How Churches (actually “ecclesial communities”) commit suicide

My friend Fr. Martin Fox of the blog Bonfire of the Vanities has a great post.

‘Gay marriage’ is church suicide

Give into the Zeitgeist? Not a plan of success:

Episcopal Church: -18% (2002-2012) [that “-” means “minus”, as in “smaller by]”
United Church of Christ: -20% (2005-2012)
Presbyterian (USA): -22% (2006-2012)
Evangelical Lutheran -12% (2009-2012)

Of course, the declines are likely explained by many other factors; many, if not all, these denominations were already on a downward trajectory, as their liberalizing trends didn’t begin with endorsing a redefinition of marriage.

What’s more, Catholics and others committed to an orthodox understanding of morality and marriage in particular should not take comfort too easily. When our Lord walked the earth, people walked away from him because of things he taught, and in the end, the crowd chanted “crucify him” instead of “my Lord and my God.” So we should not expect to be popular when we offer the Lord’s message.

But embracing an “evolution” of marriage didn’t help, and almost certainly accelerated the decline.


There is a little bit more over there, references you will find helpful. So… go look already!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Iacobus M says:

    Isn’t it odd that some Catholics are eager to follow the same path – a classic case of the blind leading the blind . . .

  2. Prayerful says:

    It is striking that those Protestant denominations that assimilate with the liberal mainstream has done very badly.

    The liberal left-wing media would have anyone believe that only the backward and primitive want to defend Christian marriage, that it’s the road to success for the Church to discard any defence of marriage.

  3. Gratias says:

    Homosexual marriage is the next battlefront. No egalitarianism, no church tax exemption. I greatly fear that this October’s Vatican Synod on the divorced family is but a stalking horse for Gay marriage. The Modernist/Progressives always find the best wording and reasoning to advance their evil wedge issues agenda. In this particular case, it will be the destruction of the family.

    The Evil One is very crafty.

  4. Scott W. says:

    When you get the inevitable “correlation isn’t causation” nonresponse, remind people that when these denominations started drinking the rainbow poison, they said people would flock to these kinder, gentler, and “in touch” churches. Well, as Chris Johnson points out, those flocks have either been stuck in traffic for years or coming to church disguised as empty pews.

  5. raitchi2 says:

    I’ll be the liberal to say it, these numbers don’t show changes due to doctrine. This is just the trend for Christianity. If any doctrine is reflected in these numbers I bet it is the lack of “you’ll go to hell if you’re not a member of this Church” doctrine (which the RCC, Orthodox et al. have). Before we cast stones remember we the RCC are hemorrhaging members. Of just Latinos who merely IDENTIFY as Catholic we have, “But as recently as 2010, Pew Research polling found that fully two-thirds of Hispanics (67%) were Catholic. That means the Catholic share has dropped by 12 percentage points in just the last four years, using Pew Research’s standard survey question about religious affiliation.” (

  6. Mike says:

    When either Church or ecclesial community ceases to focus (if it ever did) on the saving Sacrifice of Our Lord and collapses into a venue for back-slapping and hand-clapping, it is little wonder that the nominally faithful lose interest. One can, after all, slap backs and clap hands anywhere, or nowhere.

    Our loving Creator made us to seek, to adore, and to obey Him, and to be fed both with his Word and with the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ really present on the altar under the appearances of bread and wine. To deny this hunger, which has happened too frequently over the last two generations even in churches nominally Catholic, leaves a soul-void that the seeker tries and fails to fill with the empty fruit of liberal modernism, whether the logical positivism of Comte or the inchoate bludgeoning of the Sorosmedia.

    That such malnourished souls starve and wither and eventually seek solace in false religions of more poisonous kinds should surprise no one — least of all ourselves when, at the seat of Judgment, we are called to account for it for having stood by and let it happen. May Almighty God have mercy on our souls, even as His grace inspire us to win souls back for Him.

  7. robtbrown says:


    One of the big changes in the US (and probably also in Europe) is that there is now almost no social stigma on not attending a church. I have personally known some believing Protestants. On the other hand, I have also known many who didn’t believe in anything–including the existence of God and human existence after death. At one time they regularly attended church–for them it was a social act, like the Rotary or Country Club, that established them in the community. When the social pressure started to evaporate, they began to stop attending and willingly identified themselves as atheists/agnostics.

  8. wmeyer says:

    With respect to the ELCA (Lutherans), my aunt and many others left in response to their decision to accept actively homosexual clergy. Fr. Z already noted the general downward trend, but to dismiss this as not relating to doctrinal issues would be short-sighted, at best. These communities have been slowly embracing secular views for many years, and that may indeed be the proximate cause of the general decline.

    In my aunt’s case, it was a decision not easily reached, as her father had been a Lutheran minister, and the family is Swedish. So both familial and cultural history favored remaining in the church. But the folly of turning away from a moral challenge based a vote was the last straw.

  9. Sword40 says:

    We found the Traditional Latin Mass and our little parish is growing. Dozens of young and babies.
    I don’t have to worry about clapping or shaking hands until after Mass in the hall for coffee. Its exciting to be with these people. We had a gentleman from Jordan come to Mass and he volunteered that he could play the organ. Boy did he ever become popular in a hurry. It was his very first TLM and he fell in love with it. Now we are trying to teach him about the appropriate music for the TLM.

    Never would have ever thought we’d be doing this 7 years ago. God is wonderful.

  10. Scott W. says:

    Before we cast stones remember we the RCC are hemorrhaging members.

    In the U.S. to some degree. Worldwide and especially in countries on the rise, it is flourishing. Plus, we also have plenty of Catholic test cases. Bishop Clark’s 33-year reign of ultraliberal terror result is that Diocese of Rochester is bottom of the list in Mass attendance, donations, vocations; the top of the list in parish/school closings. Meanwhile, dioceses that hew close to traditional orthodoxy have plenty of vocations and in some cases are actually opening new schools. It’s no mystery why. Everyone hears liberal nonsense all week long in the secular culture. Why waste an hour Sunday to hear it again?

  11. Gail F says:

    raitchi2 is right, we are hemorrhaging members. Read the first section of “Forming Intentional Disciples” to get a clear picture – yikes!

    I agree that those numbers don’t necessarily imply causation. For all we know, those churches might have lost even more members if they hadn’t changed their teachings. However, the figures may just as well show that going along with social fads that cast sinful behavior as acceptable has not effect on a church’s decline.

    You can’t know anything about causation unless you devise a good study that can find out why people actually leave, vs. why they say they leave, and vs. not asking at all. What “Forming Intentional Disciples” does is find out why people STAY.

  12. Supertradmum says:

    It is heresy to state or believe that Christ and the Holy Spirit will not guide the Church, the Bride, until the end of time. I am not concerned with the real Church, but many libs will fall away, as they will no longer have the luxury of trying to change the Church.

    We shall have persecution, yes, but there will always be a remnant.

  13. Athelstan says:


    Before we cast stones remember we the RCC are hemorrhaging members.

    There’s some truth to that. As Pew Research recently noted:

    “While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic. These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration.”

    The point that must be made here, however, is that, since the middle of the 20th century – arguably even before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) – the Catholic Church has been, for almost all practical purposes (its actual lived praxis, even if its nominal doctrine has changed very little), a liberal Protestant denomination, at least in the U.S. In terms of the theological mindset of who has been running most of its dioceses, parishes, seminaries, and theology departments since the 60’s, and what many of its followers on the ground actually believe (the rate of contraception hardly has to be noted at this point), that’s what it has effectively amounted to. This is even more pronounced in many of its religious orders. The tide has begun to shift in a slightly more conservative direction in recent years, but large swaths of the Church in the U.S. remain with a worship and praxis not really that different from many mainline denominations.

    Thus, to take the Catholic Church in America in toto – which we should readily recognize has only been kept afloat by large-scale Hispanic and Asian immigration – can distort our understanding of the larger picture the impact of these theologies. Instead, it is worth looking at it in detail. How have religious orders that have embraced more progressive stances fared? Seminaries? Dioceses? What about those who have embraced traditionalism or charismatic postures?

  14. lmgilbert says:

    If we are going to talk about numbers, I too wonder about our numbers. Of course, Catholicism is not ” a numbers game,” but if we say that Evangelical Lutherans are down 12%, for example, all kinds of questions pop up. Presumably we are talking about Evangelical Lutherans in this country. Well then, what are the trends for Catholicism in the United States?

    Scott W. observes that while we hemorrhaging member in the U.S. to some degree, world -wide we are flourishing. What exactly is the extent of the fall-off in the US? Where does one go to find accurate numbers, and on what exactly are they based?

    It would seem to be completely illusory to base it it on the number of baptisms, since so many people fall away. Presumably, then, when we say there are 1 billion Catholics in the world ( that is the number often cited), it is based on weekly Mass attendance. Is that the case? Does the Church or any other independent body keep an ongoing rigorous census of the number of practicing Catholics in the world on that basis?

  15. Athelstan says:

    One other, sober comment, regarding this statistic about the Episcopal Church:

    Baptisms have fallen by 39.6 percent, and marriages have fallen by 44.9 percent.

    Sad to say, I know some dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest that have seen even bigger percentage drops in baptisms and marriages over the previous decade. Obviously, this is not the case in most of the Sunbelt, and obviously internal (and external) migration is playing a role here…

    But we should not overlook the grim demographic state of the Catholic Church in much of the Rustbelt. And it isn’t just the shuttering of factories that’s to blame here.

  16. robtbrown says:

    Scott W says,

    Bishop Clark’s 33-year reign of ultraliberal terror result is that Diocese of Rochester is bottom of the list in Mass attendance, donations, vocations; the top of the list in parish/school closings.

    If you spoke with one of his defenders, Bp Clark would be described as “pastoral”. And so for the first time in history, a good shepherd can now be described as someone who loses half his flock.

  17. robtbrown says:


    What exactly is the extent of the fall-off in the US?

    1. The Church is Germany and Switzerland is all but supine. Except for the SSPX (and a bit of the FSSP) there is little happening. About 5 miles from where I was in Switzerland is the beautiful Abbey of Disentis, with a history of more than 1000 years. It is dying. Michaelsberg Abbey in Siegburg, Germany, had been a Benedictine Abbey for almost that long. The monks left in 2010. The German Redemptorists razed their famous Mother House a few years ago.

    2. There are some big differences in the US. First, despite the problems of the 70’s there were still some good bishops (e.g., in Wichita and Lincoln) who didn’t lose their minds. Second, when JPII named O’Connor for New York, it was the beginning of the end of the influence of Bernardin in the Church. Third, a conscious decision was made in Rome early in the JPII papacy to improve the American episcopacy. And there is no concordat with the US to mitigate the pope’s nomination of bishops.

    There were still some mistakes made–Mahoney turned out to be a flim flam man. But most of the crazy liberals were eventually replaced by much better bishops. Quinn gone from SF, Strecker from KCK, May from StL, Roach . from St Paul, Bernardin from Chicago, Borders from Baltimore, Dearden from Detroit, Casey in Denver. All were archbishops who emptied their parishes and seminaries. By the mid 90’s all were gone–it took a few more years for Weakbrain to leave Milwaukee to devote himself full time to his gay bar ministry.

    3. It is no surprise that the SJ’s have imploded. In 1989 the number of US Jesuits in formation was 10% of what it was in 1964. Their influence in the US was once epic, but now their ability to close and sell properties in the US is legendary–God knows they’ve have enough practice. As Damien Thompson said, the question is whether the Jesuits will listen to one of their own as pope.

  18. Marissa says:

    And what broke those churches into supporting active homosexuality was their embrace of feminism, divorce, and contraception. See one of my favorite bloggers on the subject: Contraception is so Gay.

    Also, Athelstan’s remark about roughly the last three-quarters of a century in the U.S. has seen the Church as…well, different from She is or has been in the rest of the world. Here is an excellent essay by John Rao why that is the case (it is tied to the heresy of Americanism).

    Also after a little research the name Archbishop John Ireland comes up, he looks like he has a bit to do with “modernizing” American Catholicism, though I’ve never heard the name before.

  19. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    Americanism is a heresy condemned more than 100 years ago. Sadly, many behave as if Americanism is authentic doctrine and the reign of Christ the King is an out-dated European hanger-on.

  20. Elizabeth D says:

    I read Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae carefully one time to figure out what is the “Americanism” that was condemned, and what I got out of it was that it was basically a precursor of modernism. The condemnation of modernism is a more developed explanation of what is most problematic in the confusing label “Americanism.” I am not sure it makes sense to speak of Americanism today (and I have often seen the term misused, like Venerable Fr Samuel Mazzuchelli being praised for his “sturdy Americanism” on account of his appreciation for American style religious liberty… even though he was clearly anything but a modernist–he just appreciated that even though America is a majority protestant country there was no restriction on Catholics evangelizing), it is more useful to speak of modernism if speaking of a heresy.

  21. JesusFreak84 says:

    America, even before there WAS an America, has always been trying to drag Rome leftward. Read any work on the history of Catholic “social[ist] justice” in the United States and this becomes apparent.

  22. Papabile says:

    I think almost all of us agree that the likely proximate cause of the decline among Church attendance by Protestants is the slow (from the view of history a quick moving tidal wave) in the erosion of traditional moral doctrines and cooperation with the values of modernity.

    Yet people are also able to cite/show some of the same decline in the Catholicism found in America and Western Europe. Many would argue that this is from the same proximate cause, even if the Church has maintained it’s doctrine and dogma in a pro forma manner

    But the issues surrounding correlation and causation are real — and we should want to actually prove causation. For once that IS done, we can genuinely orient ourselves pastorally to grow.

    Until then, we should continue doing what actually SEEMS to work – and most likely WILL be found to be causated — maintain the Faith – orthodoxy – and maintain and grow the traditional liturgy – orthopraxis.

    Other causative things will only add to our evangelization.

    We should not be afraid of GOOD research in these areas — though it IS exceedingly hard to find.

  23. Sonshine135 says:

    Fr. Fox is correct. The dissident “c”atholics are not interested in changing the Catholic Church. They are interested in destroying it. The hope is coming from young Catholics who are returning to the reverent forms of the Mass – not from those who come to church on Sunday to check the box.

  24. Alanmac says:

    I doubt the numbers for the RC Church are much better. Since 2009, our RCIA classes have averaged 6 candidates. Almost all have been through the program at Easter Vigil and within one year have become inactive. I happened to meet one of these RCIA grads at a local mall and after chit chat asked why he was inactive. He said no one ever talked to him or smiled at him and he felt alienated.

  25. RJHighland says:

    Liberal heretical teaching is infecting the Catholic Church as much as those Protestant Churches listed. Look at all the Catholic Church closures going on, how many Catholic, schools and seminaries are closing. False dotrine whithers on the vine. Non-Denominational Churches and mega Churches are flourishing but they are just flashes in the pan they have no depth. When you have Bishops of the Church not condemning the false Gospel’s that are being taught in their parishes they to will eventually whither. New York City, Philidelphia and Boston are perfect examples of this. Philidelphia probably has the most orthodox Bishop of the bunch. The problem that I see is the wheat is being over run by the tares in the Church, and the wheat are leaving diocesesan Churches to find more orthodox teaching but then in the case of Holy Innocense in New York the wheat have gathered and grown the community and the Cardinal wants to sift the wheat back into the Tares, how frustrating that must be for those faithful Catholics. No where in scripture have I read anyone was required to be obedient to Judas and false teachers are not to be followed. I am just thankful that my family has found a parish where authentic Catholic doctrine is being taught and I don’t have to deal with the false shepherds and twisted Catholic doctrine for the moment. It’s like being in a life boat watching the Bark of Peter burning out of control, and the Captian is merrily singing “Don’t worry be happy.” Many of the life boats are still connected to the bark and rowing Her to a safe harbor but many have gotten into life boats and headed out to sea on their own. There are still a Remnant in the Bark and they are growing that are trying to put out the fires and repair the damage until She can be brought to the safe harbor refitted and new officer corp installed on the ship. Then those that were rowing her back to harbor and those keeping up the good fight on board will once again be united and realize they have been on the same team from the beginning .

  26. jacobi says:

    The figures for the Catholic Church in UK as measured by Mass attendance are perhaps worse.

    After all without Mass attendance, all we have is residual tribal “Catholicism”.

    According to research by the Pastoral Research Centre Trust, the number of Catholics attending Mass has fallen to 858,000 in 2012, from 985,000 in 2001, circa -13%, in spite of a large increase in Catholic East European immigrants.

    Two things here.

    1. This represents the degree to which “Catholics” continue to secularise in the post Vatican II period.

    2. The silence, paralysis, ignorance, indifference, consent, or whatever it is, who knows, of bishops, is now a major disgrace and scandal. At best, they are simply not up to their jobs! .

  27. Imrahil says:

    Dear robtbrown,

    and probably also in Europe

    More so, I guess, than in America.

    On the general topic,

    the dear lmgilbert has said it was not a numbers game. He’s right there. The very idea to somehow make one’s positions and beliefs dependent on success measured by followers is appalling. I know that we of today tend not to see that, but being a Catholic and thus free from the slavery to the opinions of my own time (paraphrasing a saying of Chesterton I can’t right now find), let me for once step out into the ivory tower of the abstract thinker (in the sense of “someone who thinks”, not of eminent authority) and declare the very idea of not distinguishing ideas to be stood in for and advertisement to gain followership for what it is, preposterous.

    In this sense, let us be careful not to make the same error backwards.

    They say (I didn’t check it, but let’s accept it at least for argument’s sake) that the Mormons are a quickly growing movement. What does that mean for us? It may, perhaps, mean that we should increase our activities in the missionary area. It does not mean that we should outlaw alcohol, coffee and tea; it does certainly not mean that we should, for instance, replace our teaching of redemption by their teaching of effectively self-redemption.

    Dear Sonshine135,
    I don’t think it is true they intend to destroy the Catholic Church (Fr Fox does not, as far as I see, say so either). They intend to make the Catholic Church renounce what they perceive as her errors in favor of what they perceive as the truth. That is not necessarily less problematic; in fact it’s highly probable it is more problematic; but it does not make them intending to destroy.

    Dear Alanmac,

    from this side of the Atlantic Ocean, I’m quite surprised at two things:
    1. that (as I take you) there is such thing as regular RCIA classes on parish level with even so much as 6 catechumens (I don’t know the numbers but I think we’d have some 30-something diocesanwide, not counting those who come back after having officially left the Church),
    2. that one who has actually gone through adult conversion (which, at least her, is even imagined only by the really religious and will not be done other than by those who really mean it) would quit at all, and then as quickly, and then for – forgive me to say so – as little a reason of true or perceived lack in friendliness of the fellow-members.

  28. Imrahil says:

    On the general topic once again,

    if, as is true, Catholic morality contains (in all the aspects of importance to the practical questions except the Third Commandment) no more obligations than mere natural law, then we should assume that, carefully and popularly explained, we might get applause from the masses.

    As did Our Lord, for the majority of time of his preaching (and healing) in public. In fact, the complaint of the scribes and pharisees was amongst other things: “Hath someone from the Synedrion or the Pharisees come to faith in him? This populace, though, that knoweth not the law – cursed be it.” (John 7)

    It is all well, of course, to say: we should not expect – i. e., take for granted, or despair if not receive – applause. We may be called to Cross and martyrdom. But neither should we expect that only Cross and martyrdom is in store – for one thing because the grand story of success which is Church history speaks against it; for another thing because we’d be tempted to infer that this is because religion and religious morality are sworn enemies of nature and only rationally rejected by men wishing for luck in this world. And only too often you do hear the like from pious people.

    Whereas the Church teaches,
    the Church, whilst directly and immediately aiming at the salvation of souls and the beatitude which is to be attained in heaven, is yet, even in the order of temporal things, the fountain of blessings so numerous and great that they could not have been greater or more numerous had the original purpose of her institution been the pursuit of happiness during the life which is spent on earth. (Leo XIII., Longinqua)

  29. Magash says:

    What we’re talking about here is measuring the rate of active Catholic participation, who is a “practical Catholic” as understood by the Church. Certainly one mark of this is Mass attendance. A self-proclaimed Catholic who is not attending Church regularly (every Sunday and on Holy Days) is not actively practicing Catholicism. All of the polls reflect the fact that Catholics that do not attend Mass also do not adhere to Catholic teaching or live a lifestyle in conformance to Catholic teaching.
    So if we want a measure of how many Catholics are really members of the Church in a meaningful way we need to base our numbers on Church attendance.
    Beyond that catechisis is necessary. That is what the New Evangelization is all about. Too many Catholics who are even regular Church attendees do not know their faith well enough to make informed moral decisions. So we have Catholics who contracept and divorced Catholics who receive Communion. In the first case it happens because they don’t understand the Church’s teaching and in the second because they haven’t even tried to address their problem before the tribunal, not because they know whether or not their their first marriage was valid.
    This is often placed at the feet of the bishop, and he bears some culpability for it, however this is mostly a local problem. If the pastor supports a robust catechetical program, and pours the resources into keeping one going then what I call the Catholic IQ of the perish will increase.
    Part of this is selling to the parish that the parish Church needs to become a major part of the social life of its parishioners. In order to get the adults to catechetical classes and the children to social events the parents and other adults must see the parish as someplace to go at times besides the one hour of Mass on Sunday morning (Saturday evening). This requires others besides the pastor be willing to make the parish a major part of their lifestyle.
    This is hard when parents are juggling other social commitments for their kids and sometimes requires push back against the society. Sometimes this requires push back on the part of the parish staff. I remember one parent that complained if her child had to go to the pre-Confirmation retreat that they would miss practice and their soccer coach would not let them play the next week. The youth minister explained that perhaps the youth and parent needed to decide what was more important to them. Later several parents complained to the league because they were scheduling games on Sunday mornings, primarily because the soccer staff were not practicing Christians and did not want to miss afternoon football games. The parents won mostly because they made it clear they would pull their kids out in the middle of the season rather than let them skip catechisis ( they could have attended Mass on Saturday evening.) They only did this in my opinion because they had the example of the youth minister.
    We started with a single program for adults between the morning Masses. We got a very large turnout. Now we’ve moved to running half a dozen different adult courses each semester, some on Sunday, some on Saturday evening and even a few during the week. Turn out has stayed relatively high and we get new people all the time to replace those who decide to take a semester off. Our young adult group runs their own program and we supplement our regular middle and high school catechesis with bible studies and retreats, as well as the regular pre-Confirmation. I’m not saying all of our parishioners live their faith, but I would say a good deal more of them can articulate what that faith is. I’m sure that translates into more people practicing their faith.

  30. Dave N. says:

    IMO, the numbers from CARA point to a US Catholic Church on the verge of free fall:

    I think anecdotally, this rings true–church and school closings and consolidation across the U.S. As such, the data pretty much blow the premise of gay marriage as the cause of decline out of the water. More likely a general trend toward secularization as has been the case in Western Europe for decades.

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