Recent surveys and trends are validating what many of us have been anecdotally observing for a while now, namely, that the newer generations (those ages 50 and down) born to Catholic families are choosing not to remain in the Church and not to practice the Faith.
The numbers of those exiting grow larger the further one moves down the age scale to the point where, these days, a large body of grade schoolers and high schoolers have emerged who have little knowledge of Christianity at all, or if they are aware of it, they are not baptized into it and are not raised in it.
When one considers that most of their parents and grandparents were born and raised as Catholics, this gives real reason for pause and even alarm. What is happening? How does the Faith simply stop being handed on, or lived out, or believed in?
Theories abound on the reasons why. My sense is that it’s a perfect storm of several forces that are hitting us at once. I will offer only a few of them here.
- Contemporary cultural faith in “progress” itself. Many of us in the Western World have a deeply ingrained sense of superiority over earlier generations, especially those who lived centuries ago. Simply because concepts of reality were widely taught and believed in the 4th Century, does not mean they are automatically true today. We have now matured beyond those times, so we think. We believe that human nature, all on its own, á la Darwin, naturally evolves to a higher, better, more refined state; we will continually be improving. Therefore, we have outgrown the need for Christianity.
- Contemporary cultural faith in science itself. All around us are countless examples of benefits that have come to us because of science: clean water, advanced medicines that bring physical cures, engineering that stops floods, climate controlled buildings, and instant communication methods just to name a few. We rarely question all of the negative side effects of these things and therefore conclude that science and technology (not religion or God) are the most important bearers of goodness in our world, and will solve any problem if given the chance.
- Exaggerated importance of the material. Many of us are quite concerned about health, athletics, leisure and earthly pursuits that, while good, are over-emphasized and hold all of our attention. We pursue the things that pass away and shun the things that endure.
- Decadence. Never before in the history of the world has there been a nation or culture that has lived as lavishly as we do, with so many material needs provided for with such little effort expended, and in such abundance. Who needs faith?
- The information age and access to competing worldviews. Many of us know about the teachings of Christianity. And we also all have instant access to a plethora of other competing ideologies, philosophies, and truth claims. This plants deep in our minds the one binding notion we all commonly cling to today: that no one person or system can have all the answers. Therefore, we pick and choose and construct our own ideological guides for reality. This is fundamentally incompatible with the notion of received truth in Christianity.
- The end of ethnic Catholicism. Once upon a time, the ethnic traditions of Catholic countries and peoples naturally raised children in the Faith, and the Church was carried down through bloodlines, and in the DNA of one’s culture, be it Polish, Italian, Irish, Mexican, etc. As old ethnic identities were absorbed into the stream of common, American culture (or Western Culture beyond the borders of the U.S.), the Catholicism of old was washed away with it. A new, American Catholic culture has yet to emerge in replacement. Now the culture destroys faith rather than preserving it.
- The crisis of Faith within the Church herself. All of the above forces have led to a systematic weakening of our core doctrines about salvation and the necessity of grace, the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and the essential power of the Sacraments. We do not know what it means to believe anymore. We think everyone is automatically going to Heaven because God is too nice to punish. By adopting such thinking in a new, modern version of Christianity, we have eliminated our reason for existing as a Church in the first place, and we are dying out accordingly.
What are we to do about it all? On one level, most of this is out of our personal control. Granted, it is helpful to recognize the distorted tendencies in our own thinking and daily behaviors, and to fight against them with all the tools of the Faith that we have at our disposal in the Church. We can sharpen our sense of witness to a wider world that demands authenticity.
But the rest of the solution is going to come from a collision of forces that will happen beyond us and on the broader planes of cultural and ecclesial shifts. On one hand, the level of sadness and misery that comes from clinging to the false realities outlined above will continue to grow to the point where there will be a cultural rebellion against them. We will eventually see, as things come apart, that progress is not inevitable, that human nature is always fallen without grace, that science brings death as much as it brings life, that wealth is empty, that health is fleeting, and that truth really is absolute.
And, at some point, our theological confusion will be corrected when from the rubble will emerge a (smaller?) Church, made up of people who have survived the great tribulation we are passing through because they clung without compromise to the essence of the Faith.
One of these days, our leadership in the Church will realize that a new apologetics is needed that can directly challenge all the mistaken notions I described above. The truth is that we have answered all those challenges before; none of them are new. Therefore we can (and we must, from the top down) answer them again.
The solution is therefore a mix of personal conversion, and large-scale social reshaping. Both of those realities are the fruits of grace at work in our hearts. Both are promised to us by Christ who taught that, in Him, the Church will always prevail.