Some of you probably remember this story. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one Catholic priest in New Orleans found his parish church overrun with rats, and the exterminators couldn’t kill them all. His neighboring Lutheran pastor suggested the priest talk to the local rabbi: “He had the same problem and fixed it.”
“How’d you do it?” the priest asked the rabbi.
“Simple,” the rabbi said. “I just bar mitzvah’d them all and they never came back.”
Today, the joke is on us Catholics. There isn’t a parish priest who hasn’t seen his 12-year-olds disappear once they’ve been confirmed. In fact, a lot of priests and lay catechists feel lucky if parents even bother to have their kids confirmed at all. I suspect that there are very few parents or grandparents reading these words who haven’t watched a child or grandchild shed the faith as easily as a snake slips its skin.
The result? The most arresting way to put it is that, next to the Catholic Church, the second largest denomination in the United States would be ex-Catholics — if they all collected into one religious body. This has been true for decades. I’ve visited a lot of churches, especially of the nondenominational, community or Pentecostal variety, in which the largest constituency is former Catholics. And that doesn’t include all the Catholics who have given up on religion altogether.
So why have American Catholics (never mind the Europeans) failed so spectacularly in passing on the faith to their own children? Why can’t the Catholic Church in this country, once admired as the “General Motors” of American religion for its organization and efficiency, even maintain market share?
There are a number of answers I want to explore, all of them valid to various degrees.
One explanation is cyclical: Like the stock market, American religion is going through one of its historical course corrections.
Indices of religious belief, behavior and especially belonging have been declining across the board since the late 1960s. That shouldn’t surprise. The postwar period (1945-65) was the most religiously committed era in American history. We built more houses of worship of every kind in those two decades than at any time before or since. And we filled them on weekends, too. Fully 98 percent of Americans told pollsters in 1967 that, yes, they believed in God, and — what is no less extraordinary — the public culture in the United State enthusiastically supported religion to the point that religious leaders and thinkers were routinely celebrated in the media.
At the same time, there were any number of theologians and cultural critics who thought that this public embrace of religious faith was superficial, mostly because it came at virtually no cost to the believer. To believe in God was to be a good American, and vice versa. On this view, it was inevitable that there would be a falling off in religious faith and practice — after all, it had happened in the 18th century following the First Great Awakening, and again in the late 19th century after the Second Great Awakening. In short — so this line of argument goes — we are now experiencing a long-overdue winnowing effect in which those who don’t really take religion seriously no longer feel obliged to pretend to pollsters that they do. Identifying with a religion no longer carries social benefit.
But this winnowing explanation doesn’t begin to satisfy. It’s not as if only the superficial believers have walked away from religion and only the Mother Teresa types remain. Moreover, it doesn’t tell us why the decline in religious identification and practice took place so quickly after a period in which religious institutions were at full strength. Why didn’t American religion build on its social and cultural capital?
The dramatic decline in the liberal, mainline Protestant denominations (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Disciples of Christ and most Lutherans) provides another set of answers. These churches were the first to experience annual loss of membership, beginning in the 1960s, and the reasons for that are instructive. One was demographic. White mainline Protestants simply produced fewer children compared to Catholics or Evangelicals — in part because of their early and enthusiastic embrace of birth control, and in part because they married later than most other Christians did.
Another was a blurring of denominational identities and loyalties as the Protestant ecumenical movement sought to overcome unnecessary differences among the various Reformation traditions. (The Catholic Church did not become ecumenically engaged until after the Second Vatican Council closed in 1965.) In turn, as the boundaries separating Protestants of different backgrounds evaporated, group identities based on political and social outlooks emerged to take their place.
For example, a 1974 study found that 45 percent of young Presbyterians became religiously something else as adults or embraced no religion at all. Worse, those who remained Presbyterian were no different in their beliefs or behavior from those who dropped out. Not only was it hard to distinguish one liberal Protestant from another; increasingly, liberal Protestants could not distinguish themselves from nonreligious social liberals.
The most controversial book of the era was titled Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, and the answer, according to Rev. Dean Kelley, the liberal Methodist minister who wrote it, was because the conservative churches — most of them Evangelical — provided firm beliefs that gave “meaning to life,” and made “strong demands” on the faithful’s behavior and belonging. By contrast, the liberal churches made few demands, and tended to substitute welfare services and social action for strong affirmations of faith and personal moral practice.
Illustrations by Richard Mia
Not surprisingly, the decline of the liberal mainline churches entailed the end of the Protestant establishment which, for most of the 20th century, had set the moral and cultural standards in American public life. Not the least of those standards was the sense of noblesse oblige with which liberal Protestants of the privileged class went to war for their country and pursued politics as a public service. By the mid-1980s, Catholic intellectuals like Richard John Neuhaus spoke openly — and not without a touch of schadenfreude — about the arrival of “the Catholic moment” in American public life. As Father Neuhaus put it, “This can and should be the moment in which the Roman Catholic Church in the United States assumes its rightful role in the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty.”
In fact, that moment never arrived. What Neuhaus — and, indeed, a great many bishops — failed to notice was the distressing number of American Catholics who were walking a path similar to the one trod by liberal Protestants: away from the Church. Were it not for immigrant Latino Catholics, it would have been obvious that the U.S. Church was failing to pass on the faith to successive generations. But apart from having fewer children, the Catholic decline followed a different route.
To return for a moment to the 1950s: The religion of the postwar era was what I call “embedded religion.” Tied as it was to ethnicity and geography, religion was the principal source of social diversity. If you lived in the upper Midwest, chances are you were either Lutheran or Catholic. In the South most everyone, it seemed, was some kind of Baptist. In those days — and in some places even now — specific religious traditions “went with the territory.” In the big cities as well as small towns, religion was also embedded in neighborhoods (especially the ethnic kind) and in the churches and schools and other institutions. This was particularly true of Catholics, who, by virtue of their numbers and their range of institutions stretching from coast to coast, constituted the largest parallel culture in the nation. Parish boundaries were also social boundaries, and within them religious identity was absorbed and shaped.
My point is that when this country was at its most religious, young Catholics were communally formed. It took a village. Religious habits were shared habits, and layer by layer the elements of a distinctively Catholic imagination took shape. As I put it in my recent book, Getting Religion:
To be a Catholic child in the ’50s, was to imagine yourself at the center of concentric circles of belonging. That included not only the other Catholics we knew, not only, even, all the Catholics we saw at other parish churches when traveling, but all the Catholics who ever were or would be on the face of the earth — plus quite a few saints we knew by name who were now, we believed, with God in heaven but still close enough to talk to because they were always watching over us like grandparents looking down from high front porches.
Communal Catholicism was the vehicle by which generations of immigrants both passed on the faith and, at the same time, assimilated key American values of freedom and self-determination. Although elements of this communalism lingered on, it wasn’t built to last. And here, I want to argue, is the fundamental reason why American Catholics have experienced a decline in numbers: we failed to reinvent communal Catholicism, or to fashion effective alternatives for passing on the faith.
Inadvertently the Church itself hastened the demise of communal Catholicism. I’m talking about the unintended effects of Vatican II (1962-65). Church historians tell us it typically takes 50 years to integrate the results of a general council of the Church. But no one mentioned that at the close of this council, whose impact rattled the Church like a raft in rapids.
The immediate impact of the Council on Catholic parishioners was socially disorienting but had nothing to do with the Council’s official documents — which did indeed inspire half a century of fierce argument about the Council fathers’ intent. Virtually overnight and with little advanced preparation, liturgical and other Church reformers laid waste to a great many of the inherited markers by which ordinary Catholics understood and relished their distinctive Catholic identity and habits.
Out went the Latin in which Western Catholics had prayed the Mass for millennia — and with it, the church’s patrimony of music and chant. In came a profusion of Protestant hymns, many of them borrowed without concern for theological or liturgical aptness. The initial English translations of the Mass were clumsy and, worse, the new guitar Masses were by turns juvenile and imitative of pop music. Communion rails that once marked off the sanctuary disappeared, and the priest, now facing the people, found himself a self-conscious master of ceremonies. As one exasperated pastor told me at the time, the reforms had merely enhanced “the participation of the laity in the confusion of the clergy.”
One of the more witless reforms was the decision to reduce meatless Fridays from year-round observances to just the Lenten season. “Friday fish” had been one of the more obvious social markers that distinguished Catholics as a community. That decision corresponded with a number of reforms to practices, such as fasting after midnight before receiving the Eucharist the next morning, that had required a bit of self-denial. Parish retreats and “days of recollection” that had called the faithful to consider their own sinfulness vanished as if on cue. By 1970, the long lines outside confessionals on Saturday nights disappeared — and not long after that many of the confessionals themselves did, too. Like the guitar songs, to be Catholic in the new era was to be relentlessly upbeat.
The timing of Vatican II could not have been worse. The late ’60s turned out to be precisely the wrong moment to “throw open the windows of the Church” to winds blowing in from “the world.” By the time the Church began to implement the changes the Council mandated, “the world” — especially the American piece of it — was a very different place from what it had been when the Council began. The country was engulfed in social and political turmoil over the war in Vietnam; cities were aflame after the murder of Martin Luther King and the assassinations of Jack and Bobby Kennedy. A revolution in sexual mores was underway and feminists were demanding liberation from all forms of “patriarchy,” including the all-male hierarchy. Simply put, when there is chaos in the culture, as well as in the streets, it is not a good time to introduce confusion in the Church.
Quite apart from these factors, the Baby Boomers — the largest demographic cohort in the nation’s history — began their march through the nation’s educational system, overwhelming at every level the system’s efforts to absorb their outsized numbers. By the end of the decade, nearly half of all Americans were under the age of 25. Without this demographic bulge there likely would not have been the youthful counterculture of the ’60s with its antipathy toward institutions and institutional norms of every kind. The Boomers’ effect on Catholic education was far-reaching. In fact, we are feeling it yet.
Before the Council opened, half of all Catholics of primary and secondary school age were enrolled in Catholic schools — the chief agency of faith formation within communal Catholicism. At the Council’s close, the most widely discussed book in Catholic educational circles was Mary Perkins Ryan’s Are Parochial Schools the Answer? Ryan’s answer was “No”: Close the schools and use the savings to retrain parents in the reformed Catholicism of Vatican II, so that all Catholic children could be re-formed in the faith.
Two years later, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, the dean of American Catholic historians, argued that there were too many Catholic universities, none of them distinguished, and that a reduction to three or four of high caliber was the best solution. Since Catholic universities are independently owned and operated, he knew it would never happen. By the end of the decade, however, amid faculty strikes on several Catholic campuses, the whole concept of Catholic higher education was under attack. “The less Catholic it is,” declared the vice president of Chicago’s Mundelein College, echoing a popular sentiment at the time, “the better the college will be.” Mundelein soon disappeared, and many Catholic universities eventually renounced any obligation to provide students with formation in the faith.
In this context, it is worth citing the experience of the late theologian John S. Dunne, CSC, ’51, whose classes at Notre Dame were legendary for the way he addressed the spiritual as well as intellectual lives of his undergraduate students. In the ’60s, Father Dunne recalled late in his life, the confident answers his students were given in high school religion courses became for them the wellspring of pressing questions. A decade later, students — even those from Catholic high schools — didn’t know enough about their own religion to raise questions. In college they had to be taught from scratch.
Christian formation is woven around a lineage of belief and practice, a chain of memory that recalls the tradition’s foundational events (“Do this in memory of me,” the celebrant repeats at every Consecration). Two decades after Vatican II, there was still so much ignorance and confusion about what the Catholic Church professes that the world’s bishops called for a new universal catechism or major summary of the Church’s beliefs and practices. By then, however, one generation of poorly formed Catholics had begotten another even less-prepared generation of Catholics, and the cumulative effect is that today most young Catholics 18 to 30 years of age locate themselves outside even the loosest boundaries of belief, behavior and belonging.
If this narrative of Catholic decline seems too negative, the unfortunate truth is that the data has been accumulating for decades for anyone who cared to look. It is now 13 years since Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his colleagues first began publishing their deeply revealing longitudinal studies of young Americans as they moved from adolescence through their 10 years or so of “emerging adulthood.” In relation to the need to pass on the faith, these findings stand out:
Most of the emerging adults studied could not identify a moral problem they had recently faced, or misidentified a problem — like finding a parking space — as a moral issue. Indeed, the majority had no language or conceptual framework for judging right from wrong apart from how they feel. Most offered a “soft-core moral relativism”; in other words, a self-protective nonjudgmentalism based on the right of everyone to determine for themselves what is right and wrong.
Regardless of religious background, most young Americans, including Catholics, hewed to a set of vague religious assertions that Smith identifies in his seminal book, Souls in Transition, as “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which he summarizes in this way:
First, a God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on Earth. Second, God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. Third, the central goal in life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. Fourth, God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. Fifth, good people go to heaven when they die.
This is religion with a shrug.
In Young Catholic America, a separate analysis of the Catholics among their emerging adults, Smith and his colleagues examined who or what in their lives was most influential among the minority who still identify as Catholic and are active in the Church. Two salient conclusions: First, education in Catholic schools was of only mild significance in whether they remained Catholic. Second, the most formative influence was not peers or the media but “the religious faith, commitment and practice of their parents.” In short, the best predictor of whether young Catholics will become adult Catholics is how seriously their parents (especially fathers, since men are typically less religious than women) demonstrate in word and deed their own commitment as Catholics.
This is not exactly good news. It suggests that nothing the bishops do, nothing the “new evangelization” proposes, nothing that parish clergy and laity do; all the youth Masses, parish youth groups, and youth retreats, the “theology-on-tap” programs at local bars for twentysomethings, the papal “World Youth” extravaganzas — all are unavailing without strongly convicted Catholic parents.
It is not especially good news for those parents either. There is no form of communal Catholicism they can look to for support. Moreover, since Catholics divorce at the same rate as other Americans, the number of strong Catholic marriages able to offer solid parental religious formation is much diminished. The chain of religious memory, unfortunately, has been entrusted to some rather weak links.
Is it possible to recover Catholicism’s communal dimension? On a small, local scale, it may be. That is the proposal that the conservative Catholic writer Rod Dreher put forward last year in his much-discussed book, The Benedict Option. The title refers to St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism, and Dreher argues that — rather like monks do — American Catholic families should strategically withdraw from wider public engagement and establish small communities dedicated to forming children in the enduring traditions of the faith.
The idea of creating character-building communities is a recurring feature of American religion, as old as the Puritan settlements, as ambitious as the Mormon Zion, as clannish as a Hasidic neighborhood. But I suspect there is no place to settle in this country that is beyond the reach of television, radio, smartphones and the whole whirligig digital universe in which the young, as well as their parents, find themselves enmeshed. Besides, bishops who by their very job description are expected to address the wider public would never encourage such selective disengagement.
That said, if American Catholicism is ever to recover some kind of communal formation, the Church will have to establish clearer boundaries identifying that community, and greater clarity about what the Catholic commitment to Christ entails. Most of the millennial Catholics we’ve bred are cultural chameleons: they readily take on whatever pattern of behavior or values — plaid or striped or polka-dotted — their surroundings provide. What happened to the cost of discipleship? And how would they know?
Ken Woodward was religion editor at Newsweek for 38 years, retiring in 2002. He is the author of several books, including most recently Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Ascent of Trump.