I think it was Jean Danielou who said that we believe in a Church "mudsplashed with history." Working for the Church, seeing the inner machinations of the curial structures and political infighting, brings the "mudsplashed" bit into real focus.
A Pew Research study just came out today about the retention of various religions in the U.S., meaning how do those who are raised Catholic, Protestant, Hindi, whatever, how do they fare in "the open market" of religious pluralism in our society? It turns out that Catholics have the highest retention rate. Now, what the Pew Research study means by "Catholic" I don't know. One imagines they mean self proclaimed Catholics. In an earlier 2008 study the same research group determined that active Catholics were those who attended church at least once a month. So take that figure with a grain of salt.
At any rate, it got me thinking about the rates of Catholics who come and go in the Church. It was reported that this past Easter the Church in the U.S. received somewhere around 150,000 new Catholics. This is new adult Catholics and does not include all the baptisms throughout the year. This is amazing. Furthermore, this is and has been a regular trend over the past couple of decades.
So where are all these new Catholics? Well, it turns out that about half (that's right half) of the 150,000 new Catholics entering the faith on Easter Sunday leave by the end of the first year. After five years the number is something close to 75%. So really, of the 150,000 that enter every year, after five years just under 40,000 of them remain Catholic, that is attending Mass at least once a month...which is itself a huge problem since they are supposed to be attending every week...it's not optional.
As the ecclesial structures of the Church or, as a character in the 1944 film Keys of the Kingdom put it, as the "ecclesial mechanics" employed by the Church attempt to figure out the reason why things are so dismal, all sorts of keen programs are put into place. The suggestions include greeters at the Church doors, more involvement in the liturgy (because of course you can't ever have enough EMHC's), saying hello to your neighbor in the pew just before Mass starts, or other things like making the music more contemporary, setting sacred texts to show tunes (I'm not joking), and on and on. Meanwhile, the Church is still bleeding numbers.
But I've never liked the numbers game. It's not about numbers.
So let's talk about those in the pew. How are they doing? What do they feel? Well, for starters, the vast majority of them don't know if they are even going to be in the pew on any given Sunday. The Real Presence is a foreign concept, and in the end apparently only something like 40% of "practicing" Catholics believe that there is a personal God, which means a God that actually has a care about our everyday lives.
The "ecclesial mechanics" might protest that the loss of Catholics or the disengagement of Catholics in the U.S. is due to the sex scandals, to rigid rules, to guilt complexes, to impossible moral standards, to doctrinal differences. But the Pew Research study that came out today notes that actually, the vast majority of Catholics or any religious people lose their participants because they just drift away. It is rarely some singular event like abuse or a harsh word from a priest or some other traumatic experience. In other words, in the blindingly affluent society in which we live, people just drift away from faith, from even needing anything more grounded than their relationships with their iPod.
This raises some serious problems for retention and evangelization. More on that later.