Dramatic Developments in the Catholic Church
MANY American Catholics were startled last November when they heard about the latest church-attendance survey. Though surveys vary, this one indicated that the number of those who had virtually stopped attending church had nearly doubled during the past year! Most alarming was the report that for the first time older persons accounted for most of the overall drop. Almost a third of those over fifty years of age stopped attending Mass regularly in 1973! This fact Catholic researchers found “not a little frightening.” Says the National Catholic Reporter:
“The precipitous decline in church attendance that has been going on for several years has reached almost catastrophic proportions. For the first time decline in church attendance is occurring among older members of the population. . . . The changes of the past year may well constitute the most dramatic collapse of religious devotion in the entire history of Christianity.” [Italics ours]—November 16, 1973.
Why is this new phase of the attendance crisis a cause for such concern to the Church? Well, back in 1972 Vatican professor of theology Battista Mondin, when referring to the troubled period since Vatican Council II, said that there is “still a silent majority which has remained faithful.” He referred to the older, more stable members. Furthermore, he predicted that this “silent majority will guarantee the survival and salvation of the Catholic Church in the United States.”
But alas! Two years later what is the “silent majority” doing? Is it saving the Church?
“Silent Majority” Fast Becoming the “Fading Minority”
Recent evidence shows that the majority of U.S. Catholics no longer support religious practices required by Church law. For example, by mid-1973 over half were not attending Mass regularly. The figures showed that 12 percent attended once a month, 26 percent only once a year, and 14 percent almost never attended. Yet Church law demands weekly attendance.
What about other matters where the majority of Catholics are at odds with Church doctrine? Numerous studies show that in 1973 the majority of Catholics (1) practiced birth control; (2) approved of abortion in a number of circumstances; (3) approved of premarital sex, either in some or all circumstances; (4) got divorces at about the same rate as other Americans; (5) did not go regularly to confession.
The Church has repeatedly reaffirmed its laws on these matters. Yet the majority of her members actually believe and act contrary to her laws. Hence, what hope for “salvation” does the Church really have in this so-called “silent majority”? If there is any hope for the Church, it would seem to rest only in the hands of a “fading minority.”
Certainly concerned Catholics want to know what is behind this abruptly accelerated retreat from the Church. Why is it so, especially among older ones? The evidence points to at least two causes: (1) loss of confidence in leadership and (2) loss of the “mystical” aspect in worship.
Crisis in Leadership
The Catholic survey on church attendance reveals that among American Catholics there is a “strong relationship between lack of confidence in leadership and not going to church.” Especially during the past year has church leadership been crippled by dissent. No longer are the strongest attacks from outside the Church, but, rather, from clergymen within. This conflict has now reached the hearts of the laity who always placed their confidence in church authority. How can they continue accepting that authority when those administering it so openly disagree?
Professor of Church history Monsignor John T. Ellis says that the American Catholic community “has never known anything to approximate its present dispiritedness and disarray.” But Pope Paul VI shows that this problem is not limited to the U.S. Speaking to the College of Cardinals last June, he deplored the “doctrinal confusion and indiscipline” in the Church, and conceded that the world’s priesthood was “passing through a period” of “disorientation.”
Did the situation improve as the year 1973 wore on? No. Rather, the strife escalated. There were embarrassing confrontations with renowned Swiss theologian Hans Küng, openly expressed tensions with the 260 American bishops, numerous incidents with dissident priests and greater pressure than ever against priestly celibacy. By October a front-page article in the French paper Le Monde declared: “Religious practice is collapsing, priestly vocations are drying up. Rebellion is everywhere. The [ecclesiastical] authorities are overwhelmed.”
Then, in two speeches on November 10, Pope Paul revealed how deep the wounds had gone. With no prepared script, he emotionally appealed to priests in his audience:
“Accept me; do not despise me; accept me for what I am. I am the Vicar of Christ. . . . understand that this is the hierarchical and established Church . . . The moment has come when I must call on all of you for your full adhesion and attention.”—Catholic Standard, November 15, 1973.
Why was such an outright appeal for recognition of authority necessary? Why has the ‘moment to call for full adhesion’ come? Is it because their religious house is falling apart for lack of adhesive authority to hold it together? Jesus long ago said: “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot last.”—Mark 3:24, 25, Catholic Jerusalem Bible.
Church statistics show that this principle is at work. In one year, seven thousand nuns left the convents. The priesthood has fallen by about 25,000 since 1969, and the pace is accelerating! Many seminaries are empty. The situation is so critical that, in November, Cardinal Garrone, head of the Vatican’s Catholic education department, called a meeting of eighty bishops from around the world to discuss the crisis. He told them that the loss of priests is critical and that gaining more seminarians “represents for the Church a true question of life or death.”
In an effort to stem the tide of defection, Pope Paul has been forced to take a new, more conciliatory attitude toward dissenting priests than in the past. On November 28, when speaking to a general audience, he discussed the dissent that is spreading “like an epidemic” within the Church. Then the December 23 issue of L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, published an article pleading with each priest to “do the impossible to remain at his post.” Even “if you commit moral errors—you must not, but it may happen, because you too are weak—you have many remedies.” How desperate the problem must be for that to be said!
This disarray in the ranks of the clerical shepherds is one of the reasons why loyal members of the Catholic flock are becoming disillusioned in increasing numbers. But there is another reason, one that goes to the very heart of Catholicism.
Loss of the “Mystical Tradition”
Most worshipers, particularly older ones, felt that the Catholic Mass of pre-Vatican II days held something special for them. The Latin Mass, with its theatrical splendor, “conspired to speak of the presence, of the mystery of God among men,” says priest William J. Bausch, writing in U.S. Catholic magazine. Admittedly, “the mystery spawned the passive, silent, awe-struck congregation,” but the customers kept coming back for more. Now all that is gone. The slump in attendance at Mass, he believes, is became the Church has ‘forsaken its own mystical tradition.’
Laments Catholic poet Ned O’Gorman, “We must suffer now with mock celebrations.” As he sees it, “in this new Church, everything becomes very quickly, very dull.” When the mystery, the awesomeness, the incomprehensibility are removed, the people feel cheated. The mystery they thought must represent God has been ripped off, exposing a mere empty, man-made ritual.
The same is true of the many other religious appendages that Catholics have used over the years as aids to devotion. Rosaries, saints, images, novenas and other devotional accessories were said to make worshipers feel closer to God. “Emotions are nurtured by hallowed symbols and traditional practices,” says Monsignor Hubert Maino of Detroit’s St. Frances Cabrini Church. “When these symbols are abruptly removed . . . the man or woman in the pew is angered and alienated.” He calls for a return to the former esteem for these devotional crutches.
But is that really the answer?
Jesus Christ did not teach his followers to rely on material aids to devotion. Instead, he said: “True worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper the Father wants. God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.”—John 4:23, 24, The Jerusalem Bible.
Serious questions confront those who have stopped attending church. Are they only disillusioned with the Church, or have their hearts grown cold toward God?
If in reality it is a love of righteousness that has moved them to pull away from the confusion facing them in the Church, then they will not simply pursue a cold, materialistic way of life. They will feel impelled to find out how God really wants to be worshiped. This will turn them to the Bible, where God reveals his will for us. They will want to apply it in their lives and seek out and associate with others who do the same.
Those who remain with the Church, hoping that somehow it will survive the present crisis, need to examine their views as well. Why do they remain? Is it because they are convinced that the teachings of the Church are properly founded on God’s Word of truth? Have they personally read it to find out? Or are they largely indifferent and willing to go along with anything the Church may do? Jesus said: “Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right: they shall be satisfied.”—Matt. 5:6, Jerusalem Bible.
One sincere Catholic person who had questions about her worship began studying the Bible to learn what God requires. She then wrote to her elderly uncle, a priest in Rome, about what she was learning. He replied in part:
“Yes, my child, JEHOVAH is really GOD’S name. It’s not used too much, but how wrong we are. It should [have] been known a long time ago, but we are not perfect and we had to obey our insufficient Superior, which is tragic.
“These people of this Faith are nice people, they are teaching you and others the real Truth. How wonderful it is to go from house to house, and what hard work that is, but didn’t Jesus do it? . . .
“Now my niece, if you can, I would appreciate it if you can send me some more of the books that you are studying. It makes my heart feel so good that you can get knowledge and true knowledge from the right source.”
Yes, many sincere Catholics are taking advantage of the house-to-house ministry of Jehovah’s witnesses. They are accepting the free service they offer—a study of the Bible in the privacy of one’s own home. They are learning for themselves what kind of worship is pleasing to God. For them what has happened to the Catholic Church is proving to be a real blessing. It may have alienated them from an organization of worship contrived by men, but in so doing it has helped them to ‘go nearer to God.’—Jas. 4:8, Jerusalem Bible.
Soon all who profess religious beliefs will be brought into judgment. “When the day comes,” Jesus says, it is not those who shout, “Lord, Lord,” who will be approved, “but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21, 22, Jerusalem Bible) Act wisely. Use your opportunity now to learn God’s will and to do it!
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Church Attendance Loss ‘Catastrophic’
THE TABLET Brooklyn, N.Y. November 15, 1973
Only 25 p.c. of Catholics go to mass
THE WEST AUSTRALIAN September 10, 1973
Catholic Churchgoing Still Declining
THE NEW YORK TIMES November 12, 1973
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Pope Expresses Anguish Over Defections of Priests
THE NEW YORK TIMES November 12, 1973
Pope cites ‘epidemic’ of dissent
THE CLEVELAND PRESS November 29, 1973
Vatican paper says 15,000 priests quit
THE ARIZONA REPUBLIC December 26, 1973
Stop Questioning Pope, Catholics Told
THE PITTSBURGH PRESS July 6, 1973