A Post-Script on American Grace: The Catholic Crisis
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.