We’ve got to stop the hand-wringing about a newly released study that reports continuing decline in the Christian share of the U.S. population. Instead, we’ve got to participate in prayerful reflection and honest dialogue about the church’s engagement in the world we live in today. How do we help the technological mindset embrace the mystery of faith? We’ve got to personally invite, time and again, individuals to our liturgy and accompany them in their journey of faith. We’ve got to live the faith we preach. It takes time, energy and commitment. If we don’t invest ourselves in this endeavor, our church will have little relevancy in the lives of future generations.
Pew Research Center’s study, which surveyed 35,000 Americans ages 18 and older (June 4-Sept. 30, 2014) found that individuals describing themselves as Christians dropped 8 percentage points in seven years, from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. The percentage of adults who described themselves as Catholics declined 3.1 percentage points, from 23.9 percent to 20.8 percent. However, the statistical margin of error means that the total number of Catholics in the U.S., 51 million, may have decreased by as little as 1 million over the last seven years. Furthermore, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University (CARA) said other polls consistently find between 21 percent and 26 percent of the U.S. population is Catholic.
Of greater concern are these two statistics: 31.7 percent of the respondents said they were raised Catholic. The percentage of adults who describe themselves as unaffiliated grew from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014. The “millennials,” the generation born between 1981 and 1996, show much lower levels of religious affiliation as they enter adulthood. Thirty-six percent of young millennials (born 1990-1996) and 34 percent of older millennials (born 1981-1989) claim to be unaffiliated to any religion. Just 16 percent of the millennials are Catholic, the study finds.
The Catholic Church and other denominations risk shrinking into obsolescence without meeting the culture where it is at, without accepting and embracing the sinner and recognizing that all of us — pious or not — fall short of Gospel expectations. It’s not about being easier on sinners, but about striving to set an example and accompanying one another, preparing for eternal life while still planted on this earth.
A faithful reader of The Catholic Messenger pointed out what he thought to be an irony in last week’s issue regarding an article on the Pew Research study. In that same issue a syndicated columnist gave a rather discouraging response to a question from a divorced, non-Catholic wondering about the possibility of becoming Catholic. While the questioner was not a millennial, our faithful reader observed that the way in which the church responds to difficult questions gives millennials the perception that the church is focused on rules and not religion. Pope Francis preaches and teaches a pastoral approach that leads to people embracing Catholic Social Teaching.
Relaxing or changing rules isn’t necessarily going to draw adults of any age into the Catholic Church. Our church doesn’t provide easy answers or promise a fulfilling life here on earth if we pray, pay and obey. What our church offers is a pilgrim journey that culminates in union with God after our earthy lives end.
There is more to the Christian message than recitation of a creed and adherence to some denominational rules. Jesus actually expects us to change the way we live as a result of his message, not simply post it on Facebook. Not comfortable, not popular. If we live that message in our own lives, others will follow.