The Catholic Weakness

Last week I wrote about one piece of data that jumped out from the Austin Institute’s fascinating new study, Relationships in America: the Mormon advantage in transmitting traditional Christian practice and views on many things, from life after death to sex and marriage.

Judging from the comments, many people have a hard time separating a sociological analysis from a theological one. Even many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints understandably believe that their particular strain of theology is the key to their relative success. Maybe so. Certainly there is an obvious reciprocal relationship between orthopraxy and orthodoxy (right action and right belief).

But until quite recently, historically speaking, theologically diverse Christian denominations successfully transmitted a marriage culture to their next generations. And other groups in America, with quite different theological views than those of Mormons (for example Modern Orthodox Jews) are also relatively successful at sustaining a distinctive child-rich marriage culture. (The Austin Institute study did not break down Jews into subcategories because the sample size was not large enough to do so.)

Speaking as a Roman Catholic and as an intellectual observer, I want this week to point to another large and important insight that leaps out from the new study data: the relative Catholic weakness. In some sense this is not, of course, news. New York is merging and shutting down parishes to cope with population losses. Progressives are blaming “culture warrior” Cardinal George for a similar loss in the Catholic population of Chicago. Without an influx of Latino immigrants, the shrinking of the Catholic Church in America would be even starker.

The Catholic Church, unlike many other Christian communities, faced a postmodern sexual revolution while in the middle of absorbing massive new changes in church practices, as well as what a fair observer would call equally large disruption in authority structures, after Vatican II. Many Catholic institutions began to lose their distinctively Catholic identity markers: Nuns threw off their habits; Catholic colleges aspired to compete with and resemble their increasingly progressive secular counterparts; partnered gay men became Catholic-school teachers and principals. Cafeteria Catholicism was born and it flourished.

For the Relationships in America study, the Austin Institute interviewed a nationally representative sample of 15,783 people between the ages of 18 and 60; the study separates Catholics by whether they consider themselves “traditional,” “moderate,” “liberal,” or some other kind of Catholic. It also looks at each subgroup’s views and practices by church attendance.

The first thing that leaps out is how divided the Catholic Church in America is, two generations after Vatican II. Traditional Catholic are 5.7 percent of the population; liberal Catholics are slightly more numerous, at 5.8 percent; the plurality of Catholics — 7.5 percent of Americans —  dub themselves “moderate,” while 3.2 percent of Americans choose the label “other” Catholics. The wording of the question may not perfectly map orthodoxy (“traditionalist” Catholics in my world are those who support the Latin Mass, for example, which many perfectly orthodox Catholics are not especially interested in attending).

But the labels are clearly capturing something real, because by every measure in this study (and unsurprisingly), traditional Catholics are more supportive of Catholic teaching and practice than are liberal Catholics, with moderate Catholics falling in between and “other” Catholics generally less actively involved than liberal Catholics. Traditional Catholics are three times as likely as liberal Catholics to attend mass in a given week, for instance (58 percent to 21 percent). They are ten percentage points more likely to say they believe in one of the most basic Christian teachings: life after death (85 percent to 75 percent). Each week in Mass, Catholics like me recite the Creed, which includes our faith in the “resurrection of the dead and life in the world to come.” Traditional Catholics are twice as likely as liberal Catholics to say they believe in the resurrection of the body (51 percent to 24 percent). Thirty-five percent of liberal Catholic men consumed porn in the last week, compared with 21 percent of traditional Catholic men, to pick just one measure of self-reported behavior.

Read the Full Article Here

Mark Nedelman
Mark Nedelman

Dear Maggie - 

You asked for comments by converts, so here goes. 

I was received into the Church fifteen years ago, and when I was baptized, it definitely took. In short, I'm serious about my faith. Am I wonderful for being this way? Hardly. I'm only doing what's required to spiritually survive the moral imbecility of our post-modern pest hole. Anyway, I give God the credit for the gift of his grace. 

I was fortunate because I was able to study privately four years with a Jesuit trained DRE. I also participated in RCIA, and  I have a large Catholic library. I actually read the books.

I attended my first Tridentine Mass four months ago, and I am now a regular. I an now able to see how the faithful were liturgically short changed after Vatican II, and how so  many of the the bishops were only too happy to help facilitate the process. Small wonder so many left  the Church. As for what goes on in so many parishes today, let's not even discuss it. 

The reasons for the dismal statistics  you mentioned in your article (The Catholic Weakness) are myriad, but as I see it, one factor conspicuously stands out: Catechesis has been horrendously poor to non-existent in the Church for the last fifty years. It's not that  people don't  believe what the Church's Magisterium teaches, but rather they don't even know what the Magisterium teaches. How can they know and assent to something they've never been taught? The lack of serious religious education has been nothing short of a pastoral disaster of the first magnitude, Everybody knows this, especially the bishops The question is this: What are they going to do about it?


As someone who studied to be a Catholic priest in my youth and attended catechism classes as a child, I know of very few Catholics who have ever pursued a study of the doctrine to any significant degree. For many it is more about tradition than having a clear understanding of the doctrines and  a witness of their truth as Simon demonstrated that witness in his conversation with the Savior just prior to being given the new name of Peter. And even fewer are aware of the challenges and changes to the doctrines that have occurred over the centuries since the deaths of the apostles. The fact that the Church fought against the scriptures being made available to the masses in the past and makes little effort to teach the doctrines in any depth today may explain why so many Catholics are uncertain about what they believe, or what the Church actually considers to be true doctrine.  Even many priests are uncertain of what the doctrines are so there is lots of room left for personal interpretation--which means collective confusion on the parts of many Catholics.