A priest recently made a request for prayers on Twitter. “Pray for one of my older parishioners who has just died,” he wrote. “She said she didn’t believe any longer, it was the scandals.” If we want to measure the impact of the abuse crisis, then perhaps we should begin here: with a single individual who was apparently robbed of her faith because of the crimes of churchmen and the cover-ups that followed.
How widespread is this loss of faith? Like many things in the Church, it is difficult to quantify. But last week a Gallup poll found that 37 per cent of US Catholics had considered leaving because of the scandals. That figure was based on interviews with 581 Catholics in January and February and has a sampling error of plus or minus five percentage points. We should, in other words, take this finding seriously: at least a third of American Catholics have considered their membership of the Church in recent months.
But what does it actually mean to consider leaving the Church? That is the question posed by Mark Gray, a senior research associate at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). “There is a substantial difference between considering leaving and leaving,” he points out, adding: “Religious identity and affiliation is much more nuanced over the course of a lifetime than many assume.”
If we look more deeply at the poll, we see differences between the responses of practising and non-practising Catholics. Among those who attend Mass rarely or never, 46 per cent have thought of abandoning the faith entirely. Among those who go to Mass monthly, that figure is 37 per cent, while for weekly Mass-goers it is 22 per cent. So, perhaps not surprisingly, the more often you attend Mass the less likely you are to consider leaving the Church.
Mark Gray suggests that some of those who said they had considered leaving were simply expressing frustration at the Church’s handling of the crisis. On Twitter, CARA argued that, in order to get a clearer idea of how many are actually leaving, Gallup should record the number of US adults who describe themselves as Catholics by the end of 2019. If the number of Catholics falls below 21 per cent of the US population that would be “outside the post-1948 norm” – and indicate that the crisis has driven significant numbers of people from the Church.
But even if the scandals don’t result in a mass exodus, it is obvious that they have harmed the morale of Catholics. Who should we look to
to lift our flagging spirits?
We instinctively turn to Rome. In February, Pope Francis summoned the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences to discuss the abuse crisis. This shows that the Vatican has finally grasped that the scandal is global, rather than limited to countries such as Ireland, the US and Germany. And yet the summit ended with only a vague promise that the Vatican would, at some point in the future, take new steps to eliminate clerical abuse. So we cannot expect Rome to get a firm grip on the crisis any time soon.
How about the bishops? A heavy responsibility lies with them. One way they can rise to the challenge is by organising large-scale events that remind Catholics that they are not alone, but belong to a vast, worldwide communion. An uplifting example is the Eucharistic congress for Catholics in England and Wales, which took place in Liverpool last September. These gatherings can also be arranged by groups such as the Knights of Columbus, which is currently sponsoring a successful tour of St John Vianney’s relics across the US.
Priests also have a role to play. One way they can contribute is by giving their flocks opportunities to pray together, not only at Mass but also at Adoration. In the silence, parishioners may be able to see the Church’s struggles in a new light.
Lay people, meanwhile, should offer encouragement to fellow Catholics who may feel overwhelmed by the horror of the abuse crisis. We are, after all, wrestling with the same questions and it’s possible that a friendly conversation might be the difference between someone staying or leaving the Church.
Above all, we should not wait for unequivocal evidence of an exodus over the crisis. We must act now, when many may be wavering but are still close enough to be reached.