Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Pew Forum survey illustrates Catholic challenges.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has just released the results of a major survey of what it calls "the U.S. religious landscape," providing detailed data on the changing face of American religion and offering copious analysis of trends in religious identification. The text of the report is available on the Pew Forum website, together with various maps, pie charts and graphs that illustrate the findings. Most major dailies also have stories in today's editions summarizing the report's findings - see, for example, these stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times.

The Pew Forum report provides much for American Catholics to think and pray about, offering a snapshot of some of the pastoral challenges facing the Catholic Church in the United States. The Catholic Church remains the largest single denomination in the country - almost twenty-four percent of Americans identify as Catholic - but the report also notes that "Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes," with nearly a third of people who were raised Catholic no longer identifying as such. Nonetheless, the number of Catholics in the United States has increased by twenty million over the last four decades and the percentage of Catholics in the general population has remained relatively stable, thanks in large part to immigration: among immigrants to the United States, Catholics outnumber Protestants by almost two-to-one. According to the Pew Forum, twenty-nine percent of Catholics in the United States are Hispanic, and this percentage will rise in coming decades.

I came away from the Pew Forum report with two questions: Why do a third of people in the United States who were raised Catholic apparently no longer identify as members of the Church? What, if anything, can the Church do to respond to this phenomenon?

Before any attempt to find answers to the above questions, one must admit that the reality behind the statistics is quite complex. The data contained in the Pew Forum report suggest that cradle Catholics who change their religious affiliation divide almost equally into two groups: about half join other religious groups, while half join the ranks of the religiously "unaffiliated." The Pew Forum reports states that about sixteen percent of Americans now claim to be "unaffiliated," though most of these do not identify themselves as nonreligious agnostics or atheists but describe their religious affiliation in ambiguous terms as "nothing in particular." Given the available data, it is difficult to generalize about what leads people to adopt "nothing in particular" as their religious identity.

On another level, Catholicism has a particularity and uniqueness that goes beyond mere "affiliation." I've known plenty of people who identify as Catholic but go to Mass only for major solemnities ("Christmas and Easter Catholics") or for special events such as baptisms, weddings and funerals (liturgies where people are "hatched, matched and dispatched"). It's unclear to me how the Pew Forum's researchers would count these Catholics, since the survey doesn't touch on levels of religious practice but looks merely at religious self-identification. At the same time, particular aspects of Catholic doctrine - such as the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays - help to create a distinction between 'practicing' and 'non-practicing' church members that seems less apparent in some other religious denominations. The Washington Post article on the Pew Forum report includes a comment along these lines from sociologist Mary Gautier of Georgetown's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate; as Gautier puts it, "If you're a Methodist and you only go to church occasionally, you don't consider yourself no longer practicing, but Catholics tend to do that."

Being Catholic is - or at least should be - a unique experience. That said, the Catholic Church in the United States shares with other denominations the challenge of holding on to its faithful in a pluralistic religious marketplace. There isn't any single magic bullet or simple strategy that we can turn to. However, one question that needs to be asked is whether or not Catholic parishes meet the spiritual needs of their parishioners. The Washington Post article cited above quotes a diocesan official in Virginia to the effect that many Catholics who have difficulty developing a "mature" faith in the Church drift to Protestant denominations where they feel a more tangible bond with Jesus Christ. A related point could be made of Catholics who "disaffiliate" by dropping out of religious practice altogether; I believe that many do so in part because their experience of parish life has not offered them a compelling reason to keep going to church. Most Catholics encounter the Church in only one place - their parish. If Catholics can't find God in their parish, they'll either look for God somewhere else - perhaps in another parish, or in a church of another denomination - or else they'll simply stop looking for God.

Making Catholic parishes into places that truly nurture the spiritual life of all parishioners takes hard work - it takes commitment, creativity and hard work on the part of clergy and laypeople. It also take a recognition that people at different stages of life have different needs; a spiritual development program designed for high school students probably won't be a good fit for twenty-something adults, and a prayer group made up of senior citizens may not draw new members from parents with young children. I could say a lot more about this - noting, for example, the challenge of maintaining a sense of close fellowship in larger parishes - but I think I've made my point. I hope the Pew Forum report is taken seriously by dioceses and individual parishes, and I hope that the discussions that follow are fruitful and productive. AMDG.


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