Originally at: http://www.providencejournal.com/article/20150519/OPINION/150519275
by David Carlin
About 12 years ago, I wrote a book titled “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” In it I analyzed, from a sociological point of view, the shrinkage of the Catholic Church in America that had taken place since the end of the Second Vatican Council (1965). I argued that the council itself had played a relatively small, though not negligible, role in this shrinkage.
I predicted that the shrinkage — which I regarded then and still regard today as a great tragedy, both for the Church and for American society generally — would probably continue for the indefinite future; and as a result, Catholicism in the United States, which for a long time had been a great factor in our national life, would end up being a small “hole-in-the-corner” religion, a thing of no more than minor social importance.
A recently released study from the Pew Center tends to confirm my prognosis. According to this study, membership in the Catholic Church has dropped from 23.9 percent of the national population in 2007 to 20.8 percent in 2014. Mainline Protestant churches (e.g., Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist) are also in decline, from 18.1 percent in 2007 to 14.7 percent last year. Evangelical Protestants have pretty much held their own, declining only from 26.3 percent to 25.4 percent. The only increase was among those having no religious affiliation at all; they went from 16.1 percent of the U.S. population in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014.
Catholics, then, are now outnumbered by persons with no religion (at least no organized religion), and many in this rapidly expanding no-religion group are persons who were raised in Catholic families. If Pew repeats this study in 2021, we may be fairly confident that the no-religion numbers will be even greater than now and the Catholic numbers even smaller. As I predicted years ago, American Catholicism is on the road to becoming a hole-in-the-corner religion.
As a Catholic, I am greatly distressed by this. It also distresses me in my capacity as an American, for I believe that Catholicism once added great strength to American society and that, up until about 50 years ago, it had the capacity for adding even greater strength. But that potential is all gone now.
I have some Catholic friends who react to the evidence of decline by denying it; they say that studies by Pew and others are mistaken, that the Catholic Church in the United States is as flourishing as ever. These are the same kind of people who try to convince themselves that the doctors were wrong when they reported a diagnosis of cancer.
I have other Catholic friends who react by saying that it’s quality that matters, not quantity. They look forward to living in a tiny but intensely religious Church — in other words, a sect. But the Catholic Church has never been a narrow sect. It seems to me a little late in its history to begin now.
If I have neither of the two above reactions, how do I console myself regarding the decline and fall of Catholicism in the United States? I don’t. I am without consolation. It all strikes me as an unmitigated tragedy.
Can anything be done to reverse the downward slide? I can think of only four things.
-Inspiring leadership from our collective bishops. But our bishops, with a few notable exceptions, are clearly not up to the task.
-The sudden and almost miraculous appearance on the scene of saintly and charismatic religious leaders comparable to Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Dominic Guzman and Ignatius Loyola.
-A tremendous growth of Evangelical Protestantism, which might inspire an imitative growth in Catholicism.
-A great series of national catastrophes that will shake us out of our naturalistic complacencies and force us to turn once again to the supernatural order.
In the meantime, I’m not holding my breath.