In Layman's Terms - Bob Sullivan

The decline of Christianity in America

Apologetics by Bob Sullivan  

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) is a Catholic research center which conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. They began their work in 1964 and published their first report in 1965. The timing of this report was providential because it captured some important national statistics right before the sexual revolution was able to fix its icy grip on the American culture, the Church, and the family.

Through CARA’s annual reports, we can chart a number of statistics over the course of more than five decades. These statistics show us that although the overall Catholic population of the United States has nearly doubled, there are fewer Catholics actively practicing the faith today than there were in 1965.

There were approximately 46 million Catholics in the United States in 1965, and 55% of them were attending Sunday Mass on a weekly basis. Today, we have a whopping 73 million Catholics in our country, but only 23% of us attend Mass on a weekly basis. This equates to 8 million fewer Catholics at Mass each Sunday than were there in 1965.

One may expect that nearly twice as many Catholics in the United States would mean more churches, more schools, more priests, more students, more marriages, more baptisms and more of all other things Catholic. Unfortunately, these expectations are wrong on every account.

We have fewer churches than we did in 1965, but we have more churches without a resident pastor. This is because we have fewer priests as well. In 1965, there were 58,632 priests in the U.S. Today we have only 37,181 priests. Religious sisters have suffered even greater losses. There were 179,954 nuns in the U.S. in 1965, but we only have 45,605 today.

If you go through CARA’s statistics, you will see one depressing decline after another. You will also come to the only reasonable conclusion at which a person can arrive: Borrowing a phrase from songwriter Paul Simon, the Catholic Church is slip-sliding away, right before our eyes.

Ah, but we live in the Diocese of Lincoln, right? We are orthodox. We still have priests and nuns teaching in our Catholic schools (which is not the case in many Catholic schools). We make national headlines in Catholic newspapers because of unusually high numbers of ordinations to the priesthood in recent years.

While all these things are true, we should not be patting ourselves on the back.

With 40,000 more Catholics today than we had in 1965, we should see more Catholic schools, more Catholic churches, more baptisms, marriages, etc… While we are not seeing the same declines as the rest of the country, we are seeing nearly zero growth in some areas, and declines in others. This should concern us. We simply started out healthier than most dioceses and now we are declining at a slower rate. To compare ourselves to a declining national average is to set our standard unacceptably low.

One of the problems we see nationally is that too many Catholics are not only letting their faith lapse; we are intentionally distancing ourselves from the faith. Researchers such as Sherry Weddell tell us that about 85% of Catholics who leave the faith do so by their 25th birthday. According to CARA, there are now 30 million former Catholics in the U.S. A recent study from St. Mary’s Press found that the average age for a Catholic to leave the faith is 13. Our children are abandoning their faith before they are old enough to drive. I don’t think it is any coincidence that many Catholics receive the sacrament of confirmation at about age 13. I’m not suggesting that confirmation causes them to leave their faith; I am suggesting that many people (parents and children) see confirmation as a sort of “graduation” from the practice of the faith, relieving them from things like receiving the sacraments, praying, learning about the faith, etc…  We are sacramentalized, not evangelized (to borrow Al Kresta’s phrase).

I get this from Sherry Weddell, Matthew Kelly and other researchers and authors who have identified this through their work with parishes and dioceses. Some researchers estimate that 50% of baptized Catholics do not go on to receive the sacrament of confirmation and that 50% of those confirmed stop practicing the faith shortly thereafter.

The question for us is: If we can’t even inspire Catholics to stay Catholic, how can we inspire non-Catholics to seriously consider converting to Catholicism? The old way of passing down the faith is simply no longer effective, and it hasn’t been effective for over 50 years.

We need to develop a culture in which we can talk about our faith as easily as we can talk about sports, music and the weather. As much as I enjoy dialoging with non-Catholics, I think the best use of our resources is to focus on keeping Catholics Catholic. I say this because of the many non-Catholics with whom I speak, a large portion grew up Catholic but they never understood the faith. We need to have conversations about the faith before they walk away from the faith. These conversations will deepen our knowledge and provide opportunities for inspiration.

The best time to have these conversations with each other and especially with our children is when they are young. If the average age of exit is age 13, these conversations need to start early and take place often. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It is better to keep the faith than to lose it and try to get it back again.

We may have grown up believing that we should not discuss politics or religion around the dinner table, but today we must discuss religion around the dinner table. Better yet, we must discuss faith.

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