Crunch Time for American Catholicism

by R. Scott Appleby

R. Scott Appleby teaches history and directs the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

This article appeared in The Christian Century April 3, 1996, pp. 370 – 376. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at


Today the “always reforming church finds itself once again at a dramatic turning point in the U.S.

  In 1962, when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council with a resounding call for aggiornarnento, few of the bishops in attendance imagined that the work of "updating" the Roman Catholic Church would become a constant preoccupation. Today, however, the "always reforming church" finds itself once again at a dramatic turning point in the U.S.

Gone are the halcyon days when priests staffed every parish, sacramental theology made sense to most laity, and an abundance of nuns educated and formed 5 million parochial school students. In 1960 U.S. Catholicism enjoyed the low-cost, labor-intensive dedication of 52,689 priests and 164,922 nuns. More than 30,000 young men filled diocesan and religious order seminaries. In addition to the 10,000 Catholic elementary schools and 2,400 high schools, there were 223 Catholic associations, movements and societies with an explicit educational purpose.

Since 1960 the Catholic population has grown from 40 to 60 million, but the number of priests and women religious has declined to 45,000 and 90,000 respectively as a result of resignations, retirements and thinning ranks of new recruits. The number of seminarians has dropped to about 5,500-hardly enough to replace the many who will soon retire, much less to keep up with the increasing size of the laity. Communities of women religious, who built and sustained the church's infrastructure for decades, are also aging dramatically and face an uncertain future.

Numbers and size alone do not guarantee the vitality or sanctity of a religious community, of course. Nor is the brick-and-mortar emphasis of the "golden age" of the Catholic parish, which extended roughly from 1920 to 1960, the norm for succeeding generations. Nonetheless, Catholics seek to share word, sacrament and God's reign in justice with as many people as possible, and therefore they ponder with dismay any signs of atrophy in their work. The elementary and secondary school system (to name just one Catholic institution affected by the drop in vocations) serves approximately half the number of students it did in 1960, despite the greater presence of lay teachers and administrators. Catholic hospitals and charities rely increasingly on professionals drawn from the secular world. Perhaps most disconcerting of all is the rapid increase in the ratio of parishioners to priests and nuns.

"The next five years is crunch time," warns Father Eugene F. Hemrick, director of research for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Unless we address the personnel crisis effectively, we will lose our best chance to influence the direction of change."

Significant change is occurring already in the 2,000 Catholic parishes without a resident priest-10 percent of the total, and growing. Hundreds of these parishes are administered by women religious who act, in effect, as pastors without portfolio. In such settings the proclamation and preaching of the scriptures replaces the consecration of the Eucharist as the primary act of communal worship, thereby threatening the centrality of the sacramental tradition. Although considered a stopgap measure, the introduction of parish administrators means that Catholics are becoming accustomed to compassionate, gifted women acting in quasi-priestly roles. When the parish phone rings in the middle of the night, bearing news of a family crisis, the church still answers faithfully, but the bedside prayers and communion may be offered by Sister, not Father. In time the laity may not care to observe the distinction between the new Christ-bearers and ordained priests, despite the Vatican's "infallible" teaching that the former are forever excluded from the ranks of the latter.

The shifting Catholic demographics are documented in Full Pews, Empty Altars, a controversial study of the priest shortage by the late Richard Schoenherr. Whether or not the trend is irreversible, as Schoenherr argues, it has begun to transform the relationship between priests, women religious, the new pastoral administrators, permanent deacons and lay ministers. This new configuration challenges the basic ways Catholics have thought about themselves and articulated their mission. It also raises daunting organizational questions, especially regarding the future of seminary education and the allocation of resources for lay ministry training and certification. Also in doubt is whether the church's financial structures can provide both retirement benefits for a graying clergy and a living wage for full-time lay pastoral associates who have families to feed.

The priest shortage, coupled with Pope John Paul II's refusal to ordain women or to reconsider the blanket requirement of priestly celibacy, limits the maneuverability of the U.S. bishops. Few of them can feel heartened by the popularity of the newly promulgated rite that was initially called Sunday Worship without a Priest-SWAP(!). Fewer still care to force a no-win decision between fidelity to Rome and the pressing pastoral needs of a burgeoning Catholic population.

Understandably, therefore, the bishops have yet to develop 4 coherent response to the personnel crisis. They disagree over the meaning and practical implications of studies like Schoenherr's which project continuing decline in vocations well into the next century. Cardinal Roger Mahoney, the archbishop of Los Angeles, has declared defiantly that the Holy Spirit, not the sociologists, will decide the ftiture of the Roman Catholic Church.

Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Nebraska, likewise pledges that the church "will remain faithful to her apostolic mandate by continuing to nurture and call candidates to a male, celibate priesthood and to a vowed religious life." Young people, he argues,

"do not want to commit themselves to dioceses or communities which permit or simply ignore dissent from church doctrine." Hoping for a Spirit-inspired "vocation renaissance," archbishops such as Denver's J. Francis Stafford and St.Louis's Justin F. Rigali are bringing seminary education more directly under their control and concentrating financial resources there rather than in lay ministry training. They refuse to be "moved off track by the prophets of doom and those people who have their own agendas for the church," as Curtiss puts it.

Other Catholic leaders, however, read the Holy Spirit's intentions differently and make a virtue of necessity. "A pastoral challenge exists today to call more people to use their ministerial gifts and talents in new forms of leader-' ship," says Seattle's Archbishop Thomas Murphy. In the same vein Father Phil Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York, acknowledges that "the future is a Catholic ministry that is shared." He believes that the ordained priesthood, its authority undermined by the widely publicized scandals involving sexual misconduct, must relearn its role in relationship to others in church ministry, including the 20,000 laypeople who are now serving on parish staffs.

The shortage of priests and women religious has become acute at a time when Catholics need unified and vigorous pastoral leadership more than ever. Consider the scope of the challenges and opportunities that present themselves in the 1990s.

Evangelization and the Hispanic community. Although 63 percent of the 10 million Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. are native-born, neither they nor the immigrant populations from Mexico, the Caribbean and Latin America have been fully integrated into American Catholic life. Individual pastoral success stories abound, but a common Hispanic-American identity has yet to be forged. The greatest obstacles to unity may exist within the multicultural Hispanic community itself.

Last summer in San Antonio 500 leaders in Hispanic ministry -- clergy, religious and laity -- from 110 Catholic dioceses gathered to discuss their situation and pledge their commitment to a new evangelization of the professional world. The participants in "Convocation '95" dedicated themselves "to sharing with the entire church in the United States the progress brought about in Hispanic ministry." In November the U.S. bishops issued a statement responding enthusiastically to the meeting and celebrating the virtues of the Hispanic ethos, "the fruit of the inculturation of the Catholic faith through the tremendous encounter with Iberian, Native American and African spiritualities." The bishops called Hispanics to ' lead the church in recalling its mission "to preserve and foster a Catholic identity in the midst of an often hostile culture."

But there is a gap between rhetoric and reality. Though the Mexican-American population exhibits a, strong popular religiosity, it lacks clergy. And ministry to second- and third-generation Hispanics requires a specialized approach, since the English-speaking younger generations still want to express their faith via Latino cultural forms. Complicating the task of evangelization is the dearth of hard data about the Hispanic-American world. Catholic leaders also worry that evangelical Protestants, especially Pentecostals, are malting inroads into Hispanic neighborhoods.

Ethnic and racial diversity is nothing new for U.S. Catholics, of course, but the legacy of pastoral care is being put to the test not only by Mexicans, Cubans and Puerto Ricans, but by a generation of Filipino, Korean and other Asian immigrants.

Social outreach and public service. Let us imagine the labors of a future historian engaged in the thorny task of interpreting the fortunes of American Catholics in the 1990s. In the official documents he will find compelling evidence of an impressive network of agencies and institutions engaged in the service of the common good and the pursuit of social justice.

Perusing the index of Origins, the weekly publication of representative documents and speeches compiled by Catholic News Service, our imaginary historian will note, for example, the following initiatives undertaken at the national, diocesan and parish levels in 1994-95: providing alternatives to abortion; staffing adoption agencies; conducting adult education courses; addressing African American Catholics' pastoral needs; funding programs to prevent alcohol abuse; implementing a new policy on altar servers and guidelines for the Anointing of the Sick; lobbying for arms control; eliminating asbestos in public housing; supporting the activities of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (227 strong); challenging atheism in American society; establishing base communities (also known as small faith communities); providing aid to war victims in Bosnia; conducting Catholic research in bioethics; publicizing the new Catechism of the Catholic Church; battling child abuse; strengthening the relationship between church and labor unions; and deepening the structures and expressions of collegiality in the local and diocesan church.

These items (selected alphabetically a through c) merely suggest the direction of Catholic energies. They do not include, for example, Catholic Charities' extensive network of 1,400 charitable agencies serving 18 million people; the Catholic Health Association's 600 hospitals and 300 long term care facilities serving 20 million people; or the Campaign for Human Development's efforts to organize and empower the poor, with 200 local antipoverty groups working to improve policies, practices and laws affecting low-income people.

But these impressive data mask concerns about the gradual depletion of the resources and personnel needed to maintain these programs. No doubt our sharp-eyed historian will also note that a relatively small percentage of the Catholic population actually participates in or contributes to the range of services and pastoral initiatives celebrated in the official documents. Enormous financial and personal resources in the broader Catholic community remain untapped.

Detachment of the laity. Digging deeper, the historian will consult the literature on Catholic giving, which reached a new low in the 1990s. For more than a decade, giving as a percentage of income to all mainline churches, Protestant as well as Catholic, has declined. Yet Catholics have fared much worse than any of the Protestant congregations studied, including those supporting private schools. A 1992 study of 330,000 Catholics households from 280 Catholic parishes, for example, found that whereas the average family income was $41,000, the average annual contribution to the parish (not including school tuition) was $276.51-less than 1 percent of total income.

Furthermore, "the sense of personal ownership of the charities of the church has declined," reports Mary J. Oates in her 1995 study The Catholic Philanthropic Tradition in Anw7ica. "A paradox faces Catholic philanthropy. By adopting secular standards in organization and fundraising, and by relying heavily on extra-ecclesial funding, [the church] has vastly expanded its capacity to assist the poor and to offer high-quality services. Yet in critical ways these strategies compete with primary religious values."

By other markers as well, increasing numbers of lay Catholics seem detached from the central beliefs, religious practices and everyday ministries of their church. Less than one-third of the U.S. Catholic population regularly attends weekly mass. A 1993 Gallup poll found that, of those who do, only 30 percent believe they are actually receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and only 21 percent under the age of 50 so believe. One-fourth of Catholics agree that Christ becomes present in the bread and wine only if the recipient believes this to be so. One need not be a stickler for orthodoxy to find such attitudes toward the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist-one of the central affirmations, if not the central affirmation, of the worshiping Catholic community-to be cause for alarm.

Andrew Greeley has observed that "Catholics stay Catholic because they like being Catholic" -- they like, that is, the stories, symbols and practices which convey the rich, analogical Catholic religious imagination. One can agree and yet wonder if there isn't more to being Catholic and if younger generations of Catholics are even absorbing and wrestling with these inherited symbols and stories. Sr. Janet Baxindale, who lectures around the country on the spiritual potential of Catholic traditions like the Liturgy of the Hours, comments, "Among the adults I -teach, more often than not, a simple presentation of the theology of the liturgy and the role of all the baptized in the liturgical prayer of the church is greeted with 'I never knew that."' Most Catholic educators have had similar experiences.

In her study of Catholic philanthropy, Oates contends that the challenge facing Catholics today "is how to retain the obvious benefits of central organization while at the same time widening significant personal involvement.' That goal requires Catholic leaders to confront honestly the alienation of the laity. Is the poor record of mobilizing resources attributable to a lack of generosity on the part of the great mass of baptized Catholics? (Given the historical record, this seems doubtful.) Have catechetical programs in the postconciliar era failed to inculcate a sense of institutional loyalty? Do lay Catholics demand greater participation in the financial decisions of the local church? Do policies on ordination lend credibility to feminists’ charges of an inherent sexism in the church? Do pastoral leaders readily welcome a diversity of gifts from the laity-including intellectual leadership at the parish and diocesan levels?

Trivialization of the sacred. Catholic leaders-like Protestant Christians, Jews, Muslims and other Americans of faith-must contend with a culture that trivializes religion. The consumerism, crass materialism and moral relativism of Madison Avenue, Hollywood and the World Wide Web are much lamented, but ideological forces within the religious communities themselves may ultimately be more erosive of religious loyalty and identity. On the left the glorification of tolerance as the primary democratic virtue leads some ersatz Christian ecumenists to downplay the countercultural moral norms and scandalous truth claims of Christianity; on the right, fundamentalists in various religions reduce those transcendent norms and claims to political instruments, litmus tests for orthodoxy, or exclusive criteria for group membership. Both extremes compromise religion's unique power to nurture both priestly and prophetic modes.

Like other religious folk, American Catholics are susceptible to these patterns. U.S. culture combines an unfocused spiritual hunger and an eclectic approach to spirituality with a troubling focus on self-gratification. Conservative Catholics offer a biting critique and scold liberals for their seeming indifference to the "culture of radical pluralism" which inflates New Age experimentation and self-help therapies into authentic forms of religiosity. Conservatives also complain that peace-and-justice Catholics forget what separates the church from other charitable organizations: the conviction that eternal salvation depends upon participation in the sacred mysteries of the Catholic faith, not upon the quest for temporal justice. Liberal Catholics respond that conservatives have missed the point of Vatican IIs "turn to the world" and accuse them of playing their own divisive brand of right-wing politics, often within the church hierarchy as well as in secular politics.

Yet those on both sides who translate faith commitments into ideologies unintentionally advance secularization by reducing religion to a sociopolitical identity within a litigious, politicized public order.

Politicization of the faith. Catholic leaders in the 1990s recognize that the trend toward political engagement is a double-edged sword. Religiopolitical activism is a faithful and indispensable response to gospel imperatives; it is also a potential source of confusion and manipulation. Numbering close to 30 million, Catholic voters constitute approximately 28 percent of the electorate. In November 1994 they broke with tradition by giving Republican congressional candidates a majority of their votes. The growing influence of the Religious Right in the Republican Party provokes anxiety among Catholics lobbying for social and economic justice. The U.S. bishops, in particular, are concerned about the diffusion of the Catholic voice when movements and groups claiming the name "Catholic" issue political statements at odds with the bishops' own positions. Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, New York, recently accused the newly established Catholic Alliance, an arm of the Christian Coalition, of attempting "to split Catholics from their bishops."

Ironically, the bishops may have contributed to this development. In their widely publicized pastoral letters on the economy and the arms race in the 1980s, they acknowledged that people of good will, including Catholics who share the bishops' basic theological assumptions and moral principles, have a right to disagree on the prudential application of those principles in formulating specific public policies.

Complicating the situation further is the fact that the Catholic bishops advocate many of the same positions taken by the Catholic Alliance/Christian Coalition, including strong opposition to abortion, and the selective return of power to state and local governments. Both oppose a creeping secularism, advanced by many policymakers who operate as if the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom means freedom from religion. Finally, much of the criticism of the Religious Right takes the form of an attack on any religiously inspired participation in the political debate. As one Catholic official puts it, "The rhetoric and arguments aimed at marginalizing the Religious Right might one day be turned against us."

Nonetheless, most bishops fear that any de-centering of the Catholic voice will contribute to a de facto democratization of the church. Both Catholics for a Free Choice, a small activist group on the left whose influence is exaggerated (and thereby enhanced) by the media, and the Catholic wing of the Religious Right suggest by their very existence that a variety of political perspectives may be considered "Catholic." "Just as Catholics for a Free Choice and other such groups suggest to the general public that not all Catholics agree with positions adopted by their bishops on birth control, abortion and in-vitro fertilization, so will the Religious Right serve to suggest that not all Catholics accept the positions of church leaders in social justice matters," writes Richard J. Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. "The Christian Coalition gives Catholic dissenters on the right a place, politically, to go."

One might sum up the state of Catholicism as follows. On the one hand, a broad range of ministries and social-action programs involve informed, dedicated and faithful Catholics in almost every aspect of local, regional and national society. The impressive public witness of American Catholicism, disputes notwithstanding, reflects a clearly defined set of principles by which to pursue the common good. These principles, set forth in a striking series of postconciliar pastoral letters, have been critically received and generally acclaimed not only by the vigorous and able company of Catholic intellectuals but also by influential segments of the non-Catholic elite.

In its pastoral life the church embodies compassion, sustains a gentle sense of irony, and offers a remarkable witness to the possibilities of holiness in everyday life. Priests, sisters and lay ministers continue to baptize, confirm, educate (and be educated by) a bewildering variety of Catholics drawn from dozens of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Most remarkable, perhaps, they balance loyalty to a universal church and its pontiff with the demands of a lay population often unrealistic in its expectations of the clergy merely indifferent, distracted by a culture of self-absorption.

On the other hand, one finds a thin layer of dedicated professionals at the pinnacle of the Catholic organizational pyramid, a sizable gap between the professional elites and the people in the pews, and thus an increasingly unstable base of operations. The church is relatively ineffective in mobilizing resources not only politically and socially, but pastorally and ecclesially.

Despite the efforts of individual bishops, the church may also be criticized for turning a deaf ear to the expressions of pain and frustration voiced by faithful women, many of whom have no desire to be ordained, who are working as diocesan social action directors, parish-based directors of religious education, parish administrators, and in a host of other critical capacities. Many of these women are isolated by their lack of status within the institutional church. For example, in most dioceses, parish administrators are not regularly included in presbyteral conferences and pastoral planning meetings.

Leadership styles set the tone for the official church. Some bishops have an open attitude, while others circle the wagons and adopt a siege mentality. Significant morale problems exist among segments of the presbyterate who feel closed off from the decision-making process, and failures in catechesis, perhaps to be expected in the wake of a world-shaking event like Vatican II, have left vast portions of the laity barely literate in the fundamentals of the faith.

The liturgy, as always, is the contested site of Catholic identity. "In my opinion and the opinion of many others, the church in the U.S. today is experiencing a retreat, a falling back to an era that has passed, the era that preceded the Second Vatican Council," said Bishop Donald Trautman, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Liturgy, in 1995. "Those who seek a return to liturgical life as it was prior to Vatican II offend the teaching of that very council, which calls us to a full, conscious and active participation." Trautman encourages liturgists "to avoid onesided simplistic approaches such as traditionalism with its emphasis on the Latin Mass, clericalism with its noncollaborative ministry, congregationalism with its forced isolations from the broader church, radical feminism with its blurring of distinctions for sacramental ministry, biblicism and the like."

The centrifugal forces in U.S. Catholicism may seem overwhelming to those who are seeldng to resist them. It is unclear, however, whether such forces represent a creative de-centering or simply fragmentation.

If this diagnosis seems a tale of woe, let us recall that the church has found itself in far trickier situations. Colonial-era Catholicism on the East Coast adjusted to a potentially hostile cultural environment and overcame centrifugal tendencies by relocating the sacred from church building and public square to home, extended family and a "domesticized piety." Priestless parishes thrived in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York in the early years of the Republic when independent laymen stepped forward with the resources and talent needed to sustain Catholic identity during a time of organizational immaturity. And the late 20th century is hardly the first time that ethnic diversity, competing claims to Catholic orthodoxy, and overwhelming numbers threatened to eclipse the best pastoral efforts of the relatively few "professional Catholics."

Today's challenges require their own specific responses, but the basic solution remains the same: Catholics, in the words of Sister Mary Collins, O.S.B., "must be able to name where and how the mystery is at work among us." "Naming the mystery," in turn, entails identifying and empowering the people and ideas capable of generating creative Christian responses to the perennial problem of human suffering. If Catholics are to rediscover the source of their strength in God's hidden presence, two concrete reforms must be enacted.

First, the collaborations already under way must increase dramatically if Catholics are to march rather than meander toward the next millennium. Collaboration between the academy and the church, for example, has produced pastorally useful studies of the priesthood, the permanent diaconate, the seminaries, and the cultures of Hispanic, Asian and African American Catholics.

The church is fortunate indeed that mediating institutions like the Lilly Endowment have brought people together for such collaborative enterprises; now it is time for Catholic leaders to move the process to the next stage. The church needs to cultivate a long-range vision of unity, to be realized in part through systematic efforts to promote, support and extend the "Catholic intelligentsia," those self-consciously Catholic lay intellectuals and professionals who are strategically positioned in the universities, media, governments and cultural centers of the nation. A renewed partnership of church and committed Catholic laity in the university, business and professional worlds would create communal pride, a rallying point for concerted action, and an impetus for talented young people aspiring to a career in service to others.

Greater collaboration is necessary in several other areas of church life, such as urban ministry. After a period of retreat from the inner city, there are signs that religious orders, universities, Catholic business leaders and other potential members of a new "Catholic partnership" are willing to rededicate themselves to the work. The Jesuits recently announced the opening of a new high school in Chicago, and Georgetown University announced plans to purchase $1 million in stock at a new bank designed to serve low- and moderate-income neighborhoods in the District of Columbia. Said Jesuit Father Leo O'Donovan: "This is a chance for us to make a social investment aimed at rehabilitating the distressed neighborhoods in the District."

The second concrete "reform" involves a mystical element: a renewal of eucharistic faith. American Catholics have always located the real presence of Christ in the sharing of the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist-even in times when the Eucharist itself was scarce. Pope John Paul II, speaking of Christian unity, has suggested that "it is mainly through the Eucharist that the millennium will actuate the power of the redemption." Yet the sharing of communion, "the very place where we are most clearly expected to be one, is a sign of division, a scandal to the world and to us, " laments Father James Moroney, chairman of the national Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions. That is "precisely why the development of a real collaboration among all segments of the church is so urgent today."

Renewing a shared faith in the eucharistic presence of Christ requires the leadership's actual collaboration and genuine communion with all baptized Catholics, including those who feel excluded from equal participation in the life of the church by virtue of their exclusion from priesthood, their racial or ethnic background, or their incomplete formation in the practices and ethical norms of the tradition.

As the church faces another critical moment in its complex history of self-reform, its members therefore seek greater unity through open communication -- through listening and speaking to one another in mutual respect and without fear of reprisal. Such communication, it is hoped, "will become the essential Catholic "practice" of the new millennium.