Much has been written in recent years about the exodus of so many in the United States from the Catholic Church. Indeed, it has been observed that while Catholics make up the largest denomination in America, the second largest comprises ex-Catholics.
The challenge the Church has in making its members more aware of the personal fulfillment already found in its diverse communities requires education. It also requires Church leadership to recognize and respect the realities of change and diversity.
Why are so many leaving? Surveys reveal varied reasons. For many the decision is the result of prayerful soul-searching about positions the Church holds on such hot button issues such as women’s ordination, homosexuality and abortion. For others it is dissatisfaction with the clergy, with arid liturgical services, and with what they perceive to be an unresponsive and paternalistic hierarchy. Many, of course, leave for reasons having more to do with personal social acceptance or convenience than with philosophical or religious objection. Clearly, the alarming loss of membership is a matter calling for the serious attention of Church leadership – both ordained and lay. Their response to this challenge, however, would be more effective if in addition to addressing what drives members away our leadership would address what attracts the ones who stay.
Volumes have been printed on why the Catholic Church loses members. Not much, it seems, has been written on how the Church sustains and nourishes its committed and loyal membership. Rather than concentrate exclusively on the “wrongs” of the Church, would it not be wise to include a study of the things the Church is doing right? It is the prudent Catholic leaders who recognize that the Church is a community of people, people who respond with dynamism to a milieu of inviting vibrancy and with apathy to a milieu of repellant sterility. The theological and sacramental treasures of Church, as resplendent as they are, are not of themselves sufficient to engage in a lasting way men and women who, beyond intellectual truth and access to grace, also yearn for the embrace of community, a community in which the gifts they offer are as important as the benefits they receive.
Examples of such vibrant Catholic communities abound. They should be held up as models of what the Church is doing right. In some cases they may be parishes. Some are Catholic centers on university campuses. Others are religious orders, fraternal organizations, solidalities, bible study groups, service groups, et cetera.
Regrettably, many who leave the Catholic Church (admittedly not all) are unaware of the variety and vibrancy these “communities” manifest. Their dissatisfaction is the result of their limited exposure to life in the Church. Were they more aware, they might be encouraged to find – or even found – such a community where they would find greater reason to stay in the Church that to leave it. The Church and Church communities are – or should be – like a family. As in any family one learns to accept the differences of other members in exchange for the support and security the family offers, and for the opportunity such a setting provides for personal growth. Only when the differences become unbearable, when the negative outweighs the positive, does a member choose to leave.
The challenge the Church has in making its members more aware of the personal fulfillment already found in its diverse communities requires education. It also requires Church leadership to recognize and respect the realities of change and diversity. To be sure, the Church knows this. It has, after all, survived and flourished for two millennia. But, diversity and change, within legitimate bounds, should be regarded not as inevitable inconveniences but as positive steps toward fuller human development.
Jesus tells us that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. These words assure us that we won’t disappear, not that we will progress. A more hope-filled quote would be that of Iranaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God”. The more the Church is seen to be the effective agent it actually is of growth toward the full aliveness of humanity the broader and stronger its appeal will be to its members.
People who believe they are participating in the advance of the Kingdom won’t walk away.