ROME – The German bishops have now delivered to Rome the long-awaited results of their “synodal journey,” a contentious nationwide consultation of the country’s Catholics, and anyone with a passing familiarity with German Catholicism over the past few decades will not find much surprises.
Broadly speaking, German Catholics seem to want more lay empowerment, especially of women, including a say in the selection of pastors and bishops as well as a preaching role for lay people. They also support greater tolerance for disagreeing with official Church teaching on burning issues such as contraception, same-sex marriage, celibacy and female ordination.
Calls for such changes are tied to falling Mass attendance and church membership, with the suggestion that German Catholics are abandoning ship out of frustration with what they see as a church” embedded, too hierarchical and old-fashioned”.
RELATED: German Catholics want expanded secular roles, greater tolerance for dissent
None of this is new and it is not limited to Germany. In the developed world, Catholicism has grappled with declining numbers for decades, and those declines are often linked to perceived failures to implement desired reforms.
Yet in the developed country for which we have the best data on how people make decisions about religious affiliation, the United States, it turns out things are not that simple.
We have this data thanks to the precious Pew Research Center – an institution for which I personally give thanks almost every day – and its historical study of the religious landscape, conducted in 2007 and again in 2014, which is the dream of a religion nerd, chock-full of fascinating nuggets about Americans’ religious choices.
From a media perspective, the headline has been Catholic Decline.
Thirteen percent of all Americans are now former Catholics, a staggering pool of about 40 million people, who would be the second-largest denomination in the country if they thought of themselves that way. Only 2% of Americans are adult Catholic converts, or about 6.6 million people, which means American Catholicism loses six existing members for every new member it gains.
On the surface, these numbers present a damning condemnation of the American Catholic Church and suggest the need for urgent change. Going down, however, things get more complicated.
For starters, the 2014 study found that Catholicism falls in the middle of the pack in terms of its ability to retain existing members. The Catholic Church retains about 60% of its population into adulthood, behind black Protestant churches at 70% and Evangelicals at 65%, but ahead of Orthodox at 53% and mainstream Protestants at 45%.
Here’s the complex bit.
In the 2020 election, 91% of historically black Protestants voted for Biden while 84% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, but both outperform the Catholic Church in retention. Meanwhile, the Orthodox are generally seen as more doctrinally and liturgically conservative than Catholics, while many mainstream Protestant churches adopted the proposed German canon of reforms decades ago, but both retain existing members. at lower rates.
Of particular interest is the comparison of data from the 2008 Religious Landscape Study and the 2014 results. In 2008, the retention rate for Catholicism was 68%, but it fell to 59% in 2014, when Pope Francis rekindled hope for the progressive reforms that were meant to reinvigorate Catholic fortunes.
In fact, a moment’s thought is enough to cast doubt on any ideological explanation for fluctuations in church membership.
Catholicism has been losing ground in the West since the 1960s, a period that included the progressive era of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, then the more conservative period of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and now again a more liberal under Francis.
If ideological redirection is key to getting people back on the pews, shouldn’t we have seen some impact depending on who’s running the show in Rome?
It’s also instructive to ask where all those ex-Catholics in America ended up. About half became “nuns”, without any religious affiliation, or defected to a mainline Protestant church, while the other half joined an Evangelical or Pentecostal congregation. In fact, one in ten evangelicals in America today is a former Catholic.
It is difficult to see a clear ideological winner there.
It is at least worth considering the possibility that the religious decisions people make are much more driven by personal considerations – such as the experience they have had of an individual Catholic parish, the people who make it up and the welcome they felt there – only by abstract questions of ecclesiastical policy.
By extension, it may not be as simple as implementing a series of policy changes. Perhaps if Catholicism wants people to stay, the battle must be fought at the level of detail, in direct pastoral care and attention, not whether popes or bishops veer left or right.
Of course, the United States is not the rest of the world. However, it should be noted that as Catholic membership in Germany has declined, the philosophy of the German hierarchy has been quite liberal, suggesting that a simple ideological realignment may not be no longer the miracle solution.
Perhaps the hard truth is that politics just doesn’t drive religious choices in the linear way that we would like it to, and if we want more people in the church, we need to treat them more in as human beings rather than as voters.
That may not be the answer proponents want in today’s religious debates, but it’s at least worth considering if that’s what the data is telling us.