The Crack-Up Accelerates

There was a sidesman in my old Anglican parish, years ago. He had been there forever, and he was always there: Sundays and weekdays, morning and evening prayer.  Someone once called him “part of the furniture.” He looked pleased with the description.

A widower, then semi-retired, he volunteered for whatever needed doing, and always found more money in his pocket to jam into any donation box. Let us call him Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith was not a complainer at all. There were people who complained when the Book of Common Prayer began to be replaced by the Book of Alternative Services. Mr. Smith would soothe them.

This was a high-church parish, people would call themselves “Anglo-Catholic.” Mr. Smith would tell them the new book was more catholic, and the translations were more accurate and scholarly. It was what he’d been told, and what he passed on.

Various other modernizations were performed, including those on the fabric of the church itself. It acquired a “fresh new” look. The old Anglican nunnery next door had been cleared off (years after the last nuns “moved on”), and between the new, undecorated “community centre,” and the new city parkette, everything was now clean and tidy.

Inside, a large, controversial painting was hung behind the baptismal font, dominating the chapel’s now bare walls, so that even in the forward pews, one was conscious of it over one’s left shoulder. It had been painted by some “agnostic” artist. In my own view, it was indescribably vile.

Mr. Smith grumbled, too, but only mildly. He’d been told we mustn’t be prejudiced against things that are new, and that’s what he repeated.

“We mustn’t try to resist change.”

During an Easter Vigil, the first woman priest arrived, parachuted in from diocesan “central.” It was the perfect night for that. Quite a few “traditionalist” parishioners walked out when they saw her, but one hardly noticed them among all the non-parishioners streaming in, as they do twice a year for Christmas and Easter.

Mr. Smith handled that, too. He didn’t like it himself, he confessed to being “old-fashioned,” but it wasn’t his place to question what the church authorities had decided. His place was instead to greet visitors, to take the collection, to do innumerable odd jobs behind the scenes, and keep things organized. Also, to soothe people.

He was still there when I defected to the Catholics. My last glimpse of him was outside the church, soothing someone who was upset by – I don’t know what.

Later I heard that he had left, himself. I half-expected to see him turn up at my new Catholic parish, but no sign of him.

A little time passed, and by chance I spotted Mr. Smith on the Toronto subway. I went over to say hello and catch up. He knew I’d become a Catholic. I told him I’d heard he’d left, too, and he nodded. I asked where he’d gone.

“Out,” he said.

“I know,” said I through the racket and press of rush hour traffic. “But where did you go?”

“Just out,” he explained. “To nowhere.”

St. Bonaventure Church, Philadelphia by Matthew Christopher from his book "Abandoned America"
St. Bonaventure Church, Philadelphia by Matthew Christopher from his book Abandoned America

In the several minutes we had, I could learn no more. I even asked if he had lost his faith (a very un-Anglican thing to do). He answered:

“I can’t understand the question any more.”

There were a lot of Mr. Smiths, once upon a time, and others like him, of both sexes, and all sorts, conditions, races, and ages. And creeds: millions were Catholic.

They weren’t steaming reactionaries like me. They were soft-spoken, obedient people, doing their bit, or like Mr. Smith, doing more. I don’t think they ever left the church (or the other “mainstream” churches).

Rather, the church left them.

I didn’t become Roman, myself, because I liked the way the Catholic Church was going. I joined because, in the end, it is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic of the Nicene Creed. I was perfectly aware “the spirit of Vatican II” had been emptying the Church, just as a parallel spirit of reform had been emptying the Anglican churches. Truly, “signs of the times.”

A Pew Poll, that is a topic of conversation this week, shows that the number of Americans who call themselves “Christian” is now dropping at around one per cent per year. Though the population rose, the number of self-declared “Catholics” shrank by one-eighth over the last seven years. Even Evangelicals are shedding.

The numbers show that America is de-Christianizing, fast. If we break them down by generation we see that this process is accelerating; that among the “millennials” (now aged thirty-five and down) Christian affiliation is much, much lower. “Christians” are still, for the moment, seven-in-ten, but soon this will plunge.

Even within this nominally Christian sector, Catholics are proportionally falling fastest. To put it in a phrase: we are bleeding dry, now faster than the mainline Protestant churches, because they have already bled dry.

Numbers are just numbers, of course. Behind each digit is a human face: a Mr. Smith, or some other person to whom we might attach a bundle of anecdotes.

Yet what the numbers show, bleakly and unambiguously, is that Mr. Smith is typical. A large and constantly increasing proportion of those who leave one congregation do not go to another. They go “just out, to nowhere.” Their children in turn (if they have any) are raised in this “nowhere.” Only a tiny proportion will, out of the blue, discover the Catholic Church again: but they, for the most part, deadly serious, attracted for instance to the Old Mass.

It will become harder to find, as the quickly growing non-Christian population demands that public manifestation of any Christian faith be regulated, taxed, restricted.

The Church will shrink to little pockets of “traditionalists,” where Catholic affiliation is wholly intentional, and increasingly brave.

In other words, “mainstream” Catholicism, or the “Catholic-lite” of novus-novus ordo, will disappear completely. Because it has nothing to offer but “less.”

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: