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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

An epidemic of unbaptized Catholics

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 25, 2022

Crisis editor Eric Sammons calls attention to a frightening statistic. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate finds that in American Catholic churches, the number of infant baptisms—which has been dropping steadily for 20 years—went into a nosedive in 2020. “I know many 2020 Baptisms didn’t happen because of Covid restrictions, but do we really think they were later baptized?” Sammons asks.

For many thousands of “cultural Catholics,” Baptism is a social event. The family gathers to welcome a newborn baby. The baby born in 2020 is now two years old; does that party still seem appropriate? By now the new parents have settled into a new household routine; do they even remember that their child is unbaptized?

Bear in mind that when that baby was born, the parish priest was probably telling people to stay away. The sacrament was not available. Have the parents (assuming that they come to church now and then) ever been reminded of their obligation to have the child baptized?

Fifty years ago there were more than 1 million babies baptized each year in American Catholic churches. The number stayed close to that figure until 2000, when it began to decline. Younger parents were obviously less diligent about baptizing their children. Then came the unmitigated pastoral disaster of the Covid-shutdown era, and those lackadaisical parents were told, in effect, not to worry about it.

The question that Sammons raises is unsettling. But the answer, I’m afraid, is obvious. Young Catholic adults are dropping away from the church, and their children aren’t even being baptized. If you don’t recognize that our Church is in crisis—or if you think the most pressing challenge is the success of the Bishop’s Annual Appeal—you’re part of the problem.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Cinciradiopriest - May. 05, 2022 3:14 PM ET USA

    It is sad but true that many Catholics neither know nor accept the fact that Baptism is necessary for salvation. It is not important because if people are "good" they go to heaven.

  • Posted by: charliej3737012 - Apr. 30, 2022 3:26 PM ET USA

    I suspect the collapse in infant baptisms reveals a crisis rather than being a crisis. The actual crisis is that so many Catholics have long treated baptism as a cultural event rather than a religious and spiritual event.

  • Posted by: Gramps - Apr. 26, 2022 9:25 PM ET USA

    When bishops take Sacraments seriously, then perhaps priests and deacons will begin to teach such in their homilies. Until the clergy preaches Catholicism is definite terms, the lukewarm will continue to disperse to other venues than (at least) Mass on Sundays. The RCIA was a disaster in 2020, so adult Baptisms and reception into full communion are also affected; the lack of leadership of such organizations as the North American Forum on the Catechumenate mean these numbers may never recover.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Apr. 26, 2022 7:15 PM ET USA

    A curious title. How can you be both a Catholic and unbaptised? And if you are seriously a Catholic, how can you not have your children baptized? Many self described “Catholics” are clueless.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Apr. 26, 2022 3:03 PM ET USA

    The situation that you describe actually began in a different context right around 1983 when the CIC allowed episcopal conferences to define alternate forms of penance on Fridays. No longer was the whole Church _required_ to abstain from meat on Fridays, but an alternate penance could be substituted in its place. Mind you, the CIC does insist that some form of penance be observed on Fridays, but one is no longer _required_ to abstain. Penance on Fridays intends to join our sufferings to Christ.

  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 25, 2022 12:01 PM ET USA

    The lack of invitation or encouragement on the part of most bishops to return to the Sacraments stands in contrast to the draconian prohibitions they issued two years ago. I'm afraid that for some US prelates this decline in Baptisms may not be a bug but an intended feature. Cdl. Cupich, for example, still kept the Chicago cathedral empty for his Divine Mercy Sunday Mass, while Walmarts, airplanes, and Catholic churches in Chicago and around the Nation bustle with happily unmasked congregations.