Is the Catholic Church Losing the Numbers Game?

COMMENTARY: Whether the count of the faithful is up or down, fidelity to Christ remains the primary goal.

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In the American religious landscape, who’s ahead and who’s behind?

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center on Religion & Public Life found the percentage of Americans who identify as Christians declined from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Mainline Protestants and Catholics contributed most to the decline: Mainline Protestants fell from 18.1% to 14.7%, while Catholics dropped from 23.9% to 20.8%. Meanwhile, the category of “unaffiliated” grew from 16.1% to 22.8%. Those identifying as “nothing in particular” represented more than half of the category.

Some commentators are unmoved. The shift here really is no shift, they say. It’s just that people are more honest, or at least more accurate, in reporting on how they see themselves.

Maybe. But it seems an unlikely explanation for the entire shift.

A real decline in the percentage of people who regard themselves as Christians makes sense. Many churches are ill-equipped to help people navigate the philosophical and theological rough waters of contemporary culture. As these churches increasingly modify their teachings and practices to respond to consumer demands, as it were, it becomes harder to distinguish the churches’ message from the culture’s message.

If churches largely repeat certain dominant themes of the culture, there ceases to be a compelling reason for most people to identify with a church. It appears to have little or nothing to offer. No real engagement occurs, either for those coming from the Christian tradition or for prospective converts. They may as well stay home on Sunday mornings.

Institutions that don’t clearly articulate the meaning of membership tend to foster low commitment in their members, who question why they identify with the institutions whose basic organizational ideals are increasingly indistinguishable from those of non-members. This goes for churches, too, including the Catholic Church. Why be a Catholic when you can be anything else or just plain nothing, without much alteration of your daily commitments, choices or overarching worldview?

The decline of liberal churches bears deeper analysis. If the recent Pew study shows the secularization of U.S. culture, including many of its former religionists, one might wonder why the more conservative churches show the least decline and liberal Protestantism shows the greatest. The Catholic Church’s decline also bears scrutiny. One wonders whether its model of cultural engagement, if we can call it that, tends more in the liberal-Protestant direction than in the evangelical direction. And if so, whether that accounts for its similar decline as liberal Protestantism.

Truth isn’t democratic in the sense that what’s true doesn’t become untrue because 51% or more think it otherwise. Christianity isn’t about winning a popularity contest or about success in numbers. It’s about the faithful communication, in word and deed, of a message from God about genuine human fulfillment through Jesus Christ. It’s about fostering an encounter with Christ and about a renewed humanity. If few respond, then few respond. We can’t change the Church’s message to suit would-be recipients.

Of course, we mustn’t assume we can safely shake the dust from our feet because we have done all we can to reach people. Sometimes, we can do more. Sometimes, how we say a thing affects people’s ability to receive what’s said. And how we live sometimes makes our message more (or less) credible.

Sometimes, but not always. If they persecuted the Master, they will also persecute his disciples (John 15:20). This is a truth not even the close fit between the Gospel message and the deep needs of the human heart can lead us to ignore.

Some folks think the New Evangelization and the prophesied “new springtime” for Christianity mean huge conversion numbers to come. Some even hope for a new Christendom. Others expect Christians to become a “creative minority.”

While it can be helpful to extrapolate and to analyze trends, in the end, we must remain faithful to the mission, regardless of the numbers or the trends.

Fidelity to the mission can inspire change and adaptation so the Church can reach more people and God can be glorified. But fidelity also rightly resists change and adaptation when to alter things amounts to infidelity: What looks like “success” in terms of numbers can be “failure” in terms of the Gospel.

“Woe to you when all men speak well of you,” Jesus said (Luke 6:26). A mark of false messiahs is their power to deceived the masses and even, if it were possible, the elect (Matthew 24:24).

After the crowds chanted, “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday, only a handful of people remained faithful to Jesus on Good Friday. And even after the Resurrection, the Church amounted only to some 120 people in the Upper Room on Pentecost Sunday. The Church went on to grow rapidly, but it did so by a faithful relative few being solidly committed to mission and message. Not perfectly, of course. If you think otherwise, read 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians or Romans. But the early Christians were nevertheless pretty clear on what it means to be a Christian and what is opposed to being one.

Whether the numbers are up or down, we must be faithful. Fidelity to Christ is the primary goal. Indeed, it’s at the heart of why we evangelized to begin with.

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) is a command of the Lord. We make disciples because we love him — and if we love him, we keep his commandments.

This, of course, is not an argument against doing our best “to win the world for Christ and his Church” through adaptation and change, including cultural engagement. We just have to make sure that in the interest of bigger numbers, we don’t wind up winning the Church for the world.

Mark Brumley is the president of Ignatius Press and

the author of The Seven Deadly Sins of Catholic Apologetics.

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