Will the Church Decline If She Doesn’t Adopt Western Values and Morals?

Recent articles in “America” magazine, the weekly published by the Society of Jesus in the United States, raised interesting questions about interesting topics facing the Church in the United States today. The first addressed the practice by some parishes of firing those who work for the Church who are found to be living in openly homosexual relationships, or who enter into same-sex “marriages.” The second discussed a father’s difficulty in responding to his young daughter’s statement, “I wish girls could become priests.”

As I said, these are interesting articles about interesting topics, and I encourage you to click on the links and read them. But, the topics themselves are not the subject of this post. Rather, I want to speak to the oft-repeated argument offered by those who think the Church ought to re-consider her teachings of twenty centuries in order to adopt the values and morals of Western culture on these matters. That argument is basically this: “If the Church does not change (and by “change” is meant “adopt the values and morals of Western culture on these matters”) than the Church will suffer irrelevancy, the abandonment of the faithful from her pews, and an inability to attract new converts to the faith.”

This argument is expressed not in the first article itself, but in the comment section of that article, where a number of former Catholics write of their having left the Church because of the Church’s teachings on homosexuality and, more directly, in a comment posted by a Ms. Nora Balcon, who writes: “Too many more bishops willing to risk empty pews on these kinds of issues, and there won’t be anyone left.” The sentiment was more subtly implied in the body of the second article, where Mr. Barry Hudock writes: “Wherever you stand on the matter [of an exclusively male priesthood], it should be clear to all of us that the doctrine represents a problem for evangelization.” Mr. Hudock went on to say that people will avoid the Church even for a perceived injustice against women, just as diners will avoid a restaurant with a reputation for “a filthy kitchen, regardless of how clean the kitchen actually is …”

So, basically, it comes down to this: adopt Western values and morals and watch the Church grow, or stick with archaic and likely unjust teachings and watch the Church decline.

This argument was possibly first formally, and certainly most persuasively, presented in the 1999 book Why Christianity Must Change or Die, by Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong. The book was embraced by academics and still is, even in the face of evidence demonstrating that Spong’s claim was 180 degrees wrong.

Let’s look at that evidence.

It’s difficult to get reliable statistics on church membership, because different churches use different yardsticks to account for their number of members. Even still, the evidence that the “liberal” churches are declining, and declining rapidly and precipitously, is convincing. The clearest statistics I could find are on a website for The Gospel Coalition. According to this article, here are the stats for the six largest and most prominent faith communities that embrace both women’s ordination and same-sex marriage. The numbers are limited to the United States. I couldn’t find worldwide numbers that offered comparative growth figures over the years.

American Baptist Church:   1967 = 1,335,342              2012 = 1,308,054              (2% decline)

Episcopal Church                  1966 = 3,647,297              2013 = 1,866,758              (49% decline)

ELCA                                        1987 = 5,288,230              2013 = 3,865,133              (27% decline)

Presbyterian Church (USA) 1967 = 11,026,976            2012 = 7,391,911              (33% decline)

United Church of Christ      1965 = 2,070,413              2012 = 988,906                  (52% decline)

Disciples of Christ                1965 = 1,918,471              2012 = 625,252                  (67% decline)

There’s no getting around the fact that these figures tell the story of monstrous declines in membership for these denominations. I suspect that worldwide numbers, if available, would confirm the declines experienced in the U. S. except, certainly, for those parts of the Third World where the Anglican Communion is growing. But these Anglican churches do not share their American Episcopalian counterpart’s affection for Western values and morals.

Here are the numbers for the Catholic Church over the same time period, according to the Pew Research Center:

Catholic Church              1965 = 48,500,000            2014 = 76,700,000            (58.1% growth)

Here are some numbers for the worldwide Catholic population, reported by the Vatican:

Catholic World Pop.       2005 = 1.12 billion            2014 = 1.27 billion            (13.4% growth)

Doubtless some will quote the famous line attributed to Mark Twain (who attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli): “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Doubtless, too, there are those who argue that the decline of the liberal churches is less related to their adopting socially progressive doctrines than a variety of other reasons and that, by the way, “conservative” churches are declining, too.

Be that as it may. The point is, there is no basis whatsoever for the claim that the Catholic Church must adopt the values and morals of Western culture or face irrelevancy, the abandonment of the faithful from her pews, or the inability to attract new converts. It may very well be that the above will prove the fate of the Church in the future, but there is no reason to conclude that, if that indeed be the Church’s fate, it will be the result of her refusing to adopt the values of the West. The abandonment of that faith by the liberal churches and their adoption of the values and morals of the West has not prevented their precipitous decline. Indeed, some think it a direct result of it.

The argument that the Church must change or die is specious. If we are truly condemned to smaller numbers, better to suffer such fate for having remained faithful to Christ and His commandments (John 6:51-69). Ours is not to be so concerned about warm bodies in our pews. Our concern is fidelity to Christ and His Gospel.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

3 thoughts on “Will the Church Decline If She Doesn’t Adopt Western Values and Morals?

  1. Throughout my high school and college years, I was a member of the Episcopal Church. I had a front-row seat in watching that venerable old church fully embrace the modern zeitgeist and enter into a death spiral from which there is little hope of recovery. (I am grateful, however, in that it led me back to the Catholic Church). As the statistics above demonstrate, the path of accommodation does not lead to renewal and growth; quite the opposite.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Mr. Hunt, thanks for engaging my article recently published by America magazine. I appreciate the thoughtful consideration you gave it — far more thoughtful than the snide and belittling reactions offered to me by a great many other “faithful Catholics.” You’re right that it’s not the Church’s “responsibility” to adapt to “Western values” simply because they are Western values. I’m all for being counter-cultural and walking against the current where we’re called to. There’s a reason my wife and I have seven kids.

    That being said, let me ask you to consider a couple of points that I think are problematic to your argument.

    First: Sometimes Western values are good and true and right. Of course, that’s largely because Western culture is rooted in Christianity. The Church taught the West its most fundamental values. But here’s the thing: at times, the Church has “re-learned” those values from the surrounding culture. One example: Do you think we’d be so emphatic about the dignity of women today if not from the (positive) pressure of the culture around us? Another example: The U.S. bishops have made religious freedom their signature issue for nearly a decade now. But until the 1960s, the Church completely rejected the idea of religious freedom as “absurd.” It was Western culture that taught the Church in that case, and thank God we were willing to learn from it. Under St. JP2, the Church became the foremost defender of religious freedom on the planet.

    Second, your stats are misleading. Yes, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has grown, but that is not the result of millions of Americans being attracted to it because it rejects “Western values.” That is obviously not the case. The rise is numbers are only due to immigration of people from dominantly Catholic nations, mostly of Hispanics, into the U.S. If you remove immigration from the equation, the U.S. church is declining as well. I’m sure you’ve noticed all the parish closings going on, especially throughout the northeast and midwest.

    So, I completely agree with you when you say “there is no basis whatsoever for the claim that the Catholic Church must adopt the values and morals of Western culture or face irrelevancy, the abandonment of the faithful from her pews, or the inability to attract new converts.” There is, however, basis for the claim that the Church must hold tight to values that are true and good, and make sure that its teachings and its policies reflect them. That sometimes might look like “adapting Western values,” but really it can be simply being faithful to what the Church really is.

    Barry Hudock

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mr. Hudock,

      Thank you for your comments. There are a number of questions your “America” article inspired, some of which I addressed in the combox on the “America” website, if you want to read what I wrote there.

      In my blog post, “Will the Church Decline If She Doesn’t Adopt Western Values and Morals?” I wrote: “The argument is basically this: ‘If the Church does not change (and by “change” is meant “adopt the values and morals of Western culture on these matters [ordination of women and same-sex marriage]” than the Church will suffer irrelevancy, the abandonment of the faithful from her pews, and an inability to attract new converts to the faith.” I concluded, based on the evidence presented, that that argument is specious. I stand by that and, frankly, don’t think the points you make are problematic to my argument.

      First, I don’t disagree at all that Western values are sometimes good and true, and that such is the case largely because Western values are based on Christian values. Neither do I disagree that the Church has benefited from the secular West sometimes finding a truffle. My argument, however, was limited to the matters of the ordination of women and same-sex marriage. I said that plainly twice in the second paragraph of my post. I suppose I could (should?) have said it each time I made mention of “Western values and morals,” but that may have become excessively repetitive and burdensome to the reader. This is why I quote the comments of those speaking specifically to those two issues, Ms. Balcon’s and yours. It’s also why I limited my evidence to the decline of churches that have adopted both the ordination of women and same-sex marriage. As such, I left out the United Methodist Church and the AME Church, both of which ordain women, but neither of which (at least officially) recognize same-sex marriages. I don’t deny that the West has adopted many values and morals contrary to Church teaching, and even that many have initiated a campaign to distance the West from Christian values and morals. But, the purpose of my post was to address those issues specifically. I grant that, what I may have saved in avoiding excessive repetition, I may have lost in clarity.

      Second, I don’t think the statistics I presented are as misleading as you claim. Respectfully, I never made the claim that people were joining the Catholic Church because of her rejecting Western values and morals, only that they weren’t leaving because of it. My next to last paragraph makes that clear. Also, while it’s true that the great majority of the growth in the Catholic Church in the United States in recent years is from Hispanic immigration, recall that the statistics I offer compare growth or decline from the mid-1960’s to a few years ago. I don’t think it’s true that the majority of the more than 58% of growth the Church in the U. S. has experienced since the mid-1960’s is from immigration. Whether there are fewer self-identified Catholics in the U. S. or not is inconclusive, based on the articles I’ve been able to find. There are certainly fewer practicing Catholics, which accounts largely for the number of parish closings. We’re back to the number of parishes we had in the mid-1960’s. Parish closings are also the result of a significant demographic shift in population, a shift that is affecting the northeast and Midwest generally, and not only Catholics. Here in Tennessee, the Church is growing, and much of that growth is from the shift in demographics, though I don’t want to dismiss any success in gaining converts. We’ve had our share. It wasn’t long ago that Nashville ordained more men to the priesthood one year than Boston, and Raleigh and Knoxville have just built brand new cathedrals.

      It may be that an exclusively male priesthood represents a problem for evangelization in the United States. Though I’m not convinced even of that, I certainly don’t think it is a problem for evangelization globally. In fact, it may be that ordaining women to the priesthood would be more of an obstacle globally. Whether it should be is an interesting question, but I can’t help but think that it would be. I had hoped to provide stats in growth or decline for these churches from around the world, but I couldn’t find those numbers. Certainly, the growth the Catholic Church has experienced globally is not from immigration, since no Catholics are immigrating to Earth from other planets! 😉

      In your “America” article, you wrote, “I am uncomfortable with the possibility that the teaching [of an exclusively male priesthood] might be more rooted in cultural norms, and less in the will of God, than many who lead the church realize.” In my comment posted on the “America” website, I responded, “One could make the same statement in the opposite direction: ‘I am uncomfortable with the possibility that the current movement to ordain women to the Catholic priesthood might be more rooted in cultural norms, and less in the will of God, than many who lead the movement realize.’”

      I think we both agree that what is important is the will of God.

      I hope you’ll continue to peruse my blog. In coming days, I hope to address a matter that I am convinced is one of great urgency for effective evangelization.

      God bless and keep you in His loving care.


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