Click here if you don’t see subscription options
John A. ColemanDecember 22, 2010

John DiIulio jr.'s excellent and quite laudatory review of Robert Putnam and David Campbell's recent book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which appeared in the Nov. 22nd issue of America, summed up his judgment: "American Grace is an instant classic, as academically authoritative as it is brilliantly entertaining." DiIulio, to be sure, highlighted what is central to the book: the shifts from the sexually permissive 1960's with a fall-off on baby boomer adherence to religion; the reaction to the 1960's in the evangelical upsurge of the 1970's and 1990's (one third of evangelicals were not born such); the sharp downturn in adherence to religion among the young, as a strong reaction to the over-politization of religion by the Christian right. Nones now outnumber mainline Protestants and among the younger generation outnumber evangelicals.

DiIulio also hepfully parses Putnam and Campbell's data on other inter-generational change and on how the religious are more civic minded and better neighbors than the secular. This religious civil mindedness, however, is less a factor of belief, as such, and more a factor of actually attending and having friends in a congregation.

But, for some reason, DiIulio remained silent on another salient set of data in American Grace--the abysmal retention rate among non-Latino Catholics (57% compared to 75% retention rate among Latino Catholics). Three Catholics leave the church for every one who comes in as a convert. American Grace draws on a 2008 Pew survey which shows that half of the one-third leaving the church migrate to the category of "nones" and the other half join Protestant or evangelical denominations. Those who decided to join other churches often raised up the issue of Catholic failures to meet their spiritual needs in worship and other congregational service. Most Catholics simply, over time, drifted away.

Commenting on this Pew data and American Grace, Peter Steinfels, in an important Commonweal essay, "Further Adrift," stresses the need for concrete, practical actions by our bishops and pastors. Perhaps, of course, the bishops should, first of all, actually address the Catholic data from American Grace and the Pew Survey. Steinfels calls for "a quantum leap in the quality of Sunday liturgies, including preaching; a massive, all-out mobilization of talent and treasure to catechize the young, bring adolescents into church life and engage young adults in on-going faith formation--as well as theologically more complex and controversial matters like expanding the pool of those eligible for ordination and revisiting some aspects of the church's teaching on sexuality." Why does so much of the American church--including our bishops--fail to see these elephants Steinfels points out in our room?

Steinfels wants the bishops to acknowledge and, then, tackle the seriousness of the situation. I am not holding my breath on that one! But I do intend to do an adult faith formation presentation at our parish in early January on the Catholic challenges found ingredient in American Grace. Even in a very active parish such as ours, with excellent preaching and liturgies, spirituality programs and social outreach and a youth club, parents grieve and lament the difficulties of passing on the faith to their adolescent and early adult children. They note the issue of loss of adherence to Catholicism among friends and acquaintances, as those who were once active Catholics give up, wearily, fighting for what they believe should happen in the church or they find the quiescent complacence (or in some cases the one-sided politics of some bishops akin to the Christian right, with the same likelihood of turning off many of the young) of the hierarchy disquieting. No parish, of course, can alone solve this problem but the discussion has to start somewhere real. I have found almost nothing about the disquieting retention statisstics among Catholics in our local diocesan newspaper, Catholic San Francisco or in directives from the archdiocese. We all need to face up, as Steinfels insists, to "the seriousness of the situation."

John A. Coleman, S.J.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Jim McCrea
13 years 3 months ago
 " Older people have simply left, becoming 'nones' ".

Well, not really.  This place (www.mhr.org) is full of "older people," many of whom (such as myself) had left but clawed their way back once they found this place.  Unfortunately theren't aren't too many of "this place" around, so unless the OP are diligent in finding something in which they can actually participate with a clear conscience, a vibrant community life and a spiritual uplift, they won't be successful in finding "this place" (i.e., the few of "this place" that exist wherever) and will simply wilt and die away.
Beth Cioffoletti
13 years 3 months ago
I agree with you, Kay - the sacraments are what make the difference.  And for those of us who were schooled in their reality - the bread does not become a symbol of Christ, it becomes Christ - it is a strong hold.

I recently asked a priest if he thought the Church used the sacraments as a sort of bargaining tool to keep people in the pews, as in, if you let go of this gift, you are sabotaging your salvation, and he said yes. 

When I was in college many years ago - I think the year was 1971 - I took a theology course called "Sacraments".  It was a mandatory elective theology requirement for graduation.  The professor (an ex-priest) was teaching the class from the book and most of the classes were boring, the students were bored.  I was upset that it was so boiled down.  My final paper was rather scandalous - I took each sacrament out of the church ritual and put it into a real life situation, something that I could see, touch, know in my everyday life.  No priest, no prescribed ritual, no church -  but something that was real to me.

I can still remember what the priest wrote on my paper: A+, don't ever lose your creative response to God!

I'm still not sure if Sacramental grace is only available through the proscribed Catholic Church rituals.
Beth Cioffoletti
13 years 3 months ago
As far as I can tell, this article - and an awful lot of articles that examine the "Church crisis" - assume that going to Church is the measure of spiritual health, whether of the individual or the community/culture.

Yes, times are a changin'.  Young people are by and large, absent from the pews.  Older people have simply left, becoming "nones" (I love that it rhymes with nuns!)

When a Church becomes a club where one no longer recognizes truth and mystery, why on earth should one continue attending?  Or bemoan the fact that ones children are not interested?

I'm not blaming the Church - it can only be what it can be.  But maybe this disintegration of an institution that we always believed to be the last word, is not the last word.  And maybe this moving into a new place, where we don't know the rules or outcome, is not such a bad thing.

I have a lot of faith in the young people, especially those who are not interested in Church as it has always been understood and practiced.  Their prospects for jobs and careers are much more precarious than they were a generation ago.  Yet they carry on with so much hope and anticipation.  They are finding a new way to be Church in this broken world.

It's time to stop expecting them to follow in our footsteps.
Kay Satterfield
13 years 3 months ago
I have wonderful friends from other Christian/faith traditions but what sets the Catholic Church apart is the sacraments. These sacrament have to be important to a person.   I think it's also about being part of something bigger than yourself, a family of faith at it's best.  Sure, you can find God in the woods but you don't have someone there challenging you or encouraging you in your faith like you do in a church community.  Despite all of it's warts and failures the Catholic Church offers a depth and maturity that others don't.  It's how to encourage young people to experience these sacraments as hopefully fulfilling their need and desire for God in the context of the greater community..and when life gets hard, they can find that they are not alone.  

The latest from america

On this week's episode of "Preach," Bishop Stowe shares how he connects the image of the Good Shepherd from the Gospels to the climate crisis.
PreachApril 15, 2024
Pope Francis gives his blessing to people gathered in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 14, 2024, for his midday recitation of the "Regina Coeli" prayer. The pope pleaded with nations to exercise restraint and avoid an escalation of violence in the Middle East. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
Pope Francis also appealed for a ceasefire in Gaza, the release of the hostages and the provision of humanitarian aid to the 2.3 million Palestinians living there,
Gerard O’ConnellApril 14, 2024
U.S. Catholics are more polarized than ever in how they view Pope Francis, even though majorities on both ends of the political spectrum have a positive view of the pope, according to a new survey.
In this special round table episode of “Inside the Vatican,” America Editor-in-Chief Father Sam Sawyer and the Executive Director of Outreach, America’s LGBT Catholic resource, Michael O’Loughlin, join host Colleen Dulle for a discussion on the document “Dignitas Infinita” and the pastoral
Inside the VaticanApril 12, 2024