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Sources of change in Catholicism

By Peter McDonough


Vocation directors report a 10% bump in applications to the Society of Jesus since the ascension of a Jesuit to the papacy. The blip reflects a certain relief. The personable contrast that Pope Francis offers to his dour predecessor shifts the motivational calculus.

Just as plain is the fact that upticks are not trends. The Jesuit-affiliated Marquette University suffered a temporary drop in applications once it became known that Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial cannibal, had lived in a Milwaukee neighborhood by the school. The Jesuit-sponsored Boston College enjoyed a boom in applications because of the Doug Flutie factor. This lasted roughly through the tenure of the school’s star quarterback.

The demographics of American Catholicism are hard to decipher because mini-trends cut across one another. Catholics remain ascendant in the United States mainly due to an influx of immigrants who outpace departures from the church. For now, these immigrants are more observant and more fertile than the comparatively laid-back majority of the faithful, but there is no guarantee that this subculture will hold up. The historical record indicates that the reverse will turn out to be true.

Photo by © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

Photo by © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

The cumulative shuttering of the parishes and parish schools that served immigrant Catholicism in the heyday of the American church, from about 1850 through 1950, is one trend that seems clear-cut and irreversible. Even so, some dioceses are booming in areas like the Southwest.

What does seem incontrovertible is two things: (1) The church’s “taxing authority”—its capacity to elicit contributions from the folks in the pews—is slipping. It has never approached the levels shown by its Protestant counterparts and tithing continues to be rare in Catholicism. Sexual abuse scandals has also aggravated shortfalls in financial support. (2) Attendance at Sunday services has fallen with assimilation and secularization, apart from the “exogenous shock” of the scandals.

The second downward trend is in recruitment to the priesthood and congregations of nuns. Some conservative orders receive more new members than their centrist and progressive peers. The descending spiral shows signs of leveling off, but the new level is low compared to what it was during boom times. The pre-sixties flow of young men and women into lives of celibacy will not come back. Decline is the long-term scenario for the priesthood even when candidates from Asian and Africa, for whom ordination entails upward mobility, are factored in.

These economic and demographic undercurrents don’t make the American Church the religious equivalent of a failed state. But chronic low achievement in its financial growth and a shrinking of the recruitment pool do make it resemble a weak state. It survives, with diminished influence.

The facts are one thing, interpretation another. We lack theories that can generate useful ideas when it comes to understanding how churches change. In contrast to markets, there are no supply-and-demand curves for forecasting religious equilibrium. Nor is there anything like the “the demographic transition,” familiar to students of population dynamics, that predicts a fall-off in mortality, as well as a lagged rise, then peaking, of fertility as societies move from agrarian to predominantly industrial profiles. Religious change ignites periodically, in incandescent outbursts, then ossifies. But that regularity, such as it is, is hard to predict or explain.

For centuries, Catholicism thrived in Counter-Reformation mode. In the United States, the immigrant enclaves of the Going My Way church approximated defensive worlds unto themselves. The liberalization of Vatican II, along with gradual assimilation into the American lifestyle, changed that. The restorationist neoconservatism promulgated by John Paul II and his right-hand man and eventual successor, Benedict XVI, stressed ressourcement, a return to the classical sources, above aggiornamento, or updating. But that too has foundered in the face of implacable cultural shifts. Family patterns and sexual values are not going back to what they used to be. The church suffers depletion, just as species are threatened by habitat loss.

The Counter-Reformation mentality could provide a defensive sense of solidarity but not a theory of religious transformation. The “revolution from above” it represented was undone in part by some of the modernizing measures (like Jesuit education) that it promoted but whose effects it could not control. As Eamon Duffy points out in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, the Counter-Reformation mindset lived, and was undermined by, contradictions. The strategy was at once less coherent than strict adherence to tradition implies and more arbitrary and irrational in its outcomes than the plans of rigorous militancy foresaw. “The best laid plans” produced some unintended consequences.

There are no clean slates in Catholicism. On the flip side, tradition as understood by church officials does not spell out mechanisms for change. We are left with slowly building seismic forces punctuated by apparently random eruptions. The longevity of the church looks strangely erratic. Not quite as bizarre as Bolivian politics perhaps, where coups rather than elections have long been recognized as the normal mode of change. But the process seems adventitious nonetheless.

Close to where I am summering in Portugal there is a chapel dating from the fourteenth century that parishioners routinely fix up and use for festivals of their own devising. A newly arrived priest complained that several members of the ladies auxiliary were living in a variety of extra-marital arrangements. He disapproved of the raucous music, drinking, and assorted vulgarities that prevailed during feasts nominally commemorating one saint or another. The ladies and their friends have politely ignored him.

This is the way a lot of the church evolves, like an intricate ecosystem rather than a formal organization. The stories of everyday life wander away from the official symbolism, rather as the Romance languages grew out of Latin. Without a vision that grabs souls, institutional strategy veers off course, this way and that.

Peter McDonough has written two books on the Jesuits and others on democratization in Brazil and Spain. His most recent book is The Catholic Labyrinth: Power, Apathy, and a Passion for Reform in the American Church. He lives in Glendale, California. Read his previous blog posts.

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