No one can deny that the Catholic Church in the United States is in decline. While the total Catholic population is propped up by recent immigrants, 13% of Americans identify themselves as “former Catholics”. For every adult who enters the church, six leave. Among those who still identify as Catholic, surveys tell us that only about 25% attend Mass weekly and among millennials the percentage is less than half of that. Why the decline? Traditionalists point fingers at the lack of discipline and orthodoxy in the Church, and progressives point to the sins of the Church and outdated teachings. Trying to lead us past the finger pointing and toward something positive is a little book by Fr. Louis Cameli called Church, Faith, Future.
Some of you know Fr. Cameli, He is in residence at Holy Name Cathedral Church, Faith, Future is not complicated reading, and Fr. Cameli manages to cover a lot of material in just over a hundred pages. As to why the Church is in the position that it is in, Fr. Cameli points to the pervasive influence of secularism, which began to take hold centuries ago but which has picked up momentum in recent decades. Essentially, secularism holds that the world and everything in it can be fully explained by reason, logic, and science.
Fr. Cameli does see positive elements in the advance of secular culture; but the practical result of secularism has been to marginalize churches and faith itself, to brand the church as “a reservoir, a holding pattern, and an essentially conservative institution.” I expect that the violent demonstrations by “Christians” in Charlottesville two weekends ago will further discredit the notion that Christians can be a positive force for change in our country.
In a secular framework, God is not that important. Though many younger people say they believe in God, Fr. Cameli points out that the God they believe in is not active in their life or in the life of the faith community. If God is not that important, are there not things more beneficial to me that I could be doing on a Sunday morning—like working out and going to brunch? “The next generation does not so much deliberately leave faith, religion, and church as drift away from realities that they have never really known. They don’t decide, they meander without much information or formation.” People leave because a previous generation has not effectively communicated the joys and challenges of faith and has not made Gospel living something personal.
Fr. Cameli expects the Church to continue to decrease in size because of the overwhelming influence of secularism, but he does not see reason to be fatalistic about it. In the first place, the closed secular system which presently dominates our cultural thinking does not effectively answer all the ultimate questions about life and death. When people start asking the bigger questions, there is reason to believe that they will turn to faith for answers. The Holy Spirit may also have some surprises in store. There have been periods of unexpected growth when God raised up saints like Francis of Assisi, who called the church back to its roots, and St. Therese of Lisieux, who led us away from fear and towards love of neighbor.
In the meantime, Fr. Cameli sees three possible approaches that the Church could take. One is to continue as we are, ministering to a smaller and smaller number of people—what I like to call “gentle pallbearing”. A second approach is to build a smaller but more committed church and not expend energy on the marginal. But he finds this model dangerous, because it could lead to a kind of “elitism”. Jesus found time for both “the crowds” and for his more committed followers. Fr. Cameli proposes a third model, that would combine the more intense focus on discipleship in the second model with an active approach to evangelization: not as another slick program, but a means for active members to invite others by introducing them to prayer, to Jesus, to service, and to community. Given the fact that Cardinal Cupich, who writes an afterword to this book, has made energizing the faith community the goal of the Renew My Church process, you could do worse than read this book and be prepared for things to come.