If we combine these data with national U.S. studies done by University of Notre Dame social researcher Christian Smith on religion among teen-agers and young adults, and with the Pew Research Center's data on the sharp growth of the religiously unaffiliated in the United States, the lesson is clear.
The Church of most U.S. priests' childhood - the parish life we all once fell in love with - is ending. And it is not coming back, at least not in our lifetimes. American culture has changed drastically in the years since many of my brother clergy were ordained. But the thinking of those of us who are pastors, both bishops and priests, often has not.
It is an odd moment for U.S. Catholics. Compared to the past, we still have ample material resources; more people and more infrastructure than St. John Neumann, the fourth bishop of Philadelphia who created the American parish school system, could ever have imagined. But the moral riptide in today's daily life – the secularized culture that shapes all of us – is also something that Neumann could never foresee.
So, what is to be done? We can start by understanding that the Church 20 years from now - even here in Philadelphia, which values tradition so highly - will be smaller, less wealthy, less influential and probably less free to do her work than at any time in the last century. For believers, our job, starting now, is to make sure she is also more zealous, more faithful and better led.
This is a moment that requires candor. Philadelphia has a legacy of Catholic faith and social service unrivaled anywhere in the United States. That legacy is worth all of our energy and all our best efforts to sustain. But we need to see the world as it really is. A lot of Americans love Pope Francis because he embodies a spirit of humility and joy. And they should, because he does.
But at least as many people - and maybe quite a few more - love a "Pope Francis" of their own creation; a Pope who will dispense with all of the most inconvenient Catholic moral demands. When that does not happen - and it finally cannot happen - a lot of people may not be happy, and "tolerance" for the Church may get very scarce, very quickly.
Professor Gerard Bradley of the University of Notre Dame School of Law is a constitutional scholar and a longtime friend of mine. Recently he shared with me his belief that "the most perilous [developing challenge that U.S. Catholics face] has to do with the establishment of 'sexual health,' 'gender identity' and 'sexual self-determination' as paramount goods even for children and minors - such that their parents and the Church become serious threats to these minors' alleged well-being. In other words, Catholic parenting is in jeopardy of being branded, in relatively short order, as a kind of child abuse, a calumny against which our diminishing religious liberty protections will be thin shields."
That may sound excessive, but Prof. Bradley is not alone in his views. I have heard the same or similar concerns from other Catholic attorneys and law scholars across the United States. So have other bishops. The Church in my country is heading into a very ambiguous moment. And most of our people, and many of my brother priests and deacons, really do not understand what the future may look like.
If the U.S. Supreme Court establishes a constitutional right to same-sex "marriage" this summer - and it likely will - the legislative, judicial and administrative implications for American public life are very broad. Civil marriage is not just about allowing same-sex couples to "marry." It also implies the right to force others to give the marital relationship special treatment in many different contexts. And since terms like "marriage," "family" and "spouse" appear everywhere in U.S. law, the legal conflicts arising from marriage redefinition will become much more frequent.
The Church will be very vulnerable to government interference in those of her ministries which fall outside of her core worship functions, such as her social service agencies and educational institutions.
These are sobering facts. But if we priests are who we claim to be – men ordained to serve our people in the person of Jesus Christ – they really should not distress us. This is what priests were called by God to do: to lead, to serve and to strengthen God's people. If the task were easy, anybody could do it. But God called us. And that brings me to a final point for thought.
Russell Shaw, one of the finest Catholic laymen I have known in my lifetime, recently turned 80. For decades, he was an eloquent spokesman for the U.S. bishops and later for the Knights of Columbus, and he remains a wonderful scholar and writer.
(Column continues below)
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Over the years Shaw has had two great passions: a love for the Church and her priests; and an intense dislike for clericalism. By "clericalism" he means not just the wrongful pride and misuse of authority that can creep into priestly life – though there can be plenty of that.
He also means the enabling behavior that too many laypersons develop to avoid the obligations of their own baptism. If "Father," in the person of the priest, always knows best, or thinks he knows best, then Father is always responsible for everything, and the spirit of a parish swings between adolescent piety and resentment. And that is never healthy for a priest or his people.
A good priest loves his parishioners. He listens to their counsel, respects their abilities and adjusts his life to the needs of those he serves. He treats them as equals. He keeps them fully and honestly informed. And he also learns to live with their criticism, and to genuinely share his leadership without giving up his authority as a pastor. It can be done. Many priests already do it.
But in loving his people, a priest also needs to lead them to "own" their lay vocation as full partners with equal dignity in the work of the Church. And that involves much more than being a lector or usher or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion - as important as those tasks are. It also means that committed laymen should not automatically need to become permanent deacons; although again, the permanent diaconate is a great gift to the Church.
For 50 years the Church has talked about the dignity and urgency of the lay Catholic vocation. And yet, as we stand on the brink of a cultural and moral eclipse in the United States, obviously very few people in my country really got the message.
In speaking to Rome's pastoral convention in 2009, Benedict XVI had some words that I have tried to brand into my memory. He said that "[The Church needs] a change of mindset, particularly concerning laypeople. They must no longer be viewed as 'collaborators' of the clergy, but truly recognized as 'co-responsible' for the Church's being and action - thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity."