Catholic Identity and the New Evangelization

January 25, 2011

Last year Trinity College in Hartford, CT released a study of a nationwide survey, based on 54,000 telephone interviews, in which people were asked to identify their religious affiliation. The results are interesting for us Catholics, to say the least. While the total number of Roman Catholics within the United States has remained basically the same since 1990 – about one quarter of the population – the number of people in New England who identify themselves as Roman Catholic has dropped considerably. The study, found that the six-state region is now 36 percent Catholic, down from 50 percent in 1990. According to an article in the Boston Globe, “In Massachusetts, the decline is particularly striking – in 1990, Catholics made up a majority of the state, with 54 percent of the residents, but in 2008, the Catholic population was 39 percent. At the same time, the percentage of the state’s residents who say they have no religious affiliation rose sharply, from 8 percent to 22 percent.” As such, the vast majority of new Catholics are located in the southern and southwestern parts of the United States and are mainly new immigrants from Central and South America. We are seeing then a major shift in the Catholic population from the northeast – north central states and cities of Boston, New York, and Chicago consisting of Catholics of European descent – Irish, Italian, Polish, etc. – to a Church whose population centers are now in Texas, Florida, and California, markedly Hispanic in language and culture. The study did not ask people why they ceased identifying themselves as Catholics or why they had dropped any religious affiliation whatsoever. It simply collected data. Of course, that leaves a bit of an information vacuum for those of us who are still Catholic to consider. So, allow me to offer a few thoughts on the matter, not just in terms of the “why?” but also the “how?” – How do we respond to this in a positive way? How do we pick-up the challenge that this offers us.

The late John Paul II early in his papacy called for a “new evangelization,” an evangelization not to mission countries but right in the heart of Catholic Europe and North America. John Paul noted the many challenges the Church faced in the modern world: the marginalization of religion as a value in societies that were becoming more and more secular if not hostile to religion, the declining population within Europe, the rise of Islam and the immigration of Muslims to many countries in Europe, to name a few. These are challenges from mainly outside the Church that we must continue to face as it serves its mission in the world. But, he also rightly recognized a challenge from inside the Church as well. The Holy Father drew our attention to the fact that while many in the first world – the United States and its European allies – were nominally Catholic, they were not in fact spiritually or existentially Catholic. People who never darkened the door of a church except for an occasional funeral, wedding, or holiday would still self-identify themselves as Catholics. He issued a challenge to the church to begin to evangelize itself, to begin to recruit to the life of the church not just the person who has never believed or been baptized but also the person who has been baptized and, yet, has no belief – the unchurched Catholic. He warned that if we did not address this challenge we would soon see a marked decrease in the size of our Church and the loss of many Catholics to other things. But it is important to remember that Pope John Paul’s call was not just about numbers. The new evangelization was about salvation, the salvation of souls, ours and those of many others. If we believe that the Christian message is mostly fully and perfectly professed within the Catholic Church then we need to preach that truth in our words and deeds to all we meet so that they, too, might have a “new life.”

While some picked up the challenge of the new evangelization, most did not. The decline in the number of Catholics in New England over the last twenty years is not just because of fallout from the clergy abuse crisis or church closings. While those sad chapters in our church’s life certainly led to or hastened the departure of many from our pews, the fact is that many were already leaving or not coming prior to 2002. I think that the main reason for this is that we had become a church of complacency. Through the late 19th and then into the majority of 20th century, the Catholic Church in the United States had seen a huge growth in its numbers and political power. As time went on, we came to believe that this would continue without doing anything other than we had in the past. Catholic Boston would always be Catholic Boston. The church would provide the sacraments and religious schools and education and people would keep coming. Clearly this did not happen. We failed to recognize and respond to major shifts in our culture: secularization, the sexual revolution, the liberalization of public education, the increased affluence and education of Catholics, the movement of Catholics from city parishes to the suburbs, and the major upheaval within the church as a result of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Now we are left with a church at present whose numbers are in decline, whose parishes are being closed, and who in the eyes of many seems to be less and less relevant within the general conversation of our common life. We are left with a church in which members feel it is allowable to say that while “I believe in the sanctity of human life, I will not vote to pass a law to do so.” We are left with a church in which many believe that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is just symbolic. (Wow! To quote Flannery O’Connor, “Well, if it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.’) We are left with a church where many send their children to religious education in order to “get the sacraments” but never come to Mass on the weekend. It seems pretty bleak.

But we are also left with a church that is the Church of the Body of Christ founded on the Apostles endowed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Church in which we believe is a beacon of salvation and hope to a world that has become more and more secularized, divided, lonely and lost. I think we need to pick up the challenge of the new evangelization, to evangelize ourselves so that we may grow in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ in order to spread that good news to others. I read the numbers and see what is happening in the church but I am not filled with despair. I see many reasons for hope that we can turn this decline in the United States around: the good faith of the people and families that are still in our churches, the many young people who are actively working on our college campuses doing the work of the “new evangelization” right now, the powerful witness of the social works of the Church in our hospitals, homeless shelters, food pantries, and St. Vincent de Paul societies, and the continuous and clear voice of the Church’s social teaching on the sanctity of all human life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. I see hope in the lively faith of the new immigrants to our country who bring their culture, history, and language, adding them to the many voices that already make up the Catholic Church in the United States. I also take great solace in the words of Jesus Himself, “and behold, I am with you always until the end of time.” That promise itself gives us more than enough hope to keep spreading the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord to God’s praise and glory forever and ever.