Why is the American Church Shrinking?
American Catholics are becoming increasingly alarmed as once-overflowing parishes find their pews emptying, their pulpits shared with other churches, and their college-aged kids abandoning the faith in unprecedented numbers. Why is this happening? And what can we do about it?
You don’t renew populations on a twenty percent reproductive rate.
Well, the primary strategy that the American Church has been pursuing for renewing Catholic populations over time is sexual reproduction. Since nearly all of the various Orders of the Church admit only celibates, saving the Church from decline would appear to land entirely in the lap of the pew-sitter. Are you married? Then why don’t you have eighteen kids? Don’t you care? Of course, even if you have all those kids and then send them to college, we hear over and again that infernal percentage—eighty percent—who abandon the Faith during their college years. You don’t renew populations on a twenty percent sexual reproductive rate.
So, what is to be done? Well, whenever major problems occur, Socrates said we should return to first principles, which for us, is our King’s direct commands and teaching. In his great commission to his Apostles, Jesus tasked them to take the gospel into every corner of the earth and preach it to every creature—not just children. Notice further how on the day of Pentecost thousands of Jewish adults converted to the Faith as St. Peter told them what it cost God to offer them salvation. Moreover, consider how growth occurs in nature. Children don’t reproduce. Adolescents don’t reproduce. Adults reproduce. Right, you might say, and that’s the problem: American Catholics need more sex!
The American Church has shifted to a triage religious culture, desperately trying to stem the bleeding before the patient succumbs.
Well, maybe they do. But perhaps we are failing to grasp the kind of reproduction needed here: spiritual reproduction. As the Apostles of Jesus spread the Gospel, they converted adults. When was the last time you saw an RCIA class of twenty people in your parish? How about fifty? How about thousands, like on that first Pentecost? And of those who come into RCIA, how many are there just because they are marrying a Catholic and disappear with their cradle Catholic spouse as soon as the wedding is over? Let’s face it: the American Church is doing a dismal job of adult spiritual replication. We’ve shifted to a triage religious culture, desperately trying to stem the bleeding before the patient succumbs.
But does that retreating posture sound right to you? Is the Church supposed to merely survive until the King returns and those remaining—five of us here, eight of us there—emerge from our holes and say, “Whew, we made it!” Hmm . . . I don’t think so. Jesus and St. Paul offered a very different vision. St. Paul said that we are an army—in theology we call the Church in the world The Church Militant. St. Paul explained that we are at war not with our human neighbors but with the demonic who seek to maintain their ideological and spiritual dominion over the human race. Our weapons are accordingly spiritual weapons designed to engage our demonic enemy. The armor of God consists of the cardinal and theological virtues. Our shield is our faith. Our sword is the living Word of God in every sense that brings to mind.
As our King sees it, the Incarnation was D-Day. Now he expects us to advance to the demonic Berlin.
Now, St. Paul thrice says in his sixth chapter of Ephesians that we ought to stand against the enemy attack. Perhaps that has given us the impression that our job is simply not to fall down. Hold the line. Stand firm. We don’t have to advance. But then St. Paul added that our feet were to be shod with shoes prepared to spread the gospel of peace, that very gospel that Jesus had told his apostles to take into all the world. Jesus went even further in his rebuttal to this defensive view of the Church: he promised St. Peter that he would build his Church and that not even the gates of hell would be able to prevail against it. Notice that Jesus did not say that the Church would merely withstand the enemy attack. No. He said that hell’s gates couldn’t stop the Church’s attack. As Jesus envisaged it, the demons would be chased all the way back to their fortified city—hell—and the Church would lay siege, smashing in the gates of that dark city once and for all. Not defensive. Full scale offense. As our King sees it, the Incarnation was D-Day. Now he expects us to advance to the demonic Berlin.
Without the use of the physical sword and against stiff opposition, the Church prevailed against the pagan gods and converted the Roman Empire.
When we look to our history that’s what we see, too. The pagan Romans tried for centuries to blot out the Christians, but in the end the city of Rome herself had fully seventy sets of catacombs, some with miles of Christian tombs cut into the earth. Rome—the imperial pagan capital—was overwhelmed with Christians. Without the use of the physical sword and against stiff opposition, the Church prevailed against the pagan gods and converted the Empire. Then the barbarians came. Did they wipe out the Church? Hardly. Over the next few centuries, they all ended up converting too! What about those blood thirsty Vikings with their war gods Thor, Odin, and Freyja? They assaulted the coastal cities of northern Europe and killed and enslaved thousands of monks and nuns, as well as tens of thousands of Christians. Yet even they converted to the Faith, for Normandy (which was settled by the Vikings) became thoroughly Christian. And those that settled in Eastern England and Scotland? How many pagan temples to the old gods do you find there? None. All Christians. But it didn’t stop there, did it? No, because it wasn’t long before the Faith drew converts from within the Scandinavian home countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden too, until all that remained of the old gods were burial mounds and runestones. But it didn’t stop there either, for as the Europeans surged into the new world hungry for blood and gold, the Church came too, ministering to and converting the native peoples weary of human sacrificial religions. And then as a very Protestant and English United States raised a wary eyebrow, Catholic immigrants from places like Ireland and Italy, as well as many other places poured into this country. Even now, while we reasonably debate the merits of legal and illegal immigration from South of the border, you might have noticed that an awful lot of Spanish-speaking Catholics have been showing up.
So, apparently, as the King sees it, the Church is supposed to be a force to be reckoned with, a firestorm of love that conveys God’s grace to the world with such power that people fall to their knees in thanksgiving and the desire for baptism. And yet, here we are wondering what is happening as our American churches empty. The answer should now be obvious: we aren’t converting adults any longer. That is the problem.
While there are many quick fixes and sales school gimmicks currently appearing on the Catholic “market,” the only genuine way to birth new adults into the faith is through spiritual reproduction. Remember: children cannot bear young. Only mature adults can bear and rear the young. So, how does one become spiritually mature? How does spiritual growth actually work?
St. John offered us a glimpse of how spiritual growth functions by dividing it into three stages. In the first stage—spiritual children—the newbies are awestruck that God loves them and forgives them their sins. In the second stage—spiritual young men—our fledglings have left the nest because they have fed deeply on the Word of God and are now so strong that the demons cannot overcome them. Why? Because they have fully established the divine armor of intellectual, moral, and theological virtue. They have accordingly defeated the devil and his power—sin—in their lives. Can you say that about yourself?
But that second stage is only preparatory for the final stage: spiritual fathers and mothers. Parents replicate themselves into the world. St. John says that spiritual replicators are people who “know the one who is from the beginning.” In other words, they know God as he is in himself: an eternal community of reciprocally loving divine persons perfectly embodying the truth, the good, and the beautiful. And they have modelled their own lives and their material gifts according to this divine pattern—creating and entering into human communities of love—just as God is himself a perfect love community. In fulfilling the greatest commandment, they cannot but see God’s love spill over into their fulfilling the second greatest. Love always begets love. The divine love thus pours through them into the world to their neighbors who see radiantly human lovers of all that is good and noble in the world, for when God makes the saint, he does not unmake the man. The spiritual parent draws unbelievers toward the faith because his love is magnetic. The spiritual parent encourages, nurtures, and builds up his fellow believers in the first two stages of spiritual growth, using his gifts to bring them, too, to the full stature of human enrichment in Christ. Then, just like in human generation, the spiritual parent becomes a grandparent, watching the ones he has cared for become spiritual parents themselves. That is spiritual reproduction.
If you don’t see adult converts in your parish, the reason is simple: the people in your parish aren’t spiritual parents.
So, if you don’t see adult converts in your parish, the reason is simple: the people in your parish aren’t spiritual parents. They lack the spiritual maturity needed to replicate themselves in the lives of the people around them. Maybe they haven’t even gotten to the young man stage! St. Paul worried about this problem when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church, chiding them because they could barely handle spiritual milk, let alone the rich theological meat that they needed to grow. The result was a church consumed with vice and infighting rather than the love that ought to define us, the love that attracts unbelievers to who we are. St. Paul penned 1 Corinthians 13—that wonder of a chapter on love—to that infantile church! Apparently, 1 Corinthians 13 is milk, because that’s all that they could handle, the basics: can’t you just learn to love one another as God loves each one of you? By the time St. Paul wrote his second letter to Corinth, things had begun to improve.
So, how are we doing? Or, let’s put it to ourselves directly: how are you doing? How am I doing? Are we becoming the sorts of people so filled with the love of God that people around us are drawn in? Are we replicating ourselves?
Maybe you will object that replication and conversion is the job of the priest. I mean, what do we pay him for, after all? This objection gets everything backwards. Your priest is nothing but a chef. That’s right. According to St. Paul’s explanation of the role of the clergy in Ephesians 4:11-16, your priest is a chef and a builder. Let’s look closely at what St. Paul says:
And He gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of people, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, that is, Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
So, according to St. Paul, your bishop and priest are not responsible for the work of the ministry. Your priest isn’t your minister; you are! He is supposed to be feeding you as your spiritual chef, “equipping” you, both sacramentally and intellectually/morally. Sacraments and teaching, sacraments and teaching, sacraments and teaching. That is the apostolic mission. They feed us, they build us up to full maturity, so that we the people—the “saints” in Ephesians 4—might perform the work of ministry, replicating ourselves through love.
The saints’ works of ministry are all the ways in which the Holy Spirit has gifted each one of us with different talents and capabilities that we can use to love one another both within and without the Church. Christ is the Head. We are his Body. We are Christ’s hands. We are his eyes. We are his feet. If we don’t grow up and use our talents in love, then Christ cannot get anywhere, because he has no feet. If we don’t grow up and mature into full spiritual parents, Jesus won’t have lips with which to speak either. Nor will he have hands to reach out to those in need or to heal the sick. The people around us cannot see Jesus unless we become Jesus. We—the pew-sitters—are the ministers, his Body. It is up to us, not the priest, to take the gospel of love to our neighbors by living exemplary lives and speaking the truth in love. When we do that, we grow. When we do that, others grow. When we do that, we fill pews. And when we fill all the pews, then, yes, I guess we will have to remember how to build churches.