“Lies, damned lies and statistics” is how Mark Twain told of his displeasure with statistics. That is how we feel when we hear of another poll about declining religion in America. Catholics and others are feeling the pain of departures and desertions from the pews and the parish rolls, especially as it hits home in our families. At the annual priests’ convocation, Bishop Dennis Sullivan gave out the Oct. 19 Pew Research Center findings to apprise the diocese’s priests. I’ll share some of the discouraging figures. But I’ll offer my amateur Freudian explanation of some of the bad news.
In America, a smaller share of adults identify as Christians in what used to be called a Christian nation. At the same time the number of the famous “nones” (atheists, agnostics or nothing in particular) had grown. In 2007-8, 77 percent called themselves Christian. A decade later it was 65 percent. Those who saw themselves in the same period as religiously unaffiliated, however, went from 17 percent to 26 percent. We Catholics are the largest single denomination, about 20 percent, while Protestants together make up about 43 percent. Yet the second largest group after us is ex-Catholics. They are followed by the Baptists. Other Christian losses mirror ours.
Why the exodus? Sex is part of it. Organized religion of all kinds makes it a prime commandment to abstain from unmarried intimacy. With millennials being most of the nones, youth is sexually active, but is also given to the herd mentality: if everyone is doing it, it cannot be wrong. You know of Mom’s challenge: “If all your friends jumped off the cliff, would you go with them?”
Couple that with the clergy sex-abuse of minors. A small percentage (4) of those giving the grim prohibitions and the doom for offenders has been found to be offenders themselves. Here is where we have shot ourselves in both feet. A cardinal from north Jersey was stripped by the Vatican of his right to represent himself as a priest. And worse, the dismal practice of covering this up to shield ourselves from scandal and from financial damages has boomeranged. Pointing out that this is no longer the protocol is a tardy closing of the barn door.
Youth and others ask why anyone would want to remain with an organization so disgraced. To maintain one’s personal integrity, one would have to distance one’s self from the corruption. This makes sense. But how many of those who were revolted by the political scandal of Watergate left the country in protest and moved somewhere else? The desire to remain an American in spite of what some few leaders did to besmirch us all was stronger than the disgust most people understandably felt. Why then is there no parallel loyalty to the church after years of enjoying membership? The many advantages of being American seem far closer than those of being a part of the community the Lord Jesus founded to give us the advantage of eternal life. Does he not count? It is easy to forget that he died that we might live.
A big problem in all this is how we see the church. What do we expect of it? What kind of history does it have? We think of it being perfect, flawless, as if it floated down from heaven without stain or wrinkle. We need to put that mistaken notion aside and go back to the New Testament. The infant church that gathered around Jesus was sinfully imperfect from the start. Peter, our first leader, denied to a slave girl that he even knew the Lord. The same night Judas sold him out and then committed suicide. Except for John, the apostles hid out in the room where they had celebrated the first Eucharist, abandoning him to the savagery of the Romans and the hypocrisy of Jerusalem’s religious figures.
The church is us. We are it. So if it is made up of sinners like me, why do I marvel if another member is a sinner? Don’t we take consolation from the endless forgiveness of him we all betray whenever we sin? The trouble is, we think of forgiveness and mercy as something others need, not us. Jesus scandalized his pious audience telling parables about a wretched publican/tax-collector in the back beating his breast, asking God’s mercy on him as a sinner. The Pharisee up in front threw his shoulder out patting himself on the back.
Let’s welcome back fellow repentant sinners.