So much recent work has come out on the faith of Catholics in the United States. All of it seems to indicate that Catholics do not so much as reject the faith as move it to the margins of their lives.
This came out in the recent Pew Study on the declining number of Catholics and the rise of the ‘nones.’ The report noted some ambiguity about the declining number of Catholics. In one of his op/eds, Ross Douthat argued that, upon further investigation, what the numbers indicated was that the faith was still present but just not as important for people. He writes,
The Pew numbers on reported attendance are masking a major plunge. Instead, what’s happening is that American Christianity is losing more and more of its penumbra while retaining more of its core (albeit an aging core, in many cases) than trends in identification alone suggest.
This is also Mark Gray’s conclusion in “Your Average American Catholic.” He notes that about 4% of parishioners form “‘the core’ of the Catholic community” as they “are part of the small community that makes Masses and other activities happen in parishes.” Everyone else’s faith is “going to the periphery.”
This sidelining of faith also seems to be what Christian Smith discovered in his Young Catholic America. Smith noted that religious decline in the 18-25 age group can be characterized as emerging adults not using “their Catholic faith as a key resource for arriving at any counter culture religious, social, or ethical commitments.” Instead, they mirrored the attitudes and beliefs of their surrounding culture. They were not so much angry at the church but rather viewed it as less important than other social commitments.
The HERI study The Spiritual Life of College Students made a similar conclusion in their executive summary. The report noted that Catholic students scored below average on “Religious Commitment” but also on “Religious Skepticism.” This was a strange mix because usually the two were in an inverse relationship to one another: the more skeptical of religion people were, the less they were committed to religion. The reversal of this for Catholics students indicates that these students do not so much reject the faith—there are not skeptical—but just do not strongly observe to it—they are not religiously committed.
Finally, at this year’s Catholic Theological Society of America meeting, Jerome Baggett suggested a similar conclusion in his plenary address. His research focused on how people negotiated their faith in the midst of religious diversity. From his interviews, Baggett found that people typically understood their faith in one of three ways: 1) “the best religion for me”, 2) as “trying to be a good person”, and 3) as “being more spiritual than religious.” In all cases, they were less concerned with the specifics of church teaching and more attempting to find how faith fit into the rest of their lives.
What do we make of Catholics moving their faith to the peripheral? There are at least three ways to read it.
First, we could conclude that people are just drifting away from the faith. They are becoming lukewarm. They are those who have the faith spring up in them only to have the anxieties of the world strangle its growth. The faithful are slowly becoming the unfaithful because they are starting to care about other things—work, family, fun, whatever—more than the faith.
Second, we could read these results as a sign that parishes are neglecting people. Parishes have become too large and too impersonal. They do not offer a sense of community, so people do not connect to it. There is no compelling witness or engaging preaching, so people make it less of a priority.
I am inclined to a third option though. It seems that people are struggling. They value their faith but also face countless demands just to survive in society. They have to have enough money to eat, pay mortgage or rent, keep their car working, and care for children or elderly parents. A recent study indicated that “49 percent, said they’d had a major stressful event or experience in the past year” and 26% of people indicated that they had a “great deal” of stress during the last month. What were they anxious about? Illness and death, work, and personal relationships. If this is coupled with the research above, it paints a picture of people spending a lot of their time trying to negotiate these pressing demands on their daily lives and, then, if they have a moment, connecting it to their faith.
I think this third option is correct for three reasons. First, it seems accurate. I am a life long Catholic who is also trained in Catholic theology, but I find most of my daily life occupied with financial concerns (Have I paid the bills yet?), relationship concerns (How are my kids? My marriage?), and health concerns (How are my retired parents’ doing?) Daily anxieties can easily become overwhelming.
Second, the third option does not vilify either the faithful or the parish. From what I have seen, both are working to the point of exhaustion. I’ve seen parents running from work to grocery store to sports practice to dinner to homework to bedtimes to cleaning up to preparing for all the same the next day. I’ve seen parish staff bring in speakers, run service projects, set up volunteer schedules, support people in need and do so on a shoe string and while trying to balance their own families (in the case of so many lay ministers) or their own overwhelming obligations (in the case of so many good priests and religious).
Finally, the third option indicates that the response involves everyone. There needs to be a theology that speaks to people and their struggles. It needs to be a theology that situates their anxieties in the midst of God’s loving design for them and all of creation. It means that this theology needs to be practical. It needs to show how God is present in their daily lives and how Jesus’ words help them to understand and respond to their daily anxieties. Finally, it indicates that parishes have to become communities where others support them in their pursuit of God in this world and the world to come.