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Kevin ClarkeOctober 16, 2020
Aleisha Lee, a chef for Catholic Charities, prepares sandwiches at the St. Ann's Center for Children, Youth and Families facility in Avondale, Md., on July 14. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Charles Perko admits it will not stand up well as an excuse, but he does offer it up as an “explanation.” Too many Sundays he has missed Mass, he says, because he was too tired after a 12-hour shift the night before to make it to church. Workweeks loaded with overtime have not helped, of course. “After 60- or 72-hour weeks, I’m absolutely exhausted,” he says.

Despite the physical grind and the impact on his family, he, like most of his fellow steelworkers, is reluctant to turn down overtime. “You can’t live on 40 hours a week,” he explains.

Bouncing back and forth between day and night shifts also weakens his resolve to get to Mass. “I think a lot of people in the bottom 40 percent work jobs that have rotating shifts,” Mr. Perko says.

He has other reasons for an at-times tenuous connection to the church. He is a bit annoyed by those Catholic bishops who denigrate Pope Francis, whom he holds in high esteem as a risk-taker and truth-teller. And as the president of a United Steelworkers local in Pueblo, Colo., he has bristled when church leaders attempt to dictate how he should vote, pushing parishioners toward candidates who may share the church’s position on abortion but otherwise fail to check any political boxes for this union leader.

“When you have someone reading a letter telling you that you’re going to hell because you support the candidate who wants people to eat—that doesn’t jibe with me.” 

“When you have someone reading a letter telling you that you’re going to hell because you support the candidate who wants people to eat—that doesn’t jibe with me,” he says.

“I’ve never lost my desire to be in the church,” Mr. Perko adds, “but I had no desire to be part of a growing conservative movement that I saw in the church.”

No Time Off for Mass?

Mr. Perko’s disaffection reflects an ongoing challenge for the contemporary Catholic Church in the United States. Attendance and affiliation have been eroding steadily since the 1970s for all income brackets, but the sharpest decline has been among the two bottom economic quartiles, according to data gleaned from the U.S. Census American Community Survey.

When Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, ran the numbers for America, he located the greatest drop-offs in Mass attendance among self-described Catholics in the lowest income bracket. Those who said they “never attend” Mass jumped from 6 percent in 1972 to just under 25 percent in 2018. In the bracket just above these Catholics, Mr. Burge found another significant leap in never-attenders, from just over 1 percent to 21 percent.

Meanwhile, at the top income quartile, never-attenders went to 13 percent from 4 percent, and in the quartile just below the top, the percentage jumped to 17 percent from almost 2 percent.
The poorest Americans are abandoning Mass the most

Mr. Burge reports that in 2018, some 30 percent of white Catholics who earned $50,000 to $100,000 annually said they attended Mass weekly, similar to the 33 percent of those who earned more than $100,000. Weekly attendance among non-white Catholics in the same income groups was about five percentage points lower.

At the same time, only 23 percent of white Catholics who earned less than $50,000 said they were were attending Mass each week, and non-white Catholics in that income bracket slipped six percentage points in just two years, falling to 21 percent from 27 percent between 2016 and 2018.

Church attendance “is a luxury for many people who are low-income,” Mr. Burge says. “They have to work long hours at multiple jobs, and they just have scheduling conflicts or are just too tired to do one more thing.”

Church attendance “is a luxury for many people who are low-income. They have to work long hours at multiple jobs, and they just have scheduling conflicts or are just too tired to do one more thing.”

Crunching a different data set at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, Mark Gray, the director of Catholic polls and a senior research associate, found drops in weekly Mass attendance since the 1970s among all income groups but separated by only a few percentage points between economic groups. A few other numbers stood out, however. The share of “lower class” Catholics who maintained “a great deal” of confidence in the church declined to 21 percent from 49 percent between the 1970s and 2010s; and the retention rate, measuring the share of people raised as Catholic who still identify with the faith, declined to 59 percent from 92 percent for this quartile.

At the upper end of the income spectrum, confidence in the church, after dropping sharply during the 1970s, has actually been on the rise, to 38 percent in the 2010s from 28 percent in the 1980s, while the retention rate among the highest-income Catholics has remained steady, at about 70 percent.

The numbers suggest that a once largely hardscrabble church is losing touch with its working-class members. Is the U.S. church in danger of becoming a spiritual enclave for middle- and upper-class Catholics?

Essential Work

In normal times, Caroline Black is a weekly Massgoer who seeks out confession at least once a month. But, as for many others, her routines have been completely thrown off by the coronavirus pandemic. After a busy week as a supermarket cashier, she has been too tired for even live-streamed Mass these days, she says in an email, describing her life as a working-class Catholic in rural Georgia. She does not own a car, so she has been unable to attend drive-through confession.

At her parish, she says, she joined “a lot of women’s group things that required money to attend, and I was lucky to have the fees waived. But it seems to me that the vast majority of my acquaintances from such events were middle- to upper-class.” She notes “the throwing of rather lavish parties and the invitations to large homes” as something “very different” from what she experienced growing up in the Methodist Church.

“Pay to play” activities that “just reek of bourgeoisie” are beyond her reach. Near-annual pilgrimages, for example, “that are almost always overpriced” take fellow parishioners to “some fancy part of the world,” she says. Fundraising drives for a new organ, vestments and hymnals are another source of anxiety. She describes a church “constantly renovating and materially ‘improving’ itself so that it is more appealing to the eye,” while she sees the material needs among the people of the parish as more pressing.

“I think the church has a long history of caring for the poor and, with people like Dorothy Day, a history of caring for workers’ rights,” Ms. Black says. “But I think that it has grown lax in its vision.”

“I think the church has a long history of caring for the poor and, with people like Dorothy Day, a history of caring for workers’ rights,” Ms. Black says. “But I think that it has grown lax in its vision and in its action and has rested on the laurels of the past without wanting to do much for the present and the future.

“It relies too much upon the pockets of the wealthy for everything,” she adds, “and...sort of pushes away the working-class people who want to be a part of it but can’t afford [to contribute] above their tithes.”

Finding Meaning Outside the Parish

Aimee Shelide Mayer is a representative for the Catholic Labor Network in Nashville, Tenn. Catholics are a minority in her part of the United States, and union organizers an even rarer commodity. But she has little trouble bumping into tentative or former Catholics in her outreach among Latino immigrants who increasingly call Nashville home. The state’s Latino population has leaped nearly tenfold since 1980, to more than 328,000.

Ms. Shelide Mayer has previously worked “on the church side” in parish ministry and has made a career out of building connections between labor and church. She notes a few practical issues that affect the relationship.

Many of the working-class people she meets, single moms or parents in busy double-income households, “are barely able to make it to Mass and are not able to be involved beyond that because of their work schedules. And because of that, they don’t really feel like they belong.”

At work during parish meetings that are held in daylight hours and too exhausted to attend meetings at night, they do not see themselves represented in parish leadership, she says. Also, for those without cars, churches can be hard to reach if they are not located along bus routes, and harder still on Sundays when those bus lines are running limited schedules or shut down completely.

Some have drifted from the church, she speculates, because they are finding more meaning and opportunities for leadership elsewhere.

An immigrant from Mexico who settled in Nashville in the 1990s, Julio Fernandez has acquired English-language skills and is frequently asked to mediate disputes with police, landlords or employers. He has learned a great deal about the commonplace discrimination and exploitation experienced by Latinos in Nashville.

Young Latinos in Nashville are regarded with suspicion by police, who treat them uniformly as gang members, he says; and undocumented and even resident immigrants from Central and Latin America are often robbed of wages by restaurant owners, factory supervisors or construction subcontractors. He has been troubled to discover fellow Catholics among these abusive employers.He was once deeply involved in his parish; now he devotes more time to labor and secular justice campaigns like Jobs With Justice, the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition and the National Guestworker Alliance. He still connects with Catholic parishes to recruit people for demonstrations but wishes he could count on local pastors and parishioners as allies. He has struggled even to get permission to hand out informational pamphlets about worker rights at parishes in Nashville. They were deemed too political, he says.

“Learning English is a skill; it’s a tool” that can help Latino workers in Tennessee, he says. “So is learning their rights.” He adds that too many workers in this right-to-work state, especially those who are undocumented, remain deeply vulnerable to unscrupulous employers and believe they cannot defend themselves because of the threat of deportation.

Mr. Fernandez notes all the “romantic” words the church uses about justice and human dignity but says he has learned that the fight for justice is battled out in small victories and losses every day. He would be overjoyed, he says, to feel that the church was consistently at his side in that struggle.

Out-of-Touch Homilies

Bishop John Stowe, O.F.M.Conv., who leads the Diocese of Lexington, Ky., notes that receiving the Eucharist is not the only source of spiritual sustenance at Mass. But he worries that homilies that get bogged down on theological issues and infrequently reflect the everyday lives of the lower-income parishioners could be a cause of working-class drift.

He warns that a church that does not take seriously “the concerns of working mothers” or take a stand on the struggles of the working class, like “lacking health care insurance or lacking the basic necessities,” is a church running the risk of “losing people because they are not fed.”

Because of parish closings, consolidations and mergers, and the ongoing vocation crisis, priests are ministering to larger and more complex church communities. This makes crafting the weekly homily a challenging proposition. “It probably was easier to make homilies relevant when there was some kind of cohesion among the congregation to begin with, whether it was the same ethnic group or socioeconomic level,” Bishop Stowe acknowledges. “So you have to work harder at it. But isn’t that what it means to be Catholic—the universal church?

Bishop John Stowe warns that a church that does not take a stand on the struggles of the working class is a church running the risk of “losing people because they are not fed.”

“That’s where the old ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ comes to play,” he adds. “The church has to be both, and the homily has to be both.” It should prompt an examination of conscience for everyone in the pews, regardless of class, he says.

There are, of course, larger issues affecting the relationship of working-class people with the church. The sexual abuse crisis has damaged esteem for the church across all income classes, says David Spesia, the executive director of the Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He wonders what a study of the socioeconomic background of the thousands of victims of sexual assault by priests might reveal. “Did they tend to be lower-income?” What might be the ripple effect, he asks, “to any given family where that occurred and their [extended] family and friends?”

Another possible issue: The sacrament of marriage can be a key introduction to a parish community and the beginning of a life connected to the church; and while marriage rates have dropped substantially across all classes of Americans, they have fallen hardest among lower-income Americans. According to a report from the Institute for Family Studies, low-income and working-class Americans experience higher rates of “family instability, single parenthood and life-long singleness” than do higher income groups. Many are simply not forming families, which would presumably draw them closer to the church.

Suburbanization has been another contributor to the lack of connection. “The church is in some ways following the money,” says John Russo, a visiting scholar at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. U.S. dioceses followed white Catholics as they moved to the suburbs. As these newly middle-class Catholics departed, urban dioceses struggled to keep churches and schools open, limiting access to the church for Catholics who remained behind or new immigrant Catholics.

Many working-class Americans simply are not forming families, which would presumably draw them closer to the church.

The declining economic status of U.S. workers since the 1970s, following massive job outsourcing to countries with lower wages and the diminishing political might of the labor movement, is part of the puzzle, Mr. Russo argues. He had an unwelcome front-row perspective on the process of U.S. deindustrialization in Youngstown, Ohio, where his family has deep union roots. “One of the problems with deindustrialization is you lose faith in institutions—political, religious, corporate,” he says.

The children and grandchildren of that economic dislocation are now among the contemporary Catholics joining the great atomization of U.S. life, abandoning parish halls and retreating to man caves and she sheds, Netflix and social media. Timothy P. Carney, who wrote about the phenomenon in his 2019 book, Alienated America, worries that these nominally Catholic members of the working class are not achieving a kind of emotional self-sufficiency but are instead engaging in a less wholesome withdrawal from everything—civic, social and spiritual life.

[Review: Sarah Smarsh on the hard-to-find American Dream]

“It’s one of the manifestations of that deinstitutionalization, but the church should be the outlier, if we are what Jesus wants us to be,” he says. “The church should be the place the poor turn away from last.”

Mr. Carney is convinced that the expanded role of government has played a part. “[Government] crowding out is a real thing,” he says, arguing that as federal and state governments step in to assume larger roles in responding to economic need, the parish—once a hub of spiritual and social life and material assistance—loses relevance. “When you’ve got food stamps, why do you need the church?” he asks.

Government’s interstitial presence, he argues, disconnects from the church not only people who might have turned to it seeking charity but also those church members willing to step in to help. “They’re losing the poor and the people who want to volunteer to serve the poor.

“I worry that people think you have to have your life together before you show your face at church,” Mr. Carney says. “That’s backward.”

“The real crime is if you would give the poor person all the support for food and rent that they need, they are still losing by not going to church,” Mr. Carney says. In the contemporary United States, he says, “we have a decent safety net, but what we don’t have for poor people is for them to belong to something.”

Listening to Christian radio in Washington, D.C., he frequently hears testimonials from men and women who had their struggles but were able to find sustenance and recovery at church. “All stories of people who had something really broken, but it was Jesus that helped them,” he says. “That really drove that point home that Pope Francis is making, that church is a field hospital.”

But a sense of church as being a refuge seems to have diminished among many who have become too “embarrassed” to participate. “I worry that people think you have to have your life together before you show your face at church,” Mr. Carney says. “That’s backward.”

Solidarity Forever?

But if, as Mr. Carney believes, the local parish has been deprived of a relationship-building role as an agent of charity, could the church find renewal by standing up as an advocate for justice and equity? Joe McCartin thinks so. The executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative, mentioned above, Mr. McCartin says that in order to reconnect with the working class, the church should “prioritize its social teachings on issues of work, workers’ rights, power and structural inequality.”

Commenting by email, he said, “These teachings have been there for decades, but recent U.S. church leaders have—with some notable exceptions—generally marginalized...and grown distant from them.” The church has certainly continued to speak out on issues that affect the poor, he says, but it has “soft-pedaled its teachings on the dignity of work and the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively over their working conditions.” It lost its voice on such matters, according to Mr. McCartin, at a crucial historical moment, as wealth and power became increasingly concentrated in the top economic tier in the United States.

Contemporary immigrant parishes may prove exceptions, he says; but the vibrant connection between the church and the working class evident in the mid-20th century, “when labor priests and Catholic labor schools provided a material witness to the church’s commitment to a faith that does justice,” has “atrophied severely.”

“If the church hopes to increase the engagement of low-income Catholics, I think it must show that it will accompany them and encourage them to struggle for justice,” Mr. McCartin concludes.

“If the church hopes to increase the engagement of low-income Catholics, I think it must show that it will accompany them and encourage them to struggle for justice,” Mr. McCartin concludes.

Such “paths of justice” represent opportunities to re-engage “with those who are not religiously affiliated,” Mr. Spesia adds. But burdened with large, costly institutions, the church is not as “nimble as maybe we once were.”

“It’s almost like we need to rediscover what we once knew. It’s going back to the beginning and rediscovering the church in the early centuries,” he says.

“Maybe we were a little too eager to embrace the so-called American Dream,” he adds. “There is a certain level of comfort that a lot of American Catholics have settled into.” Fortunately, a “return to the core Gospel that Pope Francis keeps bringing us to challenges a lot of that. Pastoral and missionary conversion...[are] absolutely what we need at this moment.”

The church has a treasury of social teaching to help guide it in a possible revived stand with working people, Bishop Stowe says. But he wonders if its priests and laypeople are equipped to share the tradition.

The church has a treasury of social teaching to help guide it in a possible revived stand with working people, Bishop Stowe says.

In many seminaries, Catholic social teaching is “too often treated as a specialty or a special-interest kind of class,” he says, rather than a subject that must be “integrated into what it is to be Catholic.” He adds that the same can be said of much of the preparation for lay ministries.

The topic comes up frequently in his work on the subcommittee for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, where bishops have expressed concerns about young clergymen disinterested in learning about social and economic justice but immersed in a curriculum that promises to equip them to serve as “spiritual fathers.”

“How can you be a spiritual father if you are not interested in the whole person?” Bishop Stowe asks.

Rebuilding the Relationship

Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum,” the encyclical that began the church’s tradition of social teaching in 1891, was written partly out of concern that the church was losing 19th-century Catholic workers to socialist movements. Surveying today’s political and economic landscape, Bishop Stowe wonders if the church faces the same risk now, this time losing Catholics to “populism rather than communism.”

Mr. Russo suggests that a great place for the church to start rebuilding its relationship with low-income and working-class people would be to stand up for workers facing the greatest hardships during these extraordinary times—workers abandoned to unemployment because of the coronavirus pandemic and those, often ill-prepared and undercompensated, forced to stand on its front lines.

Ms. Black, the cashier, would welcome the church coming to her aid right now, as a suddenly “essential” worker in a job that previously had not been held in such high esteem in American life. Can she count on her church leaders to back demands for protective gear on the job, hazard pay and, over the long haul, a wage that would eliminate some of the insecurity in her life? She is still waiting for an answer to those questions.

Ms. Black, the cashier, would welcome the church coming to her aid right now, as a suddenly “essential” worker in a job that previously had not been held in such high esteem in American life.

Across the country in California, Maria Linder is one of the pandemic’s employment casualties. As the coronavirus lockdown began in March, she was abruptly terminated from a housekeeping position she had held for 26 years at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, along with more than 250 other workers.

The current plan of the hotel owners is to transform the former celebrity enclave into a private club, dodging an obligation to rehire terminated employees should business return to something like normal. Ms. Linder has no idea what comes next for her. At 67 years of age, “Nobody wants me now,” she says. “I am too old.”

A native of Guadalajara, Mexico, she came to the United States as a young widow with four children. She has always felt welcomed at her parish in the city of Hawthorne, but following its Masses on livestream now, she has yet to hear any commentary about her plight or the struggles of other workers during the pandemic.

She is not sure if she can turn to her church for material support; she has never had to seek assistance before. “I try to always go to Mass, but it is not the biggest focus of my life because I work a lot and I have a child with special needs,” she says. Even with its doors closed, she says, “the church could really help us with our struggle.”

A recent letter from the Jesuits West Province urging Governor Gavin Newsom of California to require employers to restore terminated workers when the crisis inevitably concludes was a welcome practical expression of support, and a union organizer for Unite Here Local 11 reports that streaming Masses offered for the benefit of hotel and hospitality workers by Dolores Mission in Los Angeles have been great spiritual and morale boosts for the industry’s laid-off and terminated workers.

But to have representatives from the church joining her in the fight against her former employer would simply fill her with happiness, Ms. Linder says. It would feel “like God were blessing our struggle,” she says. “In this time, with so many difficulties and sadness, [if] the church could accompany us, it could help us find a solution to our problems,” she says.

Ike Michael Udoh, S.J., a pastoral minister at Blessed Sacrament Jesuit Parish in Hollywood, Calif., describes such accompaniment as an essential aspect of “a faith that does justice.”

“There is something that makes your faith so alive,” he says, “when you are able to just share in the joys and the struggles and the trials of the body of Christ—the people who make us the same community of faith.”

From its earliest days, Father Udoh points out, the church has been threatened with conflict and division because of its economic, social and ethnic complexity. “But,” he says, “we are always being invited through our faith in him to remember that we are one.”


U.S. Latinos: A Fluid Catholic Identity

Carmen Nanko-Fernández, the director of the Hispanic Theology and Ministry Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, thinks the issue of working-class Catholics falling away from the church is an important concern that warrants deeper study. But she resists drawing broad conclusions from slim demographic information—especially when it is applied to the U.S. Catholic Latino community as if it were an ethnic and economic monolith. That multinational, multiethnic and multiclass community is too dense and too varied to be easily characterized, she argues.

Ms. Nanko-Fernández says Catholic identity among U.S. Latinos is fluid, shifting according to income and region. Some Latino Catholics identify firmly with their local parish. Others, embracing “popular religion,” may maintain a looser connection but one that remains identifiably Catholic. And with so many Latino Catholics working in service industries that require them to work on Sundays, Mass attendance makes a poor marker of Catholic identity, she argues.

In majority-Latino parishes, she adds, a complex mix of issues and motivations prompts the presence of individuals in the pews. Borderland parishes may include undocumented members, who endure the lowest incomes, alongside Latino doctors, judges and border patrol agents, people who are multigenerational members of U.S. society whose roots are so deep, “the border moved over them.”

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