As a 39-year-old husband and father, much of Mark's life is taken up with the daily and often demanding tasks of family, including spending time with his 6-year-old son. While Mark's father and grandfather once experienced the Catholic Church as part of this fabric of life, the same is not true for the Denver programmer and systems analyst, who was raised Catholic in a family of six children.
In many ways, Mark (who asked that his last name not be used) is typical of an estimated 17 million nonpracticing Catholics in the United States--the second largest religious group in the country, according to the "1999 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches" (Abingdon Press), ironically sandwiched between 61 million self-declared Catholics and 15 million Baptists.
Much like the estimated two thirds of U.S. Catholics who drop out of regular participation for a portion of their lives, Mark was already confirmed when he decided to break from his Catholicism. In a manner typical of other inactive Catholics, he names the "freedom to make my own choice" as a reason for leaving, later deciding that the church lacked relevance to his life. Like a timeworn but memorable personal postcard, Mark carries with him the image of an overbearing Catholic Church, with little to offer him personally.
As an adult, Mark has never experienced the power and presence of God in Catholicism or in a Catholic community. "I would probably list myself as a Christian," he notes. "I still have a very deep faith in Jesus, but I don't think the Catholic Church (historically) is representative of the love and compassion Jesus has shown humanity."
And while Mark acknowledges, along with 35 percent of young adult Catholics, laziness as a reason for not attending church (according to a recent survey in America magazine), he also admits that it's not merely a question of time. Like other inactive Catholics, he lists himself in conflict with the teachings of the church on some matters of faith and morality. "To tell a person in a country that is overpopulated and has people starving to death that they can't use birth control is not a realistic approach to the problem."
In their 1992 document "Go and Make Disciples: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States," the U.S. bishops spoke boldly about reconciliation, calling attention to those "millions of Catholics [who] no longer practice their faith. Although many of them may say they are Catholic, they no longer worship with the community and thereby deprive themselves of the gifts of Word and sacrament."
Getting inactive Catholics such as Mark to come home is a top national evangelizing priority. But how to make this a reality is a trickier question, one that demands a critical analysis of current conditions and a commitment to living out the charisms of forgiveness and hospitality.
Describing inactive Catholics can be akin to defining what is American. It's simply too broad to easily generalize. They are male and female. They are barely within the legal definition of adults, as well as retired senior citizens. They are single, married, divorced, students, professionals. They reach across all ethnic, racial, and economic lines.
There are, however, some generalities to their circumstances. Most inactive or nonpracticing Catholics have been hurt by either the church as an institution or by a particular church representative. There is a tendency to assume they have become inactive because of a direct conflict over such things as church authority, artificial contraception, abortion, homosexuality, or the ordination of women. Yet experts contend that most do not leave for such reasons. A growing number of inactive Catholics simply assume themselves to be outside the graces of the church. Many of them get out of the habit of practicing their faith. They leave home or move away and never appropriate their Catholic faith as adult individuals.
For statistical purposes, the category of nonpracticing Catholics can be defined as "persons who identify themselves as Catholic when asked their religion who subsequently say they attend Mass 'never' or 'less than once a year,' and persons raised Catholic who say they 'currently have no religion,'" notes Michael Hout, a sociology professor at University of California-Berkeley.
According to Hout, the percentage of those who identify themselves as Catholics but either "never" or "less than once a year" attend Mass went up from 13 percent in the 1970s to 17 percent in the 1990s. In the 1970s, 7 percent said they were raised Catholic but currently have no religion, compared to 9 percent in the 1990s. Although the 2- or 3-percentage point increase is just within the margin of error usually reported by surveys, the General Social Survey (GSS)--a regular, ongoing omnibus personal interview survey of U.S. households conducted by the National Opinion Research Center--has followed over 10,000 Catholics for the past three decades.
"That allows us to be much more precise in detecting change," Hout explains. "So the magnitude of change is pretty small [2 or 3 percentage points], but the source of 'real' change is not some statistical flutter."
Hout, who has been working for the past two years on a book on American religion in collaboration with sociologist Father Andrew Greeley and Melissa J. Wilde, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Berkeley, notes there are no "statistically significant differences among the major ancestry groups in [terms of] 'activity' in the 1990s." According to Hout, ethnically, the inactive Catholic population more or less resembles the active Catholic population: 80 percent non-Hispanic whites; 12 percent Latinos; 4 percent African American; 4 percent something else.