The rise of “nones“ has left churchmen reeling. Surveys find that a growing number Americans are religiously unaffiliated — that means empty pews and empty offering plates. Catholic bishops recently took to Capitol Hill with a peculiar effort to reverse the decline.
Six bishops held a Mass in a D.C. church and met with lawmakers to urge the House of Representatives to pass immigration reform. Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami preached in a May 29 homily that the United States immigration system is “a stain on the soul of our nation.” Laws “need to be changed” and “solutions proposed should not make the situation worse.”
The former chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration later told media that those who oppose “broad comprehensive immigration reform” commit the sin of the status quo. Wenski decried “enforcement-only policies” as ones that have “not successfully addressed the challenge of illegal immigration.”
In a May 29 post for the Hill, Wenski seemed to close off any debate on the issue. “For the Catholic lawmakers in particular,” Wenski wrote, “there is no longer any moral ambiguity to this question.”
But the good bishop may have spoke too soon. There is no Catholic consensus on what to do about illegal immigration and that might be a good thing. After some of the same bishops on the Hill celebrated a Mass in Nogales, Arizona, just a month earlier, papal biographer George Weigel told EWTN in an April 3 interview that the Mass on the border was a misguided act of “political theater.” What’s more, Weigel said, “it’s not clear to me that the principles behind a Catholic approach to the problem of immigration reform have been well articulated at all.”
That’s about right. I spoke in April with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and a member of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, and asked if he thought borders have any moral meaning. “I don’t know if I quite understand that,” he replied, “but in some fashion borders can be a moral issue in terms of how they’re handled.”
But how border security is “handled” doesn’t seem to be in a bishop’s bailiwick. Prelates and priests ought to minister to immigrants, illegal or otherwise, but they have no moral authority when it comes to the specifics of policy. When Wenski and others try to shut down discussion on a specific policy matter, it gives a whole new meaning to “Catholic guilt.” Good Catholics can disagree about whether to have comprehensive or piecemeal immigration reform and dare not ask their spiritual shepherds for forgiveness when they do.
The bishops’ push for comprehensive immigration reform is curious still because scores of new immigrants from Latino countries probably won’t boost the church’s waning numbers as well as the bishops might think. Bishops are likely hopeful that more immigrants might fill empty pews, but a 2013 survey from the left-leaning Public Religion Research Institute found otherwise. The percentage of Hispanic “nones” has doubled to 12 since 1990. PRRI compared Hispanic adults to their childhood religious affiliations and found that Catholic affiliation drops by 16 percentage points. Similarly, a 2013 Gallup poll reported, “Catholics in the U.S. today are suffering from an identity shortfall among Hispanics younger than the age of 30.”
A recent report from Pew Research Center is perhaps more distressing. Pew found that nearly one-in-four Hispanic adults are former Catholics. That’s a drop of 12 percent since 2010. The ex-Catholic Latinos are either becoming evangelical Protestants or nothing at all. “On average, Hispanic evangelicals — many of whom also identify as either Pentecostal or charismatic Protestants — not only report higher rates of church attendance than Hispanic Catholics but also tend to be more engaged in other religious activities,” Pew found.
Others aren’t so worried. “The sky is not falling,” wrote Mark Gray from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, but “the retention rate and affiliation rate among Hispanic Catholics are indeed declining.” Gray thinks some of the reports on Hispanic Catholics have been “a bit sensationalistic,” but does urge Catholics to “figure out what Hispanic former Catholics are seeking and finding in other churches.”
That’s a challenge especially suited for bishops, but Wenski and others have so far refused. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, president of the bishops conference, seems preoccupied with politics. In a June 5 statement, Kurtz implored “our political leaders to reform our nation’s broken immigration system.”
The bishops’ lobbying hasn’t moved the needle when it comes to Mass attendance, so they might want to get back to evangelizing.