- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

Last December, Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl and Catholic University President David O’Connell hammered out talking points for the upcoming papal visit. The list, along with few comments by Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio to the United States, then was shipped to the Vatican.

It’s anyone’s guess, Father O’Connell said, how the pope will address the Americans, who make up the world’s third largest Catholic church after Brazil and Mexico.

However, he won’t be scolding them, the priest predicted.

“The pope is coming to strengthen our Catholic identity,” he says. “Some people would like to think he’ll be scolding Catholic colleges and universities. But this is a guy representing Catholic teaching in the most positive way. He is not using a hammer nor something to bash people over the head with.”

CATHOLICS IN AMERICA. Click graphic to open larger image:AmericanCatholics50pct.jpg

The pope will address a Catholic population in some ferment. Hundreds of inner-city Catholic schools are being closed, especially in the upper Midwest, because of low enrollment and lack of funds. More churches were closing around the country than being founded, and the priestly sex-abuse scandals that surfaced in 2002 have sent six dioceses into bankruptcy.

Roughly 24 percent of the U.S. population is Catholic, compared to 51.3 percent who are Protestants and 16.1 percent who are unaffiliated, according to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey released in February.

It is a shifting populace. Although one-third (31.4 percent) of all American adults say they were raised Catholic, the share of the population is 7.5 percentage points lower. Since 2.6 percent of the American adult population are converts to Catholicism, that means 10 percent of the U.S. population are former Catholics and almost one-third of baptized Catholics leave the church by or during adulthood.

According to Pew, no other religion in the United States has experienced greater losses over the past few decades.

Still, the Catholic Church’s overall population remains stable, even growing, according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, which every year places the church among the top three of its fastest-growing churches. The reason: more than 45 percent of all immigrants to the United States each year are Catholic, most from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America.

Already, Hispanics count for one-third of all U.S. Catholics and nearly half of American Catholics under 40.

Still, a fair amount of those Catholics are being picked off by Protestant churches. One-third of all Roman Catholic immigrants to the United States switch to Protestant churches — usually evangelical or Pentecostal — within a decade, according to Edwin Hernandez, a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

In response to the Pew survey, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at the Jesuit-founded Georgetown University pointed out the Catholic Church has retained 68 percent of its youth, doing better than Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Lutheran denominations. Catholics who leave their childhood faith do so at the median age of 21, it said.

Catholic News Service reported in 2006 that although the U.S. Catholic population rose by 1.3 million to 69.1 million that year, many affiliations were in name only. Despite growth from immigration, much of the flock had left in droves.

Church-recognized marriages dropped by 11,000 in one year; confirmations dropped by 15,000; first communions were down by 40,000; infant baptisms were down by 34,000; adult confirmations stayed stable; and there were 29 fewer priests ordained in 2006 than in 2005. Together with priestly retirements, the number of clergy that year was down by 1,151 and the number of nuns had declined by more than 2,000.

Some Catholics feel the numbers are dropping because of contentless sermons, said Judie Brown, president of the American Life League (ALL), a pro-life group in Stafford, Va., and author of the 2007 book, “Saving Those Damned Catholics.”

“Most Catholics either hear about the death penalty or something from the comics in the newspapers. The homilies are irrelevant to their daily lives,” she said.

“Catholics know what the church teaches on contraception, they ask the pastor why he is not preaching on it and he says, ‘I don’t want to lose financial support.’ That sickens them,” she said. “One reason why 85 percent of Catholics support contraception is they have not been catechized correctly. They do not know about natural family planning; they do not know why contraception is evil.

“So Catholics are fed up. I fault the priests for this, not the people. I think priests have literally betrayed the trust that comes with their holy orders.”

Evangelical pollster George Barna, in a survey released in July 2007, said Catholics are far less devout than American Protestants and are in danger of losing their distinctiveness.

Catholics were half as likely as other Americans to mention their faith, read the Bible, contribute to their church, attend Sunday school or say their faith has greatly transformed their life. However, they were more likely to attend church — weekly attendance is required among Catholics — and pray to God during a given week.

“The survey data portray Catholics as people whose lifestyles and thought patterns are more influenced by the social mainstream than by core principles of the Christian faith,” the survey said.

“Catholics have largely lost touch with much of their substantial spiritual heritage,” Mr. Barna said. “They retain an appreciation for tradition and consistency but have much less of a commitment to knowing and practicing the commands of Christ. … Some of their long-held distinctives, such as being champions of social justice, are no longer a defining facet of their community.”

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