Illustrations by Marisa Maestre
As a renowned Catholic philosopher once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Yet Yogi Berra’s wisdom has done little to stop many writers from prognosticating about the fate of the Catholic Church, myself included. One of the best examples of this genre was a 2004 book by Peter Steinfels, whose insightful work certainly had the best title: A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America. Indeed, whatever Steinfels or any of us thought the Catholic Church ought to do to address its troubles, we shared an underlying pessimism that, in the wake of the sweeping clergy sexual-abuse revelations of 2002, Catholicism in the United States was adrift and being blown inexorably toward very rough seas.
Nearly 20 years later the arguments about what should or could have been done are largely moot. The future is here, for good and ill, though it can seem like the latter when you consider the sobering trend lines.
Vocations to the priesthood continue to lag, as they have for decades, and the same goes for vowed religious life. Mass attendance continues to fall, parishes continue to close and participation in the sacraments is trending downward as well — fewer baptisms and funerals; fewer marriages and confessions. Defections mount as Catholics leave for other churches or, just as likely, for nothing at all. Lay ministry programs that were once a source of hope for Catholic renewal are declining steadily — and the number of candidates for lay ministry along with them. The number of deacons is also heading south after the sharp growth that followed the postconciliar restoration of the permanent diaconate in the 1970s.
The population of Americans who identify as Catholic varies from 65 to 70 million or so, depending on whom you ask. But that relatively static figure disguises a number of important shifts. While the Catholic Church can still boast — and our leaders like to remind everyone of this fact — that Catholicism is the largest denomination in the U.S., Catholics have in fact not kept pace with the growth of the overall population and have dropped from about one-quarter of all Americans a generation ago to just one-fifth, maybe less by now. In fact, the largest “denomination,” if you want to call it that, are the “nones,” those religiously unaffiliated Americans who now comprise as much as 23 percent of the population and growing.
Internally, immigration has changed the composition of the Church, even if it is not enough to keep up with defections. Latinos now account for nearly 4 in 10 Catholics in the U.S., but the Church has not adapted to their presence nor assimilated them as they did previous waves of immigrants. Old-line white Catholics are trending in one direction politically and theologically, while Latinos and other immigrants may as well be living in another universe in terms of their social and religious sensibilities. The fact that Latinos and other ethnic and racial groups remain underrepresented in the power structures of the Church, and underserved at the grass roots, only contributes to the polarization that afflicts Catholicism as much as it does the wider American polity.
To be honest, these trends have been so clear for so long that you didn’t need the charism of prophecy to see what was coming. If anything, we underestimated the speed and breadth of the changes and our ability to alter the tides. Catholics truly are adrift, and the cynicism engendered by the ongoing sex-abuse revelations, combined with the pandemic-enforced shutdown of religious services for so long — not to mention the renewed infighting that anti-COVID-19 measures sparked — only intensifies the sense of exodus and crisis.
Traditionally the next step in any such consideration of the state of Catholicism in the U.S. is to prescribe solutions, and those solutions usually track one’s personal preferences. But at this point it may be better to reformulate the problem entirely.
In the first line of his book, Steinfels argued that “the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is on the verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation.” Maybe it’s both. Maybe the decline is a form of transformation, one that is shifting American Catholicism away from the model of American Christendom — the default view of the Catholic Church as a static community that practices the faith reflexively and is accorded an equally reflexive degree of respect, if not reverence, that has prevailed for so long. That paradigm has prevailed in Church infrastructure and institutions and, most important, in the ecclesial mindset that starts from the notion that “we’ve always done it this way,” and anything to the contrary is a threat. A poisonous logic, Pope Francis has called it.
The question isn’t one of resigning ourselves to fate, or of accepting defeat with the pious gaze of a martyr or the punchy resentment of a culture warrior. The notion of a smaller, embattled Church of the “orthodox” is as much a self-deception as the idea of an endlessly growing flock that has so long dominated Catholic thinking. Both fantasies are excuses for not examining what might be wrong and what might need to change. The better approach may be to see the Spirit at work in the moment, and to read the “signs of the times” — a phrase introduced into the Catholic lexicon by Pope John XXIII in 1961, an equally dark time in the world when many Catholics could yet point to robust numbers and argue that nothing needed to change.
That status quo argument was wrong then, and it is wrong now. As Francis put it in 2015 in an address to the Italian bishops: “We are not living an era of change but a change of era.” He signaled this shift in approach before his 2013 election when, during the closed-door meetings of the College of Cardinals that preceded the conclave, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires gave a short reflection on the state of the Church. (Every cardinal entering the Sistine Chapel was allotted five minutes to gauge the needs of the faithful.) In his remarks, Bergoglio sharply contrasted the “spiritual worldliness” of a Church that lives in herself and for herself with an evangelizing Church that goes “to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents and of all misery.” He continued:
When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and then gets sick. The evils that, over time, happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in self-referentiality and a kind of theological narcissism. In Revelation, Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks. . . . Obviously, the text refers to his knocking from the outside in order to enter, but I think about the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out. The self-referential Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him out.
It was a remarkable moment, and a few days later Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis, the first pope from outside the European orbit, the first to take the name Francis and the first Jesuit. But beyond all those “firsts,” the golden thread running through his papacy is the practice of “kenosis,” or self-emptying, like Christ on the Cross, that Francis says must guide the Church of the future. It is only by leaving false sanctuaries, like our imaginary Catholic Christendom, he says, that Catholicism can be true to the Gospel and flourish in the future.
Immigration is not conversion
What does all of this mean in the American context?
For one thing, it means expanding our longstanding self- definition as a “communion of immigrants,” in historian James T. Fisher’s phrase. To be sure, the original waves of largely European Catholics who migrated to American shores brought an Old World faith and culture that was revivified by contact with and opposition from a vibrant Protestant society that looked down on Catholicism — or worse. These immigrants brought their own priests and religious or produced new ones from the large families they raised. They built churches and social networks that mirrored the world they had left behind while inspiring them to deepen their own faith in order to survive and thrive.
But now, American Catholics have achieved the American Dream; we have assimilated and are turning out to be as indifferent to religious practice as our European forebears. American Catholics used to revel in a kind of “exceptionalism” whereby we thought ourselves different among the industrialized societies; Catholics here would remain faithful and observant, and the faithful elsewhere, especially in “secular” Europe, could look to us for comfort and inspiration.
The opposite is proving to be the case. American Catholic practice today looks like much of that in “post-Christian” Western Europe. Our decline is tracking the precipitous fall of onetime Catholic strongholds like Ireland and precedes that of Poland, the early modern antemurale christianitatis, the bulwark of Christianity that was supposed to be inoculated against such changes by the long papacy of its native son, St. John Paul II.
Our blindness to the trends in the U.S. means that European Catholic leaders like the Czech priest Tomáš Halík, who grew up under an oppressively atheistic communism, are far ahead of us in their ability to speak to secular culture and to move the Church, in Halík’s nice phrase, “from Catholicism to a more open Catholicity.” By that he means to move away from “the futile culture war with the modern world” and toward “a more ecumenical perspective and the ability to communicate also with those outside the visible frontiers of the Church.”
But now, American Catholics have achieved the American Dream; we have assimilated and are turning out to be as indifferent to religious practice as our European forebears.
American Catholicism is still struggling to adjust to this reality, and to find the language that can attract, form and hold believers in a community. “Church-ianity and Christ-ianity” is how theologian Rev. John Haughey, S.J., framed the dilemma back in 2004 when he had a disquieting realization about differences in the way his Catholic students and other Christian students spoke about faith and the Church. “[H]ave Catholic students been catechized into what one might call Church-ianity, whereas many of our non-Catholic Christian students are in a religious condition of Christianity?” Haughey asked. He wondered why Catholic students, and even his colleagues, are so reticent to speak about a “personal relationship” with Christ, when
that ought to be the baseline condition, and testimony, of an engaged Catholic.
Faced with this steep hill of evangelization, the institutional Church has counted on immigration as a lifeline. But even if the principle of welcoming the stranger is foundational for Christians, immigration as an ecclesial survival strategy is a nonstarter. It essentially treats immigrants like an extractive resource, akin to scrounging for new sources of fossil fuel rather than making the costly but inevitable conversion to renewable energy.
Moreover, today’s U.S. immigrants, especially the Latinos who are ostensibly going to save the Church, are not like the European immigrants of old. They are less likely to be Catholic when they arrive, and they are less likely to remain Catholic after they settle in. The Catholic Church today has few of the resources it once did, particularly in terms of schools and the priests and religious needed to serve them, and the hostility these newcomers face is as likely to come from other Catholics as from old-time, anti-Catholic Protestants. We live today in a religious “culture of choice” — the “heretical imperative” in the late sociologist and theologian Peter Berger’s words — and the notion that the Catholic Church can shepherd the flock by maintaining institutions is obsolete. Immigrants will migrate out of the Church more easily than they left their home countries. Meanwhile, America’s “indigenous” Catholics may keep the Catholic label but little of the content.
Apologetics is not evangelization
Given all the talk these days about the “New Evangelization,” the Church in the U.S. has little proof that it knows how to evangelize. Modern-day apologists abound, both clergy and lay. They have equal access to the digital pulpit of social media — but no sign that any of them is the next Fulton Sheen, much less St. Paul at Athens. What issues forth is mainly a torrent of words and a dust cloud of arguments about who is a good Catholic and what is the best form of the liturgy. “Avoid foolish and ignorant debates, for you know that they breed quarrels,” Paul wrote to Timothy. “Remind people of these things and charge them before God to stop disputing about words. This serves no useful purpose since it harms those who listen.”
The data seems to confirm the Apostle’s warning. At the turn of the millennium, the Church in America welcomed some 170,000 converts a year into full communion. Today the number is about 100,000. Even starker evidence of the failure of evangelization: In 1970, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, roughly 3 million American Catholics identified as converts — half a million fewer than people who called themselves “former Catholics.” Today, in a far larger U.S. population, the number of those identifying as converts to Catholicism has risen to 4.4 million, while those calling themselves “former Catholics” have multiplied by a factor of eight to nearly 30 million. Many of those who do come into the Church today seem drawn to what the Church is against rather than what it is for.
As they say in politics, if you’re explaining, you’re losing, and American Catholicism is doing far too much of both. A better approach would be to view the Church as mission territory. This would mean rejecting the temptation to scapegoat secularism for what at heart are problems in the Church. Instead of Paul at Athens preaching to the pagans, American Catholics might look to Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish Lutheran who spent much of his intellectual career inveighing against the simulacrum of faith engendered by the state- sponsored church in Denmark.
We might say that for once the Catholic Church anticipated the challenges of the day — and that it did is not only the work of the Spirit but a fulfillment of the Gospel.
“Christendom has done away with Christianity without being quite aware of it,” as Kierkegaard summed it up. In our context, “Christendom” doesn’t mean the premodern system of juridical privilege for the First Estate, or the fusty, Old World, altar-and-throne culture that would seem alien to our American experience. Instead, it refers to the culture of deference to privilege, rank, custom and ritual that defined the Church’s status in society, the practice of Catholics within the Church, our attitudes toward the world and our contributions to society. “Today we are not the only ones who produce culture, nor are we the first or the most listened to,” Francis said in 2019. “Christendom no longer exists.” And good riddance, if clinging to Christendom keeps us from being authentically Christian.
The challenge is finding something to replace it, starting with what my Fordham colleague C. Colt Anderson has called an “apologetics of humility.” That the Church must reform itself before it can pretend to preach to the world with any authority was also the motif of Pope Paul VI’s 1975 exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi. Pope Francis has picked up that thread, insisting on the centrality of genuine faith over “outward formalities,” of true religion rather than “a religiosity of appearances” and of following the early monastics, who knew that the “path of holiness” begins by pointing the finger of blame at yourself.
“How often we blame others, society, the world, for everything that happens to us! It is always the fault of ‘others,’” Francis said during an Angelus address last August. “It seems that problems always come from the outside. And we spend time assigning blame; but spending time blaming others is wasting time. We become angry, bitter and keep God away from our heart. . . . One cannot be truly religious in complaining: Complaining poisons, it leads you to anger, to resentment and to sadness, that of the heart, which closes the door to God.”
Synodality as a solution
That practice of self-accusation has been the paradigm shift of Francis’ papacy, the first step in evangelizing ourselves so we can evangelize others. But how do we do this? How does the Catholic Church begin such a tectonic shift in attitude and practice and self-identity?
The current buzzword for this process is “synodality,” and you will hear a lot about synods and synodality in coming years. Francis has made it the signature of his pontificate and has given synodality its most concrete form with a two-year global pilgrimage of grassroots engagement in every diocese around the world, culminating in October 2023 with a “synod on synodality” at the Vatican that will assess the process and seek to instantiate it throughout the Church.
What is a synod? At the historical level, it is simply another word for “council” or “assembly,” and it derives from St. Luke’s account of the Council of Jerusalem in the Acts of the Apostles. The terms “council” and “synod,” a Greek word for “walking together,” have been used interchangeably. As Church historian Rev. John O’Malley, S.J., points out, dozens of synods were held in the early centuries of the Church in order to clarify teachings and promote evangelization. “Church and synod are synonymous,” as St. John Chrysostom put it in the fourth century. In fact, a Christian of the first millennium would have been much more familiar with the term “synod” and the practice of synodality than are Catholics of recent times.
The synod known as the Second Vatican Council sought to change that. In 1965, as the council neared its conclusion, Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops, a consultative body designed to carry the conciliar model and spirit forward after the council itself ended. It was a nice idea, but within a few years it became a captive of the Curia and an exercise in futility for bishops from around the world who were called to the Vatican every three years for what turned out to be three weeks of scripted discussions ending with a Roman rubber stamp. This was synodality in name only. Francis himself, while archbishop of Buenos Aires, experienced this kind of synod firsthand, and when he became pope he immediately set out to restore genuine, honest, open dialogue. “A general condition is this,” Francis told a 2014 synod. “Speak clearly. Let no one say: ‘This you cannot say.’”
That admonition points to what is truly important about these synods, especially as it relates to the present and future of Catholicism in the U.S.: They aren’t focused on a particular end. The means is the end. “We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces,” as Francis likes to say. It is about an attitude, a way of being. It is a “style,” Francis insists, “God’s own style” of closeness, accompaniment, compassion, listening and discernment. It means including the entire Church, not just clerics, and Francis has shown that by naming women and lay people as synod delegates and officials. “A synodal Church is a relational Church and an inclusive one,” Sister Nathalie Becquart, the undersecretary of the Vatican’s synod office, and first woman to hold that position, told Christopher Lamb of The Tablet last fall. “In a synodal Church, nobody should decide alone.”
Of course a process that, as Francis said, encourages “fresh paths and new ways of speaking,” and discourages “artificial and shallow and prepackaged responses,” is going to be deeply troubling to the mentality of Christendom. To be sure, this new approach to an older tradition has generated all sorts of criticism, especially from Catholics used to the familiarity and apparent security of a more black-and-white, question-and- answer Catholicism.
Vatican II is not the problem
Opposition to synodality is too often cast as opposition to Pope Francis. There is much truth to that thesis, especially in the U.S., but that’s unfortunate, because focusing on synodality as a particular project of this pope only assures that it will continue to be a flashpoint. Opponents will try to thwart the process in expectation that the pontificate of this 85-year-old pope won’t last much longer, while champions of synodality will pin their hopes on Francis’ remaining in charge until we pass some point of no return on the path to reform.
No such point exists. There is only the path, and it’s not a path set by any one pope but by the Second Vatican Council. The council, Francis wrote, reflecting on his formation as a young Jesuit in the preface to a recent book, “became the horizon of our belief, and of our ways of speaking and acting. That is, it quickly became our ecclesial and pastoral ecosystem.” He continued, “We didn’t get into the habit of reciting conciliar decrees, nor did we linger on speculative reflections. The Council had simply entered our way of being Christian and our way of ‘being Church’ — and as life went on, my intuitions, my perceptions, and my spirituality were quite simply born out of the suggestions from the teachings of Vatican II. There wasn’t much need to quote the Council’s documents.
“Today, after many decades, we find ourselves in a world — and in a Church — deeply changed, and it’s probably necessary to make more explicit the Second Vatican Council’s key concepts, its theological and pastoral horizon, its topics, and its methods.”
Indeed, it’s too easy to take for granted the epochal shift ushered in by Vatican II, not so much in any particular doctrine or document, though the council had plenty of those to keep critics and supporters arguing for decades. Rather, it was what O’Malley, the Jesuit historian, called the “style” of the council that was key. In place of the Church’s pattern of issuing condemnations and canons, Vatican II promoted engagement and evangelization. It was about envisioning authority and responsibility anew, moving from a top-down Church toward a more horizontal dynamic, transforming its members, in O’Malley’s phrase, “from subjects into participants.”
Seen from this “horizon,” the Church’s struggle to navigate a world of liquid modernity ought to be viewed as a natural part of the working of the Spirit through the council. It seems to me that Catholics of all stripes are far too habituated to thinking of Vatican II as a difficulty instead of an opportunity.
For many on the Catholic left, the council didn’t go far enough, or its “spirit” was quashed by reactionaries in Rome and elsewhere. We need a Third Vatican Council, they suggest, to “finish the job” by going back to the primitive Church or forward to some idealized future Church. (A repetition of the central drama of Vatican II — reformers defeating the schemes of Curial traditionalists — is appealing to many, but there’s no guarantee a new council would follow the same trajectory.) Meanwhile, many on the right believe the council fathers went too far, or that they inadvertently opened a box that was meant to stay closed, and that all the Church’s current crises stem from trying to accommodate a world gone crazy. Post hoc ergo propter hoc: The Church after the council is not the same as it was before, so the council is to blame.
In either scenario, the council is a problem to be solved rather than a prophetic movement of the Spirit that read the signs of the times and acted on them. Instead, we might say that for once the Catholic Church anticipated the challenges of the day — and that it did is not only the work of the Spirit but a fulfillment of the Gospel. We have to move forward, and outward. The Church, as Francis has said, is not a “museum,” and when it sees itself that way it denies its essence.
Besides, just look at the flowering of Catholicism around the world and the seeds of rebirth in our American context. In the decades before the council, about three-quarters of the world’s Catholics hailed from Europe; a half-century after it, the vast majority of Catholics live in Africa, Asia and Latin America. That trend will only increase and remain the chief source of Catholicism’s vibrancy. Meanwhile in North America, dynamic parishes are showing the Church’s durability and vitality by welcoming human diversity.
These developments, too, are fruits of the council. Yes, post-Christendom Catholicism may be smaller in some areas — like the U.S. — but not necessarily “purer,” as some would like. And it will be bigger and broader and more pluralistic in many other places.
All of this means change, and change is challenging. And it might not be the change everyone expects or wants. But more than half a century after the council, we in the American Church are rushing to catch up. It can be exhausting, sure. But it’s also exhilarating. And necessary, and inevitable.
David Gibson, an award-winning journalist and co-author of Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery. (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), is director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.