The Easter season is traditionally a joyful time for Catholics both because it commemorates the most important mystery of our faith and because the Easter Vigil and its liturgy of baptism welcomes many new Catholics to the fold. There was particular joy this year for many who were able to celebrate the sacraments in person after last year’s somber Holy Week and Easter during the darkest time of the Covid-19 pandemic. For many Catholics, however, this Easter still came with tinges of regret, particularly as many understandably did not feel that their local churches were safe enough given the greater likelihood of churchgoers to resist masking and other safety measures. For those paying attention, there was also concerning news from a Gallup poll indicating the increasing disaffiliation of Americans from religion, especially Catholicism.
In addition to showing that American participation in religious institutions on the whole has declined below the 50% mark, the Gallup poll show a decline among Catholics from 76% to 58% over the period beginning roughly in the early 2000s. Given that this period coincided with the first major revelations of clerical sexual abuse in Boston and elsewhere, this should come as no surprise. Between events that have frayed the loyalty of older generations for whom belonging to the church was a matter of course and generational replacement trending in the direction of disaffiliation, the church as an institution and more importantly as a people is experiencing decline.
Expert commentators such as Kaya Oakes have rightly noted that disaffiliation and secularization are not coterminous. Just because people do not belong to a church does not meant they are not religious, and it does not even mean they are no longer engaging with that particular church institution, but simply that they do not choose to be a registered member of the congregation. Recent trends, such as the cult-like belief in Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” about the election being stolen, highlight both the danger of post-religious substitutes for belief but also the disturbing number of religious believers who themselves accept such ideas. Indeed, many white evangelical and Catholic congregations have been active drivers of these exact problems, and Catholic leaders have fed into this dynamic by their willingness to criticize President Biden’s Catholicism in often more direct ways than they challenged the manifold evils of President Trump’s administration. Polls from the past few years showing religiously unaffiliated Americans as more receptive to the welcoming of refugees than Catholics and other Christians also demonstrate how the worldview of many Christians has been shaped more by identity politics than by Gospel values.
It is clear that those of us concerned with the future vitality of Catholicism in the U.S. have a problem on our hands. The number of people interested in the church, particularly among the young, is diminishing, and the actions of church leaders in response have not been encouraging. This is particularly true in the online Catholic world – the most likely place that young people will encounter the church and its witness. With a few exceptions led by Fr. James Martin, this space has been dominated by right-wing voices, many of them full of vitriol against Pope Francis and Catholics who disagree with them. Bishop Robert Barron, whose large Word on Fire media ministry has avoided Pope-bashing and exhibited a more general balance, has increasingly positioned himself to appeal in a rightward direction, particularly with recent criticisms of the “woke” movement as “vile” – a casual dismissal of a complex phenomenon mainly centered on questions of racial justice.
I have learned through years of engaging with the question of Catholics and disaffiliation that there is no easy answer to the questions raised by data such as the recent Gallup poll. Conservative efforts to promote a “thick” Catholic culture have often relied on rational choice theories emphasizing that a religion that makes higher demands on people will be more appealing and more conducive to forming a culture over time. Such approaches, I believe, lead to sectarianism and thus an exclusionary vision of what it means to be Catholic. The many connections of conservative Catholic leaders to the Trump movement, including the Big Lie, show the danger here also. On the other hand, more progressive approaches, while making a home for many Catholics otherwise alienated by the church and bishops, have a somewhat marginal influence on the church institution itself and have not been a demographic panacea. A deeper, long-term conversion of the institution is required, demanding structural change that we have not yet begun to realize even with the helpful tone and actions of Pope Francis.
With this sober news amid the joy of Easter, I suggest we look to the culmination of this joyous season, namely, Pentecost. Ultimately, the future of the church will come about by having faith and discerning where the Holy Spirit wants us to go. This is what John XXIII meant when he referred to Vatican II as a kind of new Pentecost, and it is the case for our own predicament. The plan is not clear, and as always in life, doing the right thing will not always be immediately popular or successful. The future will no doubt be different than what we have known and perhaps what we hope for, but this is nothing to fear.
Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.