By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

The “vitals” regarding the Catholic Church in the U.S. today are not encouraging.

Indeed, I’d call them downright scary.

I’m not exactly sure how I would do it -- or even what it means -- but I’m tempted to recommend that we put the church on life support.

For example, what would you think if I told you that less than a third of U.S. Catholics think priests are honest or ethical? That’s what a Gallup survey near the end of 2018 discovered

No, I don’t have an axe to grind. And I’m not trying to throw brickbats at the Catholic Church or its priests.

Instead, my heart breaks for the many wonderful priests I know –and for the hundreds of thousands around the world that I don’t know. (There are over 414,000 today.) Often their jobs are thankless. Indeed, they sometimes make sense only in the context of trying, first and foremost, to serve God.

And this is the thanks they get?

Yes, apparently so. While 48 percent of Protestants rated clergy positively – not exactly a ringing endorsement – only 31 percent of Catholics did.

With priests having practical, day-to-day control over the nation’s 17,000-plus parishes serving 70.4 million registered members – and not a few who aren’t registered – that level of trust is bound to hobble the service that parishes can render in myriad ways.

Worse news

If that statistic about how American Catholics’ regard their priests weren’t scary enough, here’s another:  The percentage of Catholics who rate their clergy positively fell 18 points from 2017 to 2018.

It looks like we are losing ground – and fast.

But the bad news is hardly limited to our trust in priests.

Consider this: fewer than half the Catholics surveyed said they had confidence in organized religion – a drop of eight percentage points in a year.

Talk about a serious fall from grace.

Longer time frame shows darker picture

If one takes a longer time frame into account, the numbers are even more devastating.

  • Favorable opinions regarding the honest and ethical standards of clergy have dropped nearly in half, from 61 percent a decade ago to 31 percent today.
  • Confidence in the institutions of the church fell to 44 percent last year from 52 percent in 2017 – a decline of eight percentage points (although the figure hit a low of 39 percent in 2007 and then recovered some).

Ironic problem

The survey was taken four months after the well-publicized, scathing Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse by priests and its cover-up by bishops. But if that’s what accounts for this fall from grace, it is more than a little ironic.

The abuse and cover-ups reported were nearly all very old cases. Records show that the church is doing a much better job of preventing abuse today than it did in decades past.

So why do the dramatic declines in confidence continue now?

It’s a trend

While I can’t pretend to have a reason for the recent sudden declines in Catholics’ regarding their priests and in organized religion generally, it’s clearly part of a much broader trend afflicting not only Cathoics but members of all organized religions in the U.S.

Nevertheless, let’s focus on the statistics regarding Catholics:

  • In 1975, 75% of Catholics reported having been to Mass in the past seven days. In 2018 that total had dropped to 36%.
  • Between 1966 and 2014, the number of Catholic schools was cut in half -- and since 1960 enrollment has declined from a high of 5.2 million to about 1.8 million today.
  • Catholic marriages declined by 64 percent from 426,309 in 1969 to 154,450 in 2013.
  • Catholic infant baptisms declined from almost 1.1 million in 1970 to 660,367 in 2017.

Leadership failure

I was not alone in predicting that the shape of the crisis would change in the years after 2002 when the nation’s Catholic bishops convened in Dallas to address the issue of individual priests abusing minors.

Many of us could see that in due course the focus would switch from the moral failures and criminal behaviors of bad actors in the clergy to the apparent indifference or callousness of many of the priests’ superiors, who kept the priests’ predations secret and not infrequently assigned them to other places where they would have continued access to minors.

The change in focus was certainly apparent last month when the heads of all the world’s national bishops’ conferences and major religious superiors gathered at the Vatican for a summit on how to deal with the ongoing crisis.

To the Vatican’s credit, the proceedings focused first on the pain and agony of victims.

The bishops also addressed, in general terms, how to handle predator priests under their respective jurisdictions – but hard and fast universal rules and procedures still have to be developed and promulgated. What happens in the months to come will be the real test of summit’s value and the credibility of church leaders.

About the rapid declines in just the last year Gallup concluded: “Given the sheer breadth of the alleged and confirmed sexual abuse, the erosion of Catholics’ views of the clergy’s ethical standards is perhaps to be expected. The church’s handling of many of these cases undoubtedly weighs heavily on Catholics’ minds and likely plays a part in shaping their more increasingly negative views of the church and organised religion as a whole.”

It’s not clear how quickly and comprehensively the Vatican and the world’s national bishops’ conferences will move in the days ahead. But it is clear that lay members are demanding that their church leaders act definitively if they hope to stop the steep declines in participation and, in some places, financial support.

A new day?

An in-depth look at all the forces, both macro and micro, contributing to the decline in lay participation and support of the church makes it clear there is no one reason for it – and thus no single fix that will quickly turn around what is a huge boat in a vast and raging ocean.

That said, the impressive, dynamic growth of participation in a small minority of parishes – anomolies in this day and age – testifies to the very real possibility that the tide of entropy can be reversed in more places, perhaps in many more places, if key factors are addressed.

In a word, the church needs better leadership. And priests and laity alike need better support for that leadership to emerge in parish and diocesan cultures.

The needs are too great to provide a comprehensive list here. But we can offer an initial summary of needs.

Priests’ needs

Priests need more education and formation – during and after the seminary – in developing both their self-awareness and social-awareness. They need to optimize their emotional and social intelligence.

They need to continually learn more about leadership in general and most especially in parishes.

Given that they are now getting pastoral leadership appointments with only a few years of parish experience, they need to continually learn how to listen and to foster dynamic collaboration with their lay colleagues and parishioners.

They need mentors from among the older, retired clergy with track records of successful parish stewardship to help them grow. And they need to be open to that continual growth process.

They need more attention from and accountability to their bishops and delegates so they continue to grow spiritually and psychologically throughout their priestly lives. Ordination is not so much the end of a formation process as it marks the beginning of one.

As a rule, priests need to improve as homilists – and dioceses have to do a better job of helping them improve with both instructions and processes in place to assure ongoing improvement. And again, the priests have to be open to improving.

Some younger priests today like to identify themselves as “St. John Paul II priests.” But I can’t wonder how many of them did what John Paul did as a young priest to improve his homiletic skills. He developed a small community of young lay people to review his homilies and offer honest critiques – which he took to heart. (I wonder, too, if he would ever have risen through the ranks to become pope if he hadn’t fostered this critical process at the start of his priesthood.)

Priests could also use more praise and encouragement from their lay congregations.

Laity’s needs

First and foremost, the laity need priests who inspire them, who affirm them, who make them want to grow and mature as adults. They need priests with sound social skills, whether they come naturally or are developed with great effort.

If the point of the church and its parishes is to help people draw closer in a personal relationship with Jesus, it helps to have access to priests – who function In persona Christi -- to whom they are drawn personally.

It helps too if they hear homilies they want to talk about with their spouses, children and friends after they have left church at the end of Mass.

There's an old adage: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” It ought to be the motto of every Catholic seminary in the world.” If you are not absolutely devoted to providing loving service to the laity, seek out a cloistered order or apply for your commercial driver’s license … or do something else, anything else.

Yes, of course, the laity need the sacraments, even if their participation as a group has waned in all regards except (thank God) the Eucharist. No parish can thrive without a focus on administering the sacraments. But neither can it thrive if it limits its ministry efforts to being a sacramental service station. The laity need more than that.

If the church is to be credible, it has to be helpful when the laity need help. The pastor and others in the parish need to be able to direct people to resources that can help them find food, shelter, work and consolation. No, the parish can’t be all things to all people. But it can connect people to most all the things they need – if its leaders will but trouble themselves learning where all the “dots” are in the local community.

The laity need direction at times and assurance at other times – and leaders who know which is most needed when.

The laity need growth opportunities. That’s evidenced by the number of Cradle Cathoics I’ve heard confess to happily learning more about their faith than they had known before when they served as RCIA sponsors. Growth doesn’t have to be painful … or boring.

Yes, it’s often easier to get people to submit to dental extractions than to participate in parish adult ed programs. So creative, energetic lay staff and volunteers need to keep helping pastors make these programs more attractive -- beginning with the topics chosen. Hint: start with things your lay members already care passionately about.

Growth comes from action too. Give the laity ample opportunities to be of service to others.

Lay staff and volunteers need opportunities to learn from one another in other parishes. Who is operating a dynamic program? Where? How are they doing it? No need to be jealous or to feel diminished by others’ success. Inquire of them. Learn from them. Borrow from them. And be sure to affirm and thank them. After all, we are called to be a loving community in the image of Jesus. Let’s deliberately practice “virtuous circle” behaviors.

Lay Catholics also need opportunities for public witness. They provide it, of course, in the daily course of their lives. Indeed, how else can we explain the success of RCIA? I’ve never heard a catechumen say they were drawn to the process by reading St. Thomas’ Summa or a handful of papal bulls.

In the main, people are attracted by other people. All of us, clergy and laity alike, need to remember that.  

Community’s needs

Forgive me for leaving the most important part for last. Accept it in the spirit of Jesus saving the best wine for last. The most important part is prayer. We need to be a people of prayer.

If we leave Jesus out of the process until Sunday, or if we wait to welcome and implore him only when everything has gone awry, if we are mindful of his presence in our lives for only a minute or two at the start or the end of the day, we are forsaking the best friend and helpmate we could ever have anywhere, in this world or in the next.

Pray often. Pray always. Not just prayers of petition, but prayers of friendship, of appeciation, of gratitude. And you don’t always need words. Sometimes just a smile – a mindful smile – can be a pretty darn nice prayer. Try it. Try it again.

If we have a tree whose root system doesn’t seem sufficient to keep it thriving, we water it more. It’s the same with faith.

Water your faith more. Tend it more. And prune it where it needs pruning. Lent is good for all of this.

In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus likens our faith to the foundation of a house. He says:

Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined. Mat 7:24-27

Let’s all of us, laity and clergy alike, resolve to work harder than ever in this time of Lent to build our faith lives and our parish lives on the rock of God’s unconditional love for us.

Wishing you a blessed Lent …