With roughly 68.5 million members, the largest single Christian denomination in the United States is Roman Catholicism.
The third largest group, if it were a denomination unto itself, would be ex-Catholics.
In response to a net loss of roughly 20 million members over the last few decades, the Catholic Church has launched the New Evangelization movement, a comprehensive effort to reach out to members who have become alienated from the faith.
On April 20, Fordham’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE) hosted a daylong conference, “Taking It to the Streets: The New Evangelization,” which examined the movement’s efforts to revitalize the Catholic community.
The Most Rev. Frank J. Caggiano, S.T.D., vicar general and moderator of the curia in the Diocese of Brooklyn, said the key to reversing the decline is to evangelize—or, proclaim the good news—in a way that makes people feel welcomed. In his keynote address, “The New Evangelization: Our Journey Home,” Bishop Caggiano said that the church community should be like a home to parishioners.
“The image of home is at the heart of all we do in the New Evangelization,” he said. “The image conjures up… welcoming and belonging, a place of community, of relationships, of love, and also a place where we are nourished.”
Many Catholics no longer feel welcomed, he said, sensing a disconnection between their own lived experiences and what they hear at Sunday Mass. As a result, church leaders must find new ways to engage with contemporary parishioners.
“A growing number of individuals do not find the proclamation of the community to be credible—and that’s the great challenge in the New Evangelization,” he said. “The content is the same, but the context has changed. So the New Evangelization is about making the content available in this new context.”
In his presentation, “Changing Their Minds About the Faith and the Church: Why Are So Many Catholics Opting Out,” Tom Beaudoin, Ph.D., associate professor of theology at GRE, illuminated the staggering statistics that precipitated the New Evangelization.
Beaudoin and J. Patrick Hornbeck, D.Phil., assistant professor of theology, are concluding a study funded by The Louisville Institute on why so many Catholics are either leaving the religion or radically redefining their beliefs—in a word, “de-converting.” Since 2011, the team has collected more than 300 survey responses and interviewed dozens of people on why and how their relationship to Catholicism has shifted.
“Deconversion is changing one’s faith-mind—that is, beliefs and/or practices—in relationship to normative, or official, Catholicism,” Beaudoin said. “According to this definition, you can deconvert and be out the door, or you can deconvert and stay, even go to Mass every week.”
The team found certain themes among the participants’ reasons for distancing themselves from Catholicism. First, participants said that the church has failed to modernize, and thus cannot respond to the challenges that modern Catholics face. Second, many participants say church rituals are prosaic. Third, participants cited detrimental relationships with church leaders or communities.
Beaudoin added that an overall cultural shift has also prompted many deconversions—not only within Catholicism but in other religions as well.
“The cultural landscape is changing profoundly about religious identity itself,” he said. “People are feeling more agency about religious identity, and they’re also trying to find a way on the ground to make sense of the fact that they live in a religiously pluralistic world. They want to take what’s good from the many things they’re learning. In general, they don’t feel that they have to be in church all the time to be a good Catholic, or a good Methodist, or otherwise in the mainline.”
A deeper understanding of the data is critical for any work within the New Evangelization movement, Beaudoin said. Moreover, church leaders must cultivate a curiosity about deconversion, rather than a condemnation.
“What is sacred for people in real life, and why are those things sacred?” he said. “For me, that’s got to be part of the New Evangelization.”
Other presentations included:
- C. Colt Anderson, Ph.D., dean of GRE, “A New Rhetoric for the New Evangelization”;
- Claudio M. Burgaleta, S.J., associate professor at GRE, “Four Popes and the New Evangelization”;
- Harold “Bud” Horell, Ph.D., assistant professor of religious education, “The Challenges of Evangelization and Two Views of Catechesis”; and
- Monsignor Michael Hull, S.T.D., pastor of the Church of the Guardian Angel in the Chelsea section of New York City, “What’s the Good News about the New Evangelization?”