When a large group of highly educated people who have dedicated themselves to an organization with firm doctrines, strict rules, and stern demands — such as the Catholic Church — lose their faith in those doctrines, rules and demands, what do they do with themselves instead? Shrug and join the Unitarians? Leave their rectories or convents and go find apartments, maybe jobs as high school guidance counselors?
What do families like the Pelosis, the Kennedys or the Bidens — and millions of non-famous Irish and Italian-American clans with strong ethnic and historical connections to the Church — do with themselves when they reject its teaching authority?
The history of the Catholic left gives us the answer: Such people focused on the parts of the Church’s mission that still appealed to them, such as looking out for the poor and rebuking unjust discrimination. And of course the Church has an almost 2,000 year tradition of offering the needy education, health care, and a voice in the face of genuine oppression. Many Catholics had joined the Civil Rights movement and marched for integration.
In the 1960s, there were fresh, exciting causes available for Catholics to join which modeled themselves on the Civil Rights movement’s tactics and rhetoric, whose agendas were not so compatible with traditional Christian teaching as the noble fight against institutionalized racism had been. Feminists, homosexuals, and anti-war activists began to throng the streets and demand radical changes in American law and policy, and many Catholics with left-wing sympathies and deep roots in the Democratic Party began to exert their energies on behalf of these new movements — assuring themselves that they were acting as Jesus had when he denounced the scribes and Pharisees.
Many grandchildren of Catholic immigrants to our overwhelmingly Protestant country still clung to the pretense that they were outsiders — excluded and marginalized victims of the existing American establishment. So they felt bound to make common cause with every other “outside” group, regardless of the justice of its claims. This outsider illusion made it easy for them to be right about Civil Rights … and then poisonously wrong about feminism, gay liberation, and socialist economics.
So Catholics who’d once taken part in Freedom Rides for black Americans got swept up in a “Women’s Liberation” movement that sought to dismantle legal definitions of marriage, laws restricting abortion, and finally the traditional family itself. That movement’s greatest success was Roe v. Wade, which gave the U.S. the laxest abortion laws on earth — outside of Communist countries — and resulted in the deaths of more than a million American unborn children every year since 1973. What most people don’t know is that the Kennedy family had helped lay the groundwork for that decision a decade before. As Philip Lawler reports in The Faithful Departed:
In July 1964, several liberal theologians received invitations to the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, for a discussion of how a Catholic politician should handle the abortion issue. Notice now that abortion was not a major political issue in 1964. …
The participants in that Hyannisport meeting composed a Who’s Who of liberal theologians, most of them Jesuits… Father Robert Drinan … Father Charles Curran … Father Joseph Fuchs, a Jesuit professor at Rome’s Gregorian… Jesuits Richard McCormack, Albert Jensen, and Giles Milhaven.
For two days the theologians huddled in the Cape Cod resort town as guests of the Kennedys. Eventually they reached a consensus, which they passed along to their political patrons. Abortion, they agreed, could sometimes be morally acceptable as the lesser of two evils. Lawmakers should certainly not encourage abortion, but a blanket prohibition might be more harmful to the common good… (81).
Nine years before the fact, the financial and intellectual elite of American Catholicism were, in Lawler’s words, “waiting for Roe v. Wade.”
Similar Catholics joined Marxist-organized antiwar marches and demanded an end to the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, which had been launched in part to protect millions of South Vietnamese Christians from Communist oppression. Some Catholics even joined “gay liberation” movements, which began with attempts to stop police harassment, but quickly evolved into demands that the law make no distinction between heterosexual marriage and homosexual relationships. We have seen that movement culminate in 2015 with the Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges, which has endangered the religious freedom of millions of American Christians.
The Left Wouldn’t Leave the Church, So the People Did
As the Catholic left developed, it became increasingly hard to distinguish from secular progressive movements, except in its use of biblical metaphors and cherry-picked quotes from Church documents to further its agenda. Instead of leaving the priesthood, convent, or bishop’s palace, far too many church leaders instead chose to hollow out the theological core of the Church’s mission, and transform it into an activist social welfare agency. Since the dissidents wouldn’t leave, many of the people did: Mass attendance plummeted, the Catholic Church began bleeding believers to outright secularism, and vibrantly doctrinal evangelical Protestant churches.
The reigns of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI saw the rise of a devoted faithful Catholic resistance to these toxic trends in the Church. Orthodox Catholic colleges were founded, home-schooling spread through Catholic circles as a means of passing along the integral faith, and the overwhelming majority of new priests and nuns were those who joined conservative orders or dioceses. Those two popes made a conscious effort to choose more reliable bishops, and the Church saw a mini-renaissance.
However, the impact of that resistance was limited in its scope to a self-selecting subculture, as progressives clung to institutional power and retained control over many dioceses and most Catholic colleges. Now with the advent of Pope Francis, that counterrevolution’s future is in question, and previous trends are reasserting themselves.
In 2015, the Pew Study reported that a shocking 41 percent of adult American Catholics leave the church at some point, most never to return:
Both the mainline and historically black Protestant traditions have lost more members than they have gained through religious switching, but within Christianity the greatest net losses, by far, have been experienced by Catholics. Nearly one-third of American adults (31.7%) say they were raised Catholic. Among that group, fully 41% no longer identify with Catholicism. This means that 12.9% of American adults are former Catholics, while just 2% of U.S. adults have converted to Catholicism from another religious tradition. No other religious group in the survey has such a lopsided ratio of losses to gains.
In other words, the American church is shrinking, and would be diminishing quickly as a share of the U.S. population, were it not for a constant influx of Catholic immigrants. According to a subsequent report by Pew:
[M]ore than a quarter of U.S. Catholic adults (27%) were born outside the country, compared with 15% of U.S. adults overall; most of these Catholic immigrants (22% of all U.S. Catholics) are from elsewhere in the Americas.
As of 2014, an additional 15% of Catholic Americans have at least one foreign-born parent. That leaves 57% of Catholics who were born in the U.S. to two native-born parents. By comparison, nearly three-quarters (74%) of American adults overall were born in the country to two U.S.-born parents….
The median age of Catholic adults in the U.S. is 49 years old – four years older than it was in 2007. Catholics are significantly older than members of non-Christian faiths (40) and people who are not affiliated with any religion (36).
Just 17% of Catholic adults are under the age of 30, compared with 22% of U.S. adults, 35% of religious “nones” and 44% of U.S. Muslims.
Without the mass influx of new Catholics who have not yet been subjected to the acid of our secular culture and the tepidness in many of our local church institutions, the Catholic Church in America would look much more like the Episcopal or Methodist church: a shrinking, aging organization with diminishing influence — and a small but dedicated orthodox protest movement.
Nor are newly imported Catholics by any means certain to continue warming our parish pews. First Things has reported (citing Pew statistics):
Roughly one-third of Catholic adults in the U.S. are Latino, but just over half (55 percent) of Latino adults here are Catholics. As recently as 2010, that figure stood at two-thirds.
Close to one in four Latinos were raised Catholic but have since become (for the most part) Protestant or unaffiliated. Among Hispanics ages eighteen to twenty-nine, just 45 percent are Catholic, and that number could keep dropping as they age: Almost four in ten of these young adults say they “could imagine leaving the Catholic Church someday.”
All these outcomes, you might think, would alarm the Vatican that the Church is shrinking and fading in the world’s most influential nation. Key papal appointments of “social justice” prelates such as Blaise Cupich to the crucial archdiocese of Chicago, and invitations to Rome for the likes of Bernie Sanders and Joseph Biden, suggest that Pope Francis has not gotten the message. (For more from the author of “Why Do Pro-Choice Catholics Even Exist?” please click HERE)