In late February the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released an extensive new survey of the religious landscape in the United States, based on 35,000 interviews of individuals age 18 and older — an extraordinarily large sample. While there were significant findings regarding various religious groups in America, those pertaining to Catholics were of particular interest.
The survey found that Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses among major religious groups as a result of its native-born adherents either joining a Protestant or Episcopal church or simply withdrawing from active participation in the Catholic Church.
Approximately one-third of the survey’s respondents who indicated that they were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic. This means that roughly 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics.
These large losses suffered by the Catholic Church, however, have been offset by the new immigrant population, mostly from Latin America, which is predominantly Catholic. In addition, 2.6 percent of the adult population joined the Catholic Church during the same period.
For both these reasons, but mainly because of the large influx of Catholic immigrants, the percentage of Catholics in the total population of the United States remains at slightly under one-quarter — just about where it has been since the 1972 study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
What is particularly striking is that those who were once pejoratively referred to as “lapsed Catholics” now constitute one of the largest single “religious” groups in the United States. This is a pastoral reality the leadership of the Catholic Church cannot ignore.
Simply turning up the volume or increasing the frequency of our doctrinal and moral pronouncements does not constitute an effective response. The thousands upon thousands of Catholics who have left the church have not done so because they were unfamiliar with, or confused about, its teachings and practices. On the contrary, they were generally aware of those teachings and practices, but no longer found them credible or practical as guides for their own thinking and behavior.
Over six years ago, when the sexual-abuse scandal hit the Catholic priesthood with such violent force, many Catholic lay people, according to polls taken at the time, were more appalled by the cover-up perpetrated by some of the bishops than by the predatory behavior of the offending priests.
As a result, the credibility of the episcopate itself suffered a severe blow. And not only the episcopate, but the papacy as well. Notwithstanding the widespread respect that John Paul II enjoyed before his death in 2005, history may yet fault him for his failure to deal quickly and effectively with this crisis — perhaps the greatest since the Protestant Reformation.
There may be one other canard that the Pew survey will help put to rest, namely, the assumption that younger Catholics are more traditional in their spirituality, drawn as they are to the devotions and religious practices that were hallmarks of 1940s and 1950s Catholicism.
The Pew study found that young adults, ages 18-29, are much more likely than those age 70 and older to say that they are not affiliated with any particular religion (25 percent to 8 percent). If these generational patterns persist, the survey suggests, recent declines in the numbers of native-born Catholics and growth in the size of the unaffiliated population are likely to continue.
Whatever the case, the situation calls for bolder and more creative pastoral approaches than have heretofore been proposed or tried.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.