Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

When the party replaces the sacrament

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 19, 2022

Back in April I commented on “An epidemic of unbaptized Catholics, which began with the Covid lockdowns. As I wrote at the time:

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?

Today, reflecting on the steady decline in church marriages, I began to wonder whether the same unhappy logic applies.

Of course there were fewer weddings in 2020, when the churches closed their doors, and the numbers only began to increase in 2021 as the lockdowns were gradually lifted. As with infant baptisms, the decline in marriages has been a long-term trend in the US. You cannot blame Covid for the American marriage rate in 2018, which set an all-time low. But you can be quite sure that the rate for 2020—for which official government statistics are not yet available—was much lower.

Five years from now, what will the statistics show? After the dramatic drop in 2020-2021, will the rate of baptisms and marriages pop back up again—only to resume the long-term downward trend? Or will the rates simply continue to fall, from their new low base? I hope I am wrong, but I suspect the latter.

Think again of those cultural Catholics, for whom a marriage, like a baptism, is primarily a social event. The long-term trends tell us that those cultural Catholics are less and less likely to bother with the sacraments themselves. In 2020, their pastors told them that they could not have the sacraments—and, more, that they shouldn’t worry too much about missing them. Now the sacraments are available again. But did that discouraging message accelerate the trend?

For the cultural Catholic, of the sort who shows up in church once or twice a year, each sacrament is a rite of passage, which entails an appropriate celebration. A baby is born, and the parents throw a party after the baptism. A child is confirmed, or receives First Holy Communion, and the relatives are invited. A wedding reception is an elaborate affair, and if a friend’s son is ordained to the priesthood (not likely anyone in the immediate family), that’s an occasion to celebrate as well. Even Extreme Unction is associated with a family gathering, at the wake and/or after the funeral. (You may notice that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is missing from this list. But then it is also missing from the lives of cultural Catholics.)

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the major events in our lives; on the contrary, it’s a healthy instinct. But if the party is the only reason for scheduling the sacrament, and if Church leaders meekly surrender when civic leaders proclaim that the sacraments are not essential, sooner or later apathetic Catholics are bound to realize that they can skip the ceremony and move straight to the party.

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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  • Posted by: Fr Eric Lepanto - May. 20, 2022 10:30 AM ET USA

    I, and many other priests, have encountered the dilemma of families who deliberate whether or not to have a wedding or even a baptism. I have had baptisms where one side wore masks and the other did not. There was no party. Regarding weddings, families (meaning brides and both mothers) tried to map out the following 18 months in the hopes of keeping the venue and the invite list. A few times the couple was determined to have the wedding. Future: the numbers will still continue to fall.

  • Posted by: Cinciradiopriest - May. 19, 2022 3:38 PM ET USA

    WE are suffering from a terrible drought of grace. So few people know or care that the Sacraments bestow grace in abundance to those willing and disposed to receive it.