Let me begin by saying that I tend to be an optimist, especially when it comes to the Church. How could a Catholic not be? Once one has experienced and fallen in love with the truth, goodness, and beauty found in the Catholic Church – which we believe was founded by Jesus Christ – how could they not be optimistic?
At the same time, I am also a realist. If we take a serious look at the situation of Catholicism in the United States then it becomes blindingly obvious that the Church has significant concerns that need to be addressed (and I am not even talking about the sex abuse crisis; that is a whole other issue), and the failure to do so will result in a radically smaller Church in the near future of the U.S.
If we only examine the trend of the total Catholic population in recent years, we will not get this impression. According to the statistics provided by The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the Catholic population in the U.S. has grown by 13 million since 1990, at which time it made up 22% of the total population. In 2017 (the year with the most recent available data), the Catholic population made up 21% of the total in our country. That by itself does not seem overly troublesome. A 1% decline doesn't necessarily set off alarm bells.
However, I think anyone who has spent time in the Catholic Church in the U.S. during this period knows that this does not tell the whole story. Nearly every other piece of available data tells us that the Catholic Church is struggling right now. Despite the growth in total members over the last 28 years, at least 2,464 parishes have closed along with at least 2,340 Catholic schools (elementary and secondary), resulting in over 700,000 fewer students blessed with a Catholic education.
What accounts for the growth in the Catholic population but the decline in parishes and schools? Two primary factors: 1) Catholics leaving the Church in large numbers, and 2) the considerable influx of immigrants from Latin American countries (who are mostly Catholic), thus resulting in a shift in the Catholic population into the southern and southwestern parts of the country.
This demographic shift, by the way, is why I stated that at least 2,464 parishes have closed. That number is the difference between the number of parishes in 1990 and 2017. But given the influx of Catholics into the southern parts of the U.S., it seems impossible that more parishes have not been built. To give just one example, the Catholic population of the Archdiocese of Atlanta more than quadrupled over the last 28 years and currently stands at 1.2 million.
The growth due to immigration is obviously good for the Church. The word Catholic literally means "universal" (or "according to the whole"), so everyone is welcome regardless of race or nationality. The issue, rather, is that Catholics continue to leave the Church at an alarming rate. According to CARA at least 20 million more Catholics have left since 1990. In the U.S. right now 30 million adults identify as former Catholics. That number is staggering. And according to a 2014 study from the Pew Research Center, for every 1 person that enters the Catholic Church, 6 leave.
The Church does continue to gain members through immigration, but if we continue on the path we are on there are signs that they will leave as well. In 2014 a survey showed that 24% of all Latin Americans in the U.S. identify as former Catholics, so it is already starting. On top of it all, the percentage of Catholics who attend mass every week is at four-decade low (23%), as is the percentage who identify themselves as a "strong Catholic" (27%).
That's enough of the depressing statistics. You get the picture (and it’s not pretty). At this point, though, you probably have a few questions. First, how could I, or anyone for that matter, be optimistic about the future of the Church in America? My answer is that I can be optimistic because I know that God's grace is always working among those who are faithful to Him. Moreover, I have witnessed countless Catholics, and know there are millions more, who strive every single day to be faithful to Jesus Christ and His Church. There are millions of U.S. Catholics – lay men and women, priests, bishops, and deacons – praying, striving, trusting, and working to revitalize the Church.
I am also hopeful because I believe many Catholics are waking up and realizing that changes must be made. My conversations with Catholics and priests of all ages have been very encouraging. Nearly all of them recognize that we cannot afford to sit back and keep trying the same old things that we have been. Changes need to take place. Thankfully, they have already begun.
Second, what more can be done? Fundamentally, we have to make changes to the communal and parish strategies used for passing on the faith and spiritually nourishing those who are already in the pews because what we have been doing is clearly not working. As humans we have a natural longing for happiness, for fulfillment – for God. And Catholics would not be streaming out the doors if they were being fulfilled.
Our parishes need strengthening. It is as simple – and complex – as that. If we want to make a difference and help more people come to know Jesus Christ in an intimate way, to find the fulfillment they are longing for, we have to change the way we spread and grow the faith in our parishes. That is where the Catholics are, and that is where we can reach them.
That's why The Vadis Project is dedicated to researching and understanding the most fruitful ways to reach those who are already in the pews and those who are still seeking from the outside (to read more about The Vadis Project, go here and here). The Lord thirsts for all people to know Him and be in loving communion with Him. The better the Church carries out her mission, the more that happens.
I hope the statistics shared in this post did not dishearten you. Rather, let's allow them to ignite in us both passion and urgency to bring Christ to as many people as possible and to fulfill our own personal call to holiness.
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