“We no longer live in Christendom. We really have to accept that it’s a thing of the past.” This was a quote from an article sent to me published by the Washington Post about the decline of the number of Americans who go to church on a regular basis or even at all. The article looks at three main line Protestant churches in the Baltimore area: a high Episcopal church, a Presbyterian church and a Lutheran church. In all three cases the number of parishioners has dwindled to the point that they may have to close their doors. There has been a steady decline in membership in the main line Protestant denominations for that past fifty years, but the curve shows an increasing steepness towards zero in the past decade especially.
Often this phenomenon is attributed to the rapid secularization of American culture especially in the past 30 years or so. But the question is not raised about the source of this phenomenon. I would suggest that the secularization of our culture is the end product of the breakdown of Protestantism itself, which always carried the seeds of its own death in itself. Those deadly seeds are its rupture from the Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ, its individualistic understand of the Christian faith, and its espousal, since the post World War II generation, of what is called “liberal theology”. Main line Protestantism has abandoned adherence to basic Christian teaching such as that Jesus Christ died on the Cross-for our sins and that he rose again on the third day that we might have hope of eternal life after death. More and more these churches refrain from preaching and teaching anything that will offend the sensibilities of a secular world. Their embrace of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and all of its permutations that we see today is evidence of their refusal to preach both the Good News and the Bad News of the Gospel. Like love and marriage, you can’t have one without the other.
But it is also true that the Catholic Church is not immune from this contemporary affliction. When only 18% of Catholics go to Mass regularly, we must assume that the Church is being affected by the radical secularization of society. And we must admit that the Catholic Church in the past fifty years certainly has not been innocent of pandering to the world and refusing to preach both the Good News and the Bad News. The pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were marked by a serious attempt to maintain the integrity of Catholic teaching on faith and morals. The pontificate will be judged in this matter in the future. But Popes are helpless when the heart of the worship of the Church in the Mass itself has been secularized—and dare we say—protestantized. This is the great elephant in the great room that is the Catholic Church. Let us pray that the Lord will raise up men and women of courage to speak about the reality of the problem of Catholic worship and that our bishops will have the intelligence and humility to listen.
Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla