Catholicism: Refuge for Exiles From a Post-Christian Age

It began in Boston.

In 2006, the Boston Archdiocese suspended adoption services rather than comply with a new state anti-discrimination law by placing children with gay and lesbian couples. Last year, a mom-and-pop cake shop in Portland, Oregon closed after lesbian brides-to-be sued after being denied service. At least ten other businesses have faced a similar choice. The federal contraception mandate could force dozens of Catholic and evangelical universities, hospitals, and charities to pick between health insurance for employees and sticking to their moral principles. And a new executive order could cost them federal funding for refusing to hire gays and lesbians.

To many, it seems that the slow, steady expulsion of Christians from American public life is underway.

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Writing recently in First Things, theologian Carl Trueman asks which church or Christian tradition can be a refuge for what he describes as cultural and political exiles. For Trueman, a professor at the conservative evangelical Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, the answer is Reformed Protestantism.

Of course, for Catholics, the Church’s 2,000-year history—surviving the catacombs, Roman persecutions, the fall of an empire, and the social and economic upheavals of the so-called Dark Ages—speaks for itself. As a matter of faith, we believe the Church founded by Christ will endure to the end of the ages.

But there is no guarantee that the Church will endure everywhere at all times. It is less certain that U.S. Catholicism, still afflicted with a kind of post-Vatican II general malaise, is up to the task. To restate the question: Can the Catholic Church in the United States become, as Trueman puts it, a “church for exiles”?

Our answer starts with the alternative Trueman proposes: the tradition of Reformed Christianity in the mantle of John Calvin, which insists on salvation by faith alone and places Scripture at the center of Christian life—to the exclusion of the sacraments. But Trueman never actually answers the question of exactly which “church” he has in mind. Southern Baptist? Presbyterian? Congregational?

To raise this issue is not simply to reprise a stock critique of Protestant Christianity’s denominational disintegration. It really does matter which church you pick.

While their beliefs may seem identical or nearly so, how members of an Orthodox Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Southern Baptist Convention live them out can be radically different. An OPC member might take to a local tavern or pub to talk theology over beers. Southern Baptists, however, maintain a ban on drinking alcohol by church leaders and seem to have an aversion to social dancing of any kind. The Christian culture rebuilt by one would be quite different than the other.

The OPC is perhaps culturally closer to the Conservative Congregational Church Conference. Both are small evangelical churches whose members number in the thousands and both draw upon a shared tradition of Reformed Protestantism that goes back to Calvin. But a typical Orthodox Presbyterian cares about things like creeds and catechisms and his conversation about church life might include such words as liturgy and sacrament—a foreign language to the rank-and-file Congregationalist. Again, a Christianity rooted in creeds and catechism is going to look very different from the nothing-but-the-Bible faith of a Congregationalist.

The point is this: in weighing the strengths and weakness of the U.S. Catholic Church against the alternative, it is hardly fair and not very meaningful to treat evangelical Reformed Protestantism as a single brand. One must look at individual denominations.

Catholic Church Still Strongest Despite Challenges
On the Catholic side, the problems facing the contemporary Church in America are all too well-known—the great exodus of parishioners and the emptying of seminaries after Vatican II, coupled with the severe blow to its financial and moral standing by the priest sex abuse crisis.

To take but a few examples: Today, less than half as many Catholics attend Mass weekly as in 1965. There are 20,000 fewer priests and a third as many religious brothers and sisters. The impact on Catholic institutions is palpable: there are now as six times as many parishes without a resident priest pastor and half as many Catholic elementary schools, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.

She is indeed bleeding and limping. But even in her severely weakened state, the Catholic Church remains the single largest Christian group in the United States. In 2010, there were 58.9 million Catholics in the country—nearly three times the 19.8 million who are members of the Southern Baptist Convention, the second largest religious group. Non-denominational Christians—that includes everyone from Bible Church believers to mega-churches—rank third at 12.2 million. Next is the United Methodist Church, at 9.8 million adherents, according to data from the 2010 U.S. Religion Census (a private group not affiliated with the U.S. Census).

But that 58.9 million figure may be low-balling it. The Pew Research Center puts it at 75.3 million. CARA has it at 76.7 million.

Of course, with many Catholics often skipping Sunday Mass, one could argue it is more meaningful to look at how many show up every week. Mass attendance rates vary as well. Pew pegs it at 41 percent. That would bring their figure down to 30.8 million—still larger than any other. Using CARA’s figures, which include a 24-percent attendance rate, there are 18.4 million committed Catholics in the country, just below the number of Southern Baptists.

But that is to wholly discount those who marry, baptize their children, and bury their parents within the Church, not to mention those whose flicker of faith burns bright enough to bring them to Mass for Christmas and Easter. It also assumes perfect attendance among the other groups.

Signs of Growth and Renewal
And national numbers only tell us so much. While they may reflect the situation on the ground in the traditional Catholic heartland, from Baltimore to Boston, they don’t account for the spectacular surge the Church is experience in the American South.

Take Atlanta, Georgia, which is the third-fastest growing diocese in the nation, with the number of parishioners tripling from almost 322,000 to 1 million from 2002 to 2012. That becomes even more impressive when one learns that the top two high-growth dioceses, Fresno, California and Laredo, Texas are largely powered by Hispanic immigrants, according to CARA (as I first reported for the National Catholic Register last year.)

There are hot spots all over the U.S. South. Charleston, South Carolina has doubled its parishioners. Charlotte, North Carolina and Little Rock, Arkansas increased their parish memberships by a third during the same period, the CARA data shows.

In North Carolina, Catholicism added more adherents—a total of 113,254—between 2000 and 2010 than any other Christian or other religious group and is now the fourth largest Christian group in the state, counting denominational churches as one group. The same trend and overall ranking holds true for Catholicism in South Carolina, according to the U.S. Religion Census.

In Alabama, the Catholic Church added 50,010 members during the decade, exceeding the 12,242 who joined the Southern Baptist Convention. In fact, Catholicism outpaced Southern Baptists in conversions in a total of eight other Southern states (counting Oklahoma). It’s ahead of Southern Baptists in 11 other states, the U.S. Religions Census shows. Only one is a traditional Catholic stronghold: Delaware.

This growth can be measured by more than just counting full pews. This year, the Diocese of Knoxville was expecting to have 23 seminarians graduate. Chicago was planning on 70, but Chicago has 37 times as many parishioners (as reported in the Register). In the space of ten years, Atlanta opened four elementary schools and two high schools, according to a 2010 report in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

What other religion experiences such vibrant growth at precisely the moment it is supposedly dying out in its homeland?

Certainly, we don’t see a reversal of roles here: Catholicism lost 152,097 members in Massachusetts over the last Census decade, but Southern Baptists aren’t making up the difference, adding just 4,459 members. Likewise, in Maryland, the Church lost 115,051 members while Southern Baptists gained only 7,944.

The development in the South would be significant in of itself, but is more so given that this is the traditional Protestant Bible Belt—what should be hostile territory for Catholicism. This story has a familiar ring to it for those who know the history of the Church. In the U.S. South, one recognizes the same Catholic spirit that launched the reconquest of the entire Iberian peninsula from a cave and the same Church that came back from the blow of the Reformation to convert an entire continent (South America along with subcontinental Central America).

Catholicism No Longer in Decline
Catholicism is not on the decline in the United States. Instead, one form of Catholicism is dying out as another is being born. In the U.S. South, homilies are longer, pews are packed, and people talk about their faith. Of course, in the North, one can find extraordinarily vibrant parishes too, as fervent in their faith as anywhere else. But it’s harder to see the rebirth: like a forest scorched by a fire, the deadwood tends to overshadow the new shoots. (So it seems to this nearly lifelong New Englander.)

The story of a declining Church is exaggerated. U.S. Catholicism remains vibrant and flourishing, has committed believers passionate about their faith, and the institutional heft to weather the coming exile.

But for Trueman, in making his case for Reformed Protestantism as the “church for exiles,” it is precisely U.S. Catholicism’s institutional strength that is its weakness:

Catholicism’s institutional footprint is so large—and Catholic theological (and emotional) investment in it so significant—that the temptation to preserve the Church’s place in society will be very great. This preservation will require compromise, even complicity, and it will very likely blur the clarity and undermine the integrity of Christian witness.

But U.S. Catholicism has already been tried—and passed the test. In 2006, one of the oldest dioceses in the nation suspended its adoption services, rather than compromise its moral beliefs on the immorality of homosexuality. And this was not one of the new growing dioceses in the conservative South, but Boston. San Francisco did the same that year. Washington, DC, followed suit in 2010 and bishops in Illinois followed suit in 2011 after the passage of laws recognizing same-sex unions. (Some states with the laws, like New York, have a religious exemption.)

The situation is now replaying itself over the new contraception mandate, which has generated a lawsuit from Catholics universities, hospitals, and other institutions. Leading the charge is not some conservative small Catholic school (say a Steubenville or a Christendom College), but Notre Dame, hardly a pillar of conservative Catholicism.

Bishops are well aware of the bigger picture here. They recognize these are not skirmishes in an otherwise halcyon public square. In 2010, Cardinal George, of the Archdiocese of Chicago, famously declared in a speech: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” It’s worth noting that when he said this he was still president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Tocqueville’s Prophetic Vision
Catholicism may be alive and well, steeling itself for a hard future, but is it absurd to expect that the future of Christianity in America rests with the Roman Church? The peerless prophet of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, writing more than a century and a half ago when such a prospect would have seemed less likely, didn’t think so. In words that could just as easily have been written today, he declares:

Nowadays, more than in previous times, we see Catholics losing their faith and Protestants converting to Catholicism. Looking at it from the inside, Catholicism seems to be losing; from an external standpoint, it makes a gain.

Tocqueville predicted that the diverse landscape of religion in America would contract into two stark choices: abandoning the faith or embracing the ancient Church of Rome. Equality, Tocqueville writes, makes everyone a judge of his own beliefs. For that reason, religious authority should lose its grip. But equality also gives men a “taste for and a conception of a single, simple social power which is the same for everyone.” For those inclined to religious belief, then, they will insist that it is “unique and of one character.” The democratic man can easier fathom that there is no religious authority than that there are several authorities. Tocqueville concludes that democratic citizens will therefore either gravitate towards the Church or towards no faith at all.

Ultimately, it is the unity of the Church that will draw men into her fold, Tocqueville writes:

Present-day men are, by nature, little inclined to belief but, as soon as they take up religion, they immediately encounter within themselves a hidden instinct which drives them unknowingly toward Catholicism. Several of the doctrines and customs of the Roman Church astonish them but they conceive a secret admiration for its organization and are drawn to its unity. …

I am drawn to the belief that the number of those people will be smaller in democratic times than in others and that our descendants will tend increasingly to divide into only two parts, some leaving Christianity entirely and the others embracing the Church of Rome. (Read the full excerpt, which is only abbreviated here, in Democracy in America, Volume II, Part 1, Chapter 6.)

Unity is a compelling reason for why the Catholic Church is the best Church for the coming exile of traditional Christian believers in America. And this is to gloss over many other arguments which, for reasons of space, can only be mentioned in passing: the Church’s superlative track record of building communities that last (think monasteries and religious orders), and the unique role of the papacy as both a ministry and an institution in sustaining the Church through persecutions, the Dark Ages, the Muslim military threat during the Middle Ages, and the new persecutions of schismatic (including at least one apostate) “Holy” Roman Emperors.

Shortcomings of Trueman’s Case
Trueman’s case for Reformed Christianity rests on two points. Intriguingly—perhaps perplexingly—much of his argument hinges on the importance of the liturgy. Outside of the small tradition of Orthodox Presbyterian Church, “liturgy” is nonexistent in the vast majority of evangelical churches today. Want liturgy? Well, the Catholic Church has plenty of that.

Not surprising is Trueman’s touting of Reformed Christianity’s commitment to Scripture. But conversion to Catholicism in no way means one has to shelve his Bible. Scripture is everywhere in the Church today. It’s not hard to find a parish that has a Bible study. Scripture comes to life in the Liturgy of the Hours, prayed increasingly on a daily basis by the laity. It’s firmly woven into the gospel-centered rosary prayer. And the Mass deals out a heavier dose of Scripture than one is likely to find in your typical evangelical church.

The issue, of course, is the ecclesiological elephant in the room: Reformed Christianity’s dogged attachment to the false doctrine of sola scriptura. Under a sola scriptura religious regime, the individual unavoidably becomes the ultimate judge of Scriptural truth. Authority is not nonexistent in Reformed Churches, but the individual always has the final veto over whatever a pastor or elder tells him by appeal to the Scriptures as he construes them.

This is hardly a recipe for the kind of community-building Christianity in exile demands. And so what began as a sociological question—what is best suited to be a “church for exiles” in secular America—ultimately ends in theology. The sociological case for the Catholic Church, from where this author is sitting, seems a conclusive one. The issue thus once more returns to seemingly intractable questions about the authority of Scripture, the papacy, and other doctrinal divides. The question for traditional Christians outside of the Church is whether Catholicism’s unity and communalism merits giving her teachings and practices a second look.

Editor’s note: Pictured above are student friars of the Province of St. Joseph in formation at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. (2014-15). The Dominicans, and several other traditional religious orders, have seen a steady growth in vocations in recent years.


  • Stephen Beale

    Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. He is a former news editor at and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on and A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history.

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