(RNS) — There are many signs that the Catholic Church is failing in Western countries. There are few vocations, church attendance is down, and young people are leaving the church in droves. There are as many theories explaining this decline as there are commentators, but the theories can be grouped into two broad baskets: those that blame culture and those that blame the Church itself.
The Catholic hierarchy tends to blame contemporary culture for the Church’s problems. Consumerism, individualism and secularism top their list of negative forces. The media bombards people with anti-Christian images and messages: happiness comes from sex, money and power. Life is too busy with work and leisure to have time for religion.
The social structures that supported religion also weakened.
Ethnic neighborhoods that once bolstered communities and religious values have declined as their residents have been disbursed to the suburbs. When Catholics joined the mainstream, they lost their roots. Fewer children attend Catholic schools. Interfaith marriages have increased as young Catholics socialize with non-Catholics. As they were better educated, they were less likely to follow the clergy without asking questions.
There is a lot of truth in this cultural explanation of church failures, but blaming culture is like blaming time. This is the world we live in; learn to deal with. Retreating to a Catholic ghetto is not an option.
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The theory that the Church itself is responsible for its decline has a conservative and a liberal version. Both criticize the hierarchy for not properly managing the sexual abuse crisis. Liberals point to the lack of responsibility and involvement of the laity, while conservatives point the finger at homosexual priests.
Conservatives also blame the changes in the church ordered by the Second Vatican Council. Before the council, the church was a rock of stability and certainty in a stormy world. The change undermined the credibility of the church because the change was an admission that the church had been wrong in the past. One week you would go to hell for eating meat on Friday; the following week, you were fine. One year, you were told that the mass would always be in Latin; the following year, it would be in English.
Conservatives also blame theologians for confusing the people by publicly debating moral and doctrinal issues that the hierarchy says are definitive teaching. They also believe that the Church’s message of social justice distracts from its traditional dogmas. Some argue that ecumenical and interreligious dialogue has led to the belief that all religions are equally valid. The emphasis on the role of the laity in the Church has knocked the priest off his pedestal and made the priesthood less attractive.
Conservatives think Pope Francis is going in the wrong direction and are praying for a return to the policies of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
The liberal version, on the other hand, points the finger at the hierarchy.
Liberals believe that Vatican II was only the beginning of the necessary reforms in the Church. They believe that the hierarchy, especially John Paul II, feared chaos in the Church and shut down any further reform. Council documents were interpreted through a conservative lens, and theologians were branded dissenters and silenced if they did not toe the Vatican line.
Commentators such as the Reverend Andrew Greeley believed the hierarchy had lost the laity when Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the church’s ban on artificial birth control. The teaching has been rejected by both moral theologians and lay people.
Denying communion to divorced and remarried Catholics has also been problematic for couples and their children.
Liberals also blame the hierarchy for the vocations crisis because, according to them, there would be many priests if they were allowed to marry, and even more if women were allowed to be ordained.
Liberals also argue that the hierarchy’s opposition to abortion and gay rights has alienated many people, especially young people. People have also been alienated by bishops who deny communion to some Democratic politicians.
Liberals say the hierarchy is following much the same path it took in Europe, where it alienated the working classes in the 19and century with its alliance with the upper classes. For much of the 20and century, anticlericalism was non-existent in America because the bishops sided with the unions and the working classes. Anticlericalism only flourished when the bishops aligned themselves with the Republican Party against abortion and gay rights.
As a social scientist, I believe the preponderance of evidence supports the liberal explanation for the decline of the Church, but I think the conservatives make good points. Certainly, the changes after Vatican II were not well explained or implemented. The clergy was as confused as the laity. And liberals need to explain why more Catholics join evangelical churches than liberal churches.
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One of the problems with all of these theories, however, is that they were developed by theologians who believe that ideas are what drive humans. Ideas are important, but experience often matters more.
Many people stay in the church even if they disagree with certain church teachings. But a bad experience at confession, at a wedding, or at a funeral can turn people away for good. More people are driven out of the church by arrogant priests than by disagreements over theology. This is why Francis is so critical of clericalism.
And the fact is, we lose more people to boredom than to theology. Now that people don’t believe they will go to hell for missing Sunday mass, they won’t come unless they enjoy the experience.
If the preaching is boring, if the music doesn’t move them, if they don’t feel welcome, then they won’t come back. If the Mass is seen as something the priest does, if the scriptures are the domain of the clergy, if there is no sense of community, then why come?
This is why many Catholics are drawn to evangelical churches. Ideas are important, but Catholicism must also be a lived experience relevant to the lives of the faithful. The pre-Vatican II Church offered such experiences in popular devotions. After Vatican II, the liturgy was supposed to provide this experience, but too often it did not.
So the next time we have a discussion about why the church fails, don’t invite the theologians; invite sociologists, psychologists, artists, musicians and people who have left the church.