Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Reader Writes: The Real Cost of Benedict's Smaller, Purer Church

In this posting, I’d like to give attention to a comment that an astute reader of this blog recently posted in response to my reflections on the thinkability of papal resignations (

Carl is responding to a comment made by a previous poster at the same thread, who had stated, “The church now is not losing members . . . . Where the faith is traditional, it is growing. Where it is radical, it is withering away.”

In response to the statement that the church is not losing members, Carl writes,

Quite bluntly, that is a lie! Pew forum reports that the Catholic Church is experiencing a net loss of 7.5% of its membership annually. That number is escalating. This week, the German Government reports that record numbers of German catholics are renouncing their membership in the Catholic Church. While there are old members returning, I myself am one, the numbers are far too small to offset the numbers who are leaving. Those loses are not sustainable. There is no way the RCC can survive this level of losses.

Carl’s comments then link to recent Pew Forum reports at and

For anyone seeking accurate information about what is happening demographically in American Catholicism, the Pew Forum data are a sine qua non. They provide a very troubling snapshot of what the restorationist agenda of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, upheld by American bishops largely hand-picked by those two popes, means, precisely, in terms of continuing affiliation of American Catholics with the Catholic church.

As I reported in November (, the Pew data show the following:

Percentage of Americans who are former Catholics: 10%

Percentage of American adults raised Catholic who have left the church: 33%

At the present moment in the history of the American Catholic church, a tenth of all American adults are now former Catholics, and a third of all American adults raised Catholic have left the church. As the same posting notes, as of February 2008, statistics from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) show the percentage of American Catholics attending weekly Mass at 23%. I suspect the number is lower now.

Carl’s posting also notes that, in the wake of Benedict’s rehabilitation of Richard Williamson and his SSPX confrères, resignations from the Catholic church in Germany have been “escalating.” I’ve been reporting on this phenomenon ( As the posting to which I just linked notes, on 7 February, the newspaper Deutsche Welle reported that German Catholics are leaving the church “in droves” following Benedict’s action: that is, they are officially leaving by going to their local governmental office that maintains lists of church members for tax purposes, and having their names removed from those rolls.

Patrick Allard’s blog reported on this still-unfolding story on 7 February, with a transcript of a 6 February article from Der Spiegel, which indicates that all over Germany, Catholics are officially resigning from the Catholic church in unprecedented numbers following Benedict’s rehabilitation of SSPX ( As I have also noted (see the link above to my Living in Hope posting), a similar situation exists in Austria, where there has been a mass exodus from the Catholic church in the past several years—and where media reports indicate further resignations following Benedict’s recent action.

And the situation I am describing is not different in other developed nations of the world. Even in formerly staunchly Catholic countries like Spain and Ireland, the Catholic church is dropping members at an unthinkable rate.

I agree with Carl: in light of these numbers, it seems strange, indeed, that Catholics enamored by the restorationist agenda still speak of their movement as one that is saving the church, returning people to church and to the practice of their faith. The numbers speak for themselves: precisely the opposite is happening in developing nations with Catholic populations. And the numbers of those leaving are skyrocketing in the wake of recent decisions by Rome.

And, it must be remembered, those statistics capture only the numbers of those officially leaving. They do not count those of us who have accepted, with heavy hearts, the church's decision to exclude us, and who longer participate in church life and liturgy because we have been given a clear message that we are not wanted.

This phenomenon appears not to perturb either Benedict or most bishops around the world—the majority of which have been appointed under the last two papal regimes and are solidly in the restorationist camp. As I’ve noted on this blog, the weeding out of Catholics who raise critical questions about the place of women in church and society, about sexual ethics, and about the political strategy of the church (e.g., in the pro-life movement) is deliberate. It is taking place under the aegis of purer, truer Catholicism: the restorationist agenda that has been at the center of Benedict’s church politics for decades now, from the period when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as Cardinal Ratzinger, intends and celebrates the exclusion of vast numbers of Catholics from the leaner and meaner "restored" church.

In the view of those promoting the restorationist agenda, authentic Catholics (even avowedly anti-Semitic ones) will remain and are welcome. The rest are unwelcome and should go, because we are disobedient children. As I’ve also noted, the new right-wing bishop in Linz, Austria, Gerhard Maria Wagner captures the nonchalant (and belligerent and intransigent) attitude of the church’s present pastoral leaders about this loss of millions of Catholics who took hope from Vatican II by arguing that the church cannot permit itself to be blackmailed by those leaving.

As if those leaving the church in large numbers are leaving primarily because we have sought to force change in the church, and not because our consciences no longer permit us to collude with a system that hides pedophile priests and welcomes anti-Semites and makes a shambles of an ecumenical council of the church. The consciences that the church itself has formed, through its teachings about ethical issues . . . .

In my view, the response of the current pastoral leaders of the church (and those who defend them from the center) to the pastoral needs of millions of Catholics experiencing a crisis of conscience because of the behavior and decisions of those pastoral leaders is not merely inadequate: it is a shocking betrayal of all that pastoral leadership is about. The charge given to the church’s pastors is to seek out the lost members of the flock, and to feed the flock—not to drive away and starve the flock.

Historians will one day ask how people given such a charge could drive away and starve the flock entrusted to their care. By then, of course, it may well be too late to ask that question in anything but a theoretical sense, since starved and dispersed flocks have a way of disappearing altogether.