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NYT’s Ross Douthat Asks: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?

 
 
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The very Catholic Ross Douthat, one of the New York Times’ two conservative op-ed page columnists, thinks he knows why mainline Protestant denominations are having trouble filling their pews: They’re too darn liberal.

Take, for example, that new policy recently approved by a vote of the governing body of the Episcopal Church: the blessing of same-sex unions. Ewwww….

In an attempt to prove his point, Douthat cites a figure, writing that over the course of the last decade, Sunday attendance in Episcopalian churches has dropped by 23 percent. He fails to note, however, that between 1987 and 2011, the number of parishioners claiming weekly Sunday attendance at Roman Catholic churches has dropped by 30 percent, according to a report by the National Catholic Reporter. (I had to do the math to come up with that one; the NCR report says that in 1984, 44 percent of Catholics attended Mass weekly, but by 2011, that number had slid to 31 percent of Catholics. I was not able to quickly find a survey that broke the timeline down into decades. By the measures of Catholic orthodoxy, the weekly figure is the only one that matters, since Sunday Mass is a holy day of obligation, meaning if you skip church on Sunday and die before your next confession, you’re going to spend eternity in the hot place.)

Must be all that Catholic liberalism.

Of the liberalization of the mainline churches, Douthat writes:

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace.

Yet when you look at the millennial generation, where most churches are losing ground, you find the Catholic church actually fares about the same as the mainline churches, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute: From thesurvey (PDF):

Overall, the percentage of Millennials identifying as Catholic dropped by 8 points, from a childhood affiliation of 28%, to only 20% today.
[…]
The percentage of younger Millennials identifying as mainline Protestant dropped by 5 points, from a childhood affiliation of 18% to 13% today.

That computes as about a 30 percent decline in membership among this generation for both categories. This is where the rubber meets the road in terms of determining the future longevity of a church.

One religious description that’s expanding among this group? “Unaffiliated.”

But the most ridiculous claim in Douthat’s spurious argument is this:

Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.
Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis…
Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline. Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation.

Hmmmm…It could be that most highly educated Catholic women today regard the notion of submitting to the authority of less-educated all-male hierarchy — one that put its own reputation ahead of the protection of children from predators, and would rather see women die than use contraception — well, might they find that all just a little bit archaic?

Nah…must be the liberalism…

(More about the Vatican investigation of the nuns here.)

Oh, and in case you missed it, the Catholic Diocese of Virginia is demanding loyalty oaths from its Sunday school teachers. Srsly. And it’s not exactly swelling the ranks.

Washington Monthly / By Adele Stan

Posted at July 16, 2012, 4:34am