Peter Steinfels is grieving the loss of adherents to Catholicism today in Commonweal. This analysis is fairly spot-on:

Most of us base our impressions (GG editor’s note: of disaffected Catholics) on our networks of family, friends, fellow worshipers, students, and colleagues—or on news sources that rely, at best, on a few experts and church officials, who in turn have their own networks and may or may not be finding what they want to find. The problem with our personal experience and networks—and this goes for the media too—is of course what the sociologists call “sampling error.” Last summer, for example, conservative Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in the Atlantic that “for millions in Europe and America,” Catholicism is “finished”—“permanently associated with sexual scandal, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The word “finished” evidently struck a nerve. Many commentators on blogs, apart from the predictably querulous or bitter, poignantly described how for themselves or family members a once-strong Catholic faith was reaching some point of no return.

What resonated for me personally was the overall note of grieving. Having written a book about the future of the whole Catholic Church in the United States (A People Adrift), I have increasingly come to narrow my sights. These days I think about that future in terms of my two grandsons, ages ten and seven, the children of Ivy League–educated parents, one Catholic and the other a thoughtful nonbeliever. Sociologically, the track record for successfully passing on the faith in these circumstances is not the best, to say nothing of my own shortcomings as a parent or grandparent. But month after month, year after year, I also see decisions (but mostly nondecisions) by Catholic leaders steadily reducing even further the chances that the faith will be the central reality and priceless blessing in my grandsons’ lives that it was in mine and my wife’s. I realize that I am grieving.

I too grieve for those who leave the church. I rejoice when they return as well. What exactly though are we grieving?

Are we grieving the loss of their gifts and talents in our community? Are we grieving because we think they are lost souls? Are we grieving because they have been hurt by some aspect of the church, be it an official teaching or a more personal experience with a cleric? Do we grieve because quite frankly many of those “in house” screwed up royally?

What part of our church is in need of healing? What opportunity do we have to look internally at what causes rifts and not simply bury our head in the sand with a “take us or leave us” attitude?

A final thought: What part of this has to do more with the evolution of a post-modern individualistic culture than anything else? People are “Bowling Alone” to steal a line from the famed sociologist Robert Putnam. Communities are always a reference point anymore when discernment comes up for people. They can just as easily reference a few trusted sources online and come to a conclusion on their own. The danger here is never having our own thoughts criticized and opened up further by others. Social networking often serves as a mini-panacea for the lack of “group think” but what of group prayer, ritual and the gathering of the two or three in the name of Jesus?

It seems to me that we have a much larger problem than people leaving because they are pissed off at the church. We have a church unable to meet people where they are. To talk candidly and publicly about what we teach and our intellectual tradition and the dangers of fundamentalism.

We are at risk of the re-ghettoization of the Catholic minority.

A final quick story: In a NYC elevator a friend spoke of her Jewish tradition which provoked a conversation about the religiousness of the other passengers in the elevator–trusted colleagues all.

“Well I’m Episcopalian.” said one.

Another Jew stated his Reformed Jewish status.

Finally, a Catholic quipped, “Well, I’m Catholic….non-practicing, of course.”

The last passenger wondered why, felt her face get flush and hoped to God that the elevator doors immediately opened. They did and out she rushed without a confession. Too afraid of being ostracized for being a (gasp!) practicer of Catholicism.

I think that mentality of embarrassment is far more prevalent than we think. Even those of us in the club often fear bringing up our faith because we just don’t have enough energy to defend the stupidity of bishop’s decisons, the media’s characterization of us as freakish and the lack of creativity in the average parish. Some, myself included, are bold enough to at least articulate what belonging really means to us. But for many of the young, simply put, they just can’t bother and don’t have the time it would take to unpack the baggage that’s been lugged around by too many for too long.

Steinfels notes that the Bishops have a lot on their plate at their November meeting. Perhaps they should dump their agendas and think about this for a few days first before the majority of the church even seems, to use Steinfels words, further adrift?

Your thoughts? Do you find family and friends hostile or indifferent to the church? Leaving? Happy? What’s your experience?