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St. Louis Has Fewer Catholics But Does That Signal Decline?

(via Flickr/Scuddr)
Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis

Institutional religions are losing members to those who claim to be “unaffiliated,” people who are often religious or spiritual in some way but don’t belong to an institution. Nearly one in five of U.S. adults are “unaffiliated” according to the Pew Research Center.

Pew experts say Catholicism is taking the biggest hit with this movement. While nearly one in three Americans were raised Catholic, today fewer than one-in-four describe themselves that way.

This trend isn’t just national. Cliff Grammich, research associate for the Glenmary Research Center who also conducted research for the Association of Religion Data Archives, says the decline can be seen in St. Louis.

“All together in the St. Louis metropolitan area we found about 555,000 persons associated with the Catholic Church in 2010, that was a decrease of about 100,000 from our previous study in the year 2000,” said Grammich.

However, Grammich added that the Catholic Church was one of several institutional churches that lost members in St. Louis, perhaps because of the “unaffiliated” trend.

The Rev. Chris Collins, assistant professor of systematic theology at Saint Louis University, says the Catholic Church isn’t losing people entirely; people just shift over time.

“It is not necessarily loss, it is shifting around from one denomination to another … in part it is an American phenomenon,” Collins said.

Collins said the melting pot of religions in America makes it easy to switch religious affiliations but he thinks people are no less spiritual. Collins maintains over the long haul, Catholics have not been declining.

“The percentage of Catholics, as a percentage of the American population, has stayed the same for about 30 years, about 25 percent,” Collins said.

Grammich agreed that it’s possible Catholics may not be in overall decline across the U.S., and added Catholics in St. Louis are seeing “a little more loss than has been incurring nationwide.”

People Leaving The Church

Whether the Catholic Church is in decline or not can be debated, but there is no question that many in the U.S. are leaving the Church.  The National Catholic Reporter tells us one in 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. In fact, if former Catholics were counted as their own religious group, they would be the third-largest denomination in the United States.

We asked local St. Louisans some of the reasons they left the Church.

Leslie: I was a devout Catholic my entire life.  I sent my kids to Catholic schools, and rarely missed mass.  But, when I met the love of my life at age 49, it all changed because we were both divorced Catholics. This happened about the same time as the priest sex scandal and the Catholic Church refusal to pay for contraceptives for their employees.  Paul: I left Catholicism because of the church policies regarding homosexuality, reproductive rights, and other social issues. When I began to question and struggle with issues of faith, especially the dogmas of the Catholic Church, I found that faith was no longer able to dominate belief and my personal experiences and the predictive truth of science. Steve: I am no longer a member of the Roman Catholic Church. To an extent, I admire those who have a deep faith and trust in Jesus and the Catholic way. However, I began questioning Catholic beliefs and doctrine while in grade school. The infallibility of the Popes, the mercy and omnipotence of god, the limitations imposed on women by the church, and why we exist are among the issues I struggled with then and now. I don't believe the answers, if any exist, are the exclusive property of one religion.

Addressing The Issues

Some of the current issues facing the Catholic Church include clergy sex abuse, the status of women and its stance on homosexuality.

Addressing clergy sex abuse, Collins agreed it is “a deep wound in the life of the Church,” but pointed out that people are mostly happy with their local clergy and it is just a relatively small number of cases nationally that has harmed the Church.

The other two issues have been associated with becoming more modern and adapting to a changing culture, but Collins doesn’t think that is the answer.

“Look at denominations that have been very modern in adapting to every new movement within the culture, and those are exactly the denominations in the greatest need, the greatest decline,” said Collins.

Jennifer Reyes-Lay is part of a growing faction in St. Louis of former Catholics who have left the Roman Catholic Church and pursued independent Catholic churches.

Reyes-Lay found an independent church, the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which has the same traditions, sacraments, and traditions as the Roman Catholic Church, but addressed some of the issues discussed above.

“We have women priests, we have married clergy, we celebrate homosexual unions, all our welcome regardless of sexual orientation,” said Reyes-Lay.

Reyes-Lay emphasized the welcoming nature of her independent church was something she didn’t find in the Roman Catholic Church.

“It comes down to feeling welcomed or not, and unfortunately for me and for many other Roman Catholics, for different reasons we didn’t feel welcomed,” said Reyes-Lay.

Collins says those stories are “tough to hear” when people say they didn’t feel welcomed and although the moral laws and doctrines are important, they shouldn’t be the focus.

Collins emphasized one of Pope Benedict’s main messages was that Christianity is not primarily about the doctrines to follow.

It is about “a person, Jesus Christ, who offers love, who offers the mercy of God, and it is about having an encounter with him and also having an encounter with other people of faith, that is the heart of all of it,” said Collins.

Editorial Note: The Archdiocese of St. Louis declined to be on the program, citing an informal request by St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Jimmie Edwards to not talk to the media ahead of a local sex abuse case that begins on Monday. 

Editorial Note: This post was updated to reflect Cliff Grammich's affiliation with the Glenmary Research Center.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer with assistance from Kyle Jacoby. It is hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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