Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Rise of the "Nones" vs. The Rise of the Nuns

With what seemed to be an air of knowing condescension, a friend of mine sent a USA Today article via email announcing that thirty percent of Americans now classify themselves as adhering to no particular religious denomination, and that fifty percent of adults under the age of thirty classify themselves in this manner.  My friend, as best as I can tell, would likely also place himself in that category.  

I suppose that the article was meant to cause alarm.  In just a few decades, I will have become obsolete, going the way of the blacksmith.  America will have advanced beyond need for a priest.  There is clearly a trend away from organized religion in American (Western?) Culture, and to an extent, this statistical reality is much in keeping with recent history in this nation.  The United States is founded on the notion of individual liberty, and especially from the 1960's onward Americans have resented any force outside of themselves that would presume to make universal truth claims binding upon the consciences of every human being.  Likewise, Catholics, until very recently, have only tepidly responded to the call to arms issued by John Paul the Great, when he announced the need for a new evangelization of formerly Christian peoples.  To my mind, however, the issue of the "nones" presents no new challenge to the Catholic Church.

From Constantine until now, the Church has had to deal with nominal adherence to the faith.  What is different now is that people are simply freer to approach the question of faith with integrity.  It suits me just fine that people who were never really Catholic in the first place should find themselves now able to freely admit that they adhere to no religion.  To my mind, the days of the "baptized pagan" are nearly over.  Early in his pontificate, Benedict XVI commented that the Church would get smaller before she got bigger.  In saying this, he was suggesting that in the name of integrity and of self-preservation, Catholics would have to abandon what, since the Second Vatican Council, has become a terrible habit of trying to somehow accommodate all opinions, all lifestyles, all practices, and all beliefs under the single roof of the Catholic Church.  

The word "catholic," of course, means "universal."  It is universal in the sense, however, that what she believes applies to all people of all times.  It most definitely does not and cannot mean that everything goes.  Interestingly, many young Catholics are attracted to this reality.  Parishes rife with touchy-feely, "I'm OK. You're OK." save the whales homilies, are populated by aging baby boomers who, though large in number, are closer to their graves than they are to their baptisms.  For several decades, the American Church has operated in panic mode, doing nearly anything to keep this crowd from leaving.  By contrast, for several decades, religious orders such as the Nashville Dominicans, the Missionaries of Charity, and other conservative religious orders struggled to maintain sufficient vocations, but the world has changed.  Today, our youngest parishes are also our most conservative.  Our growing religious orders are those most faithful to the Church.  Seminaries are full of zealous men.  Bishops are increasingly more conservative in theological temperament. 

In the meanwhile, mainline Protestantism has attempted to keep up with culture, acquiescing to every whim of the masses.  And they are dying.  Why should I give myself to an institution that simply reaffirms what I already believe, challenges me to nothing beyond myself, and places me and my opinion as its central focus.  I want a religion that calls me to be better, not one that simply allows me to be recalcitrant.

So,while fifty percent of my generation may have no particular affiliation, there are still fifty percent of us who are faithful, and we have grown weary of the gruel religion has presented to us for the past fifty years.  We want truth.  We want transcendence.  We want what is real.  We want authenticity.  We want a faith that asks our willingness to sacrifice and die for it.  The Church will get smaller, but as she shrinks, her zeal will become concentrated.  Her missionary efforts will intensify.  Her ability to preach what she has always believed without constant interior turmoil will grow.  The number of her active members who actually know what Catholics believe will multiply.  And then the Church will grow.  

What USA Today and my friend both fail to recognize is that 2000 years ago, after the death of Christ, there were only twelve Catholics.  There are more than one billion today because those first twelve, though small in number, were zealous and committed.  And they preached a message that made sense in a world of suffering, violence, tragedy, and evil.  The Church is not dying, she is being pruned.  That strikes me as a good thing.  


  1. AMEN! Great words and truth!

    1. Well stated, Fr. Tyler!

  2. great topic and well stated

  3. You entirely missed and mis-understood the point of why I shared that article.

  4. You are free to elaborate. I'm just responding to the antagonistic tone of the piece itself and the panic mentality that surrounds this issue from so many others on my own side of the question.


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