New Pope 2013: Study Finds Fewest Strong American Catholics in 38 Years

On the heels of Francis I’s election as supreme pontiff, new data offers a warning to American Catholics: the Catholic Church is on the decline in the United States. Analysis by the Pew Research Center reveals that only a quarter (27%) of those who identify as Catholics consider themselves "strong" Catholics, the lowest point in the 38 years that the question has been asked. Although nothing about these new numbers is particularly surprising, they are yet another warning bell for a church in need of new life.

In a sense, the American Catholic Church and the Republican Party are in very similar positions. They’re both seeing support dwindle, particular among younger generations, and are both searching for the best path forward in a rapidly changing world. But so far, the Church's efforts have not met with resounding success. A poll by CBS and the New York Times found that 53% of Catholics felt the Church was out of touch with their needs. More and more, American Catholics are feeling frustrated with the direction of the Church.

This frustration stems in part from lingering resentment over the sex abuse scandals that marked the Church’s name. While tangible progress has been made, the Church’s response has lacked sincerity, appearing more concerned with protecting reputations than addressing wrongdoing. Without satisfactory closure, these scandals are likely to haunt the Church for years to come.

But it’s not just the past that is pushing Catholics away. There is a growing divide between the laity and the hierarchy over a number of controversial Church positions. A consensus is growing among American Catholics in favor of contraception, gay marriage, ordaining women, and allowing priests to marry. Millennials, the next generation of Church leaders, are finding themselves increasingly alienated by the Church’s social politics.

Of course, the Church isn’t a democratic institution, despite having just "elected" a new leader. Simply because a majority of Catholics believe that condoms are OK doesn’t mean they should get the official Papal stamp of approval. Yet it’s on these controversial issues that the Church has chosen to draw the lines of battle. And there’s no debate, discussion, or allowance for alternative perspectives, as many American nuns have witnessed firsthand. The results? The Vatican is losing credibility as a moral authority. According to the NYT/CBS poll, 78% of respondents said they would choose to follow their own conscience over the Pope’s guidance on moral issues.

Even should the message stay the same, the Church desperately needs to enter the 21st century. Let’s face it, a few tweets from @Pontifex doesn’t mean much next to megachurches whose audiovisual setup rivals most rock concerts. There are ways to integrate technology that enhance the rich history and tradition of the Church. But more than just media savvy, the Church needs a new vitality, one that draws young people in a way that they wake up on Sunday morning excited to go to church.

Of course, there are those who disagree with the need for change and assert that a smaller, leaner church is preferable. They believe that the Second Vatican Council went too far, and that the Church has compromised too much with the world at large. Certainly, as Benedict XVI acknowledged, a smaller Church would lose much of its social influence and authority. But not only would the sustainability of such an approach be questionable, there’s something to be said for following in the example of Jesus, who not only tolerated, but embraced adulterers, tax collectors, and sinners of all stripes.

In spite of its past and present struggles, the next chapter on American Catholicism has not yet been written. While the numbers of strong Catholics have dwindled, Other Catholics have grown over the past four decades. The phenomenon of the "cultural Catholic" reveals that even those unhappy with the direction of the Church still find value in their Catholic identity. But any way you look at it, the American Catholic Church stands at a crossroads, facing the possibility of a Church that is increasingly irrelevant to the lives of many Americans.