The Hemorrhaging of the Catholic Church

Bleeding creates anxiety. Our son’s severe hemophilia reminds us of this fact. Usually bleeds happen on the playground, running, climbing, jumping—God bless boys—and then he falls. “Daddy, my ankle hurts.” Out comes ice, and, if things look swollen, so does an intravenous needle to pump his veins full of blood-clotting medication. While doing all of this, the clock is ticking. With every passing moment, the possibility of permanent joint damage increases. The anxiety leads to stress.

Sometimes churches bleed, and in America this is occurring most acutely in the Roman Catholic Church where one out of every ten Americans is an ex-Catholic. In a recent Catholic National Reporter article, “The Hidden Exodus: Catholics Becoming Protestants,” the Rev. Thomas Reese S.J. provides reasons for the crisis:

People are not becoming Protestants because they disagree with specific Catholic teachings; people are leaving because the church does not meet their spiritual needs and they find Protestant worship service better.

Nor are the people becoming Protestants lazy or lax Christians. In fact, they attend worship services at a higher rate than those who remain Catholic.
Thus, both as believers and as worshipers, Catholics who become Protestants are statistically better Christians than those who stay Catholic. We are losing the best, not the worst.

Father Reese’s observations are noteworthy. For instance, he contrasts the reasons why there are more Catholics migrating in an evangelical direction than toward Protestant liberalism. Reese also sets the record straight in explaining the disconnect between the commonly cited reasons for these departures by Catholic clergy—e.g., disagreement with moral stipulations such as contraception, women priests, or divorce—versus actual reasons based on data from the Pew Forum, which indicate that it is something closer to spiritual renewal and attraction to dynamic forms of worship.

The strength of Reese’s case rests upon research from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, particularly chapter two, Changes in Americans’ Religious Affiliation. The data supports what sociologists of religion and pastors like me who serve at the Catholic/Protestant intersection have been noticing for years. For instance, it is a main point of my book Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic (Zondervan), which grew from two years of focus group interviews among former Catholics across the country. Another recent example comes from Alisa Harris of World in her article, “Mass Exodus.” The Pew Forum has put hard numbers to this anecdotal evidence, asserting that there are currently 15 million former Catholics in America attending Protestant Churches, two-thirds of whom do so as evangelicals.

The Challenge of Implementation
Against the backdrop of the recent Gospel Coalition national conference in Chicago, an application from the Catholic experience comes to mind. It is a lesson about the importance of implementation. Christian leaders occasionally come together to confess, expound, and admonish Christian truth, and even codify their insights. But such events do not guarantee that the church will get closer to applying the gospel to ministry. For Catholics, this challenge of implementation has continued to plague her leaders since the closing session of Vatican II.

Instead of the citadel image of the Roman church that was forged during the age of Pius IX (pope from 1846 to 1878), Vatican II portrayed the church as a “pilgrim people” on the move throughout the modern world. Toward this end, the council was designed to pursue missional aims (unlike Trent and Vatican I, which focused mainly upon doctrinal reform). The particular term used by John XXIII for this pursuit was aggiornamento, an Italian word meaning “bringing up to date.” Among its chief concerns was the question of where church authority resides and how such authority should be proclaimed on the parish level. Would the song of the Lamb ring out from the clerical citadel, or would it proceed from the lips of Catholic parishioners?

Contrary to the fortress mentality, the Vatican II vision sought to reach out to the world in fresh ways. For instance, Protestants, who were previously considered to be damned heretics (since the Council of Trent), were elevated to the more favorable plane of “separated brethren” (an improvement to be sure). Some of them were even invited to observe the council. Ecumenical bridges were also built to Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism. The sharp wedge between tradition and Scripture was removed.  A decree on the freedom of religion permanently eliminated inquisitions and other techniques of forceful religious coercion. Papal authority was diffused as the role of bishops was increased. Bible study was encouraged for lay Catholics, along with more emphasis on personal faith. Perhaps the most obvious reform came in the liturgy itself. David Wells, writing in Revolution in Rome, describes the change:

Formerly, worship had tended to be mechanical, external, carried on by a priest who was almost oblivious to the people in the Church. They tended to be merely spectators at an event essentially external to them. [The council document titled] Mediator Dei sought to reverse this, arguing that the faithful are not “mute onlookers” but should share in the worship service with the priest. The encyclical even allowed that the laity has a priestly function to fulfill. While falling short of endorsing a full doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, the encyclical went a long way toward reversing a suffocating clericalism under which Catholicism had suffered and toward endorsing the need for subjective involvement in Christian faith (11-12).

How Is Your Church Bleeding?
While the Catholic Church has made enormous strides in moving away from the monarchial church of Vatican I, it nevertheless continues to struggle with helping her disengaged laypeople implement the fruit of Vatican II. Where I currently live, in Wheaton, Illinois, there are some terrific examples of implementation—charismatic Catholics whose faith moves in a remarkably gospel-centered direction. However, when I go home to New York and similar places, the problem which Father Reese describes of disenfranchised Catholics for whom Scripture and the gospel are foreign appears to be ubiquitous.
Father Reese correctly concludes by saying,

The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging members. It needs to acknowledge this and do more to understand why. Only if we acknowledge the exodus and understand it will we be in a position to do something about it.

As an ordained elder in an evangelical church, I read this statement and think, How is my church bleeding, and what am I doing about it? We may not see an exodus of people, but there is undoubtedly some way that we can improve our implementation of gospel truth. Even if we’re pleased with the number of people among us, there is always our desire to see men and women grow as disciples whose lives are fully consecrated to embodying and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Now is no time for Protestant triumphalism.

I wonder what it is that we evangelicals must “acknowledge” and “understand” concerning our implementation of the gospel. Like the hemorrhaging woman of Luke 8, who pressed through the crowds to lay hold of Jesus, may we properly diagnose our maladies of ministry, and, at these very points, have faith to appropriate the redemptive power of Christ.

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