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American Catholicism: Living on the Edge of a Demographic Precipice PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 29 December 2010 08:17

I've said it before but since we're on the topic of numbers, I thought I'd point out again that American Catholics are standing on the edge of a demographic precipice.

1) The 15% of US cradle Catholics who leave and eventually become Protestants are motivated differently from those Catholics who simply become "unaffiliated" or none". Catholics-on-their-way-to-becoming Protestants tend to spend some years in "none" land before joining a Protestant congregation. They tend to be more religious altogether and are spiritually seeking. They become Protestant overwhelmingly because they have found a faith they like better. If we reached out to them creatively while they were in "none" land, many would return, but the quality of life in our parishes has to improve for them to stay.

2) "None" doesn't necessarily mean atheist or non-believer in the dictionary sense. A large number of "Nones" (millions) are religious, pray on a regular basis, move in and out of our congregations, even formally belong to congregations. So many don't even fall into the category of "unchurched" exactly. They just don't claim a particular "religious identity".

Religious "nones" or "religious unaffiliated" as Pew puts it are the closest group to Catholics in terms of their beliefs and practices. That's because so many are Catholics. But 1/3 say they are open to having a faith if they found "the right one".

3) Religious change is overwhelmingly a young adult thing. The majority of Americans leave the faith of their childhood (any faith) by age 23. 70% of Catholics who got directly to "unaffiliated" do so by age 23

But the majority of Catholics who become Protestant leave a bit later, and after a few years of wandering in "none" land, enter Protestantism in their mid 20's to mid 30's). Because Protestants reach out and evangelize, they are picking off large numbers of searching, formerly "none", Catholics.

4) We are standing on the edge of a demographic precipice.

I'm prepping for a parish staff day and was looking at the figures they gave me last night.  23% drop in attendance over the past 5 years.  Check.  Big drop in marriage and baptisms.  Check.  Downturn in RCIA.  (Per figures released by the US Catholic bishops, the number of adults entering the US Church through RCIA has dropped 33% since 2001. See my series: Whither RCIA? for a detailed look at the numbers around that.) Check.  Fewer young adults so candidates and catechumens tend to be middle-aged.  Check.  Their local issues were looking so familiar.

I checked these figures with CARA last year: An average of their findings shows that only 13% of 18 - 29 year old Millennials attend Mass on a weekly basis while only 15% of Gen Xers attend weekly. That covers all adults 18 - 45 or so right now. Gen Xers and Millennials already make up 50% of the Catholic adult population. 

That means that if this does not change, In 10 years it will cease to matter that we have a priest shortage because the Builders will be largely gone, the Boomers retiring, and our institutions - parishes, schools, etc. will be emptying at an incredible rate. Sacramental practice will plummet at a speed that the will make the post Vatican II era look good and the financial support for all of this will be vanishing like Bernie Madoff's investment portfolio. The American Church will be de facto majority Hispanic because their young adults aren't leaving as fast (although as this new study and the Pew foundation both found, as Hispanics assimilate, they begin to behave more like Anglos. "Latinos have tripled their proportion among Nones from 1990-2008 from 4% to 12%". says this new study. )

Hopefully not even Catholics will be able to retain their dread of evangelization in such a situation. 

As one exceedingly bright and theologically literate Millennial Catholic with a love for the Traditional liturgy *and* a passion for evangelization asked me last year, "My generation of Catholics isn't prepared to evangelize my generation, are they?"

Bingo. Because the vast majority of the small percentage of millennial Catholics who practice are so caught up in intra-ecclesial struggles and a profoundly different world view than most of their contemporaries that they just find them annoying. As I noted last year in Is the Millennial Generation Pre-Moral

"One important caveat: not every American twenty-something is like this. In fact, many emerging adults have been reared into a world vastly different than the self-esteem culture. Some gravitate, instead, toward an Augustinian perception of the self and find their own contemporaries annoying." Which sounds like a pretty accurate description of the majority of the small minority (10 - 15%) of millennials who actually attend Mass on a weekly basis."

One brave, honest, and funny commenter on our blog put it this way:

"Because I am a complete cow, all I can think is how horrified I am by these people. Not that it's their fault - it's obviously about the way they were raised. But still, this is a generation I have (with a few exceptions) little empathy for."

And another on Mark Shea's link to my piece put it:

"I'm 23 and I'd hardly call myself immune from the rampant idiocies of my generation, but this may actually explain why I find so many of my peers illogical and infuriating when it comes to moral issues. It's like we are speaking entirely different languages."

The problem is, as Cardinal George pointed out a few years ago. "We will never evangelize what we do not love."

Distain is not discernment. And evangelism and mission outward is not Protestant. Protestant evangelization and missions that we are familiar with did not exist for the first three centuries of Protestant history. They are 19th century innovations. Before that, evangelism and missionary endeavors were all Catholic all the time.

Will we wake up in time? Will we recover our Catholic heritage of evangelization? Will we be willing and able to cross the immense cultural divide between the majority of our adult population and the current "Catholic identity insider culture" in order to reach them with the Good News?

Cause right now four times as many American adults leave the Church as enter it.

Or will we simply acquiesce in the loss of 80% of two generations of Catholics? And their children. And grand-children.

The series continues with the state of Global Catholicism: 2010.

 

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