Pope Francis and 6 things you need to know about the Catholic Church in the U.S.

Pope John Paul II defended the rights of migrants in California, warned about what advances in robotics could mean for the dignity of the worker in Detroit and repeatedly challenged the U.S. to consider the effect of its global footprint on the world’s poor during his 1987 visit across the nation.

Yet one of my memories is this loud lament of a reporter from a respected, prominent newspaper:

It would be great to write about these things, but all my editors want to know is what did he say about sex.

Pope Francis will be trending across all media platforms next week when he arrives in the U.S. for a six-day visit beginning Tuesday that will include stops in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia.

Amid the cacophony of voices pressing various agendas, here are six key areas you may want to keep in mind when considering the evolving state of the nation’s largest religious group:

The sky is not falling: There is a tendency to conflate developments such as the rise of religiously unaffiliated individuals to apply equally to all religious groups. But each denomination needs to be considered individually.

By almost all accounts, the Catholic Church has grown dramatically, and continues to grow. The number of U.S. Catholics connected to parishes rose from 46 million in 1965 to 68 million today, according to The Official Catholic Directory.

When you include survey estimates where people self-identify their affiliation, the Catholic population has risen from 49 million to 82 million in the same period, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.

Research also suggests Catholics are among the leading religious groups in retaining their youth.

But there are plenty of negative trends: Affiliation remains consistent at about a quarter of the U.S. population, but Mass attendance and other religious activities have declined significantly, research indicates.

For example, the percentage of Catholics attending Mass in a given week has dropped from 55 percent in 1965 to 24 percent today, although that figure has held steady since 2000, according to CARA. The research group also reports steady drops in infant baptisms – 1.3 million in 1964 to less than 700,000 in 2014 – and in church marriages, from 352,000 to 148,000 in the same period.

“Participation has taken a nose dive,” said sociologist Mark Chaves of Duke University, director of the National Congregations Study.

If one were to assess the state of the Catholic Church today, “I think decline is what’s happening,” said Chaves, author of “American Religion: Contemporary Trends.”

The sexual abuse scandal matters: The church’s multiple failures in addressing sexual abuse of minors, and its continued refusal to either discipline its own leaders or fully release information on offending clerics, have created a lasting legacy of distrust.

In one online survey of Catholics who left the church, 20 percent of respondents who said they were returning to the church listed anger at church leadership over the sexual abuse scandal as one reason for their departure. Among those who say they are not returning, 64 percent said anger over the scandal was a reason they left.

“The scars of the sexual abuse crisis run deep” among those not returning to the church, said researcher Michael Cieslak of the Catholic Diocese of Rockford, Ill

Catholics have a strong political voice: A popular pope who is a spiritual leader of a church with some 1.2 billion members commands attention. Pope Francis’s invitation to the White House and to address Congress and the United Nations General Assembly are a testament to that influence.

More surprising is how active Catholic congregations are in making their voices heard. In the 2012 National Congregations Study, three out of four Catholic congregations were found to engage in at least one measure of political activism, from distributing voter guides to lobbying public officials to organizing or participating in demonstrations on issues such as abortion, poverty and immigration. Black Protestants were the next most politically active group, with 45 percent of congregations engaged in politics. In contrast to popular perception, the least politically active were evangelical congregations, with less than one in four reporting signs of involvement.

But who’s Roman: It is officially the Catholic Church, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Still, some continue to use the term Roman Catholic, a designation with a complex history but one with strong origins in anti-Catholic prejudices of Catholics as “papists” slavishly following a foreign power.

That usage is inaccurate on many levels.

Several studies show that active Catholics share strong convictions in foundational elements of their faith such as belief in the resurrection of Jesus and the real presence of Christ in Communion.

But they would like to see changes in church policies on issues from priestly celibacy and women’s ordination to greater lay participation in church decision making and oversight, studies also find.

“Catholics don’t take their dictates from Rome,” said Charles Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University.

Hispanics are Catholics, too: I often read or hear observers separating out Hispanic Catholics from white Catholics as if they were fundamentally different in their Catholicism.

That makes me wonder whether the same type of analysis would be applied to the white, European immigrants who were a vital part of the church’s growth in past centuries.

Yet in a country where segregation is often said to be most evident on Sunday mornings, it is the Catholic Church that is not only one of the most racially and ethnically diverse Christian groups, but the changing face of America is also being reflected in its pews.

In the 2012 National Congregations Study, 80 percent of Catholics were in a church with at least some recent immigrants, compared to 43 percent of evangelicals and a third of mainline Protestants.

Overall, the future of the Catholic Church in the United States is uncertain.

Pope Francis has brought a sense of hope and optimism to many Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

He inspires many with overtures such as:

— Lifting up the environmental crisis in an influential encyclical.

— Washing the feet of a young Muslim woman at a Holy Thursday Mass.

— Raising the issue of whether divorced Catholics may receive Communion without an annulment.

— Welcoming people of different sexual orientations with statements such as, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

The charismatic pontiff conveys sincere affection for people wherever he travels. He will generate great good will over the next week as his words and pastoral presence affirms his love for Americans.

But lasting change will only come from within.

One key, Zech said, is whether U.S. church leaders follow his advice.

Will they rely less on a bureaucratic proclamation and enforcement of rules and be more “like shepherds who smell like sheep”?

Will they choose to walk alongside American Catholics in their spiritual journey, listening to their concerns and responding to their needs?

It is, after all, not the Roman Catholic Church. It is the Catholic Church in the United States.

2 Responses to “Pope Francis and 6 things you need to know about the Catholic Church in the U.S.”

  1. Rita Stalzer says:

    Thank you for gathering all these facts. Very encouraging to know that Pope Francis has brought hope and optimism to many Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

  2. Father Tom Reeve says:

    great information…as always. Thanks!

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