I was talking with a priest and a bishop at Public Policy Day in New York’s State Capital yesterday when the subject of the Pew Forum’s recent survey came up. This is the report that shows that the Catholic Church is hemorrhaging members faster than any other religious denomination in this country.
“While those Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result of changes in affiliation, Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes. While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic,” the report said.
The priest said he thought there were four main reasons that the Catholic Church is losing members in record numbers: subpar religious education since Vatican II; the state of the modern family, specifically the unwillingness of many divorced Catholics to seek annulments; the sex abuse scandal; and the current culture.
At that point, the bishop jumped in and said that, as far as he’s concerned, the culture is by far the greatest influence on what is happening in our Church today. And certainly the Pew survey bears that out, showing that American individualism is now a central tenet of our religious traditions. Americans are used to having things their way, so when someone or something comes along requiring them to live by rules they don’t like, they often jump ship rather than comply.
Somehow this notion seemed all the more prescient considering the fact that we were standing in the Empire State Plaza just a short distance from the Capitol building where the future of Gov. Eliot Spitzer was being debated in light of his very public fall from grace this week. As people discussed whether the governor was fit to serve, having allegedly hired the services of high-priced prostitutes on what appears to be a regular basis, it seemed to be yet one more indication that our society is fast reaching a point of no return.
How does a man disgrace himself, humiliate his family, and break the law and still have a shot at continuing as governor of a state? Well, based on some of the letters in our local paper this morning, it seems that Americans are so enmeshed in the idea of sexual freedom that they can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong. Anything that has to do with sex is “private,” according to many of the people voicing their opinions.
Those are the kinds of attitudes that are causing our society to sink deeper and deeper into its self-absorbed, sexually obsessed state of ennui. Those are the kinds of attitudes that are causing Catholics to leave the Church of their birth in search of greener, less-restrictive pastures. Those are the kinds of attitudes that are leading us to a place where, it is now being reported, one in four teen-age girls has a sexually transmitted disease.
Perhaps there is a ray of hope. Apparently Spitzer has come to a conclusion different than that of many of our local letter writers and has decided to resign his office. Whether it was a deal with the feds or a hint of conscience remains to be seen. But in light of everything else, it’s not likely we’ll get an honest answer anyway.
I think the question we have to ask ourselves now is, When do we say enough is enough? We complain about corrupt politicians. We wax nostalgic for days when teen-agers were more concerned with clearing up acne than securing birth control. But the truth is that until we demand changes of our society — our media, our politicians, ourselves — we cannot expect anything other than the status quo, or worse.
The Church has been the lone voice crying out in the desert, calling people to rethink their ideas about sexuality, to try to understand the beauty and dignity of sexuality that is lived in a chaste and faithful way. Unfortunately, people are too busy shopping around for new churches to hear that message, it seems.