Feeling a Little Dissolution

The most recent issue of Our Sunday Visitor has an interesting article on the state of the Catholic Church in America called Catholic calculations: Running the numbers on the state of U.S. Catholicism and where it is headed in coming years (Vol 98. no 29). Recent statistics, as you may guess, are alarming. 15% of the total U.S. population now identify themselves as “religiously unaffiliated.” Of this group 24% are ex-Catholics. In 1965 the total number of Catholic priests in the U.S. was 58,632. In 2009, that number has plummeted to 40,666. In 1965 70% of Catholics went to Mass every Sunday. Recent statistics now show that only 31.4% of Catholics fulfill their Sunday obligation.

While these numbers may be alarming, they are not surprising. In my line of work we often lament the sparsity of committed Catholics. Most of the time when I hear people lament the state of our Church they point to Vatican II as the culprit. Recently, Dr. Bill Portier gave a great presentation at Immaculate Heart of Mary on the history, the present situation, and the future of the Catholic Church in America.

Dr. Portier agrees with the anecdotal and statistical analysis on the U.S. Catholic Church. Compared with the Church in 1965, we are in big trouble! When asked “why?” though, Dr. Portier says very little about Vatican II, and a whole lot about cultural developments in the American Catholic Church over the past 4 decades. You can listen to Dr. Portier’s entire presentation here

In his talk, Dr. Portier pulled much of his material from his award-winning article published in Communio Here Come the Evangelical Catholics. Personally, I think everyone interested in the future of the American Catholic Church MUST read this article.

The thesis of this article is that

The dissolution of the subculture is the context in which the Second Vatican Council, and its understanding of the church-world relation in modernity, was received in the United States.

What does Portier mean by the “dissolution of the subculture?” I’m sure that many readers grew up in a Catholic sub-culture. The neighborhood that I grew up in was once a very vibrant sub-culture unto itself. At one time my whole neighborhood was almost entirely Catholic. Everyone went to the neighborhood parish, everyone sent their children to the neighborhood Catholic school. There was an all-girls Catholic high school 100 yards from the Catholic grade school. The neighborhood Catholic parish had a recreation center that was the hub of the social life of the neighborhood. There was even a Catholic hospital in the neighborhood. I’m sure that those of you who were raised in similar neighborhoods could speak to how easy it was to pass on the Catholic faith in such a supportive culture. In such an environment Catholic identity was “caught” not “taught.” As Portier says “There was no Faith Formation when I was a child!”

By the time I was born in 1980 my neighborhood had completely changed. Most of the Catholics had moved out of the neighborhood; out of the inner-city entirely. The Catholic girls-school became an Evangelical Christian highschool and eventually a public school. The Catholic grade school had a steady drop in registration and finally was forced to cluster with other inner-city Catholic schools to survive. Eventually, even the neighborhood parish had to cluster with other inner-city parishes to even have a hope of keeping a Catholic presence in the city. If you drive through my neighborhood today, you will still find a parish, a recreation center, a hospital, and even those 2 school buildings. The Catholics, though, are few and far between.

The story of the neighborhood I grew up in is not uncommon. This is what Portier means by the “dissolution of the subculture.” So what replaced that subculture? Very simply: the dominant culture. Statistics play this out. Demographically speaking, Catholics are virtually unrecognizable as a group.

Without the buffer of a subculture the Catholic Church has been left open to the full force of western culture characterized by all of those scary “isms” – individualism, consumerism, relativism. The result? The alarming statistics we find in the Our Sunday Visitor article for starters. Portier puts it this way,

The most recent study of twenty- to thirty-something Catholics found that the boundaries of Catholicism in the U.S. had indeed eroded. In Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice, Dean Hoge and his colleagues describe the sort of young Catholics we might expect to find without a subculture to shield them from the full effects of pluralism. Catholics under forty generally like being Catholic. They tend to agree with the core beliefs stated in the Nicene Creed. But they have “little experience of Catholicism as a tight-knit culture system.” Cultural and ethnic factors that contributed to a strong Catholic identity in the past have not been replaced. Loss of minority and outsider status leaves them with a sense of Catholic boundaries that is “diffused and ambiguous.” They view their Catholicism as accidental and incidental to their relationship with Christ. Their commitment to the Church as a visible organization is weak. Their sense of being Catholic has a minimal ecclesial dimension. They have been taught that God loves them but in many cases have no language
for talking to God.

So is there hope? Portier point to an emerging minority. He calls them “Evangelical Catholics.” These are young Catholics who are very evangelical in nature. I consider myself one of this breed. While most people our age are drifting, we are excited about our Catholic faith. We love the mass, we love traditional Catholic devotions, we watch EWTN, we have a cheesy Catholic t-shirts that say things like “Proud to be Catholic,” we call Pope John Paul II “JPII.” We really don’t fit in any category preceeding us. We don’t want to go back to the Pre-Vatican II Church because we weren’t even alive for it. We are not liberal. We are not conservative. We may be a minority, but look out because if you go to any seminary or any Catholic religious studies department in the country, and evangelical Catholics are the one’s filling the seats. So while the statistics may leave us a little dissolutioned, and the dissolution of our past sub-culture is irreversible, I still say that it is a very exciting time to be a Catholic!