Catholic population change offers opportunity for renewal

Father Jeff Belger administers the sacrament of confirmation to Curt Toppin at St. Mary Church in Pella during Easter Vigil 2013.

By Celine Klosterman
More Iowans belong to the Catholic Church than to any other single Christian tradition, but a smaller percentage of people living in the 22 counties in the Diocese of Davenport were Catholic in 2012 than in 2003.
The number of individual Catholics recorded at parishes in the diocese dropped 8 percent from 2003 to 2012, according to diocesan data. During the same time period, general population in the diocese rose 3.6 percent. (See chart for details and parish-by-parish records from 2003 and 2012.)
Over those 10 years, the number of people receiving the sacraments of baptism, first Communion, confirmation and marriage in the diocese dropped by an even greater percentage. Catholic weddings decreased the most — 25 percent — even as the number of marriages in Iowa rose nearly 3 percent.
Catholicism still claimed the most adherents in the state — 503,080 — of any Christian church in 2010, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA). That number was down nearly 10 percent from 2000, however.
Church leaders in the diocese and a sociologist offered a range of factors to explain the trend – from societal secularization to the rise of evangelical churches — and suggested more catechesis and pastoral changes could spark renewed participation in the sacraments.

With regard to marriage, some pastors said they have seen a growing number of couples choose destination weddings over a sacramental celebration. “When that takes place, you try to encourage couples to come to the church to have their marriages validated, but often, for some, that doesn’t seem to be a priority,” said Father Nick Adam, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Fairfield.
“Young people do see God in other places than the church,” said IlaMae Hanisch, diocesan coordinator of adult & family formation and lay ministry. “God is as present to them in a park as God is present to them in a church building. We need to be more pastoral. If you’re pastoral, you’re guiding them to the real reasons why we want to marry in the church.”
She added: “As a trend in society, marriage has always been a societal institution. We forget that it hasn’t always been a sacrament. I feel we’re looking at a time where it’s going to evolve again.”
Fr. Adam also said that some unmarried couples who are living together may choose not to marry in the Church because of its teaching that sex is reserved for marriage. “Somewhere in there might be a touch of Catholic guilt. They don’t want to go to the church because they might not feel welcome; they fear they might be judged.”
Father Robert McAleer, pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf, said parish representatives should strive to help future brides or grooms feel welcome when they first contact a parish about marriage. Otherwise, the engaged couple might feel inclined to marry elsewhere.
Divorce can also play into someone’s decision about whether to marry in the Church. “When you have a parent who divorces,” Hanisch said, “he or she may not be participating in church as they were before.”
“That also filters down to the children,” said Mary Wieser, the diocese’s director of faith formation.
Some divorced people leave the Church because they don’t feel welcome or don’t realize they can receive Com­mun­ion if they haven’t re­married without an annulment, said Deacon Don Frericks. He is parish life coordinator at St. Andrew’s in Blue Grass.
Hanisch pointed out the ecumenism factor as well. “We have a trend in society (leaning) more toward ecumenism; being respectful of other religions plays a part in whether people marry in the Church.”
The secularization of society has had a huge impact, Bishop Martin Amos said. “Religion doesn’t permeate our whole lives as it’s supposed to.”
He sees a “dis­connect” between societal acceptance of cohabitation and an understanding of the sacrament of marriage. “Since so many couples are cohabitating, when it comes time to make that commitment to marriage, they don’t think of the Church being a part of it until maybe the kids come along.”
The Vatican’s extraordinary synod on the family will have to address issues such as these, the bishop said. The ordinary synod in 2015 will also be on marriage, discussing what ought to be the next step.

Sacraments of initiation
In the diocese, the number of people receiving baptism, first Communion and confirmation — sacraments typically received by children — has decreased less than the number of marriages. Fr. Adam offered one possible explanation for this trend. He has seen couples who, even after marrying outside the Church and falling away from the regular practice of their faith, still want their children to receive the sacraments of initiation. “But what the reception of sacraments means, and the responsibilities it gives them, are not really understood,” he said.
Most often, “If parents aren’t going to church, they’re not going to be bringing their children to church, either, to receive the sacraments,” Bishop Amos said.
Hanisch said: “I just think that if we had trained professionals in parishes involved in sacramental preparation, we would see a surge in sacraments. After you’ve had a course in baptism, for example, you can’t help but think differently than someone who hasn’t had that course. If you want to invest in the future of the Church, you’re going to have to do that.”

Other factors
The sacraments don’t necessarily play into some young people’s decision to leave Catholicism. Kristy Nabhan-Warren, who studies Catholicism and serves as an associate professor at the University of Iowa, said some of her students have struggled with Catholic teaching on social issues. In her time teaching religious studies at the university and previously at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., many students have said they have gay friends or family members. “They’d say in my classes, ‘I was raised Catholic, but don’t feel I can go to church now because I don’t agree with the Church’s stance on gay marriage.’” The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman.
Nabhan-Warren’s students also voiced disagreement with the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception, but not so much with Catholic teaching on abortion. “… They see gray areas. They want the Church to acknowledge complexity more.”
Other young people who grew up in Catholic or mainline Protestant families have turned to nondenominational megachurches. In Iowa, seven of the 10 religious congregations that grew the most from 2000 to 2010 are categorized as “evangelical Protestant,” according to ARDA.
Nabhan-Warren’s students shared a reason they’re drawn to such churches. “I heard constantly: ‘The music,’” she said.
“Many people leave for the entertainment value,” Fr. McAleer said. “Non­denominational chur­ches attract people because of flash: ‘I am saved because Jesus is my savior.’ It’s too simplistic. We need to let people see the importance of sacraments.”
Fr. Adam recalled a conversation about 15 years ago with a man who said he was leaving Catholicism for a fundamentalist church because he wasn’t being “fed” in the Catholic Church. The priest asked him about the Eucharist. “He had this deer in the headlights look. He didn’t understand it was the body and blood of Jesus.” More catechesis is needed, Fr. Adam said.


New ideas
But Catholics ought to look at what evangelical churches are doing well, said Dan Ebener, diocesan director of stewardship and parish planning. “They say it’s about the music, the prea­ching and the welcoming. Those are the three primary ways to reach out to young adults.”
Music needs to be improved and welcoming “doesn’t just mean someone greets you and says hello. It means making it a welcoming environment for that person,” Ebener said. “Part of welcoming is the welcoming of ideas people bring to the church when they come to our door.”
Older adults need to be receptive to new ideas. “We need to think outside the usual way we do things … but there’s a circle we can’t think outside of — it still has to be Catholic, scriptural, Canon Law — that’s the space we have to explore.”
“As a church, we have to make the weekend liturgy unforgettable — an experience that people will not allow themselves to miss,” Jackie Maddy said. She is director of religious education and a pastoral minister at St. Mary Parish in Albia.
“Our church should have standing room only at our three weekend Masses — but we can clearly see the empty seats and it bothers us…. We are trying at every level to catechize, to evangelize, to invite.”
In October, she and other parish leaders participated in a webinar based on the book “Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter.” The webinar emphasized personally inviting people to make a journey of faith and encouraged parishioners to build small groups. “It is their contention that if we have small groups of people who form good relationships with one another, it will carry over to the larger parish community,” Maddy said.
“Rebuilt” suggests other ways to move a parish forward, including prayer, leading by example, leading with a clear vision and good preaching.

Making Catholicism attractive
Another effort Catholics in the diocese are undertaking is the Confirmation Prep Project, a nationwide endeavor to enhance people’s experience of confirmation. Since joining in last year, catechists have worked to make two or three specific improvements to local confirmation programs and had access to an online network of catechists working on the same goals. Michael Carotta, an author and speaker who helped launch the project, will meet with religious educators Jan. 18 to discuss their progress and continue developing ways to engage young people.
“There are a lot of things we can do to welcome young adults or make it more difficult for them to be active members of congregations,” Ebener said. For example: “As I travel around the country, I hear about the growing popularity of Sunday night Masses for young adults. When you bring that up in some of our rural parishes, that’s just the opposite time a lot of older adults want to attend Mass. They might want a 7 a.m. Mass and the young adults want an 8 p.m. Mass.”
St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Bloomfield helped ease the adjustment to Sunday evening Mass —necessitated by the priest shortage — by holding potlucks before the liturgy, he said.
But there’s no one answer to drawing more people into the Church, Bishop Amos said. “It’s influenced by the culture in which we live, the individual situations that people are in. It’s influenced by how welcoming a parish is; it’s influenced by the commitment to one’s faith in God and Jesus; it’s all of those things together. We just have to really make it (the Catholic faith) lifelong learning and attractive.”
“We have the sacraments, we have the liturgy, we have a 2,000-year history of tradition and truth,” Maddy said. “We have had some doozies of bad moments in 2,000 years, but with the help of the Holy Spirit, we have managed to hang on.”
(Barb Arland-Fye, Anne Marie Amacher and Sister Laura Goedken, OP, contributed to this article.)

Catholics in the United States
In February 2008, The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released results from their “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” that included this finding about the U.S. adult Catholic population:
“Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes.
“While nearly one-in-three Ameri­cans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic. These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration.”
Later in 2008, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University published an article that addressed this finding. The article, “The Impact of Religious Switching and Secularization on the Estimated Size of the U.S. Adult Cath­olic Population,” pointed out that Cath­olicism has the third-highest retention rate of 11 faith groups studied by the Pew Forum. Sixty-eight percent of U.S. Catholic adults stay in the religion they were raised in, a percentage higher than eight Protestant traditions but lower than Jews (76 percent) and Mormons (70 percent).
CARA also reported that “the median age at which former Catholics stopped considering themselves as Catholic is 21. This median age is consistent with research that indicates that these religious changes may often coincide with the young adult stage of life where separation from family, relocation, increased mobility, and marriage are common.”
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1 thought on “Catholic population change offers opportunity for renewal

  1. I had to do a considerable amount of looking to find the parish by parish statistics. I read the article in the print edition and was expecting to find a link to the stats on the Messenger\\\’s homepage. Not finding one I thought perhaps I was possibly in the wrong site and only because I was too lazy to get up from my chair at the computer and looked in the e-edition to check the web address did I find the year number links. Perhaps you could put a link more out in the open.

    Thanks and blessings,

    Steve Imming

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