When Catholics Lose Their Faith
Disaffiliation, once broadly stigmatized in terms of “lapsing” and “falling away,” is now a regular feature of the U.S. Catholic landscape, according to Fordham University faculty members Tom Beaudoin (pictured) and Patrick Hornbeck who will deliver a free, public lecture on Wednesday, March 20, 2013, at 8 p.m. The two prominent theologians discuss what the new pope needs to know, whether young people will come back to the Church, and what they refer to as “Deconversion.”
Q: Deconversion and disaffiliation seem to be problems of the Catholic Church in the northern hemisphere. Do you think a pope from the south (Latin America, Africa, Asia) would be able to address these issues?
Tom Beaudoin and Patrick Hornbeck: One difference between the pressures affecting northern and western Catholicism, versus the Catholicism of the global south, is that in the north and west, many people who disaffiliate from the Catholic Church adopt secular, atheistic, and non-religious stances, without much in the way of social cost or stigma. In the global south, Catholicism is in much clearer competition with other forms of Christianity, especially evangelical and Pentecostal forms of Christianity, and thus the trajectories along which people disaffiliate and deconvert are likely to be different. Just as a northern pope might misunderstand and miscommunicate with the global south, so also might a pope from the north be unable to speak to those Catholics considering or drifting toward more secular forms of life.
Q: Are [disaffiliation and deconversion] an “Anglo” problem or is it also present among first and second generation Hispanics?
Beaudoin and Hornbeck: Changes in religious affiliation are present in Latino/a communities just as they are among Anglos, although we believe that the catalysts for change and the forms that disaffiliation and deconversion take are different between the two groups. A 2007 study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that 51% of Latino/a evangelicals are converts from another tradition, and more than four-fifths of these are former Roman Catholics. Nearly two-thirds of secular Latino/as are former Catholics. While a smaller percentage of Latino/as than Anglos have changed their religious tradition over the course of their lives, it would be wrong to say that disaffiliation and deconversion are primarily Anglo phenomena. We hope to learn more about the cultural specificity of different forms of disaffiliation and deconversion as our research continues.
Q: Young people have always drifted away from the church for a time. What’s different this time around, or do you imagine they will be back when they marry?
Beaudoin and Hornbeck: What’s different is that living as what sociologists call a religious “none” (i.e., someone who answers that s/he practices no particular religion) is now an acceptable and widespread option for younger Americans. In 2010, 16% of Americans reported no religious preference (versus 2% in 1950); among persons aged 18-29, the figure was 32%, and nearly 25% among persons aged 30-39. Living without reference to the practice of a single religious tradition is now a fully “live”, and in many ways, attractive option, far from the socially stigmatized option it was in earlier decades.
Q: What does the new pope need to know to begin to speak with credibility to the “church of the ex-Catholics”?
Beaudoin and Hornbeck: He (or she) might profit by taking public stances that show spiritual-intellectual humility, a penchant for dialogue, a curiosity about and engagement with other denominations and other religions as well as agnostics and atheists, a special attention to recognizing and elevating women as church leaders. The pope might need to know how to talk about his/her own struggles to make sense of what is true in a global, pluralistic world. Most of all, the pope needs to know the history of Christianity as the startlingly diverse and unruly history that it is – much like the Catholicism of the present. This knowledge might give the new pope a sensitivity to the spectrum of Catholic identities that identities that people inhabit today.