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The future is here for Catholics in America

The sharp decline in financial support for the Church that has already occurred will continue.

(Image: Andrew Dong |

Eight years ago I published a book called American Church. The subtitle explained what it was about: “The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.”

Now the future is here. That sound you heard was the future of the Church in America landing with a masked-up thud. At least for the short run it is anything but bright.

Before COVID-19 made its devastating presence felt, 21.1% of American Catholics attended Mass every week, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. That was nothing to brag about, compared with 54.9% in 1970, but it looks positively hearty next to the 12% or so projected for the post-COVID era.

Using data from dioceses, Villanova University’s Center for Church Management, the source of that projection, had previously seen Mass attendance dropping to that level in 2030. But the pandemic speeded things up. “It’s not going to be 2030. It could be 2022 (or) 2023,” center director Matthew F. Manion told Catholic News Service.

What’s happening is no mystery. As churches closed and bishops suspended the Sunday Mass obligation during the pandemic–measures initially required by state and local officials responding to a genuine public health crisis–people in the habit of attending Mass weekly acquired the new habit of staying home instead.

If they wanted to see a Mass, there was always one no farther away than the TV set or the computer screen. And even when Mass in church became possible again, many were perfectly content with the new option of non-attendance that the pandemic had opened up for them. To be sure, over time some may eventually decide to resume coming to church, at least now and then. But it’s a safe bet many won’t.

This has lots of unpleasant consequences. Here are a few.

The sharp decline in financial support for the Church that has already occurred will continue. That will mean cutting back or eliminating many programs and services previously offered in areas like education and charities.

The consolidating or closing parishes already taking place in a number of dioceses will continue and accelerate. In many parishes that survive, the sense of community will be further weakened.

Worst of all, what is happening can’t help but diminish if not totally end sacramental participation by many Catholics, with all the negatives that implies for their spiritual health.

To be sure, there are bright spots in this gloomy picture–particular dioceses, parishes, and individual Catholics emerging from these trying months stronger in the faith than before. I think especially of those good people who felt a real sense of loss at being cut off from attending Mass and now rejoice in its return.

What next? Obviously bishops and priests have their work cut out for them to restore or replace as much as possible of what has been lost. But the nature of this crisis is such that it would be an especially counterproductive form of clericalism to look only to the clergy for remedies.

On the contrary, if there are to be remedies, the Catholic laity will have to find them, individually and in small faith communities, and then proclaim the renewal of their faith by the distinctively Catholic way they live their lives.

Holy Week and Easter contain many lessons. Their most important lesson for American Catholics now is that dying comes before rising. The old, pre-pandemic American Church is breathing its last. We have yet to see whether a newly risen post-COVID Catholicism will take its place.

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About Russell Shaw 295 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. This is only the first plague of warning. Catholic men, trust in the Holy Spirit and “Put your house in order”. Don’t be fooled; This world has always been the testing ground of Satan and our allegiance should always be to the Kingdom of Heaven first. They can and will take away all that is materially and socially good in life but we can still have the Joy of Lord like all the saints and martyrs who came before us in living our faith and defending our Blessed Mother Church. St. Thomas More pray for us, St. Paul Miki pray for us, St. Damien of Molokai pray for us and the nation we still love and call home.

    • Catholic World Report
      RE: “The sharp decline in financial support for the Church . . . ” Decommissioning the erstwhile PriceWaterhouse audit of the Vatican’s financial affairs sent a certain and painful message; to wit: the Church cannot afford another scandal! Rather, the pontiff secured the sole auditing services of a non-accountant subordinate Jesuit to undertake this massively complex probe sans the compelling authority to gain full disclosure from the powerfully entrenched prelate bureaucracy. And now these business and public-relations amateurs expect the laity to acquiesce with this transparent sham.

  2. “The sharp decline in financial support for the Church that has already occurred will continue. That will mean cutting back or eliminating many programs and services previously offered in areas like education and charities.”

    Thanks for the excellent article. However, on the above observation, which is likely a correct prediction, I prefer an alternative approach.

    1. Diocesan ordinaries should cut their “diocesan assessment” to the USCCB severely, if not completely.

    2. They should cut their bureaucracies (ours in Arlington VA just keeps growing).

    3. They should cease all activities dealing with prudential political issues on which good Catholics can disagree.

    4. They should put all of those resources into sound education and true (= nonpolitical) charity, close to home.

    5. Last but not least: refuse all government funding. Fear of losing the $1 billion plus a year they get now has silenced their pastoral voice on moral issues. We need to hear it again.

  3. Regarding the “sharp decline in financial support”, here’s a link. According to this survey, in the United States the average reduction in parish finances today from a year ago (Easter 2019) is 12%.

    Historically, and regarding the sacramental life, were the laity in parts of Europe predisposed by previous interdicts (denial of the sacraments) to join the Reformation? The Law of Unintended Consequences: the decision by habit that they could live well enough again without access to valid sacraments.

    “The future is here,” and so too, is the past.

  4. The decline of the Catholic Church in the United States is almost entirely self-inflicted. The lion’s share of the blame belongs with the men who were entrusted to lead it. The misconceived, to put it gently, reaction to the CCP virus is only the latest installment in the series of crimes and blunders that have been the hallmarks of this sorry era.

  5. The Masonic governments of the United States and its many states may have just put final nail in the coffin of the Church in America, with the bishops being willing dupes. The only thing that remains is to put the China-style re-education camps and death squads into practice. The time to prepare to die for Christ is now.

    • It is hard for me, a Unitarian Universalist, to take Catholics seriously when I read this kind of comment. Re-education camps and death squads? I don’t see any crucifixions where I am, just people continuing to live their material lives at the expense of the earth and the poor, overseen by a two-party US capitalist government.

      My inlaws’ liberal Catholic church has been swallowed up by a conservative priest forced on them by the archdiocese. They were promised they could maintain their church culture, but that promise was not kept. Parish council was abolished. African American inspired decorations were stripped as it was deemed not a majority black church. Donations were solicited to purchase gold vessels (glass was used before). Many details like this were forced on them, while the new priest sometimes talks about incidents of female nudity that he finds funny during homilies. This formerly liberal Catholic church is emptying out as a result.

      Meanwhile, the other parish on the other side of them is going to close because there aren’t enough young people.

      The conservatives are pushing out the liberals. Oh well. I keep telling the liberals to form a new Catholic church composed of liberal Catholics, break from Rome, and finally permit married and women priests, to no avail. They drive across town now to another liberal Catholic church. They are loyal to a fault I think.

  6. Here’s an idea. How about someone wearing the red hat of a Cardinal meet with the Pope and implore him, no demand of him that he stop insulting Catholics that desire to be Catholic, which would include such things as access to Latin Masses. How about lots of men wearing red hats develop the testicular fortitude necessary to speak out publicly against abuses to the faith by other men wearing red hats. Maybe some laity might find inspiration to return to a Church that doesn’t constantly capitulate to the lowest common denominator of cowardice.

    • Good points indeed. Might I add – How about men in red hats finding the testicular fortitude to CALL OUT men in $1,000 suits in public office who on one hand claim to be ‘catholic’ but who with the other hand eviscerate the faith?

    • Well said!
      And yet I believe the American Church is actually healthier than the Irish one. Here we’re very near the point of hearing Mass on a rock in the middle of nowhere. Ireland has been under lockdown longer than any other country in Europe. Public Masses have been banned and there seem no real energy in the hierarchy to face up to the government. There are a few outspoken priests and a couple of bishops prepared to challenge the government, but most resistence is coming from a small but devout cohort of the faithful. It’s very depressing.

      • Public masses have resumed in the north of Ireland since 26th March.
        It is ironic how once Protestant British Ireland and once Catholic Brussels Ireland view public Masses differently.

  7. Certainly, the decline could be seen and felt pre Covid mania and the overreaction.

    The Church can be rebuilt, one action at a time. Priests and their bishops should start by reaffirming their commitment to being community shepherds, visit the sick, the imprisoned and home bound etc… as soon as they can do so safely. No one can compete with the TV evangelists preaching prosperity from Christianity; we can compete by preaching the Gospel and encouraging people to take up their cross and repent.

  8. Unfortunately, some Catholics never understood the essence of the Eucharist. Videos of Masses can never be a substitute for receiving the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The pandemic has simply revealed the lack of belief in people who likely attended Mass weekly from a sense of obligation or an insurance that they will be welcomed in heaven. The Eucharist is the center of the life of a Catholic and leads them to emulate His service to others in charity the remainder of the week. Mass is the time we thank God for our lives and for the ability to serve His people. A smaller group of people who truly understand this will benefit the Catholic Church immensely in terms of Her mission to preach the Gospel to all the people by being Christ to the world around them.

  9. It was always going to be difficult for a “non essential business” to prosper post lockdown.

    Had it been in reality responding to a genuine public health crisis that precipitated the lockdown the financial punishment would have ended…

  10. I go to a traditional parish where the Sunday TLM is packed, mostly with young people. It is financially stable, the weekly collection staying healthy in five digits. However, donations to the yearly diocesan appeal and Peter’s Pence are hemorrhaging. People are showing their faith through their wallets, while feeding their faith through their beloved parish.

  11. I don’t know where you are, but we most definitely ARE NOT in a POST Covid-19 era!! Look at all these people crowding together on the news… they cases yet to happen. The people refusing the vaccine… more cases yet to happen. How can a responsible person allow themselves to be exposed and perhaps even be responsible for the spreading the virus to others! Pandamics are not over in a few days or months. or even a year… look back… and learn.

    Meanwhile faithful Catholics are watching Holy Mass together broadcast from their churches, praying the rosary, novenas, and other prayers in their homes, making them chapels of hope. Our prayers are for each other, our families and friends, that we may all meet together this coming Christmas in a joyful, handshaking, embracing Holy Christmas Day! Full of thankfulness for The Lord’s loving mercy..

    • Given that the essential purpose of Mass attendance is the reception of Holy Communion (on the tongue), when that is refused one might as well attend via laptop or tv set.

    • If you have any data showing that catholic parishes such as my own, St. Mary Visitation in Elm Grove WI, have suffered more death from the pestilence as parishes that have had rigid lockdowns fewer masses (Gesu cathedral Marquette University) etc, I’d love to see that data! I have been searching for a year any literature that might actually demonstrate asymptomatic spread of this virus and have found none. Nor have any of my academic medicine colleagues been able to produce any such evidence, yet we dutifully mask and socially distance because secular authorities say it MUST be so. Our Shepherds accept this and suppress the eternal daily sacrifice. The clusters of death came from nursing homes and people in tight quarters for lengthy periods like cruise ships, Aircraft carriers, institutionalized elderly trapped in nursing homes etc. The racial disparities in death likely have much to do with poor nutrition and vitamin D deficiencies, etc. Our intrepid health care experts never mentioned the success rates other countries were having with therapies like Ivermectin, and never made public health announcements to encourage better nutrition. BTW, thus far with the Pfizer and Moderna Vaccines the death rate post vaccination in the USA is 100X higher than the 2019 flu vaccine (173 million doses). One should ask the question, will we be able prove the vaccine had a positive effect in preventing serious disease as they hoped? When the death from infection rate stands as low as 0.02%, and the vast majority that died were > 70… how can you prove that the vaccine helped when these people are so likely to die of anything else in the next decade? Seems futile to me. I do think that the orders of magnitude higher death rate after infection is likely due to the fact that we are immunizing people very likely to die of any number of other causes in the very near future. The vaccination may simply put them over the edge! How is this helping? Except the finances of Big Pharma? I don’t discourage people from getting vaccinated, but I question the need to carry out this large scale human clinical trial. There were other ways to deal with this pandemic as Taiwan shows.

  12. I admit that I don’t have “the big picture” nationwide, but our small island group seems to have weathered the pandemic year with a strong parish. I give much of the credit to strong pastoral leadership. Perhaps other rural parishes have similar results to share. Mass attendance in person has been good within the constraints imposed by the arbitrary and dictatorial governor and his administration. (Yes, we’re in one of “those” states where the politicians are faithfully following Saul Alinski in “not letting a crisis go to waste” – taking advantage of Covid to increase government intrusiveness into every aspect of civil and religious life.). We see among parishioners an increasing awareness that cynical politicians using fear to keep the populace under control and beholden to the government does not cancel out either our God-given rights guaranteed by the Constitution, nor our commitment to share in communion with the body of Christ.

  13. The abuse of the young is not over and it is the problem behind all the other problems. At every level of the Church papal to local there has still been no adequate response to this dark reality.

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