March 31, 2006


The Church’s future

What will the Catholic Church in the United States be like in the future?

With the current condition of the Church, that’s a question many people are asking themselves, or perhaps their friends.

We are now well aware of the priest shortage, which is complemented by a huge increase in the number of lay ecclesial ministers.

Polls indicate that Catholics are nearly equally divided politically between Democrats and Republicans. A smaller percentage attends Mass weekly than in the past. Many Catholics dissent from some Catholic teachings, but there seems to be a revival among some of our young Catholics. We could go on, but you get the picture.

Meanwhile, we have become cognizant of the situation of the Church in Western Europe. Even in the strongest Catholic countries like Ireland and Italy, few people now attend Mass regularly. Europe seems to have rejected its Christian roots and is now thoroughly secular. Is that what will happen in the United States, too?

Sociologist Joseph Varacalli takes a look at both our past and possible future in his new book The Catholic Experience in America (Greenwood Press, $55). We Catholics can be proud of our past since we have grown from a very small presence (only 56 congregations in 1776) to the largest church in the country—23 percent of the population. We are firmly in the mainstream now. But did we lose something along the way?

The Catholic presence grew because of large families and through immigration, mainly from Ireland and Germany. The new immigrants met strong opposition and anti-Catholicism from nativists, which forced them into their own neighborhoods—the Catholic ghettos. They started their own schools to teach the truths of our religion to our children. It wasn’t until after World War II, when the G.I. Bill made it possible for Catholic youth to attend college, that they began to leave the ghettos. Today they are firmly in the mainstream. It’s a success story, right?

Varacalli isn’t so sure. He views the assimilation of Catholics into the mainstream as “organizational hari-kari” because Catholics have abandoned their subculture. He says that the secular culture of our society, not the Church, has “an almost uncontested ability to shape the minds and hearts of the younger generations of American Catholics.” Isn’t that what happened in Europe?

Is that going to be our future? Varacalli believes that there are six possibilities for American Catholicism, although three of them seem strongly improbable: dissolution, formal schism from the universal Church, and “retreat to a 1950s style pre-Vatican II Church.” The other three possibilities are maintenance of the present pluralism that now undoubtedly exists; the establishment of an American Church, thus discarding the Church’s traditional beliefs; or, at the opposite end, a return to orthodoxy.

Surely a neo-orthodoxy is devoutly to be desired, but it isn’t the trend. Catholics today are so divided in their pluralistic viewpoints that bishops and priests appear to tread lightly for fear of offending or antagonizing someone. However, if everyone is left to do his or her own thing, we surely have abandoned the Catholic subculture that existed prior to World War II.

A modern phenomenon in the Church is the tendency of Catholics to church-hop, to select the parish where they feel most comfortable because of either the liberal or conservative viewpoint expressed by the pastor. What could better demonstrate the pluralism in our modern Church?

Then there are those Catholics who like their parishes, but distance themselves from the pope and the rest of the magisterium. They want to remain Catholics, but think that some of the Church’s teachings are outmoded or obsolete.

And what do we make of the fact that the percentage of Catholics is greatest in the most liberal states? Massachusetts is the state with the largest percentage of Catholics—46.2—followed by Connecticut with 38 percent. Evidence in those states indicates that their citizens’ viewpoints are closer to those of secular Europeans when it comes to traditional values than they are to the teachings of the Church.

It will require effective leadership, both clerical and lay, for the Church in the United States to become again as vibrant as it once was.

—John F. Fink


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