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.