Title: Can organized religion hold onto its members?
Consider this headline from a few weeks ago: “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time.”
Here in the Bible Belt, the headline may be hard to believe, but allow me to present my case for the Gallup polling data being pretty accurate. In short, it is because of the politicization and weaponization of religion combined with heavy doses of rigidity and hypocrisy.
For example, back in the 1970s, when evidence began to emerge that for decades the Catholic Church had covered up priests’ sexual abuse of minors, I reassured myself that our church leaders would address the problem head-on. As shepherds of Jesus’ flock, they could not do anything less.
I was wrong. The number of revelations grew, and so did the news reports revealing that year after year, church leaders had lied, misled or been willfully blind to the burgeoning scandal of clergy sex abuse. Moreover, instead of worrying about the lifelong effects of the abuse on victims, some bishops had focused on protecting their dioceses’ reputations and, especially, their finances.
Nevertheless, over the ensuing months and years, I and other Catholics focused on the role of the church as a living link between God and humanity. Surely, we thought, its leadership would confront and excise the cancer within.
We were correct in some cases and wrong in others. It seemed as though for every positive story about heightened protections, there was a negative story about dioceses transferring abusive priests while quietly shifting ownership of assets in order to protect church coffers from victims’ lawsuits. And with those negative stories, there were church leaders who strongly implied that it was wrong to criticize the church in public.