You may not have seen this in the news, a statistic from the United States that was of immediate interest to sociologists and others who study religion, but is of importance to the Church and the world we are fast entering: membership in religious organizations, churches, synagogues, temples, what have you, has fallen to about 50 percent of the American population.
Now in Canada, it’s been well below that for years, if memory serves, we’re at about 35 percent; Catholics in particular are hard to gauge—many more “belong” to a parish than actually attend mass or are involved past having their children receive baptism, first communion and confirmation.
The reason why it’s significant that the U.S. has dropped to this level is that Americans serve as a bellwether on the global state of religion, and so, the Church.
You see there’s something called the secularization thesis in academia and it goes something like this: as a nation moves more fully into modernity, with its scientific ethos, high average educational attainment, and material prosperity, religion will wither and die out among the majority.
This has been observed in Europe, in Britain; to a lesser extent in Canada, Australia. However, the United States resisted this trend through the 20th century, and at the millennium, that is the year 2000, the rate of membership in religious communities was above 70 percent.
That in the space of twenty years it has declined so rapidly, more than 20 percentage points, is a sign of catastrophic decline. And it can’t be simply attributed to scandals in the Catholic Church. Every religious community has declined, and some far more than Catholic community.
It tells us that the loss of faith, faith in anything transcendent, eternal is perishing in the West and the last bulwark has collapsed under unrelenting pressure from academia and the mass entertainment industries that have attacked religious faith constantly since the 1960s where prior to that they were broadly supportive. The consequences are more than apparent: cultural, civilizational death looms.
Jesus tells us why this withering and death happens, why things go up in flames: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
Yet I have hope. Ours is a resurrection faith. And I would emphasize that word: resurrection. Because I make a distinction between that and reform or revival. Reformation has been tried and failed miserably; the Christian communities of that historic, five centuries-old movement are dwindling fast. The Anglican community will expire by the middle of this century; the Church of England, its mother, persisting only so long as the British government sees fit to subsidize it for the sake of state ceremonies.
I don’t say this with any particular relish. I left because I could see what was happening, and voicing concerns was not welcome. Indeed, it was evidence of a kind of heresy, and one was marked as being absent the Holy Spirit that was so clearly leading the faithful into a final spiritual revolution that would transform the world into a true incarnation of the Heavenly Kingdom, or so those in charge thought.
It is very reasonable, and faithful to raise valid theological questions with regard to decisions being made contrary to scripture and the larger tradition, of asking if the liturgical changes implemented actually draw people into the mystery of God or rather lead to indifference or outright boredom, as being “contemporary” actually means being culturally out-of-date and disconnected very quickly—musical tastes change, and we’ve left folk music well behind as a popular genre, and aesthetic sensibilities shift as they do in the fashion centres of Paris and Milan leaving many church structures sporting the architectural equivalent of bell bottom trousers.
Revival is another notion that we in the English-speaking world are very familiar with; and it is strongly associated with our separated brothers and sisters in the Protestant communities. I attended a Billy Graham revival in Ottawa years ago, and for all the energy and enthusiasm, it was more like a sugar rush, a dose of amphetamine, a steroid treatment. Once it was over, things crashed again. You may have gone on a corporate retreat, or to an industry conference at the behest of an employer and been treated to a series of motivational speakers who set the room on fire with their charisma; but nothing really transformational happens. You return from that great meeting tired, but with a little afterglow, some remnant of that induced enthusiasm to a situation in which the same things continue to be tried over and over to the same disappointing result. One lapses back into the ineffective routine, discouragement and resignation returns.
So, this crisis isn’t going to be resolved by simply going to church conferences (virtually via ZOOM, or in person), hiring management consultants, developing new products or rebranding old ones, which I guess in our case, might mean new sacraments or renaming old ones. But I don’t think rebranding the Eucharist as we would a candy bar will work: it’s not sacred snack food.
Now there are those who may feel that the Church has done its work, that the successor to the Church as visible institution is a Church invisible, subsisting within the community as people privately keep the faith, perhaps with some occasional nurture from a stripped down ecclesiastical infrastructure: we’ll keep a few churches open for those big occasions, but leave them largely as relics of a bygone era, giant reliquaries of brick and stone to serve as a repository for the sacred remains of the faith evidenced in its art and music and architecture.
But we’re already seeing the results. In France, a country that for over a hundred years has had a constitutional mandate to implement secularism while the state pays the upkeep on the great cathedrals, we now see its coherence as a national community dissolving. Militant Islam and the new faith of Wokeness are two particular powerful acids that are burning through the body politic, and while the majority would have nothing to do with either of these minority movements, they are paralyzed in their liberal and secular convictions and so, do nothing even as plaintive voices for action grow and grow in sounding the alarm. And so, there is violence in the streets, unrest in the military, panic in the Elysée Palace that has led to an assault on civil liberties and attacks on the freedoms, not of those burning down and smashing French society, but aimed at those who dare object to the immolation of western civilization.
When Christian faith is no longer proclaimed, when the gospel no longer shared, when evangelism is forsaken, the saving message of Jesus Christ cannot do its work. Instead, other voices are heard, other spirits seize the people. In the United States where organized religion is so fast declining, and I’ve made this observation before, faith moves to politics and so the vehemence of zealotry is found among those captured by human ideologies. Not having the Gospel’s tempering message of love, forgiveness, and mercy, you see the result in open calls for violence against political opponents, especially those who call for civilized debate and an end to the destruction of property and lives.
Religious beliefs address a person’s very understanding of his or her identity, form the values that inform every decision one makes, including what is worth dying for. Transfer that deep need for a sense of self rooted in something bigger than the self, then such instincts as a desire to protect the vulnerable, and a concern for justice, lead the spiritually rootless to find religious significance in all kinds of bad ideas. Then burning down buildings, shooting police officers, harassing public officials, even hounding a private citizen who makes an innocuous comment on social media becomes a matter of existential importance.
Our faith is not rooted in political activism. We see none of this in Jesus’ ministry when there were certainly any number of political issues that we could argue He should have addressed. His famous line, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, unto God what is God’s” was doubly clever for its seeming clarity that masked a profound ambiguity: after all, what doesn’t belong to God?
So, if we as a Church offer yet another political program, just another set of opinions on the burning issues of the day, those who look on will regard the Church as simply another party or faction in an overly politicized world looking for power; and they’ll see the Church as an ineffectual, feckless faction at that.
If we sit silent, inactive in a world beset by suffering and sin, again we fail to follow Christ’s mandate. Yes, this place is a shelter from the storm, but it’s not too be our hiding place.
The scriptures today tell us the story of the early Church,
“Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.”
That small community put its faith in the gospel, and drew strength from the power of Christ’s Resurrection, unashamedly, unabashedly proclaiming it as the Good News. And then, when the questions come about this fantastic event, the Church taking that opportunity to unpack the riches of that revelation of Christ who is God in the World.
It is that mystery that is the key to our life as a community, it’s the key to our lives as individuals. Resurrection to eternal life as the sure promise of those who give themselves to Christ and live out the great virtues Faith, Hope and Love. If we want a Church that grows, thrives, evangelizes and enriches the lives of others, relieves suffering and inspires hope, we need to proclaim this mystery, then lead people into it. The truth we speak, the action we take can certainly address the problems of this world, but we cannot act or speak apart from Christ. Without Him we can do nothing; without the Good News, we have nothing to say.
As G.K. Chesterton said in The Everlasting Man, “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”