February 27, 2008
The latest report on religion in America helps explain why the U.S. Catholic bishops are so terrified at the notion of our country controlling its immigration—exercising its solemn, sovereign duty to regulate, according to the virtue of prudence, the influx of newcomers into America. As today’s NY Times reports, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has issued the results of its large-scale “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” The poll, “based on telephone interviews with more than 35,000 Americans” turned up the fact that some 44 percent of adult Americans have switched religious affiliations. That number is surprising, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Our consumerist culture, where “the customer is always right,” is hardly conducive to the kind of stability that marks European nations—where even families which haven’t attended regular services for three generations still identify as “Protestant” or “Catholic.” One can argue that there’s something refreshingly forthright about the American attitude; here, if we lose faith in a church, we don’t just drift away while retaining a purely ethnic identification. It seems that we go out and find a new one. It’s also healthy that churches which patently don’t provide people with the essentials—with solid doctrinal instruction, moral guidance, pastoral support, and services that raise the mind and heart to the contemplation of the Sacred—lose congregants. The last figure I read reports that the heresy-addled, politically corrected Episcopal church has only 2.8 million members in the entire United States; there are probably that many Catholics in New York City alone. Given the sheer number of lovely, neo-Gothic Episcopal churches one sees across the country, one wonders if in a generation that denomination will amount to little more than a real estate holding company. (Like, you know, the Jesuits.)
But there’s no reason for Catholics to feel smug. According to the Times report, the Catholic Church “has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes.” Indeed:
The percentage of Catholics in the American population has held steady for decades at about 25 percent. But that masks a precipitous decline in native-born Catholics. The proportion has been bolstered by the large influx of Catholic immigrants, mostly from Latin America, the survey found.
The Roman Catholic Church has lost more adherents than any other group: about one-third of respondents raised Catholic said they no longer identified as such. Based on the data, the survey showed, “this means that roughly 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics.”
Immigration continues to influence American religion greatly, the survey found. The majority of immigrants are Christian, and almost half are Catholic.
This reaffirms the sad truth which I’ve been repeating for years: American bishops have largely given up on passing along the Faith to the next generation of native-born Catholics, and are relying instead on a steady influx of people who have not yet been fully exposed to the acid effects of modernity—including the dominance of “dissenters” in many Catholic schools, the blandness and vagueness of religious instruction, the unrelenting banality of most parish liturgies (with music and rituals that would not pass muster at gatherings of the Boy Scouts), and the dismal quality of education for would-be converts. Every single adult convert to Catholicism I have known has complained about the 4th-grade intellectual level of the programs for the “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults”—whose initials (RCIA) should really stand for “Repelling Converts In-Advertently.” Meanwhile, those who grow up (as most U.S. Catholics do) torn between the engrained effects of a deeply Protestant culture, and a dimly comprehended, diluted Faith, increasingly drift away from our halfway Protestantized parishes—in search of the genuine article. Comfy suburban “seeker” churches, thunderously enthusiastic Pentecostal sects, or stolid but largely orthodox and intensely catechetical Baptist congregations—each one is psychologically more satisfying than a gruesomely renovated old or shabbily ugly modern parish staffed by uncertain clergy who are mostly embarrassed by their Church’s most distinctively counter-cultural teachings.
Once these immigrants arrive, their children are subjected to the same corroding influences, and tend likewise to drift away. (I’m glad that some of them are still attending Christian churches of some kind!) That means the Church needs still more immigrants—immortal souls whom the institution is treating as theological cannon fodder, flooding the front lines and No Man’s Land with soldiers of Christ who are essentially unarmed, and ripe for the machine guns. It reminds me of the Somme—or the doomed army of Tsar Nicholas II. Last I checked, the Church is a family of Faith—not a pyramid scheme. But until the institutions of American Catholicism rediscover—as some Catholic colleges and a number of religious orders and dioceses finally are doing—the courage to teach and preach the Church’s ancient truths, and practice her ancient liturgy with reverence, the Church as an institution will continue to be addicted to immigration. Indeed, the single best thing American Catholics could do for their domestic Church would be to support the building of a border fence with Mexico. Faced with the real effects of their self-destructive policies—empty schools, empty collection plates, empty seminaries—at least a few of the clerics who run our institutions will have to shore up the foundations of the Faith, and take the hard steps needed to restore the means by which the Church replicates itself. The rest will make like the Episcopalians/Unitarians/United Methodists/Jesuits and fade away… like the faint scent left behind by a tepid pot of tea.
I like to ask “conservative” Catholics who favor virtually open borders because it will “help make America Catholic”: Do you think that uneducated Mexican peasants are more likely to save their souls in Guadalajara—or the slums of Los Angeles? Which is a more wholesome atmosphere for their children? Likewise I say to those who blandly suggest that we will “restore American culture” through the influx of “pro-family” immigrants: That’s like flooding a whorehouse with virgins, to try to raise the moral tone. It works—for about 15 minutes.