Philip Jenkins begins his book: The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, with these words: “Religions die.” It seems that one could write a similar book right now about Catholicism in New England.
In the 19th century, Protestants began to call New England the “burnt over district”. That was because after a series of intense religious revivals in the 18th and early 19th century, New Englanders had became famously resistant to religious enthusiasm. It was right about that time that the vast Irish immigration to America, especially to New England, began to transform the region into a Catholic bastion. But no longer. There were a number of alarming stories that came out last year about how New England had nosed out the Pacific Northwest as the least religious part of the US.
Nevertheless, I was startled to come cross a blog post this morning about a dramatic decrease in the number of self-identified Catholics in Vermont.
"Recent numbers are showing that the Church has lost roughly twenty percent of its membership in Vermont over the past 5 years. Before Pope Benedict took over the papacy, Vermont had 149,000 Catholics, but five years later, they are reporting that they have 118,000. The Catholic Church in Vermont is also facing major problems with a severe drop in the number of priests. In 1975, there were 274 priests, but in 2005, there were only 81. It is expected that, by 2015, there will be only 55 priests in Vermont."
The blogger, who had a personal agenda, came to an easy conclusion – the cause of these losses were the Church’s sexual teachings. But the numbers were so specific that I went nosing about the internet, looking for confirmation and their source. I didn’t find it but I did find other sources that confirmed the same basic trend.
A US News and World Report story on "Non-Religious America" from 2009:
. . .in northeastern states like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, the "no religion" group has surged even more dramatically, shooting up 300 percent in the last 20 years and now accounting for a quarter or more of the population. . .
The Trinity College report, called the American Religious Identification Survey, finds that 60 percent of the nonreligious are men. They tend to be young, accounting for one in every three American adults under age 35. According to Trinity College Professor Barry Kosmin, a large chunk have baby boomer parents who came of age in the 1960s and wound up rejecting religion.
And Kosmin says that many of the 750,000 additional American adults who each year identify as having "no religion" are reacting to what he calls the "triumphalism and judgementalism of the Christian right."
A full quarter of those identifying as "no religion" in the Trinity College report are former Catholics, many of whom were turned off by the church sex abuse scandals of the past decade.
"Despite the population growth, New England has lost 1 million Catholics" in the last decade, says Kosmin. "The trend in the Catholic Church has been obscured by the large number of people from Latin America who've filled the pews as the Irish Americans left them."
Hey, but cheer up. The good news is that we are not alone.
“Other religious traditions feeding the "no religion" boom are Judaism and Asian religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. While people who leave mainline Protestant churches often find new spiritual homes in evangelical or nondenominational megachurches, the Trinity survey shows that former Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus are much more likely to abandon religion altogether. Nearly half of "no religion" Americans come from Irish, Jewish, or Asian backgrounds.
Is this the death knell of Irish American cradle Catholicism? Or is this too gloomy a conclusion? Can these trends be reversed? What do you think?