Crisis of Faith

The Catholic Church in America has been in crisis for decades. This is an uncomfortable truth, but one that will not change unless we face it.

Modern Catholics are experiencing a crisis of faith. Materialism and secularism have been eroding the faith of Catholics for decades. The result is most starkly recognized in the research that shows only 31 percent of Catholics in the United States believe Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. Here are a few more statistics that reveal the depth and breadth of this crisis:

  • More than fifty million Catholics in the United States have stopped practicing their faith over the past thirty years.
  • More than half of all American adults raised Catholic (52 percent) have now left the Church. Only 8 percent say returning to the Catholic Church is something they could imagine doing.
  • We have closed a Catholic parish in the United States every three days for the past thirty-five years.
  • We have closed a Catholic school in the United States every four days for the past twenty-five years.
  • Over the past fifty years we have lost a Catholic priest from active service every day in the United States due to retirement, death, men who have left the priesthood voluntarily or those who have been removed.
  • In 1973 there were 58,000 priests in the United States, the average age was thirty-five, and only 10 percent were over the age of sixty-five. Today there are 37,000 priests in the United States, the average age is sixty-four, and 40 percent are over the age of sixty-five.
  • 3,500 parishes in the United States are now without a resident priest.

These numbers are real, but statistics are cold. Behind each of these vast numbers is a human being, and a soul, and a family, often a marriage, and more often than that, parents who suffer wondering why their child no longer goes to Mass and what went wrong along the way.

We have all been impacted personally by these statistics. But there is another aspect for us to keep in mind as we chart a path forward. I tried to capture it more than twenty years ago, in the opening line of the first edition of Rediscover Catholicism: “The Church (like so many other things in life) is not so much something we inherit from generations past, or take over from our predecessors, as it is something on loan to us from future generations.”

The Catholic Church is on loan to us from future generations. The negative trends above are only part of the picture. Wherever the Catholic faith is authentically lived out, the genius of Catholicism still has the power to attract people of all ages and help them make sense of life.

In 2014 in the United States there were 708,979 infant baptisms, 44,544 adult baptisms, and 70,117 adults received into Full Communion. Even more encouraging is the data which shows that 43 percent of people who consider themselves cultural-Catholics (Catholic but not practicing) say they can imagine returning to the Catholic Church in the future.

We need to forge the kind of future that will bring them back.

It is easy to be critical, and it is even easier to become overwhelmed by the challenges we face. But we all have some responsibility here, and we all have a role to play in renewing the Church in our place and time. In order to reflect upon our role and responsibility, I invite you to reflect upon this question: There are 1.2 billion Catholics on the planet: What would the Catholic Church be like if we multiplied your life by 1.2 billion?

Catholicism has not lost its power to transform lives. Yet, people are abandoning Catholicism at an alarming rate in Europe and the United States, and this is not a new trend. And so, I raise the question: What are we going to do about it?

The key to answering that question is one piece of data that is more significant than all the data we have reflected upon collectively so far.

(Sources: Pew Research Center, USCCB, CARA, The Dynamic Catholic Institute, and U.S. Census Bureau. Where data is not current year, the year shown is the latest data available).

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