Editorial: Christians are down; ‘nones’ are up. Here’s what to do next.

3 mins read

New numbers from the Pew Research Center continue to outline a bleak future for believers. The rise in the religiously unaffiliated — the “nones” — continues and now has climbed to 26%. To put it into absolute numerical terms, the number of “nones” has grown by 30 million over the past 10 years, Pew reports.

At the same time, the number of American adults who self-identify as Christians is down 12 percentage points in the last decade to 65%. Catholics, in particular, now represent only one-in-five adults, or 20%, of the population, down from 23% in 2009.

So what should we make of all of this? We suggest two items for thought.

First, with the decline in belief in God, what will fill the void? In Dostoyevsky’s “The Possessed” (1872) the character Kirilov makes the statement: “If there is no God, then I am God.” We see this playing out today in society’s greater cultural shifts of the last 50 years. Without God, man becomes the arbiter of life, deciding when it has value and when it is to be discarded. Without God, man becomes the arbiter of truth, redefining marriage from a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman to “anything goes.” There is no moral order; there is no sin; we have no need of a savior; there is no heaven. All is permitted, and there is no reason to strive to serve anyone other than ourselves. In short: If there is no God, there is only chaos.

A second point brings us to the often quoted, yet often misunderstood, comments by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger during a German radio address at Christmas 1969 in which many say he was advocating for a “smaller, purer Church.”

Here’s what he really said.

“From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning,” he said. “She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decisions … .”

Cardinal Ratzinger was prophetic. We have arrived at the age where most no longer have to “opt out” of religious affiliation but instead must “opt in.” The trajectory of the culture has so dramatically shifted away from the goodness, truth and beauty which the Church represents that people of faith are truly “countercultural.” Catholic baptisms, confirmations and marriages are no longer automatic. They must be sought out. And those doing the seeking must therefore greatly desire a life with and for Christ.

Which is why, Ratzinger continued, “the Church will be a more spiritual church, not presuming upon a political mandate.”

“It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy,” he added. “It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed.”

But therein lies our hope. For those who choose to be people of faith do so because they are people of faith. And so these believers become, Cardinal Ratzinger said, the “Church of faith.”

This is where the Church is headed. We will not be a smaller, more spiritual Church because that is the “best” Church; we will be a smaller, more spiritual Church because a smaller, more dedicated number of people with faith will be the only ones left.

But that does not mean that believers can sit back and wait for the inevitable. Our job is not to mark the steady decline in believers or to click our tongues in disapproval. Rather, we are called to be, as Pope Francis regularly encourages us, a missionary Church — reaching out, inviting, sharing the Good News of the Gospel in small, concrete, everyday ways. This could be as simple as inviting someone over for dinner and talking about God. It could be as simple as reading a book about the saints to your children. It could be as simple as posting a quote on social media.

So while the Church’s light in the world may be smaller, it may burn brighter, as those who love Christ with all their hearts more actively seek to bring him to the world.

Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young

Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board

The Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board consists of Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, Gretchen R. Crowe, Matthew Kirby, Scott P. Richert and York Young.