The decline of the Catholic Church in the United States and in Europe is apparent to anyone who looks at the statistics. The American statistics would be comparable to the far worse European ones if it were not for the influx of Hispanic, Vietnamese, and Filipino Catholics. Catholics of European descent are a vanishing race.
The 2009 Catholic directory reported:
—There were 191,265 church-recognized marriages in the year ending Jan. 1, 2009, more than 5,000 fewer than the year before.
— Confirmations numbered more than 622,000, down about 8,500 from the previous year.
— First Communions numbered nearly 822,000, a drop of about 1,300.
— Infant baptisms totaled more than 887,000, down by almost 16,000.
— Adult baptisms and receptions into full communion totaled more than 124,000, a decline of more than 12,000 from the previous year.
This decline in sacramental practice occurred when the number of Catholics was, according to the Church directory, increasing.
The decline in some places (such as Quebec) began before Vatican II, but the years after Vatican II have seen an accelerating decline. Some blame the Council itself, saying that the Church was doing fine and should not have changed. Others say that the failure to make enough changes is the cause of the decline.
The proponents of more changes want the Catholic Church to follow the example of the Episcopal Church in accepting married priests, women priests, homosexual marriages, contraception, abortion, lay governance etc. But the Episcopal Church is in even steeper decline. Why should the Catholic Church not follow the same path if it adopts the same policies?
Those who want the Church to return to 1950 point to the relative stability or success of conservative Protestant churches. But the worship of these churches is often either charismatic or media-saturated, about as far from the 1950 Tridentine mass as one can get.
From my limited point of view, I think that the sudden and autocratic changes in Catholic life which were imposed autocratically by the Vatican on the advice of a handful of theological experts, was one source of the decline. Catholics had developed habits: the Latin mass, Marian devotions, fish on Fridays, the Baltimore Catechism. Suddenly, overnight everything was gone. It is always harder to start a new good habit, and many people just drifted away. Whatever the value of the reforms, the way they were imposed was bound to cause damage.
In an attempt to overcome the hostile, fortress mentality that characterized Catholicism, Vatican II opened new doors to ecumenism and to a less hostile attitude to other religious and philosophies. But this was rapidly interpreted to mean indifferentism: one religion is as good as another, the differences mean little or nothing.
The legalism that characterized 1950 Catholicism has been succeeded by antinomianism especially in sexual matters: anything that is socially acceptable goes. The Catholic Theological Society has defended about any sexual perversion that one can imagine, and lay Catholics have assimilated the message.
Larry R. Petersen, Gregory V. Donnerwerth in “Secularization and the Influence of Religion on Beliefs about Premarital Sex” (Social Forces, Vol. 75, 1997) analyze changes in attitudes to pre-marital sex among Catholics and Protestants and conclude:
The findings indicate that among conservative Protestants who attended church often there was no decline in support for traditional beliefs about premarital sex between 1972 and 1993. On the other hand, support for such beliefs declined significantly among mainline Protestants and Catholics at all levels of church attendance and among conservatives who were infrequent attenders.
Secularity, or worldliness as it used to be called, is not the inevitable winner in the contest with Christianity. The Catholic Church adopted policies that allowed secularism to erode Catholic belief and practice. Some of the policies were changes that upset established routines. In addition, while continuing to maintain traditional doctrine, the hierarchy allowed corrosive ideas to circulate, and sometimes even discouraged the laity who tried to defend traditional teachings – such conservatives were seen as disruptive. Episcopal toleration extended to the advocacy and practice of pedophilia (Paul Shanley).
Apart from the bishops, the Catholic establishment in the United States (chanceries, colleges, universities, religious orders) would like to see Catholic sexual morality become a dead letter: an interesting intellectual curiosity, like the strictures against usury, that might contain a gleam of wisdom but would not usually affect the way Catholics behaved in either their public or private lives.
Bishops are careerists and balance their need to impress the Vatican with their orthodoxy against the reality that most of the members of the Catholic Church in the United States, including the members who supposedly transmit traditional teaching, do not accept that teaching. These are the people who pay the bills and give the Catholic Church the illusion that it has an influence in the public sphere.
Such a compromise with worldliness does not even maintain Catholic numbers. If the Catholic Church is so meaningless, why bother with it? Why get up on Sunday morning to hear third-rate music and intellectual pablum? If you take the Gospel seriously, you are more to end up in a conservative Protestant church which, for all its limitations, has not surrendered, on some key issues that affect daily life, to the world.