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Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

American Catholics are flunking the test of evangelization

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 13, 2015

Yesterday’s top CWN headline news story points to the most urgent problem facing the Catholic Church in the US: the decline in the American Catholic population.

As our headline story reports there is some disagreement among experts about the extent of that decline. Pew Research finds that the Catholic population of the US has fallen by 3 million in the past seven years. Other surveys suggest that the decline has been less severe, or that the Catholic population may even have held steady over those same years. But no one is suggesting that the number of Catholics increased.

That means we, as a Church, are doing something wrong. We are failing abjectly in our mission—failing to carry out the task assigned to us by Jesus Christ.

The Lord did not order us to publish new hymnals or to build hospitals or to balance diocesan budgets or bring about world peace or to eliminate economic inequality or to stop global warming. Those may (or may not) be laudable efforts, but they are not the central mandate of the Church. Jesus did enjoin us to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt 28:18-19) We aren’t doing that. On the contrary, we are losing sheep from the flock.

To be honest, the Church in the US has never been very good at attracting converts. In the past, the American Catholic population grew steadily because of three factors: the children born to Catholic parents, the arrival of immigrants from Catholic countries, and the non-Catholics who entered the Church as they married Catholic spouses. But today most American Catholic couples have only one or two children. Today Hispanic immigrants by the thousands come into the country as Catholics, but many soon switch to small Evangelical denominations. And today when a Catholic marries a non-Catholic, it is the Catholic partner who is statistically more likely to change religious affiliation.

So the numbers keep falling; while the American population grows, the Catholic drops. The Pew survey found that for every one American who comes into the Catholic Church, there are more than six who leave. If current trends continue, the number of American ex-Catholics will surpass the number of active American Catholics sometime within the next few decades.

Keep in mind, too, that the Pew figures are based solely on how respondents answer survey questions. If a respondent identifies himself as Catholic, he goes into the books as a Catholic, whether or not he ever goes to church. Since Mass attendance figures have been dropping, too, the grim reality is undoubtedly worse than the Pew statistics would suggest.

What do we plan to do about it? Many Catholics, I’m afraid, will see these survey figures as a reason to launch ambitious new programs for evangelization, complete with workbooks and staffing criteria and PowerPoint presentations. That’s not what we need. We already have a program for evangelization that has been successful for 2000 years: the liturgy. What we really need, in order to take advantage of that “program,” is a new attitude.

Back in February, when he celebrated Mass with the new members of the College of Cardinals, Pope Francis observed: “There are two ways of thinking and of having faith.” He explained: “We can fear to lose the saved, and we can want to save the lost.” When we stop worrying that we might offend someone by proclaiming the truths of the faith, and start realizing that we might save someone by being forthright, we may begin drawing converts into the Church.

In another interesting CWN news story that appeared yesterday, we reported on a new written work by Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI. In his introduction to a new book by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the retired Pontiff reminds us that the Church exists not only to serve the faithful, but to serve the spiritual needs of “the world in its entirety.” We have a responsibility to our neighbors: to bring them the Good News of salvation.

When things are going well, we should be drawing people into the Catholic Church. Even when things aren’t going particularly well—when we are doing just a mediocre job as Catholics—our communities should grown naturally, by birth and marriage and immigration. Right now we aren’t even doing a mediocre job. We’re flunking the test.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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Show 11 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: chrisleb18983 - May. 23, 2015 10:39 PM ET USA

    Programs,workbooks, criteria and PowerPoint don't make converts. Evangelizing Catholics do.

  • Posted by: JimK01 - May. 21, 2015 1:11 PM ET USA

    Interesting observations! I agree with all of them, but only two deal with SIN. Not going to Holy Mass and contraception. SIN is what kills our souls and leads to all of the others. Two more to add to the list of woes should include not contributing to the Church/local parish and the"marriage problem." How many former Catholics have left the Church because their marriage failed and they choose to re-marry outside of the Church without even seeking an annulment?

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 18, 2015 6:58 PM ET USA

    How many Western bishops would rather denounce than embrace the extraordinary form of the Roman rite? A change in attitude in this regard might help re-evangelize Catholics back into the Church.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - May. 17, 2015 4:26 PM ET USA

    The day that the Novus Ordo liturgy was instituted the Catholic church was deeply damaged. We no longer had a liturgy that filled our hearts with longing for our heavenly home. Today's liturgy are like a desert where longing for heaven is the water. Until the Novus Ordo is brought into agreement with Vatican II the slide in head count will continue. Our Bishops have allowed this to happen but have done little to correct liturgical abuse or provide solid Catholic instruction in the faith.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - May. 16, 2015 8:33 AM ET USA

    Beauty, goodness and truth attract. But the first thing that attracts most Americans is beauty, or perceived beauty. Let's face it--most parish Masses are at best, mediocre, and in too many cases, hideously ugly. I know one parish where, at one Mass, the "choir"--a guitar band--uses the SAME MELODY for the responsorial psalm EVERY WEEK. And it's boring. Just one example.

  • Posted by: dowd9585 - May. 16, 2015 7:34 AM ET USA

    And one more thing. My cleaning lady from Columbia used to be Catholic but is now Evangelical. Her church sponsors the parishioner's kids to be missionaries in far away places for 6 weeks. I helped sponsor her teenage daughter on one of these missions to Africa. Also, all the folks in her church help each other. I'm impressed. Maybe we could learn something here.

  • Posted by: dowd9585 - May. 16, 2015 5:55 AM ET USA

    Vatican II can largely be blamed with all it's unfortunate innovations and pernicious ideas: confession, sin, hell effectively eliminated. Fatuous liturgy, songs, sermons featured. The Catholic Church in order to cater to "changing times" got itself relevant and hence pointless. Why even bother if all religions are the same and everyone goes to heaven. The fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom. Fear means respect. Who needs wish-washy? Evidently, less and less. Time to get the mojo back.

  • Posted by: lak321 - May. 15, 2015 11:20 PM ET USA

    Amen. The cave-in to the contraceptive mentality..... if each Catholic marriage had had 4 or 6 instead of 2 what would the numbers be? However, I disagree with cchapman, most priests i have found maintain church teachings in the confessional and counseling. But it is never mentioned from the pulpit. A religion that doesn't challenge you out of your comfort zone is almost not worth having.

  • Posted by: - May. 15, 2015 1:02 PM ET USA

    Contraception! The wide-spread, in fact, almost ubiquitous acceptance of contraception has killed the living relationship with God we call Sanctifying grace. Until disciple and chastity are spoken of together and often we will not be fruitful. Converts are the fruit of fidelity in word and deed. Most of the Church accepts contraception-including many bishops and priests-at least tacitly and many explicityly in the "confessional' and through counsel.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - May. 14, 2015 10:46 AM ET USA

    It's a lot easier to evangelize when I'm not embarrassed to invite someone to the local parish. After extolling the glories of our religion, THIS is what the potential convert or revert's lived experience of that religion is going to be, every Sunday? Sure, WE can put up with it or tolerate the ritualized, near-customary folly of modern worship--but what about the folks we invite in?

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - May. 13, 2015 9:10 PM ET USA

    I now know more fallen away Catholics than practicing Catholics. Most of the kids I went to Catholic School with in the 50's and 60's have left the Church, and it doesn't seem to bother them one little bit even though they are going into the final decades of their lives. Going to Mass every Sunday is just too much of an effort for them.