Is the Church Too Big?

As Pentecost draws near, we should remember just how small the Catholic Church was at first. Paul tells us in passing that the entire church of Corinth could fit into the house of Gaius (Rom 16:23). Even assuming a large house and generous standing room outside, the congregation was probably well less than a hundred people. We forget that when Paul speaks in universal terms of the “Church of God,” he is referring to micro-communities, no larger than Knights of Columbus chapters.

Indeed, most modern estimates place the total number of Christians at the end of the first century at no more than 10,000. True, the Church did experience exponential growth in the second century, but not enough to surpass even the 200,000 mark by 200 AD, in an empire with a population of around 20 million. These sociologically insignificant micro-communities left practically nothing in the way of archeological remains, save some catacomb art. Yet amidst insignificance was great vibrancy. By 300 AD, the Church boasted over 6 million members representing probably around 20 percent of the empire. The Lord was not kidding when he predicted that the kingdom would grow as a mustard seed, a tiny seed that transformed the empire and the world!

Today, self-identified Catholics are around one-quarter of the population of the U.S., roughly the proportion of the Church within the Roman Empire at the time of Constantine’s Edict of Milan. But U.S. Catholics are more likely to be transformed by America than to transform the nation. There are many reasons for this, but one may simply have to do with our sheer size. In a modern pluralistic society, it has proven very hard for any large group to distinguish itself much from the society in which it is situated, once it becomes a significant minority. Cultural and even racial distinctions have tended to erode over time in the American melting pot. Catholics here have grown to look like America.

Yes, the Church looks better if one looks only at practicing Catholics. But only a little. According to Pew Research, 52 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in most or all circumstances, as do 36 percent of Catholics who attend Mass weekly, let alone the lapsed or fallen away. Even the Mass-going Church is more a sign of mild disagreement with the mainstream culture than of contradiction.

Statistics like this speak volumes about how the institutional Church behaves in America. A clergyman might dare to condemn abortion from the pulpit or the weekly paper, but once he approaches voting he must tread lightly. When the Church rehearses its quadrennial debate on how abortion should influence Catholic voting, inevitably, we get documents like Faithful Citizenship, that manage to stay very fuzzy about what a Catholic voter should actually do. Even refusing communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians is too overtly political a step for all but the heartiest of bishops. Few are willing to risk alienating a majority or even a significant minority of their flock.

This is because we entrust the institution of the Church – in all its bigness – to the bishops. Bishops must do much more than run a tight ship on abortion. They are expected to do everything possible to keep aging parishes open, even if they have dwindling congregations and leaky roofs. They are expected to keep Catholic schools running and social services flowing to the needy. They are expected to maintain some semblance of Catholic identity in hospitals and universities, while ensuring that the institutional Church has ample new parishes and schools to meet the needs of Catholic exurban sprawl.

All of this requires a sophisticated financial operation, astute personnel decisions, an effective donor base, and at least amicable working relationships with community leaders, even if they are pro-abortion Catholics – as they are in many major metropolitan areas today. And this requires many short- to medium-term decisions that keep the existing Church intact and running smoothly, while kicking the can down the road on more fundamental questions about the long-term direction of the Church and the integrity of its mission.

This is the “big-Church” institutional imperative that the average bishop faces. Few bishops can stop to ponder the state of his diocese in the decades ahead, but none wants to see the Church he inherited grow smaller, poorer, or more fractious on his watch.

One wonders: how long this can continue?

If asked to assess the fortunes of Big Church, Inc., an MBA consultant, detecting the long term decline, would tell the episcopal management to bite the bullet, take the “big bath,” the one-time restructuring charge, and phase out declining operations and liquidate under- performing assets. As for the top staff and the rank and file, once instilled with a mighty Catholic esprit de corps, they would be retrained and reengineered in issues like “What it means to be Catholic” and “Committing to God and the Church,” – and resisters to the program would be politely shown the door. Then the management could begin to rebuild the Catholic “brand” from scratch. This leaner, meaner “new” Catholic Church would be poised for vibrant growth.

But it will never happen this way. The Holy Spirit is not an MBA and he never governs the Church like a business. He may yet prompt a new zeitgeist here, which would inspire the renewal of both the Church and American society simultaneously. On the other hand, he may allow the decline in the U.S. Church to persist indefinitely while the center of gravity of the Church shifts even more to Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Which is the most likely future? Before his elevation to the papacy, Cardinal Ratzinger remarked in passing that the future of the Church may rest not with the familiar institution of today but with “small convinced communities” reminiscent of those in the decades after Pentecost. This is how the smart money is now betting.

Peter Brown is completing a doctorate in Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America.