People of faith will not find much to cheer about in the latest Pew Research Center report on Americans’ religious beliefs and practices.
The report, released last week, found that the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christian declined 12 percentage points in the last decade, falling from 178 million to 167 million today.
Just as troubling is that those who say they’re religiously unaffiliated—often called the “nones”—are now at 26 percent of the population, up from 17 percent in 2009.
Among the Christian respondents, self-identified Catholics stand at 20 percent of the population, down from 23 percent a decade ago, with Hispanic Catholics down from 57 percent to 47 percent nationwide. Christians who say they’re Protestant are 43 percent of the population, compared with 51 percent in 2009.
All of this reflects a troubling trend for the future of the Church and for society at large. That’s especially true when compared to the rapid rise of the “nones.”
Those of us committed to our Catholic faith have already experienced the effect of the downward trend. Mass attendance is down, parishes are merging and/or closing, as are Catholic schools, and sacramental life has diminished. Church weddings, in many cases, have given way to ceremonies at the reception site or another place chosen by the couple.
It’s no wonder so many faithful Catholics have a hard time envisioning what the Church they love will look like in the future.
The impact of the diminished role of religion in American life greatly affects society overall, as it removes a key—and timeless—framework for moral values and behavior.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr, in an Oct. 11 speech at the University of Notre Dame Law School, struck the right note, saying that religion “helps promote moral discipline in society” and “helps teach, train and habituate people to want what is good.”
Where are the American people turning now for moral guidance? The Pew report, culled from questions tacked onto myriad political surveys conducted over the last 10 years, did not address that question.
Pew’s comprehensive national Religious Landscape Study of 2014 did ask the question, even breaking it down by region. That study found that 47 percent of respondents in the New York metropolitan area cited “common sense” as the main source of moral guidance in their lives, with only 26 percent citing “religion.”
Paradoxically, though, the 2014 survey reported that 48 percent of New Yorkers polled said religion is “very important” in their lives, with another 27 percent calling it “somewhat important.”
It’s possible, then, that there are openings to evangelize or re-evangelize the “nones.”
We certainly hope so. And we know that the Archdiocese of New York, under the leadership of Cardinal Dolan, has undertaken many initiatives in the last few years toward that goal.
These include a major study in 2016 to gauge Catholics’ opinion of the Church in New York and in general, as well as expanded outreach to the college and young adult population and the growing number of Hispanic Catholics in the archdiocese.
Other efforts include an increased presence on social media, a series of parish missions aimed at revitalizing the faith of practicing Catholics, an ongoing commitment to maintaining positive relations with other faith communities, most of whom are facing similar challenges, and much more.
It’s up to all of us, though, to maintain our faith and practice as always, to encourage ideas and initiatives aimed at reaching those outside the Church, and to recognize that evangelization in the 21st century may not look like it did before.
We all have to work toward the goal of introducing or re-introducing people to the Good News of Jesus Christ, and the going may not be easy. But we know the effort will be worth it for all concerned.