However unpleasant this might feel, it’s time for American Catholics to acknowledge that over the past decade, a tsunami wave of aggressive secularism has swept across the United States. This is confirmed both by sociological data, and a disturbing secularist trend in politics in this age of Obama and Obergefell v. Hodges. There is, however, hope for us—probably more hope than for any other local Church in the West. Now is the time when, more than ever before, we must be uncompromising defenders of tradition. Some American bishops have chosen this path and seen renewal in their dioceses, but others (including several princes of the Church) are missing the boat.
In the nineteenth century, many philosophers and pioneers of the social sciences—Nietzsche, Freud, Feuerbach, Comte, Marx—predicted that religion was destined for obliteration as a result of modernization. For years, this secularization thesis came to be taken for granted by most Western social scientists. Indeed, observational data seemed to confirm this; in the post-World War II era of unprecedented prosperity, both the public and private role of religion became increasingly marginal in the world’s wealthiest societies: Western Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc.
There was, however, one glaring exception to this trend: the United States, a country with the best universities in the world, the most modern technology, and a large middle class, remained religious. Increasingly, American religious exceptionalism caused sociologists to reject the secularization paradigm.
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However, something has visibly changed in recent years. It has been widely reported that the proportion of Americans identifying as having no religion has been surging in recent years. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center shows that over the span of just seven years, the proportion of Americans identifying as “nones” has shot up from 16 to 23 percent. Meanwhile, those claiming to be Christians has plummeted from 78 to 71 percent. Among senior citizens, only 11 percent have no religion; that number is more than three times larger among “older millennials” born in 1981-1989 (34 percent), and “younger millennials” born in the 1990s (36 percent).
Some have downplayed these statistics by saying that these “nones” aren’t abandoning spirituality, often citing another Pew study showing that more than two-thirds of non-religious Americans believe in God, while nearly a quarter pray at least once a month. However, the 2014 Pew study shows that American atheists and agnostics are indeed on the rise, mushrooming from 4 percent in 2007 to 7 percent seven years later. Such optimistic reasoning also misses the point that most humans are simply not willing to accept the stark realities that atheism entails: that we are alone in the universe, there is no life after death, and life has no objective purpose. A few years ago, a group of secularists placed posters on buses all over London reading: “There’s probably no god [sic]. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” In reality, though, true atheism requires facing some depressing notions that make life much less enjoyable. Having been born in the 1980s, I know my generation well. Many Americans my age—inseparable from their iPhones, preferring cohabitation to the commitment of marriage—are narcissists primarily concerned with comfort and convenience. They don’t like the depressing “bummer” doctrines of Christianity, but they don’t want to face stark nihilistic realities, either, so they turn to yoga and being “spiritual, not religious.”
The Catholic Church’s own statistics confirm these trends, especially with regard to the East and West Coasts. In Boston, once the most Catholic city in America, a mere 16 percent of Catholics attend Mass regularly. In the Archdiocese of New York, the figure is just 12 percent, and in the Diocese of Sacramento, it is less than 14 percent. The East and West Coasts are just as secular as much of Western Europe: while Catholic pundits like George Weigel often criticize German cardinals like Marx and Kasper for being influential in Francis’s Vatican despite representing a withering Church, Mass attendance in Germany stands at 12.3 percent, a rate comparable to that of many American sees on either coast.
Statistics aren’t the only way to see that America has visibly changed. In 2008, a militant secularist openly hostile to Christian values similar to Spain’s Zapatero was elected president of the United States. If anyone had doubts regarding Obama’s attitudes on life, family, and religious liberty, his first-term decisions to openly support same-sex “marriage,” force Catholic institutions to pay for contraception and abortifacients, and obsessively support abortion should have dispelled them. Despite these actions, Obama easily won a second term. The president enjoys wide support among my generation, for whom, as polls and everyday observations show, support for same-sex “marriage” is as important as opposition to racial segregation and the Vietnam War was to Baby Boomers. Meanwhile, more and more states are legalizing recreational drug use and assisted suicide, and nearly half of American babies are born out of wedlock, a proportion not much lower than in Scandinavia.
It is thus clear that something has changed in America for the worse. This begs two questions: what should be done, and is there any hope?
First, we need to acknowledge that there is a problem. Too many Church leaders have been blind to the troubling rise of secularism. Take, for example, Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s denial that the massive closings of New York parishes had anything to do with secularization: “[T]hank God, we Catholics in the archdiocese and, actually, in the United States as a whole, are not, like … Europe, in decline.” Cardinal Dolan’s confidence is misplaced. By every measure it is evident that the Church in many parts of the United States, including the Archdiocese of New York, is on the same trajectory as Europe. If secularism is not first recognized as a threat, it cannot be overcome.
Second, this should be the time for evangelical radicalism. Both in North America and in Europe, the mainline Protestant churches have experienced the most severe declines in membership. Quite simply, the salt has lost its taste, and, for example, the Episcopalian Church here or the Lutheran national churches in Scandinavia have become indistinguishable from the broader post-Christian culture. In our own Church, the American Jesuits—who for decades have actively worked to make Catholicism a mainline Protestant denomination—have lost more than two-thirds of their members since 1965. People yearn for a Church that goes against the current. New York’s aforementioned low level of Mass attendance is not Cardinal Dolan’s fault; he inherited a bad situation. However, his style of leadership—approving LGBT activists to participate in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and giving communion to an aggressively pro-abortion and pro-LGBT politician, is unlikely to reverse current trends. Cardinal Dolan isn’t the only East Coast bishop to adopt an accommodationist strategy toward secularism. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, for instance, has refused to publicly oppose same-sex “marriage.”
In order to counter this secularist blitzkrieg, Catholic leaders should instead adopt the leadership style of the emeritus bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska, Fabian Bruskewitz (1992-2012). Bishop Bruskewitz openly challenged secularism. In 1996, he gave a decree excommunicating all Catholics involved in Planned Parenthood and other anti-life, anti-Catholic organizations or who become freemasons. In recent days, Bishop Bruskewitz has alerted the faithful to the harm done to marriage by the Obergefell decision, and called upon fellow bishops to uphold Canon 915 prohibiting pro-abortion politicians from receiving the Eucharist. He was a leading proponent of the Tridentine Mass long before Pope Benedict XVI made its celebration easier in 2007, and made sure that Lincoln churches were beautiful. During his twenty-year episcopal service, vocations surged, and Lincoln has the highest ratio of seminarians to priests in the country. While dozens of American seminaries have been closed since Vatican II, Lincoln opened a diocesan seminary in 1998.
Of course, there are other reasons to be optimistic about the United States. Mass attendance in the United States stands at 24 percent, a ratio higher than in most other Western countries. While, as we saw, religious practice is low on the East and West coasts, my home parish church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is always crowded on Sundays; the Midwest and South remain much more religious than the coasts. Excellent Catholic publishers like Ignatius Press and Sophia Institute Press flourish, and in recent years a number of orthodox Catholic colleges that are a refreshing alternative to Georgetown, Notre Dame, and other post-Catholic universities have sprung up or expanded considerably. However, we have to recognize that the overall cultural climate for Catholics is increasingly challenging, and it’s the outspokenly, dynamically orthodox dioceses that have weathered the secular storm best.
Pope Benedict XVI was realistic; he understood that the likelihood of reviving medieval Christendom was small, and instead believed that Catholics in the secularized West should be a “creative minority” with the potential to change society. Although acknowledging this fact may make us queasy, Christians who take their faith seriously have become a minority in American society, which is increasingly hostile to their values. This does not mean that Catholicism in this country is destined to die out, as it did in the Maghreb. But to avoid that sad reality, we have to be in uncompromising opposition to the surrounding nihilistic moral landscape.
Photo caption: Newly ordained priests stand outside of the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln, Neb., with Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz and priests of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter on May 22, 2010. (Photo credit: Today’s Catholic News, Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.)