Whenever I express pessimism about the future of Catholicism in the United States, something I frequently do, somebody is sure to remind me of Matthew 16:18, where Jesus says to Peter, “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
And so I am forced to remind the person who thus objects to my pessimism: “Yes, but please note that Jesus did not say that the American gates of hell will not prevail; nor the European gates; nor Canadian; nor Australian; and so on.”
At the moment it looks like the gates of hell in the United States and these other places are doing very well. In these places the Catholic Church grows weaker and weaker; it more and more fades away.
The Catholic religion has a long history of fading away in various places. Once upon a time, the Catholic/Orthodox faith dominated the Middle East and North Africa. Beginning in the seventh century it began to disappear in the face of the Islamic advance.
Once upon a time, there was there was a common Christianity that later broke up into a Western (Catholic) half and an Eastern (Orthodox) half, the latter half rejecting Rome and the papacy.
Once upon a time, the Church of Rome dominated all of Western Europe and most of Central Europe. Then came the Protestant Reformation, with the result that England, Scotland, Holland, the Scandinavian countries, and much of northern Germany repudiated Rome and the popes.
In the last half century or so (ever since the Second Vatican Council), Catholicism has collapsed in many places, even those places where it had long seemed to be an essential mark of national identity. When I say that I am thinking especially of two places: Quebec and the Republic of Ireland. For centuries they were the most Catholic places in the world. But look at them today.
The Province of Quebec is littered with impressive old buildings that used to be churches or seminaries or rectories or convents; a greatly shrunken religion no longer needs them for those old uses. Fortunately, the anti-Catholic government of the province has found new, secular uses for many of these fine old structures.
The Catholicism of the Irish Republic has collapsed more recently yet just as thoroughly. Not only have the Irish, by a roughly two-to-one majority in a national referendum, decided to amend their constitution so as to get rid of its anti-abortion provision; but now they are on the verge of making abortion a free-of-charge service and of requiring Catholic hospitals to provide that service.
The collapse of Catholicism in places like Quebec and Ireland has of course been radically different from earlier collapses in that the Quebecois and the Irish did not, in abandoning Catholicism, turn Muslim or Protestant. Instead, they have become atheists or near-atheists.
When I speak of “near-atheists,” I mean people who have turned to agnosticism or religious indifferentism or liberal Catholicism – which is a form of irreligion that likes to use the rhetoric of Christianity to advance the agenda of anti-Christianity. (Fr. James Martin, S.J., is an excellent example of the liberal Catholic.)
Poland has been a third country in which national identity was apparently inseparable from the Catholic religion. So far, Poland seems to be holding on to its Catholicism. Can it remain Catholic? I hope so. But based on what’s been happening elsewhere, especially Quebec and Ireland, I doubt it. Every morning I wake up expecting to hear about some dreadful news item indicative of the pending collapse of Polish Catholicism.
The United States, of course, was never a thoroughly Catholic country; for most of its history it has been predominantly, and for a long time overwhelmingly, Protestant. And so the collapse of Catholicism in America has not been as dramatic as the collapse of Catholicism in Quebec and Ireland; for it has not involved a redefinition of national identity. But it has been a genuine collapse. And it is an ongoing collapse. There is every reason, it seems to me, to expect that things will get worse.
Why did the American collapse take place and why is it continuing? Three reasons, I’d say.
First, Americanization: American Catholics have always tried to refute the old Protestant slander that a Catholic cannot be good American. And so Catholics embraced the American way of life with enthusiasm. When American culture, hitherto Protestant, underwent a revolutionary change beginning in the 1960s and became secularist (anti-Christian), Catholics went along with this. When in America, do as the Americans do.
Second, inept bishops: We Catholic have suffered from appallingly bad episcopal leadership since Vatican II. To be sure, there have been (and still are) numerous honorable exceptions, but by and large our leaders either did not recognize the magnitude of the attack on Christianity that was being made by secularists or had little or no talent for responding to it.
Third, clerical homosexuality: I’m thinking here not just of sexually active gay priests and bishops but of the many priests and bishops who seem to think that homosexual sodomy is not an especially serious vice, even when engaged in by Catholic priests. People who think this way will be incapable of leading a fight against sexual freedom, which has been the spear point of the anti-Christian cultural revolution.
Put those three elements together, shake well, and you’ll find that Catholicism collapses – not just in the United States, but elsewhere as well.
In closing, can I mitigate my pessimism by offering a few tokens of optimism?
Hmm. Let me see.
Well, when our civilization collapses it is possible that, in the darkness that follows, we’ll see the need for something else and turn once again to Christianity.
If I can manage to live three or four hundred years, I may see this blessed day.
David Carlin is a professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.
Article first appeared on The Catholic Thing: https://www.thecatholicthing.org. Reprinted with permission.