Is My Church Still Dying?

Roughly 23 years ago I wrote a piece published in America that was titled “My Church is Dying?” At a later point, I was interviewed for a television piece on the pedophile crisis in the Church and again said “My Church is dying?” Neither was well-received in the Church’s halls of power, at least in El Paso.

Recently I came across the U.S. Religious Landscape survey by the Pew Research Center. This survey found, among other things, that one in three who stated they were raised Catholic no longer identified as Catholic. One in three! The survey also noted the overall attrition in Church attendance among young people. This certainly sounds like an organization that is in trouble.

Over the years, I have talked with many people who have left the Church. Most do not have issues with believing in God but rather have problems with rules of the Church or the structure of the Church. Others were so outraged by the Church’s handling of the pedophile crisis that they could no longer be a part of such an organization.

The research is clear, however, that in other parts of the world the Church is thriving. Areas such as Africa and South America show growth in membership, not attrition. It is also reported that, even in the presence of an oppressive political environment in China, the Catholic Church there is thriving. So is it mainly the Catholic Church in the United States and Europe that is in trouble?

Peter Steinfels wrote a thought-provoking book titled A People Adrift. His analysis was thorough as was his intelligent, non-reactive analysis of the sex abuse scandal. That book was written 20 years ago. Has the situation improved since then?

Within the Church, there are pockets of Christian activism. Here in El Paso, we experienced a crisis of great proportion last December with a heavy influx of immigrants. The streets of downtown El Paso were filled with migrants seeking shelter from the cold. In the midst of the political posturing of local and national officials, it was a Catholic priest, Fr. Raphael Garcia SJ, who became the face and voice of a truly Christian response.

Writers such as Fr. Richard Rohr have become popular in their efforts to forge a thoughtful approach to spirituality that incorporates knowledge gleaned from psychology. He has drawn many followers in his effort to encourage a more contemplative approach to spirituality. Clearly there is a need for thoughtful guidance in spiritual growth, a guidance that is not limited by rules.

Yet the number of priests and nuns continues to dwindle. The Church is also facing a crisis of manpower and womanpower.

As with the political scene in America, there appears to be an absence of intelligent dialogue. Many of the laity have gone their own way in terms of beliefs about issues ranging from birth control to gay marriage yet continue to attend Church and take Communion. Dialogue is needed there between laity and clergy. How is the individual American practicing Catholic evolving?

Efforts at outreach to so-called “fallen away” Catholics tends to focus on getting them back “into the fold”. Perhaps the effort needs to shift to one of listening. “What happened? What made you leave? What have you found instead?”

There is a similar need for dialogue with young people regarding their spiritual needs as they face an increasingly confusing world where social media is replacing face-to-face interaction.

Clearly, if any such pattern of dialogue can be formulated, the laity will need to be at the forefront. We know that Bishops are overwhelmed not only with increasing demands in the areas of social justice. We know too that they are stressed by the financial crises set off by lawsuits related to Clergy sexual abuse. We know that our priest are exhausted meeting the ongoing needs of confessions and Masses and funerals and baptisms to name a few.

Some of us laity are sarcastically labelled as “cafeteria Catholics” because we choose what we believe and don’t accept without questioning. Perhaps we are the Catholics who need to take up the challenge to help our Church heal and renew.

About richp45198

I am a clinical psychologist and have an abiding interest in matters spiritual.
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2 Responses to Is My Church Still Dying?

  1. Susan says:

    Very thought-provoking entry. I am wondering why the church is growing in Africa and especially China where people who think differently are often sent to prison to be “re-educated”. Perhaps we are so affluent in the US and Europe that we don’t think that we need the church and its teachings? I am a Cafeteria Catholic and proud of it. Or maybe worse, because I really don’t attend church at all. I am one of the 33% who has fallen away. But here is a bit of hope. The church was a shaping force in my life that still lives inside of me. Not to trivialize the point, however you can take the girl out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the girl. My pregnancy was a crisis point in my life (one of many). I was visited by the Holy Spirit. No church. No priest. No communion. Just the Holy Spirit. And that is how the next generation in my family happened. So perhaps some of the 33% is not so much fallen away as just different.

  2. Michele says:

    I am one of those who have fallen away from the Roman Catholic church. I tried to follow all the rules and rituals from as early as I can remember. Went to catechism and my first Holy Communion. Was in a Catholic school for a period of time while living at Saint Margaret’s Orphanage in El Paso. I saw the Pope twice and even had confession at the Vatican. But alas I never was introduced to Jesus as my Lord and savior all the 45 years I was a Roman Catholic and I never was encouraged to read the Bible. I understand that the church is made up of sinners and Jesus forgives sinners in the Catholic church too, however, I don’t see a lot of repentance going on. I still see a lot of behavior that reminds me of the Pharisees and Sadducees i.e. covering-up transgressions, sticking to tradition and the letter of the law, and missing the spirit of the law. This has been my experience. Regarding your question “Is My Church Still Dying”, it is a shame to see the decline because the enemy is alive and well in the world today and Christians were born for such a time as this. Too bad so many are too distracted to be the light and salt in these battles we face today. I stand convicted as I get let myself get distracted with politics and being “right” instead of humbling myself to see the love all around and how God is on the move. Thank you Rich as always for your candor, concern and love and creating safe spaces for the deep conversations. <3

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