fellow Roman Catholics!

  2. The Church has been finished for a goodly number of souls for a long time and certainly the lack of leadership around the sex abuse scandal has been the icing on the cake. But as the article and its link indicate, the Church really isn’t finished, but only for some people. I know people on this blog don’t like the notion of Pope Benedict’s smaller but more faithful Church, but I think that is where we are heading. No longer will we refer to “cultural Catholics” in name only or only for “hatching, matching and dispatching” but we will refer to Catholics who practice their faith and do so by conviction. I prefer waiting for another five years or more, not just to judge the new English translation of the Mass, but the effects of the scandal. Once again I say, let’s just wait, implement the new translation and see where the Church is in five years, have a good thorough evaluation. I suspect we’ll still be here, at least a remnant. Isn’t that enough to save the world? The problem is if we become like Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one good soul was found and you know what happened then!

    1. Causality, Robert, causality. That is the question. We all know the statistics. The question is what caused it – and here we can’t just go by our hunches or preferences or vague memory of how things were better 50 years ago. We can’t say anything caused it (the new liturgy, bad catechetics, etc.) just because it feels that way. We need proof.

  3. This topic reminds me of the great “secularization” debate in sociology.

    Many of the founders of sociology (and psychology too) assumed that religion would just fade away as everyone became more rational and therefore more secular.

    Along the way to this every greater secularization, much counter information began to be noted, and the debate began.

    Part of the debate was about defining “secularization”, and part of the debate was about how to measure it. Similarly what is the “Church” that is finished and how do we measure it.

    Even if one defines the Church as the Papacy or Hierarchy, the answer is not clear. A long list of failures, e.g. divorce legislation, abortion legislation in some areas is offset by a long list of successes in other areas, especially in Third World countries. Comparing the two lists is pretty much apples and oranges.

    If one defines the Church as Catholics, again the answer is not clear. In the USA, we have a large number of former Catholics, but many Catholic immigrants balance that off. We have declining numbers of priests and religious, but rising numbers of deacons and lay ministers.

    Catholics are taking over the Supreme Court but the bishops are not. We have a Catholic Vice President and Speaker of the House, but many bishops are not pleased.

    So depending upon how one defines Church and where and how one measures it, many different answers are possible, just as in the secularization debate

  4. A search of the 117 comments as of this moment to the Commonweal article did not reveal one mention of the word “marriage.” Douthat did not mention it either, nor did the authors of any of the 32 comments to his article in the Atlantic, other than one reference to Henry VIII.

    Catholic marriages are failing at the same rate as those of Protestants.

    One would have to believe that a huge, but rarely mentioned, reason for people leaving the Church is “divorce and re-marriage.” Even with an incredible number of annulments compared to other countries.

  5. Causality, I thought I learned somewhere that “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” Do we throw that out since there is no statistical evidence? Now, we know how many people attended Mass each Sunday in the USA well into the 1960’s and we know how many do today, a significant drop. We also know that Catholics well into the 1960’s had a very strong daily prayer and devotional life, even to public devotions and we know how many do this today, a significant drop. We also have statistical evidence from the 1950’s that a significant # of couples marrying in the Church experienced sexual intimacy for the first time on their wedding night and we know today that kind of couple is almost extinct. So, if people who are praying find the liturgy to be banal, pedantic, uninspiring and revealing little or no mystery, if they have no devotional life, have little or no fear of God and are clueless about the ramifications of mortal sin, we’re not allowed to say that there is any statistical causality between that and people who leave the Church? I think few non-practicing Catholics or those on the verge of giving the faith up give a flip today about bishops or priests or the laity. They’re happy in their own world of work, fun, recreation, rearing children and living the soap opera lifestyle. It doesn’t take CSI and lack of statistical evidence for causality to figure that out.

    1. Please note: that’s the USA. And watch how things tanked after Humanae Vitae, after many years where the confessional practice of many priests assumed a different result.

      The World Wars, the Holocaust and broadcast media evidence that holiness was evident in non-Christian religion (eg, the victory of Gandhi and others over Christian nation-state colonialism) as compared to Christianity, and (in the US) Boom era assimilation, plus the brittleness of the post-Tridentine settlement within the Church, are much bigger and longer-term factors than V2.

    2. I thought I learned somewhere that “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” Do we throw that out since there is no statistical evidence?

      Well, yes. More correctly, a statistical analysis tries to show that a premise is false. If it isn’t, then the premise still needs a sound and solid scientific theoretical basis. Lex orandi, lex credendi is a philosophically based premise, not a scientific one.

    1. Okay. I choose to blame the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, the Beatles, the Cuban Missile crisis, and the death of Marilyn Monroe. The statistics back me up, don’t they?

    2. Robert, The evidence of numeric decline is clear, and I’m not refuting that. What neither you nor Jones provide is proof of CAUSALITY. Yes, the decline in numbers happened – that is irrefutable. But WHY? Was it caused by the liturgical reform, or the Algerian insurrection, or the Civil Rights Act, or the admission of Hawaii as the 50th state, or the death of John D Rockefeller, or Pierre Cardin’s use of synthetic fibers, or the advent of aluminum cans, or the opening of the first Domino’s pizza restaurant? Just because two things happen in sequence, it doesn’t mean the first caused the second. You have not yet provided any evidence that the church reforms CAUSED the numeric declines. All we know is that they happened in sequence – until you offer proof otherwise.

  6. CAUSALITY needs to be coupled with PLAUSIBILITY. Some examples given are not good arguments against other facts that are stated. I just wonder how many have asked people who no longer practice the faith, why they don’t or why they don’t follow this or that moral teaching. I doubt anyone will complain about how the pope selects bishops, his micro management or the opening of the first Domino pizza, so I say just ask, I have and the evidence seems to point in the direction of common sense as well as the law of prayer and the law of belief. In other words, it is a loss of faith, personal Catholic faith. They may still believe in God, still pray in the woods and be spiritual and they may have joined other Christian denominations or even other religions.

    1. Actually, Fr. Alan, that’s not a reliable method. We see common trends in church decline coupled with higher education, higher economic status, more interaction with those outside ones faith tradition, and so forth. There is evidence for those correlations. But if you ask people, they might say it was this rude minister, or that sermon begging for money. The reason people remember as a breaking point doesn’t account for why certain people, as their social location changes, are more likely to let negative incidents drive them out. It is their social location, more than the preciptating event they may remember. Our common sense tells us all kinds of things that simply aren’t so. For example: think of how many people ‘know’ that the church reforms caused the numeric declines! Our memories and our common sense are notorious for finding causality when there may not be any.

      1. Well, what I think this is all pointing to is a dereliction of duty by our bishops if not the total hierarchy to commission a sound sociological study of just what is going on. Something or someone else has become the ultimate authority for former or non-practicing Catholics or nothing is their guide at all, so what is it? Maybe there have been studies that no one here knows about that are sound from the sociological point of view.

      2. My own sense is that Europe suffered unimaginable devastation not only in two world wars but in the decades that led up to that. The Church had very little to offer people deeply disillusioned by monarchy, aristocracy, and the incompetence there. In the US, we have our own brand of angst and disillusionment and cultural upheaval, of which the transfer of the Dodgers to LA was a symptom.

        The good news for the Church is that no alternate ultimate authority has arisen–yet. Many things have been tried, and found wanting: evangelical Christianity, money, sex, the cult of celebrity, etc.. What we need is a more heroic witness from leaders, not Ratzingerian timidity. The truth is the Church has nothing to lose by being bold, innovative, creative, and unapologetic.

  7. B16’s reaction and answer of a smaller, more cultic church is based solely on an European mindset. It is too limited (that is his only experience); it ignores the fact that 65% of catholics within 5 years will live in the southern hemisphere. It ignores the Eastern half of our church; it ignores the various autonomous rites already present in the western rite.

    It is a reaction out of fear rather than addressing issues (cultural, political, societal, ethical) from a postive gospel response. The church has always had to assimilate, confront, and adopt changes as human life has evolved in its many ways. All too often, the church’s response is late (by hundreds of years). That will no longer work in the 21st century.

    The church has been finished in Europe for many years and the Vatican’s response is to hunker down – as a famous TV psychologist says – “How is that working for us?” Now your stats and numbers come into play but realize that you are ignoring more than 50% of the world in those numbers.

    The challenge in the southern hemishpere – will those catholic leaders stand by and support this “retrenchment” which has nothing to do with their pastoral situation?

  8. One missing component of this discussion is mention of the parallel decline of mainline/mainstream Protestantism. The decline afflicts all of first world Christianity, not just Catholicism.

    I don’t need the research of sociologists to confirm something has changed. My wife and I have both noticed that on a Sunday morning we seem to be the only ones in our suburban Boston neighborhood up and about and going someplace. While the causes are probably many and beyond my ability to unravel, the responses of so many at dotcommonweal and elsewhere demonstrates how desperately is the need to recapture something fundamental to a shared life of faith.

  9. Whether discussing the rise and decline of religion in general or Catholicism in particular, a long historical perspective is necessary.

    In the Churching of America, 1776-1990, Finke & Stark amass the data to document a steady rise in the rate of religious adherence from 17% in 1776 to 62% in the 1980. This rise was due to religious entrepreneurship in successive great awakenings and founding of new sects. In regard to Catholic immigrants, they maintain that they were poor in religious education and attendance in Europe. American Bishops fearful of loosing them to Protestantism emphasized emotional religion such as devotions and parish missions.

    Wittberg (& Finke) maintain that Catholicism is renewed by the founding of new religious orders which serve the same functions as new sects and great awakenings. These happen in cycles of several centuries. “Of the more than 300,000 monks, friars and members of men’s religious orders in 1773, fewer than 70,000 remained in 1825.” “By 1850 this decline had been reversed. Over 600 new religious communities were founded during the 19th century.”

    So the unusually vibrant USA Catholicism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the coincidence of two phenomena one American, the other world wide.

    The law of regression to the mean says very high values are unlikely to be sustained. Decline of religious adherence in America and Catholic religious orders were both highly likely in the late 20th century.

  10. Fr. Anthony,

    Correlations are often good evidence of causal connection, so the Post hoc fallacy occurs only when the leap to the causal conclusion is done “hastily” or without evidence. Jones gives the evidence.

  11. Robert, thanks for the book tip. I will get it asap and look at it. The description at Amazon doesn’t look too promising: the books “show a growing and vibrant Church before Vatican II, and a declining, dying Church since the Council,” and Pat Buchanan gives his theory of causality: “Jones’s statistics tell us the price of appeasement.” But I will enjoy looking at the book and examining whether he establishes any causality or not.

  12. In light of this Sunday’s first reading, especially, “as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort,” in an era of extreme change in the western way of life, it seems unwise that the Church decided to change as radically and suddenly as it did. I just read Jonathan Hartgrove-Wilson’s wonderful “The Wisdom of Stability”. In a time when we are consumed by the “big” issues in our world, he advocates commitment and investment in our immediate community (based on the teaching of the dessert mothers and fathers, and Benedictine rules). It seems folly to think that the universal Church can be healthy without first taking care of the small things; our individual relationships, daily work, and prayer. Can Rome and bishops get to a point where they are content with their decrees, put an end to the constant flux, and give the Holy Spirit space to work?

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