Pope Francis v. the Alt-right. The struggle between progressives and conservatives under the Francis pontificate took a dramatic turn when the New York Times linked alt-right standard bearer, Steve Bannon (former Breitbart News editor, current advisor to President Trump, and self-identified but non-practicing Catholic) to the Vatican. According to the Times, Bannon and archconservative Cardinal Raymond Burke had a “meeting of the hearts” back in 2014 over the belief that Islam poses an existential threat to the secularized West. And it makes the case that Bannon and the alt-right are in league with Burke and Vatican hard-liners looking to undermine Pope Francis.
This fight over the direction of the Vatican is not something new. As
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne points out, this struggle is a continuation between progressives and conservatives: (the NYT’s story) “…brought into relief the struggles inside the church—and particularly within American Catholicism—over the pope’s stewardship, his emphasis on battling poverty, his insistence on the importance of welcoming immigrants and refugees, his relative openness to modernity” (WP, 8-2-17).
Adding to this tension is the linkage the alt-right is making with conservative pro-family groups. The latter, who are explicitly pro-life (at least in terms of abortion), anti-LGBT rights, and pro-“natural” family agenda are making common cause with far-right political groups. In the 2016 Presidential election, 60% of regular Mass attendees voted for candidate Donald J. Trump.
So, Bannon’s outreach to the Vatican may be part of a long-term strategy to link conservative Catholicism with right wing populism, which may seem conspiratorial, but Pope Francis certainly takes the linkage seriously. In a recent interview with an (unofficial) Vatican publication, Francis explicitly called out Bannon and the alt-right as being resistant to Gospel values via planting the seeds of division, eroding our sense of solidarity with all the faithful, and ignoring the preferential option for the poor.
U.S. Catholics’ View of Muslims. CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) polled adult Catholics (Bridge Initiative, 9-12-15) few U.S. Catholics have a favorable view of Muslims (only 14%), while 30% have very unfavorable. 45% are neutral. One contributing reason to this state of affairs is that Catholics are less likely than the general population to know a Muslim personally. Not surprisingly, when one does know a Muslim personally, the person’s views about Islam changes for the better.
Ignorance is not bliss, but can be harmful. Nearly half of Catholics can’t name any similarities between Catholicism and Islam despite the fact that the latter is monotheistic, believes that Scripture is revelatory, recognizes Jesus as the Son of God who will preside at the Last Judgment, has a sense of social justice, and recognizes the witness of the Old and New Testament prophets. The majority of Catholics incorrectly believe that Muslims worship the Prophet Muhammad.
Priest shortage and Catholic parishes. In 1990 there were 34,114 active diocesan priests serving 19,131 parishes serving a population of 57.4 million Catholics. With the declining number of priests and demographic shifts, especially in the Midwest and East, there are today less diocesan priests, 25,760, (decline of c. 9,000), serving fewer parishes 17,233
(less 1,900), with a burgeoning population of 67.7 million Catholics. Today, there are 3,400 parishes without a resident priest.
Top Dioceses by Total Ordinations (over 3 years). There were 20 dioceses who ordain at least 15 priests from 2013-2015. Numero uno was Chicago, IL with 40 ordinands with a Catholic pop. of 2.2 million.
Lincoln, NB, Lafayette, LA, and Trenton, NJ were at the bottom rung. Sacramento, CA was about in the middle (11) with 18 ordinands for a pop. of 1 million.
Children Raised by Catholic Parents More Likely to Stay Catholic. When I preside at baptisms, I remind the assembly that the best, sure-fire way to predict whether the child will practice her/his faith as an adolescent and adult is whether the parents are enthusiastically active in living their Catholic faith. A report of the Pew Research Center (2014) bears this out: most people raised exclusively by Catholic parents (62%) continue to identify as Catholics in adulthood. But those raised by one Catholic parent and one non-Catholic parent have less than a 50% chance.
Americans are most likely to be religiously unaffiliated if they are raised exclusively by parents who are unaffiliated themselves.
And They’re Not Coming Back. One often hears that when a young person drifts away from their Catholic faith that they will return when they have children of their own and want them to be baptized, to receive 1st Communion, and be confirmed. Not so, according to CARA and St. Mary’s Press study (2015). When asked Is there anything that would make you consider returning to the Catholic faith in the future (?), only 13% said yes and 87% said no.
Among those who leave there were some commonalities. Many lacked any forma religious education. They simply did not know their faith. 76% had no Catholic schooling at any level and 58% had no parish religious instruction.
They were weakly tethered to the church. 63% received 1st Communion, but only 33% were confirmed. 54% attended Mass rarely or never (28%), or a few times/year (26%).
When they stopped self-identifying as Catholic: under age 10 (23%), age 10-12 (24%), age 13-17 (39%), age 18-20 (11%), and 21-25 (3%).
In sum, if one is loosely affiliated with their parish and are poorly catechized as children and adolescents, the chances of being a self-identified and practicing adult Catholic are remote.
Contributing to this sobering state of affairs, is that compared to past generations, parents, many of whom are under-catechized and irregularly practice their faith (only 25% of American Catholics regularly attend Mass), seem more likely to allow their children to make their own choices about whether to continue as Catholics. Some do so as early as receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation.
Five Trends Affecting Parish Life. The study of the Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century (2017), found the following trends:
- Declining vocations to ordained and non-ordained religious life.
- Catholics migration from the inner city to the suburbs and from the North and Midwest to the South and West.
- Growth in the U.S. Catholic population fueled by immigration. 25% of U.S. Catholics are foreign-born, especially Spanish-speaking. As many as 25% of parishes celebrate weekend Mass in more than one language.
- The continuing impact of Vatican II. The “priesthood of the laity” and “lay ecclesial minister” is now an important and accepted component of parish life.
- Declining participation in the sacraments. Cover your eyes! Today, only 25% of adult Catholics attend Mass weekly. While the Catholic population has grown by 30% since 1985, Catholic marriages are down 57% and infant baptisms have decreased by 27%.
While the latter are sobering stats., we don’t want to lose sight of the centrality of the Eucharist to parish life, the efforts of dedicated clergy and lay people to serve God while serving their parishioners and secular culture, and the humble recognition that the Church does have a human dimension in which we make mistakes, but remain faithful and committed nevertheless. As long as the Lord builds the house (cf. Ps 127) we have many reasons to be optimistic about the future of U.S. Catholicism.
Climate Change Concerns Catholics More than other Christians. In the aftermath of Pope Francis’ beautiful and challenging encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, U.S. Catholics are more likely to be concerned about climate change than other Christians (according to a CARA survey, May 16-26, 2016). Overall, 63% of U.S. adults agree that temperatures on Earth are getting warmer in response to higher concentrations of heat trapping greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane. 65% of Catholics agree this statement and 68% believe that it is a result of human activity. In contrast, 46% of Evangelical Christians and 59% of mainstream Protestants agree. Moreover, Catholics are also more likely than other U.S. adults to believe they have a moral responsibility to do what they can to combat climate change.
Americans look for good sermons and a warm welcome. According to the Pew Research Center (8-23-16), “About half of U.S. adults have looked for a new religious congregation at some point in their lives, most commonly because they have moved.” When they do so, the overwhelming majority say the quality of preaching played a major role in their decision. They also want to feel welcome—that somehow their presence is appreciated by the gathered assembly.
They Like Us! According to another Pew Research survey (January 9-23, 2017) 66% of Americans have a favorable feeling towards Catholics. The most highly regarded are Jews at 67%.