Mislaid: 26 million Catholics Print
By Bevil Bramwell. OMI   
Thursday, 12 May 2011

A recent Pew Report claims that the number of ex-Catholics in the United States now stands at over 26 million. We have all heard the stories blaming secularism and materialism – and the scandals. But let’s consider the problem from another direction. What preparation would these people – some of whom probably did drift away because of secularism or the scandal – need to have had in order to live in the modern world as active and responsible Catholics?

The fundamentals of that preparation were expressed in the words of John Paul II: “The voice of the Lord clearly resounds in the depths of each of Christ's followers, who through faith and the sacraments of Christian initiation is made like to Jesus Christ, is incorporated as a living member in the Church and has an active part in her mission of salvation.”(Christifideles laici, 3) His exhortation came after the Synod on the Laity in 1987, but there are similar quotations going back as far as we want.

So what teaching apparatus does the Church actually need to lead each Catholic to grasp the full range of what John Paul was saying – and apply it in daily life? The institutional parts of the Church have to be seen as fitting together into a kind of production-line, giving lay persons at each phase of their lives the specific things necessary to live out what John Paul said. This is the only reason for the existence of those institutions – in broad terms, conversion of the world.

So, to continue the metaphor a little further, the various stations on the production line need to be able to serve infants and children and teenagers and young adults and parents and the elderly in the ways that will lead them to holiness. Holiness is actually a good umbrella term for all of the different aspects of the functioning Catholic.

John Paul II again: “The vocation of the lay faithful to holiness implies that life according to the Spirit expresses itself in a particular way in their involvement in temporal affairs and in their participation in earthly activities.” Some of this involves detailed instruction. Some, guided discussion or helping people to know where to go to find reliable answers for themselves, Catholic answers, because otherwise people will take whatever answers the culture has to offer. And we already know where that leads.


           26,000,000 have left the Church. That's a lot of empty pews.

Now, we do have some of the tools in place – catechetics programs, programs for specific groups by age, for example. Then there is guided discussion: some organizations like Young Christian Workers (See – Judge – Act), bereavement groups, or Newman Centers, for example, help people to apply Christian principles. Catholic doctors have banded together, as have even – if you can believe it – Catholic lawyers!  The point is that lay life is extraordinarily diverse, which is why every level of the hierarchy has ultimately to be part of the production line if everyone is going to be served at their pace and their level. Subsidiarity comes into its own if the holiness of the greatest number is the goal.

Discussion plays a crucial role in helping people personal and professional life through the lens of a communion of grace and truth. Communion, a term emphasized by Vatican II, describes the Church in ways that reframe the meaning of many of the other terms that we are familiar with, such as parish, diocese, and conference. Thinking of them in terms of communion makes a difference because the Church is “called to relive the very communion of God and to manifest it and communicate it in history (mission).” (CL, 9)

The purpose of the communion is to “seek the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God.” (Vatican II) But this means coming to see, quite concretely, how dogmatic and moral teaching applies in actual cases. What we all learned up to Confirmation – which is where most people finish any formal learning about the faith – probably does not give you what you need to face salient issues such as relating to the opposite sex, voting, and the Catholic view of politics and economics. Almost by chance, some engaged couples do get instruction on marriage and married life. But how often is that really sufficient to order one’s marriage “to the plan of God”?

There are any number of gaps in the ongoing process of personal formation. So people have plenty of opportunity to drift – mostly, I believe, because they have never been seriously told that faith is a lifelong work. Unless you are a rare genius or very great saint, you should always be learning more about how the Church (which is the presence of Jesus Christ) understands things on both large and small scales. You not only develop in the act of faith but in grasping its content.

This is certainly the responsibility of the individual baptized person – the mature Christian we keep hearing about. But it is also the responsibility of the bishops and others in authority who are “to hallow men in the truth, and to feed them.” (Christus Dominus, 2)

Twenty-six million lapsed Catholics is a number equal to the population of Texas. Would the United States casually write off Texas?


Bevil Bramwell
, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

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