The statistics don’t lie. They can’t lie. They’re all telling the same story. Mainline Catholicism is imploding. It’s more pronounced in some areas than others, but with just a few exceptions, dioceses all across the United States are shrinking. They are in a state of managed decline, with parish mergers and closures. The priest shortage is only the tip of the iceberg, and gradually, it won’t be much of a shortage anymore as the number of lay faithful decreases over the next decade. In about ten years time, there will be nothing short of a demographic implosion of the U.S. Catholic Church. When that happens, the number of lay Catholics will shrink to match the lack of priests in the United States. So with that will come the end of one crisis (priest shortage) and the beginning of another (parish shortage). Currently, the biggest contraction of the U.S. Catholic Church is happening in New England and the Rust Belt. The West Coast is holding its own thanks to massive immigration of Latin American Catholics. The southern Midwest is holding its own, while the American Southeast (Bible Belt) is experiencing some modest growth, namely because its missionary territory and there weren’t many Catholics there to begin with. In about ten years time, it’s all going to come crashing down though, and there will be no stopping it. American Catholicism is in freefall.
Why? That’s always the most pertinent question, isn’t it? Why is this happening? The answer is so simple that it evades most of us. It’s one of those things that’s hidden in plain sight, so to speak. It really is very simple. The collapse of American Catholicism began in earnest during the 1970s. It has continued at a slow pace since then, and will soon result in a full implosion in about ten years. The cause is nothing other than a radical transformation of the Catholic faith that began in the 1970s, has continued over a generation, and will conclude when that generation begins dying off in about ten years. I’m speaking of the Baby Boomer 1970s generation of Catholics, who oversaw the transformation of the Catholic Church in the post-conciliar period following Vatican II. The initial transformation drove away many weak Catholics who couldn’t tolerate the change. Some of them came back eventually, but the majority just left and never returned. Gradually, over the last four and a half decades, more Catholics have drifted away, and many of them are the youth. The very changes that were designed to attract the youth have gradually turned them away. The problem being that when Catholicism looks too Protestant, meaning when it adopts many of the worship styles and “feel-good” teaching so common to Protestant churches, while at the same time lacking authentic Catholic teaching, there really is no incentive for young people to remain Catholic. So they don’t.
Over the last 40+ years, we have seen a steady exodus of Catholic youth. Most have just given up and gone over the worldly passions. A large number of them have gone over to multiple Protestant sects — mainly Evangelical — which offer a more intense version of the contemporary worship style that has become the norm in most Catholic parishes. These Evangelical churches are quite good at inoculating former Catholic youth from ever returning to the Church, using tried and tested anti-Catholic propaganda straight from the Reformation Era, combined with music and excitement that thrills the senses. Once lost to Evangelical Protestantism, few Catholics ever return. Then there are the tiny few, a remnant of Catholic youth, who remain faithful to the Church. God always preserves a remnant, right? The only thing is, for the most part, they’re not staying in mainline Catholic parishes. They’re leaving too! It was ever so slowly at first, but that trickle has now turned into a gush. Young faithful Catholics, few as there are that remain, are going over to traditional Catholic parishes that don’t follow the 1970s model of “reform.”
You’ll find them at traditional Latin masses, where the men wear ties and the women wear veils. You’ll find them arriving early to recite the rosary, and staying late to do benediction. You’ll find them kneeling at an altar rail, receiving communion on the tongue, and answering in Latin “et cum Spiritu tuo.” Welcome to the future Catholic Church, where everything old is new again. The faithful remnant of Catholic youth increasingly has little tolerance for the new and innovative. They want nothing to do with guitar masses and communion on the hand. I’ve been saying it for over a decade now. The most “dated” type of worship you can ever have is contemporary worship. It’s an endless stream of constantly having to update. This is why from the 1970s to present, Evangelical Protestants have moved from guitar services to drum services, and from drum services to pop worship, from pop worship to rock praise, and from rock praise to fog machines and laser beams. This is no joke! Many Evangelical Protestant churches are now using fog machines and laser beams in their “praise and worship jams.” This is now the typical Sunday morning service in many places. While the Catholic Church has not gone so extreme (thank God), there is nevertheless an endless need to update worship books, tweak the liturgy, and come up with new and innovative ways to try to make things more relevant. In some areas, a new phrase has arisen to describe this endless parade of updates and innovations. They call it “liturgical abuse.” So the more the older Catholics try to change the mass to attract more youth, the more effectively they drive them away. They either drive them completely out of the Church or else they drive them fleeing back to pre-conciliar Latin-based worship. If ever there was the very definition of failed liturgical reform, this is it.
The 1970s model of “updating” the Church to “fit the times” has failed miserably. Sadly, it seems the only Catholics who understand this are the youth. The majority of Catholics, over the age of 55, still don’t get it. Their answer to failed liturgical reform is always more failed liturgical reform. It does, of course, bring in the older crowd. If you would like to guarantee a chapel filled with grey hair and oxygen cylinders, make sure you use plenty of guitars while the priest claps and dances his way through the mass. Rainbow and tidied vestments are a plus too. Whatever you do, make sure that priest never speaks a word to challenge sexual ethics, but always talks about climate change, and you simply must have a rousing rendition of “All Are Welcome” in the repertoire of available hymns.
It’s the age of people who love that type of worship that should be the warning sign. Where are the youth? If you find any there it will only be for one of two reasons. One, they’re still being dragged there, against their will, by their parents or grandparents. Two, there is literally no other traditional option for Catholics anywhere nearby.
In about ten years though, all of that is going to change. The elderly who still cling to the 1970s reform model will begin to die off or check into the nursing homes. Whichever happens, they won’t be contributing members to the local Catholic parish anymore, neither with time, energy, nor money. It’s all going to evaporate very quickly. The wave of parish mergers and closures will radically accelerate. The priest to parishioner ratio will radically drop, not because more men are entering the priesthood, but because there are fewer laity for them to pastor. The priest-shortage crisis will end, and with that, the parish-shortage crisis will begin. All of America will once again become missionary territory for what’s left of the Catholic Church.
What will be left? Well, along with parish mergers and closures, we will start to see diocese mergers and closures. Smaller, less populated, dioceses will be folded into larger Archdioceses. Alongside this, we will see the rise of more ordinariates and eventually Archordinariates. I’m speaking of the Personal Ordinariates for former Anglicans in the English-speaking world. They offer a traditional praxis of Catholic worship but in a totally English setting. They’re also highly evangelistic, bringing in Protestants of all various types. Catholic youth, who desire traditional worship in English rather than Latin, will find these Ordinariate communities to be a viable alternative to traditional Latin parishes.
The emergence of a Latin prelature may become the salvation of the traditional diocesan Catholic model. Working together with dioceses, a Latin prelature could revive diocesan parishes, providing the traditional Latin mass to the majority of English-speaking Catholics who want it. The Novus Ordo mass, however, will likely be relegated to Spanish and other languages in a much more traditional form, as Divine Worship (the Ordinariate mass) gradually becomes the preferred English alternative to the Latin mass in North America.
I understand that all of this is difficult to imagine now. We’re still immersed in the 1970s post-conciliar reform model. We will remain immersed for about ten more years. But after that, things are going to be changing rapidly. The 20-something Millenials will be 30-something by then, and they will be setting all the new social trends. The few who remain Catholic are going to be a lot more traditional than the majority of Catholics today. The 40 and 50 something GenX Catholics of today are much more tolerant of traditional worship, and so when the Millennials start demanding it of their parishes in ten years, we can expect the older (50 to 60 something) GenX’ers to go along with it. The Catholic Church of the near future is going to be two things. One, it’s going to be a lot smaller than it is today. Two, it’s going to be a lot more traditional. We may have to drive long distances to get to mass, but when we get there, we’re going to have a much more traditional experience. Everything old will be new again, and the Catholic Church will once again seem a lot more “Catholic” than it is today.