A Bright Future for the Church in America
by Bud Macfarlane
What follows is a hopeful and perhaps jolting look into the Catholic landscape in America over the next two generations. For our purposes, we will define “faithful,” “orthodox,” “devout,” or “authentic” Catholics as those who believe and strive to practice what the Church teaches as the Catholic Church herself teaches it. It is impossible to understand what the coming generations of Catholics in our country will be like without a brief survey of the past, so there we shall begin.
The Church Implodes
In the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Catholic Church nearly self-destructed in terms of maintaining itself as a self-perpetuating organization. Here we are considering the Church as an institution in a particular country, not as the mystical Body of Christ. Large numbers of priests left the priesthood, candidates for the priesthood dwindled dramatically, and seminaries began to close down. Most of the clergy who remained embraced liberal views and practices justified as being supported by distorted, misleading, or downright contradictory interpretations of the teachings or purported “spirit” of Vatican II. The minority of faithful priests who remained were often persecuted or exiled to the smallest rural parishes. Entire congregations of nuns began to shrink in size or disappear altogether.
Sunday Mass attendance, as a rough and minimal indicator of the spiritual commitment of Catholics, dropped from large majorities of baptized Catholics (at 80%) to small minorities (at 20%). This 20% figure has held steady or fallen only slightly since the turn of the Millennium. Virtually all Catholics stopped going to Confession regularly, if at all. Married Catholics as a whole ceased to be open to having large families with numerous studies or surveys showing that almost all (perhaps up to 98%) actively rejected the Church’s rich teaching regarding the transmission of life. Liturgical abuse abounded in ways too numerous to describe here. Once stalwart Church institutions, from grammar schools to virtually all colleges, ceased to be authentically Catholic.
Additionally, powerful cultural forces outside of the Church contributed to its disintegration: the widespread acceptance of the sexual revolution; post-modern secular philosophies (largely atheistic if not antagonistic to religious belief); the explosion of substance abuse; consumerism; secular feminism; the ever-spreading sleaze in the entertainment industry; along with the rapid increase of a largely anti-religious government intrusion into every aspect of life (the most horrid example being the legalization of abortion via judicial fiat by the Supreme Court). All these forces and more hammered away at the Church and her members.
Many in the tiny percentage of faithful Catholics who remained placed responsibility upon ineffectual or openly liberal bishops and the liberal priests and nuns who dominated everyday life in parishes. I was assured by a very reliable source that a majority of our bishops were prepared to break away from Rome (schism) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. If you are nearing fifty years of age, you were a child when this implosion of the Church began playing out. Anyone younger can only glean how dramatically and quickly the Church fell apart from numerous books written on the subject (such as “The Desolate City” by Anne Roche Muggeridge, first published in 1986).
In short, the Church hierarchy, her clergy (including most congregations of nuns, who administered and staffed a heretofore spectacularly successful alternative parochial school system), and virtually all of the laymen in the Catholic Church in our country failed to inculcate the one, true faith to tens of millions of souls comprising two generations of Catholics. This phenomenon was not limited to America, with the Canadian province of Quebec being the starkest example, transforming from one of the most homogenously Catholic societies in modern history to one of the least in less than a decade. European Catholicism had already been in decline before the 1960s. In August 2011, Pope Benedict movingly acknowledged this tragedy by apologizing for “generations” of “cradle Catholics” who failed to pass on the true Faith.
The Tiny Remnant of “Evangelical” Catholic Families
By 2010, based on our research, including reviews of decades worth of polling bolstered by professional interaction with tens of thousands of Catholics, we estimate that fewer than five percent of Catholics in the United States believe and practice what the Church teaches as the Church herself teaches it. This tiny minority makes up a minority of the twenty percent of baptized Catholics who still regularly attend Sunday Mass. These statistics can vary greatly depending on the diocese and parish, but of the roughly fifteen million Catholic families in the United States, we estimate that there remain only 150,000 families raising children under the age of eighteen who live in accord with the magisterial teachings of the Church—or a handful of families or fewer per parish. These families consider being devoutly Catholic the unparalleled purpose of life.
“So Thick You Can Cut It with a Knife”
These devout families will never abandon the true Faith. Religion correspondent John Allen, in a commentary on the preponderance of the children of these families at the 2011 World Youth Day in Spain, accurately characterized “evangelical Catholics” as those whose faith is “seen as a matter of personal choice rather than cultural inheritance, which among other things implies that in a highly secular culture, Catholic identity can never be taken for granted. It always has to be proven, defended, and made manifest.” He goes on to describe the children of the John Paul II generation thusly:
We’re not talking about the broad mass of twenty- and thirty-something Catholics, who are all over the map in terms of beliefs and values. Instead, we’re talking about that inner core of actively practicing young Catholics who are most likely to discern a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, most likely to enroll in graduate programs of theology, and most likely to pursue a career in the church as a lay person — youth ministers, parish life coordinators, liturgical ministers, diocesan officials, and so on. In that sub-segment of today’s younger Catholic population, there’s an Evangelical energy so thick you can cut it with a knife. (“Big Picture at World Youth Day: It’s the Evangelicals, Stupid!” National Catholic Reporter, August 19, 2011)
The Next Two Generations
As we have seen, beginning in the late 1960s, the Church in the United was severely damaged over a period of two generations. Yet out of the tiny minority of faithful Catholics remaining, countertrends surfaced almost immediately in the 1970s, including the founding of alternative publishing houses (such as St. Ignatius Press); the birth of a handful of small, dynamic new Catholic colleges; the formation of new religious congregations; the reform of parts or offshoots of existing orders and congregations; and a movement that many now overlook, known as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which deeply and permanently influenced the spiritual lives of hundreds of thousands of faithful in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Lay media apostolates such as Keep the Faith (audio tapes) and Catholics United for the Faith were founded to help the devout minority resist the avalanche of confusing or contradictory teachings being disseminated in parishes and educational institutions.
Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978 and over the next three decades installed virtually all of the hundreds of current, more faithful American bishops as old-guard liberals retired or died. An achingly slow and often painful reform of seminaries began. His wildly popular Theology of the Body is just one example of how the Church responded effectively to modern intellectual and cultural attacks on families. A master marketer, he introduced powerful concepts and pithy phrases such as “the New Evangelization” and “the Culture of Life” into the worldwide Catholic lexicon, while personally evangelizing every corner of the earth, including a special focus on reaching young Catholics through biennial World Youth Days. Additionally, he embraced the Internet, reformed the Code of Canon Law, and introduced the supremely successful Catechism of the Catholic Church, which continues to be an invaluable resource for faithful Catholics.
The new Catechism’s impact cannot be underestimated. For the first time in decades Catholic teaching was clear, detailed, annotated, and issued from an unimpeachable source. It became more problematic for liberal pastors and educators to frustrate initiatives by faithful Catholics by flatly denying what the Church actually teaches (an alarmingly common tactic).
Vocational Lag: John Paul II Priests
With the exception of certain groups of far-right liturgical traditionalists, the tiny minority of faithful Catholic families in the United States took great hope in John Paul’s papacy, and it was the children of these families who began entering the otherwise decimated seminaries, convents, and new/reformed congregations, although they have not yet fully impacted the Church because of what we will refer to as vocational lag. Vocational lag is the natural effect that time itself plays in delaying the institutional impact faithful priests can have on the Church. It normally takes almost thirty years from birth for a priest to be ordained. It typically takes another twenty years before priests become pastors or fill other positions of authority within dioceses—if at all in those dioceses dominated by the bureaucracies of liberal prelates.
These young men, almost always from large families, who entered American seminaries beginning in the early 1980s, faced tremendous obstacles and barriers. If faithful to Rome, they were discouraged if not directly persecuted during their formations. A significant number were essentially forced out of the seminary, yet many survived the gauntlet through ordination. As young priests, they were often marginalized by heterodox pastors and bishops. A significant portion of this marginalization was caused by powerful cadres of homosexual priests, who formed “lavendar mafias” within some dioceses to protect their turf and facilitate their abuses. Sadly, many of the best and brightest young men of the first generation after Vatican II were drawn away from the diocesan priesthood and solid religious congregations by the Legionaries of Christ, which was only recently exposed as founded by one of the greatest charlatans in Church history.
The natural allies of devout seminarians and young priests, the small minority of faithful older priests, had already been exiled to the smallest and most remote parishes. Today, almost fifty years after Vatican II, most of the liberal priests have either retired, have lost enthusiasm after decades of presiding over ever-dwindling congregations, have passed away, or will retire soon. Many of the most despicable have been ejected from the Church by the belated exposure of the largely homosexuality-driven sex scandals, yet another sickening, devastating legacy of liberal ascendancy in the 1970s and 1980s.
Now, finally, the vocational lag is catching up to our time, and the first generation of “John Paul II priests” are now reaching middle-age and a significant portion of them are becoming pastors. The best are being appointed as bishops. Members of the current generation of faithful priests are becoming pastors more quickly than ever before to fill positions in increasingly depopulated rectories, reducing the normal timeframe of vocational lag from this point forward. It took two generations of sacrifice and generosity by these heroic young men, yet amidst the ruins of an imploded Church, Jesus is making all things new as we enter the third generation under our beloved Pope Benedict XVI.
The Blessed Mother
In the mid-1980s American Catholics in large numbers became intensely interested in a seeming explosion of appearances of the Virgin Mary around the world, especially at Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, however controversial it eventually became, infusing numerous and energetic “reverts” (cradle Catholics returning to the sacraments) into the Church in the United States. The Rosary made a comeback for many Catholics (although the faithful had never abandoned it) while the Divine Mercy message and Chaplet, a gift of Jesus to the world through Saint Faustina of Poland in the 1930s, initially suppressed through the 1960s, became part of the orthodox Catholic spirituality.
More Positive Trends: Protestant Converts, Lay Apostolates
Protestant ministers of every stripe began converting to Catholicism in unprecedented numbers (the most influential and well-known being Scott Hahn), injecting great hope, fresh insights, and new enthusiasm into devout circles. Numerous Catholic magazines were started. A liberal Catholic institution, the University of Steubenville, was renewed in orthodoxy (again, initially through the underestimated Charismatic Renewal), becoming a national center of influence through thousands of graduates, numerous summer conferences, and many other outreaches. Opus Dei, a dynamic movement with unique canonical status as a “personal prelature,” and with its emphasis on disciplined lay holiness, took root in cities all over America.
The 1990s witnessed the founding of dozens of dynamic new-generation Catholic media and outreach apostolates (a Catholic term for “ministries”), virtually all of which self-identified as being part of the “the New Evangelization.” These apostolates, most often started or staffed primarily by laymen, influenced millions of souls, including the Mary Foundation, EWTN, and St. Joseph Communications, to give just a few examples. Ave Maria Law School was founded and continues to prosper. In the mid-1990s, the Internet gave birth to thousands of websites (and later, blogs, and more recently, YouTube instructional videos) devoted to sowing the one, true Faith within and without the devout Catholic ghetto.
These new-generation apostolates address an impressive array of issues in our modern culture. As just one example, there are several organizations that promulgate effective, scientific forms of Natural Family Planning. For the first time in history, culturally relevant and expert teachings on every aspect of authentic Catholicism are available almost instantly.
The Expanding Third Generation
The Catholic river, so to speak, is widening, and the current is growing stronger as we enter the third generation of post-Vatican II Catholicism in America. Earlier, we highlighted the roughly 150,000 “evangelical Catholic families” now raising children in the United States; these form the tributaries feeding into the river. A significant number of these families are home-schooling or partially home-schooling, but most are finding other orthodox educational options available as dioceses are renewed and as lay Catholics open their own private schools insulated from direct administrative authority of aging liberals clinging to power in diocesan chanceries. Many of these faithful families make do with less-than-optimal Catholic schools and even public schools based on their own particular circumstances.
The children from these families have much lower “attrition rates.” That is, they are much less likely to abandon their faith as they grow into adulthood. Their parents, many of whom painfully witnessed many or most of their relatives and close friends reject the Church, are well aware of the spiritual challenges facing their children, having run the gauntlet themselves. These parents consciously and actively work to successfully guide their children through the spiritual minefield of secular culture.
Two into Two Hundred
As heartening examples, consider two first generation marriages (that is, parents who raised children in the 1960s and 1970s) based in the Midwest and the West Coast, respectively. Between them, these two families raised twenty-five children. Virtually everyone associated with Thomas Aquinas College in California or the University of Dallas in Texas, where a significant number of the children and grandchildren attended or attend, knows of these families. Their now-adult children (second generation) are raising or have raised over two hundred grandchildren (third generation) with very low attrition rates. Two marriages in two distant cities from the first generation are now bearing fruit with nearly two hundred holy marriages and numerous vocations spanning the country as the third generation matures.
Although still a minority of practicing Catholics, these “third generation” children are entering and will enter a much more potent, energized, and faithful Catholic environment over the next two decades than did the second generation under Pope John II. Their sons and daughters with vocations will enjoy multiple options for orthodox seminaries, convents, and dioceses, along with support from an increasing number of solid pastors and bishops after ordination or taking religious vows. Detailed surveys taken every decade confirm that the vast and growing majority of seminarians are orthodox in belief and practice. (Of significant note, in 2011 the number of seminarians in the United States increased for the first time in decades.)
Additionally, there are now multiple options for faithful Catholic colleges in every region of the country, along with the Cardinal Newman Society, an apostolate which helps parents locate them. There will be an expanding cornucopia of intellectual and educational material from numerous publishing houses, websites, and other media apostolates to provide for independent formation within those families still struggling for support within liberal or partially compromised dioceses. Based on our interactions with present-day students and two decades worth of graduates of these faithful colleges, second generation parents, many with siblings who fell away by haphazardly entering less-than-faithful marriages, seem to have learned to take an active role in providing opportunity and guidance for their children when it comes to choosing from a growing population of potential spouses faithful to Catholic teaching.
Because these families are lovingly welcoming many more children than the twenty percent of Catholics who now attend Sunday Mass, the number of faithful Catholic families will perhaps triple or quadruple by the end of the third generation, that is, over the next twenty years. Adjusting for infertility and late marriages, the historical birthrate for devout Catholic families is between five to seven children, three times more than the two-child birthrate of intact American, nominally Catholic families. As their grown children marry, the 150,000 families will soon become 500,000, then 1,000,000 families by the time their grandchildren, the fourth generation, begin to mature twenty to thirty years hence. A veritable tidal wave of new vocations (the offspring of the current 150,000 families) are already beginning to impact the institutional Church in the United States and will surge in influence over the next two decades.
Instead of one or two of these families in a parish, there will soon be a handful, then dozens, and ultimately a majority of the members of any given parish. Lay Catholics of these second and third generation families, along with an expanding influx of “reverts,” will influence all aspects of parish life over the next few decades, supported by ever larger numbers of faithful priests, including taking more responsibility for baptismal formation, marriage preparation, religious education, parochial school administration, and RCIA programs. Empowered by the authentic teachings of Vatican II regarding lay responsibility, and with the precedent and inspiration of two generations of lay Catholic apostolic activity and institution-building, coming generations of faithful Catholic laymen will not hesitate to jump into the fray. As a result, fewer souls will be lost to the Culture of Death from the twenty percent who still regularly attend Sunday Mass.
As for the majority of the twenty percent of Catholics who do not currently adhere to (or even know) the complete teachings of the Church but still attend Sunday Mass, some, perhaps many, will leave as the new generation of bishops, priests, nuns and laymen charitably and confidently present the authentic teachings of the Church to either embrace or reject. Yet more than ever before, many will be “reverted” as they are finally given a chance to freely accept the true teachings of the Church for the first time since the 1960s, and just as importantly, are influenced by the examples and efforts of the “evangelical Catholic families” all around them.
Others, mostly young married couples who were not raised to be devout, but who tend to return to practicing their faith as they start having children, will be swept along with the rising current of dynamic orthodoxy. As Pope Benedict intimated when he was Cardinal Ratzinger and as pope, in the coming generations, the Church will be smaller but much more faithful and spiritually potent.
Great Variety Within Catholic Orthodoxy
It would be a great mistake to think of the minority of faithful Catholic families as culturally homogenous. Nothing could be further from reality. They straddle every economic and occupational segment of society. There are faithful Catholics on the Supreme Court and in high political offices. A very small percentage actually work in apostolic or institutional-Church related professions—most are earning their livings in the world in every kind of job, although they are much more likely to have stay-at-home moms for obvious reasons. There are differences based upon regional and ethnic backgrounds—from East Coast Italians to West Coast Hispanics. As a result of a significant portion embracing home-schooling or partial home-schooling, cultural differences are further enhanced; some families are infused with music, others focus academically on the sciences, or embrace athletics, and so on. Some have rarely watched television or secular movies while others are film buffs yearning to write and produce Christian films. There are Latin Mass traditionalists and charismatics. More than ever, some are devotedly practicing the faith through the travails of civil divorces, permanent separations, and annulments. There are holy Catholic couples who are unable to have children or larger families for medical or other serious reasons. Others struggle against addiction, depression, or other mental and physical maladies. Some are mid-marriage converts from every kind of Protestantism, exhibiting stark contrasts in the naming of their children: with pre-conversion children biblically named Rebekah and Daniel and post-conversion children named after saints such as Dominic and Catherine. Some live quiet, isolated lives in rural areas far from the nearest devout family. There seem to be almost as many “kinds” of devout Catholics as there are devout Catholic families.
It’s All About the Love
It must be noted that the conscious purpose of the new wave of evangelical Catholic families is not to take back control of the institutional church, although this will eventually be the outcome. For all their cultural variety, devout Catholics, being Catholic, live their faith in a day-to-day struggle for holiness. Their openness to bearing children and embracing the challenges of raising them is the result of a love for each other, for children, and for God; having children is not undertaken as a grim duty to repopulate a decimated institution. The expansion of the third generation truly is the fruit of love between spouses in individual “domestic churches,” in cooperation with God’s grace and with a firm reliance on His providence based upon a supernatural gift of faith.
Bear in mind that the 150,000 families of the second generation represent nearly a million adults and children, and that there exist many more faithful Catholics who are beyond child-rearing age. In fact, these “first generation” Catholics, the ones who survived the implosion, raised children during the dark years, who attend daily Mass, who pray the Rosary faithfully, who financially supported and support the new apostolates, who founded and financed most of the new and renewed institutions, they are the true heroes and heroines. They are our parents and grandparents, saints of a soon-to-be bygone era of decline.
Horizontal and Vertical Evangelization
Currently, there are between 70 million to 80 million baptized or self-identified Catholics in the United States, representing roughly 15 million families and 25 percent of the overall population. As previously noted, 80% of these Catholics do not attend Sunday Mass. Tragically, these souls contracept, abort, divorce, and vote in similar patterns and percentages to non-Christian agnostics and atheists with the same demographic or cultural profiles. These individuals are adrift with widely varying degrees of diffidance, disagreement, ignorance, or even affection towards the Church. In our apostolic experience, many are surprisingly open to returning to the sacraments if approached in a respectful way. We must continue to reach out to each soul in what can be characterized as “horizontal” evangelization. We have more resources, tools, media, and “evangelical” Catholics to do so than ever before.
In the meantime, the fact that tens of millions of nominal Catholics exist, combined with the impressive facade of nearly 20,000 parishes and other institutions in our country, helps maintain a false perception that the Catholic Church wields enormous cultural influence. But that influence has essentially been dissipated along with the tepid faith of the laity and hierarchy alike in decades past, and it will only be rejuvenated in proportion with the courage of her current bishops, the holiness of her priests and nuns, and the authentically Catholic spirituality imbued in the lives of what is now a very small minority of her members.
Despite the facade, only a few million Catholic families still attend Sunday Mass (which again, is only a rough measure of minimal spiritual commitment), which in turn gives a sense for how small a minority the 150,000 faithful families really are. Yet over the next two generations, hundreds of thousands of additional faithful Catholic families representing several million more children and adults are already forming and will continue to come into existence. To these we add the millions of dedicated Catholics from the first and second generations who have moved beyond child-rearing age. These saints are us, the Church Militant as it was commonly called before Vatican II, and we are on the march. In short, the future for the Church is wonderfully bright, indeed, bright shining as the sun, even as the secular god-hating, baby-hating culture in which we live grows darker and more demonic.
Unstoppable Vertical Evangelization
Because they will never abandon the true faith, because they are so culturally diverse, because they are spread out geographically to every corner and crack of the Church and society at large, and because they have adapted to thrive in otherwise toxic spiritual environments over the decades, nothing this author can foresee can stop or forestall these devout families from coming into existence and renewing the Catholic Church in America.
A key insight is that long-term Catholic evangelization and renewal is essentially “vertical,” working up and down over multiple generations via the holiness of individual souls, marriages, children, extended families, and the new families and vocations that flow from the radically counter-cultural, supernatural domestic life required to merely survive the fallout from the implosion of the Church and a sin-drenched society. Jesus provides the grace and initiative to reach those who have fallen away within our generation—horizontal evangelization—but the future of the Catholic Church in our country (or any nation) will prosper or decline depending on the holiness of her most faithful families—vertical evangelization.
We must remain profoundly grateful to our parents and grandparents who kept the faith and remained open to life, whatever their faults and shortcomings, struggling as they did during one of the most agonizing and difficult spiritual and cultural environments in human history. Because of their sacrificial love, fierce fidelity, and God’s grace, we are slowly but surely reclaiming our dioceses and parishes with good bishops, priests, nuns, and dedicated laymen. Because of their fidelity, we have replaced or reclaimed institutions lost during the implosion (at least to an extent that serves the present needs of the third and fourth generations). This is their legacy, it is now our inheritance, and through millions of individual tributaries and feeder streams, we will be able to more effectively draw into the holy river the minority who still attend Mass and who are generally open to improving their relationship with Jesus, and then, together, go out in search of all the lost sheep until the United States can only be described as the most Catholic country on earth.
Bud Macfarlane, founder of CatholiCity.com and the Mary Foundation, is the author of three bestselling Catholic novels, available free of charge from Saint Jude Media. You can comment on his articles here.