The Catholic Church has loomed large over Gloria Emmons’ life.
Growing up in metro Detroit in the 1950s and ’60s, her devout Catholic family was surrounded by other devout Catholics. Everybody went to church on Sundays. Nobody ate meat on Fridays. Almost every home had a statue of Mary.
Emmons attended Catholic schools through college. She married in the church, sent her two sons through Catholic schools and the family attended weekly Mass for years.
But today, Emmons describes herself as an “ambivalent” Catholic.
“There are lots of conflicts” between Catholic doctrine and contemporary values such as equality for gays and women, said Emmons, 65, who lives near Kalamazoo. “As we move forward as a society, they stare you in the face."
Emmons still considers herself Catholic. “I still love the Mass,” she said.
But she no longer belongs to a local parish, and when she attends Mass nowadays, it’s typically to accompany her 93-year-old father to his church in Oakland County.
For Emmons’ sons, former altar boys now in their 30s, the estrangement with the church has gone even farther. Both sons now reject Catholicism. One son is gay. The other son married another graduate of Catholic schools, but the couple didn’t have a church wedding and haven’t baptized their children.
“I’m close to my father’s priest, and I’ve talked to him” about her children’s loss of faith, Emmons said. “He said he’s seeing the same thing" among his congregation.
It’s a trend backed by numbers. Between 2000 and 2018, membership in Michigan’s Catholic parishes dropped from 2.2 million to 1.8 million, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), which collects annual data from U.S. Catholic dioceses.
Even more striking in the CARA data are the declines in Catholic sacraments and education. Infant baptisms, down 49% since 2000. Weddings blessed by the Catholic Church, down 54%. First Communions, down 46%. Enrollment in Catholic grade schools, down 49%. Enrollment in K-12 religious education classes, down 48%.
The number of sacraments in the 2000 and 2018 CARA reports reflect the totals for the previous 12 months. The number of weddings include all marriages blessed by the church, regardless of whether it was performed in a Catholic church. One number not included in this chart are the number of adults baptized in another Christian faith who converted to Catholicism. That number was 3,793 in 2000 and 2,322 in 2018, a 39% drop.
“Those are huge drops, a huge erosion," said Brian Wilson, a American religious history professor at Western Michigan University.
But he and other experts say Michigan is not an outlier in the U.S. Catholic Church -- and the U.S. Catholic Church is not an outlier among the nation’s Christian denominations, most of which are losing members.
“There are a whole lot of societal factors converging together," said Mary Gautier, a CARA senior researcher.
“Younger people today are less likely to get married," she said. "If they do get married, they’re unlikely to get married in a church. Everybody wants a beach wedding.”
Birth rates also are down, and when women do have children, they are less likely to have been married in the Church or be married at all -- which makes it less likely the child will be baptized.
And a child who isn’t baptized is highly unlikely to be enrolled in a Catholic school, attend religious education classes or have a First Communion.
In short, Catholics are less likely today to stay in the church out of habit or social pressure, Gautier said. “They want a faith that is meaningful for them. If a pastor can’t provide that, they’ll find it elsewhere” -- or eschew religion all together.
Growth of the ‘nones’
Today, America’s fastest-growing category of religious identity is “none.”
In a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center 24% of Michigan adults answered “none” when asked their religion. That compares to 25% who identified as evangelical Protestants, 18% as Catholic and 18% as mainline Protestants.
This chart shows the breakdown of religious identify for Michigan adults in the 2014 Pew survey. About 70% of survey-takers identified themselves as Christians; of these with a non-Christian faith, about 1% each identified as Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist.
“There’s a religious change in the United States that is very much generational, and that’s just not for Catholics," said Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew.
Americans born before 1946 “by and large are very religious," he said. But as they die off, they are being replaced by millennials, a generation far less inclined to link spirituality to organized religion.
Emmons points to her own family as an example of the generational shift: Her elderly father is an unwavering Catholic; she is a Catholic skeptical of the institutional church, and her children have eschewed organized religion entirely. “I think I’m typical of Catholics my age,” she said.
“There’s no societal pressure anymore to be religious,” Wilson said, which means fewer people attend church -- and as fewer people attend, societal pressure lessens even more. “It’s a feedback loop.”
Moreover, people today are less inclined to belong to organizations in general. “It’s not just organized religion” but everything from sports leagues to civic groups, Wilson said. “People are much more comfortable being on their own. They have networks of friends and contacts, but it’s less formal.”
This shows the breakdown of religious identity by age, according to the 2014 Pew survey.
Yet another factor may be the convergence of politics and religion.
“There are plenty of churches that are apolitical and focus on the spiritual," Wilson said. "But they can be overshadowed in the media by conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics who are very political and outspoken.
“That turns off millennials, who might see this strong connection between religion and conservative politics and think this must be what every church looks like,” he said.
Wilson said he’s seen the changes among his students at Western Michigan University. Comparative religion classes are less popular than they were 20 years ago, he said, and those who do enroll are much less knowledgeable.
“More and more of my students have no background in religion," he said. “Even among those who say they come from Christian homes, a lot have never cracked open up a Bible. They are religiously illiterate.”
Trends within Catholicism
About 41% of American adults raised as Catholic are no longer Catholic, according to the 2014 Pew survey.
By comparison, 55% raised in a mainline Protestant denomination and 35% raised as evangelical Protestants no longer identify with their childhood religion.
While the Catholic retention rate is about average, what’s more problematic for the church is the lack of converts, said Smith, the Pew researcher. While 13% of Americans are former Catholics, only 2% are Catholic converts -- a 6-to-1 ratio.
“Other religions have a much more favorable ratio," Smith said.
Among former Catholics, half have joined another religion and about half are “nones," according to various surveys.
“In 2008, we asked people why they changed religion,” Smith said about Pew surveys. "For Catholics, about a fourth cited the sex-abuse scandals. But when asked for the most important reason they left, the abuse scandal didn’t come up much.”
Rather, survey respondents gave a variety of answers -- from no longer believing in God, to disagreements with Catholic teachings on issues such as gay marriage and birth control, to issues with a priest or congregation.
“Many just drifted away,” Smith said. “It wasn’t a conscious decision.”
Bringing people back
The good news for the U.S. Catholic Church: Those losses have been offset by an influx of Hispanics on church rolls, both through immigration and outreach to Hispanic communities.
Today, 38% of U.S. Catholics are Hispanic, and it’s 54% among Catholics born since 1982, according to a 2016 CARA study.
These numbers come from the 2014 Pew survey. About a third of all U.S. Catholics are Hispanic, according to multiple surveys.
But most of the Hispanic influx has occurred in Western and Southern states. The Catholic Church is shrinking in the Northwest and Midwest, including Michigan.
The Archdiocese of Detroit is a prime example of what’s happening in longtime Catholic strongholds.
The archdiocese -- which includes Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Monroe, Lapeer and St. Clair counties -- serves 1.1 million Catholics, more than 60% of all Catholics in Michigan.
But church membership is down 22% since 2000. Marriages blessed by the Church are down 60%. Baptisms, down 55%.
Since 2000, half the Catholic schools in the archdiocese have closed and the number of parishes has dropped by almost a third through church closures and mergers. The diocese has 30% fewer priests than in 2000, and 60% fewer nuns.
“It’s not a good thing at all," said Father Steve Pullis, director of Evangelization, Catechesis and Schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit.
He recognizes traditional Catholic teachings can be a difficult sell in today’s culture. “I get that it’s hard for my contemporaries,” said Pullis, who is 37. “To hear what Christ propose may be at odds with the values of the world."
Still, he said, “We need to help the next generation know why it’s important to stay in the church.”
To that end, Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron has unveiled an “Unleash the Gospel” movement that calls on Catholics to see southeast Michigan as ripe for missionary efforts.
“It’s not about a membership drive or the number," Pullis said. "We’re about bringing hearts to Jesus.”
To spread this message, the archdiocese has launched a number of initiatives: Small-group Bible studies; creation of a Young Catholic Professionals group; a speaker series in bars called Theology on Tap; podcasts; Facebook posts promoting video testimonials; an Unleash the Gospel magazine.
This map shows Michigan’s seven Catholic dioceses. You can put your cursor over a diocese to see its Catholic population as of Jan. 1, 2018. The embedded numbers reflect the entire diocese vs. county-level totals. (Source: CARA)
His vision also includes encouraging congregations to find ways make Mass a more meaningful experience through “radical hospitality," better use of music and more dynamic homilies.
In addition, Vigeron has promised “practical help" to ensure priests provide empathetic pastoral care and present homilies "meeting people where they are at and avoiding ‘truth bombs’ that will only turn them away.”
Those are approaches are backed by research, according to Gautier, the CARA analyst.
Priests "can do real damage” in driving people away from Catholicism, she said.
“Any parish who wants to attract people needs to work on hospitality and making people feel welcome,” Gautier added. “The research we find is that people are looking for a sense of welcome and a sense of belonging" in a church.
Mary Henige, strategic communication director for the archdiocese, said Detroit-area Catholics are “supercharged” about the new approach of joyful discipleship.
“I love our Church, and I want other people to love it," she said. "This world needs Christ more than ever.”
The loss of joy
But people such as Emmons see a disconnect between the teachings of Jesus and the institutional church.
As the mother of a gay man, the church’s stance on homosexuality is especially painful. “It’s hard,” Emmons said. “It’s been hard for my son."
For years, Emmons and her husband centered their lives around St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Kalamazoo, where their children attended school and Emmons’ husband was on the school board.
It was a warm, tight-knit, loving community, Emmons said.
That changed in the late 1990s with a new priest, Emmons said. “He was a young guy, but he was a 1950s-style priest" with rigid ideas.
Emmons and her husband looked for another parish, but “they didn’t seem that friendly.” Meanwhile, Emmons said, the sex-abuse scandals, the church’s role in banning gay marriage in Michigan, the efforts to limit access to abortion and contraceptives, the treatment of women as “second-class citizens” all took their toll on her.
“Church should give you joy, and it’s not there anymore," Emmons added. "I miss when church was joyful.”
Part of the problem, she said, is the new crop of young priests, who tend to be much more conservative. “It’s not the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s," when liberals felt at home in the Catholic Church, she said.
But for all her disillusionment with the institutional Church, Emmons said she still prays and still takes comfort in Catholic rituals. She’s dismayed that her sons have lost their faith. She’s especially unhappy her grandchildren are not baptized.
“The Catholic part of me feels so bad, and I’ve talked to other parents who feel the same way," Emmons said.
Still, she said, she understands why her sons no longer attend church. Her gay son stopped going to Mass after a priest “went on a rampage about gay marriage," Emmons said.
The judgmental stances of the Church are especially galling considering the sexual-abuse scandals, which has undermined the church’s moral authority, Emmons said. And she scoffs at the idea a celibate, all-male priesthood can offer effective insights on marriage and family life.
It’s not the relationship with Jesus that has changed, but her relationship with the church, she said. “People now realize they don’t have to go through a priest to have a relationship with God."
Source : https://www.mlive.com/news/2019/04/michigan-residents-leaving-the-catholic-church-as-many-turn-away-from-religion.html