A national Study-- the American Religious Identification Survey-- reported this month that 1 million fewer New Englanders claim to be Roman Catholic today than did in 1990. Nationally, 29 states showed a decline in the number of Catholics, while gains in supporters of Rome turned up in Texas (up 9%.,) California (up 8 %,), and Florida (up 4 %.)
Overall, these results agree with another study by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. The trend seems to be a shift of Catholic population in the U.S. from the Northeast to the Southwest. Florida qualifies with its tremendous influx of traditionally Catholic immigrants from Cuba, South and Central America and the Caribbean. Texas and California, as border states, share a similar demographic experience with large numbers of Catholic Mexicans arriving daily.
Mainstream Protestant sects also showed national losses. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists and United Church of Christ members declined from 18.7 to 12.9 %. Among non-Christian groups, Jews and Muslims slipped from a combined total of 3% of American believers in those religions to only 2%.
Where is god going?
While we may not be becoming a godless nation, we may be altering the way we understand god and the way we worship. “Blind faith,” which for centuries held Catholic believers together, no longer cuts the mustard with American congregations weary of taking orders from a hierarchy unable or unwilling to acknowledge its own scandals, sins and mistakes.
Diocese after Catholic diocese has either approached or fallen into bankruptcy brought on by settlements for sexual abuse scandals involving priests. Additionally, Rome’s continued rigidity regarding female ordination and its refusal to heed the 21st century concerns of its faithful regarding celibacy, birth control, abortion and sexual orientation have only widened the breach of lay distrust and dismay.
What is seldom discussed, on the other hand, is the appeal that Catholic dogma has for evangelical extremists and just-plain-rednecks who love to wallow in inflexibility. For some, what actually attracts is the lack of “gray” areas and the rejection of free will, a basic tenet of Catholic theology despite Rome’s disregard for it.
In New England, cities like Worcester, Manchester, or Woonsocket—once Catholic strongholds— seem unlikely to rise again to strengthen the numbers of what they once called the “one true church.” Boarded up factories, foreclosed homes and a Catholic ministry ill-equipped and disinclined to nurture a decimated flock do not bode well for “blind faith” or “glorious mysteries.”
The real as well as spiritual “loaves and fishes” exhausted bodies and souls seek and require seem nowhere to be found there.
But even as places like Texas and Florida-- where men are men, women are disposable and authority figures like cops, judges and bishops never have to say they’re sorry-- have become the new hotspots for organized religions, it is important to remember that god (as opposed to “churches”) can exist anywhere.
Perhaps the new shift in faith-based demographics tell us less about America going godless than they tell us about god going global.