That was the title that came to mind after reading the report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in America. It was, of course, not the title of the article.
The big and sad news for Catholics was this:
“The percentage of Catholics in the American population has held steady for decades at about 25 percent. But that masks a precipitous decline in native-born Catholics. The proportion has been bolstered by the large influx of Catholic immigrants, mostly from Latin America, the survey found.
“The Catholic Church has lost more adherents than any other group: about one-third of respondents raised Catholic said they no longer identified as such. Based on the data, the survey showed, ‚Äúthis means that roughly 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics.‚Äù”
This raises a lot of questions.
Above all, it’s a sad comment on Catholic education over the last 40 years. In some ways, the surprise is that the decline has not been worse. That’s why the the headline could have been “Despite Not Being Taught, Catholicism Hangs in There.”
Obviously the Catholic Church is by far – by many times over – the biggest religious group in the US, so, in a period of general decline, its losses would, in absolute terms, be bigger in any case. Moreover, the general decline reported among Protestants from two thirds to 51 percent is pretty darn steep. Indeed, it looks to me like a 15 percent drop. Hard to see how that isn’t reflected in some even steeper drops among certain select Protestant denominations (especially since the growing number of evangelicals can’t be accounting for the 15 percent drop).
It is also not clear how much Latino immigration is bolstering Catholic numbers. Obviously, to some extent it is, but it’s also true that a large number of the Catholics who become evangelical Protestants are Latino immigrants. I would be interesting in know how many people become Catholics through the Roman Catholic Initiation for Adults program every year. Last time I checked (some time in the ’90s) it was well over 100,000 people.
Finally, the Catholic Church is easier to leave in the sense that it has much sharper “boarders” in terms of doctrine and practice. It’s hard to leava country that doesn’t have boundaries. What does it mean to leave a “church” in which doctrine is vague and there is no clearly required practice?
This point is really the tip of a larger iceberg of a question: when we say ‚Äúchurch,‚Äù are we really talking about the same thing? Strictly speaking, the Catholic Church doesn‚Äôt call protestant denominations ‚Äúchurches.‚Äù The Catholic Church and Protestant denominations are, in Catholic doctrine, apples and oranges. This sounds like an outrageous view in a Anglophone environment, but – in the big picture – it is the conventional and most popular view of most Christians (ie., over one billion Catholics). Putting it another way, to accept, as the Pew Forum does, as your basic premise that protestant denominations are ‚Äúchurches‚Äù is to take a minority view and impose it on the majority. An interesting procedure for an academic study. In the big picture, though, Protestant denominations are a minority in a world of Catholic and Orthodox churches.
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