How religion fares in the U.S.A. - Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches

How religion fares in the U.S.A. - Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches

Michael Gilchrist

Despite the present healthy Mass attendance figures for American Catholics, Protestant trends within the Church do not augur well for the future.

The 1990 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches is just out, with the latest complete figures on church membership. For mainline Protestants, the numbers tell a distressingly familiar story. Membership in the United Methodist Church fell by 69,430 from 1987 to 1988. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was down 38,173, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America down 36,696, the United Church of Christ down 17,787, the Disciples of Christ down 13,549, and the Episcopal Church down 6,878.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, continues to gain baptised members - up 2.66% from 1987 to 1988 - largely because of the influx of Hispanic immigrants. Nevertheless, the Church faces a long-term decline in religious practice among those whom it counts as Catholic. In 1958, 74% of U.S. Catholics attended Mass weekly; in 1988, 48% did so.

These U.S. figures nevertheless look quite healthy when compared with Australia where in major metropolitan dioceses the average Mass attendance rate each week is down from 50-60% in the early 1960s to between 20-25%. But if the American figures are still respectable, by Australian standards, the inner reality is less reassuring.

In the New York Archdiocese, the high-profile, pro-Vatican Cardinal John O'Connor is firm in expressing his Church's teachings against abortion and homosexuality, yet if we are to believe public opinion polls, three-quarters of New York's Catholics say that they "pay little or no attention" to what Cardinal O'Connor says in conducting their own lives. Eight out of ten approve of artificial contraception; nine out of ten favour the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. And by nearly the same ratio as non-Catholics they also favour the legalisation of abortion. Many parish priests agree with them. On "Gay Pride Day" last year several Catholic churches in New York were decorated with balloons in the homosexual movement's rainbow colours.

In The Catholic Myth, Andrew Greeley, a priest, sociologist and prolific fiction writer, recently published research on what, he claimed, today's American Catholics "really believe and how they really behave". The picture was one of surface liveliness and health, but of inner dissent.

The Economist interpreted Greeley's findings as follows (October 20, 1990): "For practising Catholics the Church is their local parish church, usually a lively place where God is love and where the priest is much keener to get people involved in good works than to tell them what they can't do in bed. Non-Catholics are unfamiliar with this Church. For them Catholicism is still personified by the Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals placed in the most visible pulpits in America by the Pope."

Separation of Church and State

John F. Kennedy had said in the 1960 presidential election campaign: "I believe in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute - where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act." Today, as the abortion issue becomes ever more heated in the U.S. and many Catholic Bishops adopt stronger stances against pro-choice Catholic politicians, it is apparent that most American Catholics still prefer the Kennedy line to that of Cardinal O'Connor.

In other words, despite the respectable American Mass attendance figures, many (or most) American Catholics see themselves as belonging to a Church based on private judgement - the 'community model' so much in vogue in renewal programs, summer schools and adult education courses - rather than one authoritatively taught and led by the successors of Christ and the Apostles.

The move is clearly towards Protestantism and accommodation with secularism, while lip service may continue to traditional Catholicism and Papal authority.

Andrew Greeley, and others like him, according to Dr. Robert Levis, a priest-professor at Gannon University, have been arguing for 25 years for "a more pastoral Church, a soft Church, a therapeutic Church, a less demanding Church than many of us recall from pre-Vatican II days. In his American Catholics Since the Council, Greeley, for example, argues that because American Catholics have improved their material, financial, and intellectual status, the Church should recognise this and permit the almost universal dissent that has occurred since the mid-1960s.

He argues, says Levis, "in support of an important shift in the image of God on the part of young Americans, a shift from viewing God as Lord and Master to God as Lover." This is the very reason, he claims, why Catholics who might have formerly taken leave of the 'institutional' Church now remain. The Church should no longer be a stern master but rather a soft and pastoral mother." In other words, Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal O'Connor are expounding the wrong 'model.' The 'American Church' (and the 'Australian Church') should be allowed to follow the softer, 'liberal' Protestant path.

According to sociologist Dr. Joseph A. Varacalli, a New York author and academic, his research indicates that many young Catholics have not undergone any profound or conscious theological change but have simply opted after the 'Yuppie' life, the easy way which has weakened the work ethic, the ideals of self-sacrifice, altruism and spirituality. Varacalli accuses Greeley of identifying U.S. Catholicism with that of a flaccid and degenerate liberal Protestantism. Greeley's Church - and that of 'liberal' Catholics in general - offers merely a this-worldly, middle-class, armchair social Gospel.

Greeley argues that the new value changes in the Church would have happened anyway, regardless of Vatican II; that the influences on Catholics of the outer and larger society are far greater than the minor influences of their Church. He has been advising Catholic leaders to go along here, to accept the inevitable, to surrender to these changes that cannot be avoided.

And with tremendous success! Millions have accepted American individualism, democracy, materialism, and relativism as Catholic Gospel. Writers such as Greeley and Dean Hoge (a liberal sociologist at the Catholic University of America) have been teaching that U.S. Catholicism can survive only if it surrenders and begins to mirror the beliefs of Protestant America. Obviously, says Levis, "many Church leaders have chosen this route and marching with Greeley to the same drummer are those theologians who substitute the 'people of God' for the Magisterium, relativism for the truth and absolute nature of Catholicism, and this-worldliness for spirituality. Some years ago, Dean Kelley wrote Why Conservative Churches are Growing, in which he stated that the Catholic Church in America has been fuelling a movement "towards its own self-destruction."

In other words, the statistics for 'liberal' and mainline Protestantism, both in the U.S. and Australia, are hardly reassuring for the future of local 'Catholic' Churches which adopt the 'Greeley model'. It is a recipe for nothingness, as these forms of Protestantism become further secularised and fragmented.

Faithful remnant

There are some who would say that the statistics of size do not matter. A healthy Church, they would affirm, is one which obeys God's call - regardless of whether doing so leaves it larger or smaller. Sometimes a Church may be reduced to a "faithful remnant" when it takes an unpopular, prophetic stand against sin - as Cardinal O'Connor or the present Pope has done. But in terms of those who actually accept all that their Church teaches, even the healthy-looking 'American Church' may be fast becoming a remnant.

If the Churches, Protestant and Catholic, were indeed faithful remnants, then we should have to accept their statistical slide as nothing other than the unjust reward which God's prophets so often receive. But this explanation cannot be applied when orthodoxy is held in such low esteem among the so-called practising.

Yet a 1987 book, American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future, by Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, could still affirm: "Liberal Protestantism's future, we believe, lies not in a move toward the theological and ideological right, but in its becoming more self-consciously 'liberal." Adopting secularism as the guiding principle of faith, they argue, would appeal more to the unchurched who are already the most liberal group in U.S. society. Where, one might ask, does this leave ecumenism?

Roof and McKinney cite a survey in which 34% of liberal Protestants" agreed that "extra-marital sex" (adultery) is not always wrong. With so many having difficulty in accepting one of the least ambiguous points of Christianity, can it be any wonder, says Alan Wisdom, writing in the conservative American Protestant journal Religion and Democracy (November 1990), "that the scandal of the Gospel is often not embraced? Christ's awful death, the penalty of sin, is sure to be a stumbling block to those who have not first recognised the enormity of sin.

"If Christians are to focus on the Gospel," he adds, "they must distinguish it from other messages." Indeed, in the name of justice and peace, many of them, including Catholics, have committed themselves to a precise political agenda on scores of disputed issues: Nicaragua, El Salvador, South Africa, immigration, the environment, and so forth. "Missionaries", says Wisdom, "have been sent and monies allocated to advance that narrow agenda. Frequently the agenda has been pressed on Church members in tones of passion and authority that might better have been reserved for the preaching of the Gospel!" Yet, despite the failure of so many of their past "prophecies", particularly in the case of the downfall of Marxism and socialism, liberal Christians are often the last to catch up with reality.

In short, Australian and American Catholics, contemplating future alternatives for their Church, might give the path towards liberal Protestantism a miss, even if this means a 'remnant' status. At least that remnant would be Catholic in more than name.

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