Writing in a national magazine a few weeks ago, I sketched a portrait of American Catholicism as a religious community in crisis. There was nothing particularly new about that. The novelty, such as it was, lay in the fact that I cast my comments in the form of an open letter to planners of the trip Pope Benedict XVI will make to the United States next month.
I recommended that everyone involved in the visit, scheduled April 15-20 in Washington and New York, put aside upbeat talk about how well things are going and acknowledge the enormously serious problems now facing the Church in this country. Solving problems, I noted, begins with admitting their existence — and that's something "happy talk" about the state of American Catholicism renders impossible.
Some people liked what I said and some, I suppose, did not. No surprise about that. What did surprise me was that my open letter had hardly appeared when a major new examination of religion in America was published confirming the heart of what I was saying. Based on interviews with more than 35,000 adults, this was the "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" carried out by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Much of the extensive coverage naturally focused on data showing that Americans are, as long believed, big religious switchers. Fully 44% have changed religious affiliation at some point in their lives. The United States is 78% Christian, but the percentage who are Protestant has dropped to 51%, with so-called nondenominational groups rising and traditional churches headed down.
For some people, though, the data on Catholics were the report's most striking feature. American Catholicism has lost more people to religion-switching than any other group. Nearly a third of Americans report that they were raised in the Catholic Church, but fewer than one in four are members now. About 10% are ex-Catholics, making that group almost as numerous as Southern Baptists, the next largest religious body after the Catholic Church.
True, the percentage of Catholics in the population has remained relatively stable for decades — as noted, a little under one in four. But this appearance of stability is deceptive, since it's largely the result of continuing Hispanic immigration. Nearly half of all U.S. Catholics under the age of 30 now are Hispanics.
The Pew report appeared just two weeks after another study with bad news for the Church. Carried out for the U.S. bishops, this investigation by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that 30% of currently married U.S. Catholics weren't married with the blessing of the Church. As might be expected, the figure rose to 51% among those who were divorced or separated at the time of the study.
Not only that — 41% of younger Catholics now choose to marry outside the Church, while more than half of the unmarried young Catholic adults say it's not important whether they marry in the Church or not.
What to do? Here are two suggestions.
First, declare a moratorium on most of what the national conference of bishops is currently doing and in the next two or three years concentrate on analyzing the implications of these studies and forming a plan of action. Second, instead of continuing to lower the bar for being a Catholic (as we've done for the last several decades), raise it higher by once again emphasizing that to be a Catholic is an immense privilege involving huge obligations and huge payoffs for success.
That may be important enough to come back to in another column.