A Tale of Two Crises

In comments to a gathering of conservative Catholic college professors recently, I remarked that in modern times American Catholicism has experienced two major crises: the post-Conciliar crisis right after Vatican Council II and the post-post-Conciliar crisis now underway with no end in sight. And, as bad as the first crisis was, I believe that the second could turn out even worse.

I think the professors understood what I was saying. But many Catholics, perhaps most, probably wouldn’t. Most Catholics, including those more or less engaged with the Church, know there are fewer priests and religious than there used to be, but their awareness doesn’t extend much beyond that.

So let’s take a look at the two crises. And to someone who thinks they are a single, humongous crisis I say, “You can also have it your way. The story is the same whether you see one crisis here or two. But consider the following.”

Start with the post-Conciliar crisis. It began in the mid-1960s and continued into the late 1970s or early 1980s. Its most visible hallmarks were dissent and defections.

While the groundwork had been laid earlier, dissent didn’t reach crisis proportions until 1968 and the assault on Pope Paul VI’s birth-control encyclical. Humanae Vitae. Note, by the way, that the bishops did their bit by including, in a collective pastoral letter affirming support for the encyclical, directions for responsible dissent – rather as if someone were to tell a thief, “I’d rather you not steal the diamonds, but if you feel you really must, here’s the combination to the safe.”

Dissent quickly became institutionalized as faculty in Catholic institutions, including some seminaries, took up the practice unchallenged while the body of doctrines being denied expanded to include much else besides contraception.

The defections of that era also started before Humanae Vitae and ultimately involved thousands of priests (including a couple of bishops), religious brothers, and religious sisters. Defection in combination with dissent delivered a powerful one-two punch to the Church until the situation stabilized a bit in the early years of the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II.

The post-post-Conciliar crisis, I would argue, became noticeable around the dawning of the third millennium. Together with a general laxness promoted by crisis number one, its sources include the secularization of American culture, the move away from organized religion, the spread of moral libertarianism, and, in the Catholic sector, the scandal of priestly sex abuse and its coverup by Church authorities.

The hallmarks of the present crisis are contraction and closing down. As Ralph Martin puts it, these days “business as usual” for the Church means “going out of business.” Numbers (from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) quantify what that means.

As noted above, basically everybody knows the number of priests has fallen, from 59,192 in 1970 to 34,923 in 2021. What the numbers don’t show is that 40 percent of today’s priests are 65 or older (it was less than 10 percent in 1970), which means even fewer priests in the years just ahead.

Other categories present similar patterns between 1970 and 2021: religious sisters – from 160,931 to 39,452; weekly Mass attendees – from 54.9 to 17.3 percent; infant baptisms – from 1.089 million to 411,482; Catholic marriages – from 426,309 to 97,200. Even Catholic funerals are down – from 417,779 to 356,521.

Nevertheless, the numbers are up in a few areas. From 1970 to 2021 the number of Americans raised Catholic but who no longer identify as such increased from 2.9 million to 30.8 million while parishes without resident priest pastors went from 571 to 3,377.

What has happened in American Catholicism in these years has also happened on an even larger scale in Western Europe. Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, anticipated this decline in a famous 1969 radio address: “the Church of tomorrow,” he said will be “a Church which has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.”

 So far, unfortunately, that starting afresh has yet to begin. And in places like Germany and Switzerland, early experiments in synodality have produced results suggestive of further decay. But perhaps the decay needs to hit bottom first.

Is there any hope in all this? Certainly. But along with hope, there must be recognition that, in Ratzinger’s words, “it will be hard going for the Church.” In a forthcoming book, written in collaboration with my friend David Byers, I argue that much of the burden of sustaining American Catholicism in the years ahead will inevitably rest on lay shoulders. Here I merely note a few of the elements of the response that events will soon call on Catholic lay people to make:

  • We must accept the challenge implicit in Vatican II’s universal call to holiness, bearing in mind that, in matters of the spirit, most of us need to aim very high just to attain mediocrity.
  • We will have to rid ourselves of our lingering clericalism. In the Church of the future, it will not be possible to put off doing things that obviously need doing until being told to do them by a priest.
  • We must take the initiative in organizing small groups of like-minded Catholics to sustain and encourage one another in the faith, mainly – though not exclusively – within the framework of the geographically larger parishes of the future.
  • And we must engage in serious, continuing self-education in the faith, heeding the directive of 1 Peter 3:15: “If anyone asks you to give an account of the hope which you cherish, be ready at all times to answer for it, but courteously and with due reverence.”

Up to now, bishops have responded to this crisis largely by managing parish closings and consolidations. The U.S. Conference of  Catholic Bishops has said nothing. If anything serious is being done to prepare the mass of American Catholics for the even harder times that lie ahead, I haven’t heard about it. And the crisis is upon us.

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.