Evangelizing Amid Sobering Statistics

 Do you agree that we get way too many statistics? Seems as if every time I turn around, I’m looking at “the results of a new survey.” What’s worse, the findings often seem to contradict themselves!
One of these statistics does haunt me, though: recently scholarly research shows that, over the last decade or so, about 10 percent of our Catholic people have left the Church.
I don’t mean they have just drifted from the practice of the faith, or consider themselves “lapsed Catholics.” That’s worrisome enough, and there’s, sadly, a lot of them, too. But, at least these still consider themselves “part of the family.” I’m more bothered by those who have left and don’t have plans to return home.
To invite them back is a high priority of what we call the new evangelization, which both Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have signaled as the pastoral challenge of our day.
A good place to start, I guess, is to ask why the folks leave.
Good news: some research has offered a few reasons.
Bad news: the answers are not conclusive.
When people read these studies those who might identify themselves as “liberal” chuckle and say, “See, I told you so!” when they see the following as reasons given for leaving the Church: “outdated” sexual morality, too “authoritarian and rigid,” oppressive of women, “backpedaling” on the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Wait, though, because those who claim to be “conservative” chime in, “Hold on!” as they point to an equal number who claim they left because the Church had gone “too soft,” “too wrapped up in peace and justice stuff,” “too flippant and folksy at the liturgy,” “too permissive on dissent.”
Then there are those who tell us they left the Church because they found another congregation far more appealing: better preaching, excellent music, a warm sense of welcome, a community atmosphere where “my needs were met.” Lord knows all that is worth listening to and learning from!
But I wonder if another group is most somber of all: this is the big percent that tell us they left the Church not so much because of any particular beef with Catholicism, or because they found another congregation more tantalizing, but because they do not see the need for any religion at all!
These are the ones who claim that they believe but could care less about belonging. They’re “spiritual” but not religious, they tell us.
Some of them detest “organized religion.” Others tolerate it, as long as it makes no mark on public life. Then another group shrugs and could care less.
Scholars a lot smarter than I’ll ever be are asking if this is perilous—obviously for the Church—but also for America.
Because at the heart of the noble American project is a recognition that religion is essential for a virtuous democracy and the promotion of the common good.
At our meeting in Atlanta last month, we bishops spent a lot of time on religious freedom, here at home and internationally.
The President of the Catholic University of America, himself a constitutional lawyer and former dean of the law school at Boston College, Mr. John Garvey, got us thinking when he observed that the real threat to religious liberty in America was not so much from Republicans or Democrats, as much as from a developing sentiment in American life that religion itself is silly, unnecessary, superstitious, a waste of time, boring. If one could care less about religion, Mr. Garvey concluded, well, one can hardly be expected to defend the freedom to exercise it.
And, if that’s the case, look out: Because, not only will the Church be hurt, but so will our country. He has obviously been reading the same statistics I have!
Worth thinking about this week after the Fourth of July, and our Fortnight for Freedom.
Worth thinking about, as we look for pastorally creative ways to get those who have left “back with the family.”

Worth thinking about, as we meet the challenge of new evangelization.