Reaction to the State of the Church in America

Deal W. Hudson
February 2006

My response to the report, State of the Catholic Church in America.

“Bishops do not like to be scrutinized by the laity” was the reaction of a friend of mine to the news of this survey. He predicted that the bishops would be irritated, to say the least, at the presumption of a Catholic magazine, owned and operated by lay faithful, to publish ratings of Catholic dioceses. That is certainly not the spirit in which Mr. Wagner and Father Hunter-Hall have presented their findings, the first of which is an appreciation of those bishops who are “truly unsung heroes of the Church.”

I hope Church leaders will find these rankings interesting and helpful. For example, with apologies to Bishop Kurtz, I had no idea the Diocese of Knoxville was so vibrant, or the Diocese of Savannah, either. This survey is valuable only if it gives credit to some “unsung heroes” and expands our awareness of where the Church has grown stronger over the past decade.

The authors offer a statistical baseline for evaluating the strength of dioceses, without the imposition of an alien theological agenda. Who can argue with the importance of clergy growth, vocations, baptisms, and conversions? Yes, there are many other indicators, such as the number of students entering the seminary, but that information is difficult to obtain from a diocese.

Numbers never tell the whole story: Renewal may well be underway in a diocese, the fruits of which are not yet seen in the statistics presented here. The survey is, no doubt, simply a snapshot, but a valuable one. What we see in the various rankings is attributable to many factors, not just to bishops. Bishops can be appointed to places where the deterioration is so serious that it will take a lifetime to rebuild. And, as was pointed out to me by an insurance man, this particular snapshot may have caught a diocese in its growth years and is not necessarily predictive of the years to come. Can the dioceses of Knoxville or Savannah sustain their growth patterns, or does this survey come in at the end of an upward trend line—and vice versa for some of the dioceses lower in the ranking? That is why it is important for a crisis to repeat this survey on a regular basis, perhaps adding other criteria made available through the cooperation of the 176 dioceses.

In terms of some of the success stories here, it comes as no surprise to me that the Archdiocese of Chicago is high on the list of vocations. In mid-2006 I wrote a story on vocations for my e-report, “The Window,” and reported that Chicago’s Web site for vocations was both welcoming and comprehensive. It’s also a tribute to Francis Cardinal George’s spiritual leadership that such growth is occurring in one of the “old” Catholic cities of the Midwest. As the survey suggests, it’s much harder to generate new growth and vitality in the places where Catholics first settled in the United States. This makes Cardinal George’s accomplishment in Chicago even more significant.

I’m particularly taken by the authors’ conclusion about the characteristics of bishops whose dioceses show growth: belief in the work of the Holy Spirit, joy, personal responsibility, and the engagement of the world through media like the Internet. Joy and a reliance on the Holy Spirit go together, of course. It has been my experience that when a bishop exudes these qualities, good things happen. When people meet bishops like this, they want to be more a part of their church, and they want to help their bishop. It’s just the common sense of leadership. Who wants to serve a spiritual leader who makes their burdens heavier?

Mr. Wagner and Father Hunter-Hall might have called this the “evangelical” dimension of a bishop—but Catholics seem to be afraid of that word. Such evangelical bishops, as the authors say so well, are “unwilling to acquiesce to decline.” The Catholic world in this country is divided in many ways, but one of those divides is between those who are confident in and committed to Church growth and those who see it only in terms of the hand-off between successive generations of Catholics, hoping against hope that their children and grandchildren remain in the Church.

What this latter group needs to realize is that a vital, joyful Church is the best bet for successfully sharing the Faith with the next generation. There is much more to being a Catholic than grimly carrying out our spiritual obligations. The added dimension is precisely the joy that these shepherds are sharing with their sheep.

Perhaps the most provocative observation made in this survey is that the Catholic Church counts as Catholic anyone who claims to be Catholic, regardless of whether he or she ever darkens the door of a parish. The authors point out how different this way of counting adherents is from Protestants’, especially evangelicals.

What would happen if Catholic priests and bishops began to count only religiously active Catholics as adherents? The numbers, naturally, would plummet. Catholics in the United States might not be any larger in number than, say, Southern Baptists. What would be the criteria used to distinguish a Catholic from a non-Catholic in this measure? If the criterion is Mass attendance, would it be weekly, the obligatory requirement? Would regular confession be thrown in?

I am not, by inclination, a “numbers guy.” But I have realized over the years that numbers tell an important part of the story about the past and present. Numbers also provide an opportunity to set practical goals for the future. Certainly, the one number that did not come under the purview of this survey, but is central to the strength of the Church, is the percentage of Catholics who attend Mass. Mr. Wagner and Father Hunter-Hall are right, I think, to intimate that the time has come to reconsider whether Catholics who never attend Mass can be counted as Catholic at all.

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