By James McCartin
The last three decades mark an era of kaleidoscopic transformation in U.S. Catholicism. Alongside momentous demographic shifts, major changes in the church’s institutional life, and persistent battles between theological progressives and traditionalists, U.S. Catholics have experienced a profound and lasting crisis of credibility due to clerical sex abuse and its cover-up by church officials. Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States thus operate within a context markedly different from what it looked like when Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, then superior general of the Society of Jesus, called upon leaders in Jesuit higher education to recommit to their “distinctive identity and their special role in the transformation of society.”
Of course, when Kolvenbach issued his charge in 1989, U.S. Catholicism had already entered a period of change. The reform impulse of the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965, continued to provide a keynote in various areas of Catholic life—including in Catholic higher education, where increased lay leadership and a renewed emphasis on lay theological education had been among Vatican II’s fruits. A heightened emphasis on social justice and peace, an outgrowth both of Vatican II and of the era of social and political upheaval associated with the 1960s, likewise served as a hallmark in the 1980s, a decade during which the collective body of U.S. bishops issued historic pastoral letters pointedly criticizing injustices in the U.S. economy and challenging the morality of modern warfare. Father Kolvenbach’s address, which underscored lay responsibility and the practical applications of a “value-oriented” education, was, therefore, very much of its time.
But changes whose implications were just becoming evident in the 1980s eventually altered the U.S. Catholic storyline. Consider some key demographicshifts. In 1989, over 70 percent of U.S. Catholics claimed a Euro-ethnic heritage, and they were largely clustered in the Northeast and Midwest; today, over 40 percent of U.S. Catholics are Hispanic, and the locus of the Catholic population has drifted toward the South and West. Further, 30 years ago, a hefty 10 million Americans self-identified as “former Catholics.” Now, some 30 million adults say they have left the church. It stands to reason, therefore, that over the past three decades the number of annual baptisms has decreased by some 400,000, while instances of church weddings—an important indicator of adult identification as a Catholic—have declined by more than half.
Such data align with major shifts in the church’s institutional presence and leadership. Nearly 9,000 Catholic elementary and secondary schools existed in the United States in 1989, compared to a current total of nearly 6,300. Then, there were some 52,000 priests and 102,000 religious sisters; today, there are some 37,000 priests and 46,000 sisters. About 1,800 Catholic parishes operated without a resident priest in 1989; today, about 3,500 U.S. Catholic communities have no permanently assigned priest. In sum, practicing Catholics today often have a comparatively less persistent and robust experience of engagement with church institutions and consecrated spiritual leaders.
An array of internal factional disputes, generally grounded in divergent interpretations of Vatican II and frequently energized by the culture wars which have fractured the American polity, have been no less important for U.S. Catholicism. While progressives champion ongoing reforms such as women’s ordination and an embrace of LGBT Catholics, traditionalists reject such notions and aim to reinforce older gender hierarchies and models of sexual morality. These divergences have nourished opposing styles of liturgical worship and spiritual practice, and many church-affiliated institutions (including some Catholic colleges and universities) have carefully branded themselves to appeal either to progressives or to traditionalists.
The divisive tenor of recent papacies has not helped: With John Paul II and Benedict XVI, traditionalists attested to a cherished affinity while progressives complained bitterly about their own marginalization; now under Pope Francis, the tables have turned, and the sense of factional division among progressives and traditionalists remains as palpable— and as volatile—as ever. Interestingly, researchers have found that, especially among younger cohorts, bitter internecine warfare has heightened alienation from the church and has weakened their sense of religious affiliation.
Yet nothing has produced more alienation, anger, disappointment, distrust, and cynicism among Catholics—and nothing in recent history has so altered the future trajectory of U.S. Catholicism—than the clerical sexual abuse crisis. The tip of the iceberg came into view during a nationally covered trial in 1985, when Gilbert Gauthe, a Louisiana-based priest, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 11 boys. But the stunning reach of the sexual abuse of minors, along with its systematic cover-up by bishops and religious superiors, would begin to come to light only in 2002, when Boston became Ground Zero for a narrative of sexual predation and misuse of authority that soon engulfed Catholic communities across the United States and around the world. In the wake of the August 2018 release of a shocking Pennsylvania grand jury report on decades of clerical sex abuse, it seems that, finally, a number of bishops may be held to some account by church and government authorities for their significant roles in the sex abuse crisis. Likewise, Pope Francis’ recent expulsion of the highly influential archbishop, Theodore McCarrick, from the College of Cardinals after credible accusations of abuse may signal a new day in terms of episcopal accountability. But much as Vatican II framed the narrative for U.S. Catholicism in the decades after its conclusion, clerical sexual abuse has supplied the dominant note in U.S. Catholicism for nearly two decades now—and no clear end is in sight. As periodic waves of revelation and outrage continue to crash, alienation and exodus from the church will remain powerful themes in U.S. Catholic life for the foreseeable future.
Amid all these developments, Catholic colleges and universities have remained a relatively stable, even robust, element of U.S. Catholicism. In 1989, 228 Catholic colleges and universities shared a combined enrollment of 619,000 students; today, 225 institutions serve 765,000. Indeed, over the past three decades the majority of these institutions have endeavored to advance a more conscious, articulate, and integrated sense of their Catholic identity and mission. Of course, these developments belie the enormous challenges, which for some Catholic institutions are nothing short of existential, in U.S. higher education today. But one heartening takeaway for Jesuit colleges and universities is that, despite the atmosphere of profound disaffection, their reputations remain strong, and they still represent valued sources of spiritual and moral authority in today’s world, no less in need of transformation than it was in 1989.
James P. McCartin, a former member of the National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education, is a historian of U.S. Catholicism and an associate professor of theology at Fordham University, where he also leads a mission based faculty development program.
The cover photo is featured courtesy of Patrick Brosset of the Flickr Creative Commons.