What is the real state of the US Catholic Church? Well, it’s not good, but at the same time, it might not be as bad as we think. I started to run some statistics based on the EWTN News/RealClear Opinion Poll of the state of the Catholic Church. I decided that the best way to really know where things stand, both in the US Catholic Church, and in America in general was to use the statistics to come up with some hard numbers. This is what I’ve got so far…
The US Catholic Church is the largest Christian Church in the United States. There are more Protestants than Catholics, but Protestants are not even close to unified, and if you think the divisions in the Catholic Church are bad, they’re nothing in comparison to the divisions within Protestantism. So even though Protestantism is larger in the United States, no Protestant denomination comes even close to comparing to the size of the Catholic Church. There are about 70,412,021 Catholics in the United States as of 2017. The only Protestant denomination that even comes remotely close to that is the Southern Baptist Convention with only 14,813,234 as of 2018, and the United Methodist Church in a distant third place with only 6,671,825 as of 2018. So of the three largest US churches, the Catholic Church is number one, the Southern Baptist Convention is number two with less than a quarter of that number, and the United Methodist Church with not even one-tenth the number of Catholics. The rest of the Protestant denominations are plentiful, to be sure, but none of them reach even close to those numbers.
Now, as we know the Catholic Church is nowhere near unified. There may be juridic unification, on a formal level, but informally, the US Catholic Church is divided into three main camps. These are…
- Faithful Catholics: These are Catholics who believe everything the Catholic Church teaches, attend Mass regularly, and try earnestly to live within the teachings of the Faith.
- Cafeteria Catholics: These are Catholics who believe most of what the Catholic Church teaches, but they ignore some teachings they have problems with (like artificial contraception for example), picking and choosing what to believe, like in the buffet line of a cafeteria. Their Mass attendance is usually good, but they don’t take the teaching magisterium of the Church as seriously as Faithful Catholics.
- Faithless Catholics: These are Catholics who don’t believe key Church teachings, and pretty much have their own version of what they think “being Catholic” means. Many of these people are the Christmas/Easter Catholics we only see during those times. Some of them attend Mass more faithfully, but their beliefs are not solidly Catholic at all. Some subscribe to a more Protestant-like belief system. Some of them are New Age. Some of them sit on the parish council, seeking to make “reforms” to the parish. And a small percentage don’t ever go to Mass at all and consider themselves “former Catholics” with no other religious affiliation.
So now that I’ve defined the camps, the terms, and what they mean, let’s break it down by the numbers according to the EWTN News/RealClear Opinion Poll. This is what we have, based on percentages plugged into real numbers…
- Faithful Catholics: 17% or about 11,970,043 people
- Cafeteria Catholics: 41% or about 28,868,928 people
- Faithless Catholics: 42% or about 29,573,048 people
So this is how the US Catholic Church is really divided out. In a sense, what we have here is not two, but three Catholic churches, currently joined together in a juridic union, that (in my opinion) is really quite fragile, under the pope and within the USCCB. What we have are three separate churches, within one fragile union, called the US Catholic Church.
Politically speaking (and politics is just religion in the public square), the Faithful Catholics tend to vote overwhelmingly conservative (usually Republican). Cafeteria Catholics tend to be split, but the split is not 50/50. It’s a swing split, based on who’s running for office and the political climate of the day. Faithless Catholics vote overwhelmingly liberal (consistently Democrat). I suppose if any Republican politicians are reading this, you’ll want to market yourselves to the Faithful Catholics entirely, while trying to convince as many Cafeteria Catholics as possible. Appealing to the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II is a good way to hang on to Faithful Catholics and draw in as many Cafeteria Catholics as possible. Forget about the Faithless Catholics. You’ll never reach them.
Now, for my fellow Catholics in the Faithful camp, let’s take a look at that number. There are nearly 12 million of us! That puts us right beneath the Southern Baptist Convention (14.8 million) in numbers and well above the United Methodist Church (6.6 million). That’s not bad! In fact, there are a lot more of us than I previously thought. The reason why it doesn’t seem like we’re so big is because most of us are disbursed within Catholic parishes, and mixed in with both Cafeteria and Faithless Catholics. It makes our number seem small. For example; if we were to use a hypothetical, average, American, Catholic parish, with a membership of 200 adults, the makeup would consist of…
- Faithful Catholics: 34
- Cafeteria Catholics: 82
- Faithless Catholics: 84 (with about 6 who never show up at all)
So what caused this sad state of affairs? I think everyone agrees the root of the problem is poor catechesis. Faithless and Cafeteria Catholics either don’t understand the teachings of the Church, or they just don’t get how important they are. I think most people agree that catechesis needs to be improved. The only debate is how. Actually, however, I don’t think that’s a difficult problem to solve.
This is why I stress that Faithful Catholics absolutely MUST plug into a parish where one can find reverent liturgy. That’s because liturgy is catechesis. Lex ordandi lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of faith. If you’re worried about poor catechesis, you’ve got to get into a parish with good liturgy. Liturgy is catechesis in motion. It’s the foundation of good catechesis. Poor and irreverent liturgy will produce poor and irreverent faith, every time, 100% guaranteed. If you wonder about the state of catechesis in the Catholic Church today, look no further than the quality of liturgy in your parish. If you’re a priest, and you want to improve catechesis in your parish, the FIRST STEP is to improve the quality and reverence of liturgy in your parish. If you never take that first step, you can just forget about the second, because you’ll never get there. No matter how much time and energy you put into catechism classes, your bad liturgical practices will always drag you down. First comes the liturgy, then comes the catechesis. Lex orandi lex credendi.
Faithful Catholics, unless you’ve got your priest’s ear, and he’s going to be making some very big changes in the right direction, you really need to just get out of your lukewarm parishes with irreverent and lukewarm liturgy. You need to get to a parish that offers a Reverent Catholic Mass (click here to find one). If you have to drive nearly and hour to get to one, then do so. It’s worth it in the long run. As Faithful Catholics file into these Reverent Catholic Mass (RCM) parishes, we’ll begin to see our numbers more clearly, and we’ll begin to understand that we’re not as weak and powerless as we once thought we were.
Think about it. Nearly twelve million people is no small number. It’s bigger than all the Methodists combined, and nearly as large as the Southern Baptist Convention. Which is HUGE by the way. We can have an impact, both on our culture, and in the political sphere. If the Southern Baptists can have an impact (and they do) then we can too. We just need to get out of the siege mentality, strengthen each other in RCM parishes, and work together with others to bring it about.
Who are these others? Well, I think it’s pretty obvious. They consist primarily of Cafeteria Catholics (as many as we can convince to work with us) and Evangelical Protestants (which includes Southern Baptists and other conservative Protestants) who would be more than happy to work with us on most social issues. These two groups (Cafeteria Catholics and Evangelical Protestants) have a lot more in common than not.
But none of this is going to happen if we can’t drop the siege mentality. Look, I know that the state of the Catholic Church is abysmal right now. I know that Pope Francis more often sides with Faithless Catholics than Faithful Catholics. Some might say that Pope Francis himself is a Cafeteria Catholic that leans toward Faithless. I don’t know if I would use this description, but I would have a hard time arguing with it. I know that many upper clergymen could easily be classified as either Cafeteria or Faithless I know that Rome is in shambles. But I also know this. The one and only group of Catholics that is growing is the Faithful Catholics, and RCM parishes are booming right now. Cafeteria Catholics are stagnant, neither growing nor shrinking, while Faithless Catholics are definitely shrinking in number. In fact, I would argue that the overwhelming vast majority of shrinkage in the Catholic Church is among Faithless Catholics. So in the future, we can look forward to a larger percentage of Faithful Catholics, a smaller percentage of Faithless Catholics, and a middle-ground of Cafeteria Catholics that are about the same, having neither grown nor shrunk. So as bleak and hopeless as everything seems, I assure you it’s all an illusion. The future of Catholicism belongs to the Faithful not the Faithless. I promise you that.
The trick to seeing this is getting into an RCM parish (find them here). Once you’re edified by the presence of other Faithful Catholics, you’ll start to see the bigger picture. I absolutely insist that this is necessary. No man is an island. If you’re a faithful Catholic in the middle of a large, typical, Catholic parish, you’re probably feeling very alone right now. I assure you there are other Faithful Catholics in that parish, but identifying them is the hard part. RCM parishes draw these people in like magnets. Find one, and start attending regularly. If you can’t find one within a one-hour drive, then there are two solutions. Both of these options will produce reverent liturgy, which is the first step toward good catechesis and the formation of more Faithful Catholics…
- Form a Latin Mass Community to request a Latin Mass in your immediate area. You can get help for this from Una Voce.
- Form a Pre-Ordinariate Community in your area, seeking Catholics who were previously Anglican, Episcopalian, Methodist, or African-Methodist-Episcopal (AME) using the methods outlined by the Anglicanorum Coetibus Society.
You’re not helpless! You have options. Faithful Catholics are not powerless, and in fact, we have the potential to become quite powerful. We don’t need to worry about a wayward pope or faithless bishops. We can do things to help ourselves and others. Nobody can take our faith away, and within the Catholic Church, we do have rights! We also have allies, both among some Cafeteria Catholics, and among most Evangelicals (Baptists, Pentecostals, conservative Methodists, conservative Lutherans, Non-denominationals, etc.). The way to deal with this present darkness is to flush the siege mentality, and start making positive steps toward social ascendancy again. The first step in that is unification with our own kind. Find a RCM parish within an hour drive, and if you can’t, make one!
Shane Schaetzel is an Evangelical convert to the Catholic Church through Anglicanism and was trained as a catechist through the University of Dayton – a Catholic Marianist Institution. Shane’s articles have been featured on LifeSiteNews, ChurchMilitant, The Remnant Newspaper, Forward in Christ, and Catholic Online. Shane is an author of Catholic books, which can be read here.