Losing Ground

I used to harp a lot about Rome deep-sixing Jesuit plans to evangelize China. Post-Tridentine Catholicism managed what is today (arguably) the most religious nation in the world (highest percentage of committed believers who have always been religious). And I think we have East Timor, too, right?

China seemed ripe for Christianity in the 16th-17th century. Just think: eighty percent of China Catholic instead of a state and an underground Church shouldering one another in a nation of godless state-run corruption. But who needs one-sixth of the world when you can concentrate on a devastating internecine conflict that envelops much of a continent.

Mark Silk suggests American Catholicism has punted away much of Gen-X. Is he right? Actually, he cites a research paper in his commentary. Speaking of those born in 1965-1972:

(T)here has never been a more Catholic generational cohort. In 1990, when they were 18-25 years old, fully 33 percent identified as Catholics (as opposed to the one-quarter of the American population that had been Catholic since the late 19th century). But by 2008, one in five of those 1990 Catholic adults had dropped away.

I know a lot of Catholic conservatives cackle at the mainline Prots, but they haven’t lost any ground in the last two decades. Their Gen-X cohort came back to the church to get married and have kids:

What makes these numbers so noteworthy is that 18-25-year-olds are normally the least religiously identified cohort in American society. It’s later, as they get married and have children, that they tend to re-establish (or establish) their religious identities and affiliations. That Gen-X as a whole moved in the opposite direction–with the proportion of those claiming no religion increasing by two-thirds–is due largely to the disaffection of the Catholics. By contrast, the number of Mainline Protestants, who have generally been considered America’s weakest religious link, remained nearly constant.

Silk’s conclusion:

 (I)t is more than likely that the increasingly conservative winds that began to blow out of Rome during the papacy of John Paul II blew a lot of Gen-X away from the church. Many on the Catholic right–including in the hierarchy–have been happy to say good-bye and good riddance to what they’ve dismissed as its cafeteria Catholicism. But you’ve got to figure that, as the percentage of Catholics in America drifts towards the teens, those in charge will live to regret blowing the opportunity to capture and hold one-third of the U.S. population.

Are the SCGS* advocates building on a sandy substrate, do you think? Demographically, we’re falling behind those marginalized accommodators, the main street Protestant church. Not to mention our evangelical peeps. I’ve chummed with my ministry colleagues in P&W Christianity. I’ll tell you that when it comes to sharing faith, playing some contemporary Christian tunes, or doing something other than putting a public face on Jesus for the press, pastors in other churches look at my faith with deep skepticism. I remember one instance in a matter where I thought Christian ministers in a small town were standing together. I assumed the Assembly of God pastor had my back in what I thought was a mutual recognition of our commitment to Christ. When it came time for him to speak for me, he looked down at his shoes and said nothing.

I find it deeply discouraging that today’s Catholic hierarchy seems to treat liberal Catholics in the same mode. Antigospel Christianity triumphant.


On that note, I’m getting into the student center early this morning. If the bishops and Rome aren’t going to stand up for young adults, somebody had better pick up the slack.

* Small church, getting smaller


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Losing Ground

  1. FrMichael says:

    As a Gen-Xer myself, blaming conservative Catholicism for my generation’s defection is nonsensical. Very few of us had an experience of it other than a few clips of a papal Mass on TV and the small % who attended WYD Denver. Lousy catechesis for the “publics” like myself, priests and religious leaving the ministry in droves, dreadful preaching and embarrassing liturgical music , and Catholic schools that lost their way are what my generation experienced as Catholicism. And that doesn’t even address the breakdown of traditional America economically and socially that’s soured us on institutions in general as we watched our play-by-the-rules parents get the shaft.

    Now AmChurch is reaping the whirlwind as these religiously ignorant and poorly evangelized Gen X Catholics are the parents of Gens Y and Z. To me, it’s not even at the level of progressive vs. conservative, it is a matter of basic evangelization and catechesis for young and old alike.

    BTW your anecdotal evidence about Protestants keeping their youth is wrong at a national level. Of the various Christian traditions, Catholicism has the highest retention of the young with a 32% loss rate: the mainliners and free churches lose even more. Check out the Pew study. Actually, I may amend my remarks, IIRC the Orthodox are similar to us in retaining their young. Religious mobility is a strong cultural current that sweeps all the Christian traditions in this country.

  2. Todd says:

    Blaming conservatives for being conservative is, I agree, non-sensical. What the conservative ascendancy is being criticized for is that their approach is not in alignment with Gospel values.

    Personally, I find many conservatives charming, effective, fruitful, and needed in to further the mission of Christ. My complaint is that they think they can go it alone under some guise of ideological superiority. Completely antigospel.

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