Beyond the Lockdown

As the Church in America emerges from lockdown, blinking and a bit unsteady on its feet, there are two familiar sayings to which Catholics emphatically should not turn for guidance on what to do next. They are: “Return to normalcy” and “The more things change, the more they are the same.”

Besides being the slogan of Warren Harding’s 1920 presidential campaign, the problem with “Return to normalcy” lies in its unspoken assumption that the condition of the Church before the lockdown is worth getting back to. Clearly it isn’t.

The cynical “the more things change” isn’t acceptable either because of its world-weary assumption that improving the state of American Catholicism is out of the question. Difficult, yes. Out of the question – pray God it’s not.

But, someone might ask, why this haste to rule out returning to how things were before the lockdown? The answer is simple: going back to the way things were in the not-so-distant past would mean returning to an ecclesiastical ethos of steady, debilitating decline.

You don’t think so? Consider the numbers (source: the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate). Between 1970 and 2018, annual figures for Catholic marriages in the United States fell from 426,309 to 143,087; infant baptisms from 1.089 million to 615,119; students in Catholic elementary and secondary schools from 4.4 million to 1.8 million; and elementary and secondary school students in parish religious education from 5.5 million to 2.9 million.

The number of diocesan and religious priests dropped from 59,192 to 36,580; religious sisters from 160,931 to 44,117; and the rate of weekly Mass attendance from 54.9 percent to 21.1 percent. One of the few categories with a significant upward trend was “former Catholic adults,” who increased from 3.5 million in 1970 to 26.1 million two years ago.

Here it may be objected that at least the Church in the United States is better off than the Church in most places in Western Europe and Canada. But this is rather like saying somebody with one broken leg is better off than somebody with two broken legs: it’s true, but it isn’t helpful. And it sheds no useful light on what either party needs to do to recover.

Whatever else it may or may not have done, the coronavirus crisis is an invitation to us to think big about the future of our Church. If we make good use of this opportunity, what we’ve lately been through might even turn out to have been at least somewhat for the good.


My immediate practical suggestion, therefore, is that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) create a blue-ribbon commission to study the impact of the lockdown on the Church in America and make recommendations for the future. Among the things to be examined are these:

  • How did being cut off from most usual exercises of priestly ministry affect priests’ attitudes toward their priesthood?
  • How did being without the Eucharist and other sacraments for so long impact the laity?
  • When the lockdown ended, did attendance at weekly Mass return to what it had been, rise dramatically and remain high, or decline?
  • Cut off from most ordinary sources of income, what alternative sources did dioceses, parishes, schools, and other institutions find to stay afloat (supposing, that is, they managed to do that)?
  • What practical conclusions about using the media can be drawn from the apparent popularity of televised and live-streamed Masses while the churches were closed?

Certainly, there is much more we need to learn from our recent collective experience. But besides analyzing the past, serious thought should be given to the future. And here I offer another recommendation: that our blue-ribbon commission urge the bishops to give serious consideration to convening a regional synod for the Church in the United States.

It hardly needs saying that there are good reasons for not doing that. The “synodal way,” currently being pursued by the bishops of Germany and their collaborators, seems headed in the direction of separation from the universal Church. The results of the recent Amazon Synod appear, at best, problematic. And the outcome of the Australian bishops’ plenary council next year is, necessarily, a question mark.

In a sense, however, the idea of a regional synod for the Church in America has already been vetted. Back in 2002, as the full horror of the scandal of clergy sex abuse and its coverup was still sinking in, eight American bishops called for taking just such a step. Over a hundred bishops joined them, and the conference of bishops held a preliminary discussion of the proposal at one of its general assemblies.

By then, though, new sex abuse protocols had been put in place, the uproar appeared to be subsiding, and the bishop’s conference quietly shelved the idea.

Now, arguably, the time has come to give it a second look. Considering the critical situation of the Church described above, the appropriate theme for a regional synod would be “The Challenge of Transmitting the Faith.”

“In the revelation of Jesus Christ we have all the resources we need to transform this time of trial into a ‘day the Lord has made.” Eight bishops said that in proposing a regional synod. It was true then, and it’s no less true now. And if a slogan is needed, I suggest one variously attributed to Winston Churchill and Rahm Emanuel: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”


*Image: Opening Session of the Council of Trent in 1545 by Nicolò Dorigati, 1711 [Museo Diocesano Tridentino, Trento, Italy]

Russell Shaw is a former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently (with David Byers) Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic.