Now that the mourning for John Paul II has ended and he has been laid to rest in St. Peter’s, it is time to consider the state of the church he led for 27 years. For, despite his extraordinary life, his holiness and his critical role in bringing an end to communist rule in Eastern Europe, the condition of the church is grave.
Two years ago, Kenneth C. Jones of St. Louis pulled together a slim book he titled “Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: The Church Since Vatican II.” As that church council ended 40 years ago this year, what good fruit did it bear? Since 1965:
- The number of Catholic priests has fallen from 58,000 to 45,000. By 2020, there will be 31,000 and half will be over 70.
- In 1965, 1,575 new priests were ordained. In 2002, the number was 450. Some 3,000 parishes are today without priests.
- Between 1965 and 2002, the number of seminarians fell from 49,999 to 4,700, a decline of over 90 percent. Two-thirds of the seminaries open in 1965 have since closed their doors.
- The number of Catholic nuns, 180,000 in 1965, has fallen by 60 percent. Their average age is now 68. The number of teaching nuns has fallen 94 percent since the close of Vatican II.
- The number of young men studying to be Jesuits has fallen by 90 percent and of those studying to be Christian Brothers by 99 percent. The religious orders seem to be dying out in America.
- Almost half the Catholic high schools open in 1965 have closed. There were 4.5 million students in Catholic schools in the mid-1960s. Today, there is about half that number.
- Only 10 percent of lay religious teachers in 2002 accepted church teaching on contraception, 53 percent believed a Catholic woman could get an abortion and remain a good Catholic, 65 percent said Catholics have a right to divorce and remarry, and in a New York Times poll, 70 percent of Catholics ages 18 to 54 said they believed the Holy Eucharist was but a “symbolic reminder” of Jesus.
- Where three in four Catholics attended mass on Sunday in 1958, today one in four do.
All this happened during the papacies of Paul VI and John Paul II. Now let us look back to the 35 years previous to the end of Vatican II, from 1930-1965, where the dominant pope was Pius XII, the “Catholic Moment” in America.
In that period, the number of Catholics and priests in America doubled. The most visible prelate was not Cardinal Law, but Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, whose TV ratings bested those of Milton Berle, who cracked, “He has better writers than I do.” Parochial schools and Catholic high schools could not be built fast enough to accommodate the baby boomers of Catholic parents. Masses were full on Sundays, and there were long lines outside the confessionals on Saturday.
The papacy of Pius XII was a time of explosive growth in the church, while that of John Paul II coincided with Catholic scandal and decline. Was the Holy Father responsible for the latter? No, but it is regrettably true that the decline that began at the close of Vatican II continued unabated through the papacy of John Paul II. Conceding his sanctity and charisma, he was unable to stop it.
But what was the cause of it? Defenders of Vatican II say that blaming the council “reforms” they cherish for the decline in vocations and devotion is a classic case of the logical fallacy, “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” After this, therefore, because of this.
Simply because a precipitous Catholic decline began with Vatican II does not mean Vatican II was the cause, they contend. Perhaps not. But there is no question but that – measuring what the council produced against what Catholics were promised – it was, in Jimmy Carter’s phrase, “a limited success.” Neither Paul VI nor John Paul II was able to arrest the spread of heresy, defections and disbelief that followed the Second Vatican Council.
While the church has maintained her numerical strength in America, this is due only to immigration. As one Chicago priest said, each week he buries a Lithuanian or Polish Catholic – and baptizes two Hispanic babies.
What happened to Catholicism is what happened to America. Both passed through a moral, social and cultural revolution that has altered the most basic beliefs of men and women. There has been a “transvaluation of all values.” What was considered scandalous or immoral not long ago – promiscuity, abortion, homosexuality – is now considered progressive. It says everything about our age that, were a judicial nominee in America to echo the views of John Paul II on human life, the Democratic Senate would unanimously filibuster his nomination to death and denounce him as an extremist.
With much of the church having succumbed to the heresy of modernism, it needs an Athanasius. As good a man as the pope was, as great as were his achievements, as noble as was his witness for life, the Catholic Church still awaits that bishop.