Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It's the "sacramental data," stupid!

Tom Roberts (National Catholic Reporter), in a new installment of his "Emerging Church series, "The 'Had It' Catholics," chronicles the rise of 'fallen-away' Catholics, noting that ex-Catholics, if considered a religious denomination in the U.S., would be the second largest, between the larger group of Catholics and the next smaller group, Southern Baptists.

But for the key point, he highlights the insight of Mark Gray, a research associate at Georgetown's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.  Gray notes that the raw population shift is not overly significant, as immigration does compensate and, frankly, the Church is so large that it would require a much greater loss to have a huge impact.

What IS worrisome, according to Gray, 
is the “sacramental data,” the numbers that show a falling rate in baptisms... The drop in the number receiving later sacraments -- first Communion, first confession and marriage -- is even more problematic, he said, because those numbers indicate that parents aren’t following up with sacraments later in childhood. “Marriage is one of the [sacraments] most strongly affected. The number of marriages is so much lower than the number of the Catholics in church” would indicate. “It’s not that Catholics aren’t being married,” said Gray, “it’s that they are choosing to marry outside the church.”
Anecdotal evidence from parishes I know indicate a sharp drop-off in the number of weddings; compared to five years ago, I'm hearing that parishes are seeing only half as many weddings.  But let's get some numbers:  Mark Gray has a graph here. 

"Don't worry, they'll come back later," say some.  I think those days are over.  It used to be that marriage drew young adults Catholics back to the church, after a drift during the mobile, searching years of the late teens and early twenties, followed by another semi-drift until the arrival of children and baptism prompted more regular attendance.  After that, adult growth -- with an awareness of life's mystery and fragility -- meant that the Church was a place "to grow wise in."

But, if marriage happens elsewhere, the hurdle to return will become, for many, insurmountable -- "they think we're not really married!" "after all that child abuse stuff, how dare they refuse me!"  "do we really want to go back to all those rules?"  The earlier lure of the public ritual in a sacred space, binding not only the couple but families and institution across generations, will be reduced to a wall of judgment and paperwork.

They're not coming back.