Catholicism is neither adrift nor foundering

By Eugene Cullen Kennedy
Religion News Service

Catholics everywhere worry about whether there will still be a Catholic Church to serve their children and grandchildren. They would take great comfort from the analytic work of Joseph Claude Harris.

While others search its surface only for dead bodies, indictments and bankruptcy papers, Harris pans gold out of the Mississippi of information streaming from the headwaters of American Catholicism. The almost daily reports of the church’s death, he concludes, are greatly exaggerated and, in fact, the church is functioning quite well.

The Seattle-based research analyst notes: “For the last two or three years it has been very hard to find anything good about the church in the headlines. The sex abuse has been a gruesome scandal but, if you look at the data found in the Catholic Directory and the research at CARA (Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate), you find good things and no evidence that we are going out of business.

“People speak of a vocation crisis,” he continues, “but from 1995 to 2002 parish leaders hired an additional 6,674 professional parish ministers.

A staffing transition is happening with permanent deacons replacing priests and religious. Parish life continues, the sacraments are celebrated, and lay people have management responsibilities. If there were a crisis, you would have negative numbers.

“For example, my daughter is a youth minister in Seattle’s Holy Rosary Parish. Her mentor is a liturgy director who is a layman and the parish business manager is a woman. That vocations come in a different way now than they did then is not a negative sign. Had we lost almost 6,674 parish ministers in that period, you could speak of a crisis.You can’t with these positive numbers.”

What about the donations that many claim are on the decline? Harris issued a report last fall analyzing Sunday collections for the last three years. “Donations to parishes increased by $259 million between 2000 and 2001 and $374 million between 2001 and 2002. That’s a healthy sign.”

The Catholic population increased by about 7 million between 1995 and 2002. The proportion of Catholics to the total population increased from 209 per thousand Americans to 218. America is gradually becoming more Catholic.

“The church has the financial structure to support this growth and function and is doing the same things, if in a different way, than it has always done. Take the sacramental life that defines the church. Catholic baptisms represent 25 percent of all American births. Eighty-five percent of these receive their First Eucharist eight years later. And 59 percent of this baptismal core present themselves for Confirmation.

“The funeral rate for Americans is 8.6 per thousand. The Catholic funeral rate is 7.8, about what you would expect given the reported number of 62 million Catholics. The funeral rate for Episcopalians is 13.8 percent per thousand registered members.

In addition, the sacramental life of the church has remained constant or actually improved over the last few years, he writes. There are no numbers to support the notion that Catholicism is adrift or that it is foundering.

“These American numbers seem to amaze Europeans. How can Americans be so successful at, as they put it, `doing Church?’ One of the basic reasons is due to our American traditions. We are usually free of politics and they have a history of being tangled up in them,” he writes.

Isn’t the priest shortage undeniable? “We have many ways to respond ... that have not been tried. With a little imagination, the number of priests could easily be increased. Andrew Greeley proposes the institution of a Priests Corps on the model of the Peace Corps. And there is no canonical impediment to ordaining some of the 14,002 permanent deacons to the priesthood.”

Harris’s work is refreshing and reassuring about American Catholicism. “The information is all there,” he observes, “it’s just that nobody has looked at it as a measure of the historical success and fundamental soundness of American Catholicism.”

If you want to feel encouraged about your children and grandchildren, consult his Web site: His analysis of Catholic contributions is a book of revelation but it certainly isn’t the Apocalypse.

(Eugene Cullen Kennedy is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of “Cardinal Bernardin’s Stations of the Cross,” published by St. Martin’s Press.)


Official newspaper of the Roman Catholic
Diocese of Oakland, California encompassing all of
Alameda &
Contra Costa counties.