Catholic Drift

I'm posting this a bit after it arrived in my email box on Monday, but I wanted to share Martin Marty's reflections on Peter Steinfels article in Commonweal that wrestles with the apparent lack of awareness or concern on the part of the Catholic Bishops about the decline in attendance/membership in the church.  This article comes on the heals of the may surveys/polls that have detailed the decline in religious adherence over the past few decades, as well as the interpretation of this phenomenon in Robert Putnam and David Campbell's American Grace.  We who are not Catholic needn't take joy in their difficulties, only recognize that this largest of American religious communities is having the same issues we are.  So take a read and consider the state of the church!


Sightings 11/01/2010

Catholic Drift
- Martin E. Marty

“Everybody’s talking” about data detailing decline of church and synagogue participation as revealed in a Pew Forum and by Putnam and Campbell in their new book American Grace. “Everybody” includes atheists, agnostics, “nones,” Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, and Mormons but not the Catholic bishops. So too judges Steinfels, who wrote A Church Adrift some years ago and who now follows up with an article, “Further Adrift: The American Church’s Crisis of Attrition.” The director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, who most likely knows more about these things than anyone else, found no agenda topic on this for the mid-November U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting. He writes with pain and regret about the public void.

Why should “everybody” who is not Catholic talk about such findings in the midst of talk about our ugliest elections, the World Series, and more? Isn’t it “none of our business?” No. Today the public fates of religions obviously do affect the larger culture, and Catholic fates also are often paralleled in other bodies. For years, talk about “decline” and “crisis” focused on Mainline Protestantism, but the surveys reveal that these trends have counterparts in most places. Steinfels sees Latino Catholics and Mormons, for the moment remaining exempt from some down-trends. Others? He quotes Putnam and Campbell on the point that “Evangelical growth. . . actually leveled off in the mid-1980s and early ‘90s.” Also, the bishops are now demonstrating cultural lag by “repeating the behavior of Religious Right leaders who have now faded from prominence.” The African-American churches are also not on a roll as they had been. Obviously, all these cohorts of religious populations suffer under similar cultural changes, about which no one church or its leaders, can do much, but the bishops are the current focus. Steinfels, being Steinfels, does find a few bright spots on the Catholic scene, and plays them up. But seeing mainly shadows, sunset, and gloom, he grieves.

Some shockers, based on the surveys: “One out of every three adult Americans who were raised Catholic have left the church.” Thomas Reese, S.J., editor of America, asks, “You wonder if the bishops have noticed.” Most diocesan papers, mainly boosters, are given to the two themes of “pro-life” and anti-gay marriage. These are perfectly legitimate topics of Catholic interest, but play little to no part in winning back the faithful. The surveys see them helping lose especially the young. Pope John Paul II had been seen to be attractive to youth, but the televised crowds he drew, says Steinfels, represented a “sampling error,” since the growth in the number of stay-at-homes was more significant.

“Catholicism,” says the Pew poll, “has lost more people to other religions or to no religion at all than any other single religious group.” Steinfels knows that most “other religious” people are not given to Schadenfreude, which would mean rejoicing over Catholic pain. They are this way partly out of Christian empathy or sympathy and partly because they need each other to face the cultural challenges. “Blaming the bishops” won’t solve anything. Steinfels can only mention in half-lines what he and others write about and call for at great length elsewhere: the need for improved (not traditionalist!) liturgy and worship, better pastoral care, address to the particular needs of various groups, more building on the already prospering lay groups which compensate for some of the personnel losses that are part of the crisis in priestly vocations. His title key word, “Adrift,” remains too apt a metaphor for the complex real world.


Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

Peter Steinfels, "Further Adrift: The American Church's Crisis of Attrition" Commonweal, October 22, 2010.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


David said…
Catholics leave due to hypocritical doctrine, greed and poor oversight of the gifts received from its adherents (general waste, cover-up sex scandal payments and legal settlements). It's not a time to throw good money after bad.

I assume most (of any) gain by protestant churches may be temporary- just a hallway to the exit door if their business style as usual is maintained.
David said…
Don't expect a windfall-

According to researchers Dean Hoge, Patrick McNamara, Charles Zech and Michael Donahue, conservative Protestants give more than 3 percent of household income on average; black Protestants, 2.5 percent; mainline Protestants, 2 percent; Catholics, less than 1.5 percent; and other denominations, less than 1 percent.

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