A pressing problem facing the Catholic Church — as well as every Christian church — is how to stay vibrant and meaningful in an age of unbelief. This seems like a relatively recent phenomenon, but the reality has been affecting us for quite some time.
The Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University has a very handy FAQ page, listing lots of statistics about the Catholic Church since 1970. To note a few rather depressing numbers, in 1970, there were about 59,000 priests serving some 48 million Catholics.
That was one priest for every 800 Catholics, a good ratio for us.
Today, there are about 36,000 priests serving 68 million Catholics — which is, well, you can do the math. Ugh. The number of parishes has declined in that same time frame from 18,000 to 17,000, and we are baptizing about half as many infants, from 1 million to about 600,000. At least the number of funerals has declined. That has to be good, right?
So what happened?
I suppose that there are many reasons this decline happened. A popular explanation in the church is that our religious formation became "fuzzy" after Vatican II (a Council of the Church from 1962-65), and after that, many people felt no qualms about leaving the church. There may be some truth to that. If people are not well educated into the meaning of their faith, or if they have only vague notions about their faith, they feel no commitment.
But changes in culture — especially the understanding of human sexuality and the role of women — has us stymied. The culture simply believes that any institution that has restrictive notions about sexuality and women’s roles does not have much to say to them. People feel liberated to engage in any sexual relation that is mutually agreed upon, with consent being the only caution. And outside of linemen in the NFL, women can do anything. A church that cautions against both of these things is old hat. Stir in the sex abuse scandal, and the recipe for disaster is complete. What to do?
As a church, we must do better to address the issues revolving around the sex-abuse crisis. That will be hard to do. We cannot erase our past, and we have almost zero trust going forward. All we can do is continue to pursue honesty about our past and vigilance for the future. The rest is in God’s hands.
But somehow, we have to convince people that believing and living out a faith makes sense. Today, the absence of faith seems to have no cost. No one is angry at you for skipping church. Sunday morning is free time, with a football game to look forward to or a chance to do some shopping. No one needs church (barring the unlikely eternal damnation).
Why believe? That is the question we need to answer. Faith gives meaning to life. A person without faith has to sort out for himself what life is about, where it is going and how to get there. A person of faith knows that life finds meaning in God. Living faith is not about what you can do sexually or who gets to make the rules, though these are important.
No, a life of faith is about understanding the reason I exist and my destiny in God. Going to church is not to fulfill a rule but to encounter the living God. A walk in the woods can be a great place to meet God, but meeting him in the community of believers is the place where Jesus said he would be. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)
I don’t know if we can change the culture to renew the faith. But we are called to try.