Vanishing Catholics | Fr. William P. Clark, OMI | HPR
According to recent demographic surveys, it seems there are presently 30 million people in the U.S. who identify themselves as “former Catholics.” That figure is both surprising, and, for Catholics, disheartening.
Over the past 50 years or so, a profound change, other than that effected by Vatican II, has taken place in the Catholic Church. It might be described as the phenomenon of “vanishing Catholics.” The Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, has identified four major challenges facing the Church today. First on his list is the exodus of young adults from the Church. According to recent demographic surveys, it seems there are presently 30 million people in the U.S. who identify themselves as “former Catholics.” That figure is both surprising, and, for Catholics, disheartening. It represents a little less than 10 percent of the total population of this country. It also means that had those persons remained Catholic, approximately one in three Americans would be identified as Catholic. Only two religious groups represent a larger percentage of the U.S. population: Protestants (cumulatively) and current Catholics.
This phenomenon is disheartening not only for bishops and priests, but also for faithful Catholics generally. Many older Catholics are saddened at the sight of their children and grandchildren abandoning the Church.
Questions naturally arise. What has caused such a massive defection? How might one account for this phenomenon? It hardly seems possible that any single factor could explain a phenomenon of such magnitude. Various reasons for people leaving the Church are well-known. Many of them have been operative from the earliest times of Christianity. In his first letter to Timothy, St. Paul reminds him that “The Spirit has explicitly said that during the last times some will desert the faith and pay attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines …” (1 Tm 4:1-7). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of dissensions and divisions among the faithful (1 Cor 1:10-16).
From the first centuries up to modern times, there have been doctrinal differences (heresies) which led to great numbers separating themselves from the Roman Catholic Church. Many others have left the Church for what can be described as practical reasons, rather than doctrinal differences.