The Bad News
I am looking at the demography of my Franciscan province: we peaked in 1961 with around 800 men, and have been going down to our present number of just under 200. Our median age is 70.
About one-fourth of people who say they were raised Catholic no longer claim membership in the Church. Except for immigrants coming to the U.S. from Catholic countries, our Church would be in the same boat as mainline Protestant churches: sinking.
The sociological explanation for the decline in membership in churches and religious orders is the individualism of modern culture. Facebook and its allies in the internet world have caused that individualism to metastasize. So many of us say we are spiritual but not religious. That means that we do religion on our own, without reference to other people.
The Good News
In the midst of this discouraging landscape, I read two encouraging things. One was an article in Sojourners magazine by a woman who described how nature brought her back to God, and indeed, to a church community. The other is my reading of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis's letter written in response to the fall 2015 Synod of bishops in Rome.
So I conclude: two things counteract our individualism: nature, and children.
Nature does not of itself call us back to community, but my sense is that if a person really spends time experiencing nature, that person cannot but feel drawn to a closer relationship with other human beings. Too many people, I speculate, spend a few hours in nature, feel uplifted, and then return to a rat-race of everyday tasks that allows them no time to reflect on anything. So the nature experience starves.
A love for nature finds a powerful ally in the environmental movement. As people struggle to save parts of the natural world, they come to appreciate the beauty of that world, and beauty is God's middle name.
But children are another story. Children are truly the prophets in our world. They get through to us at moments when we are not ready to listen to anyone else, if we let the door open even slightly. I think of Jesus' parable about the seed sown by the roadside. It only takes a tiny bit of good ground to produce fruit a hundredfold.
Unfortunately, too much of the seed falls on rocky ground and too many children are left adrift in a world without love.
In earlier ages, sexuality was natural bait for producing children. Contraception cut that link. That cutting is an important argument in Pope Paul VI's 1968 Humanae Vitae encyclical that outlawed contraception for Catholics. Before contraception was so easy, sexuality could function as a hook that drew many people--not all, of course--into involvement with a spouse and children. Without that hook, children have become an optional accessory, and accessories are a cost, not a source of life.
Amoris Laetitia (translation: "The Joy [or Happiness] of Love") tries to point out ways that children and families can lead to true love. Everyone wants true love. So many of us have forgotten how to experience it.
The headwind against which Francis is pushing is a prejudice against the words "marriage" and "family."
Marriage suffers from too much history of oppression of women, and too little acknowledgement by religious people of that oppression. It does not help that many feminists found themselves battling religious people, and that many religious people found anti-feminism to be a motivator for political advancement, including priests and bishops in the Catholic Church.
It is unfortunate that people see gay marriage as threatening. The advocates of gay marriage are the only defendants of marriage accepted by the wider secular culture. Probably they would not be so accepted except that the churches, the whipping boys of the secular world, oppose them. If the churches come to accept gay marriage, secular culture will oppose it.
"Family" is an even more despised word. I speculate that the prejudice goes back to attitudes toward Catholic immigrants in the early part of the 20th century, largely Italian and eastern European, most of whom were Catholic and who had large families. That prejudice is long gone, but the Catholic hierarchy, organized as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has cemented itself to the Republican party. Since much of the leadership of the secular world leans Democratic, the tension between secularism and Catholicism has become politicized, with the result that the USCCB is in no position to speak convincingly to the larger U.S. culture. Francis's encyclical offers an opportunity to change that, but I fear that the opportunity is being squandered.
But "family" can be an important word in reviving our culture. Men and women released from prison often want nothing more in life than a family--a spouse and children. These are people--mostly men--who have experienced life without family, both before and during their imprisonment. Released from prison, they have none of the trinkets that can distract most people from seeing a family as a precious gift. Now that our society is coming to see that too many such people were imprisoned in unconscionable ways, and are releasing them, we may have just been handed a powerful influence favoring family life. We could draw such people into our communities. We probably won't. Too many ex-convicts are Black, and racism is alive and well in our churches.
Membership in a church is good. It can provide powerful social support, and it enriches much human experience. A love for nature, pushed along by efforts to preserve our natural environment, can lead people to community. If the church were to ally itself with environmental groups, the church could be that community. Support for family life, before, during, and after courtship and marriage (see Amoris Laetitia for details), could also draw people to community.
Mega-churches are communities with enough resources to support courtship, marriage, raising children, and enjoying old age. From my standpoint as a Roman Catholic, such churches could be enriched by our Catholic experience of ritual, and our Catholic tradition of intellectual exploration of faith issues. The exchange could be helped by the large number of former Catholics who attend these mega-churches. Exchange between Catholicism and the mega-church might be the beginning of a new ecumenical movement.