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By now, nearly everyone has heard the statistics. From the end of Vatican II in 1965 to the present, the American Catholic Church has experienced dramatic drops in attendance at Sunday Mass, per capita contributions, the number of Catholic elementary and secondary schools, the population of priests and nuns, enrollment in seminaries and religious orders, the circulation of Catholic periodicals. Many Catholic colleges and universities, it is true, have held their own and even prospered, but their success has come in many cases at the price of watering down their distinctively Catholic character.

By now, nearly everyone has heard as well what may be called “the liberal agenda for Catholic reform”: married priests, female priests, semi-popular election of bishops, democratization of church authority, relative autonomy for national churches, a downgrading of papal authority, frequent ecumenical councils or synods, greater tolerance for theological dissent, total repeal of the ban on contraception, a moral code more flexible about abortion, homosexuality, and premarital sex. The reformers consistently claim that adoption of their agenda will reverse the decline of American Catholicism, filling the pews with faithful laity and filling the seminaries with faithful priests.

What these reform proposals boil down to is: a call to Protestantize the American Catholic Church”or, to put it more precisely, a call to transform the Catholic Church so that it resembles the liberal or mainline Protestant churches. The fact remains, however, that anyone who imagines such a transformation will improve Catholic numbers has paid no attention to the mainline churches, whose statistics have been discouraging for a long time and are getting worse. They are so bad, in fact, that we may be living through an era that, in retrospect, will have to be described as the age of the disintegration of mainline Protestantism.

The liberal reform proposals are based on the rather odd notion that what liberal Catholics prefer, Catholics in general prefer. If the history and current status of the mainline Protestant churches teach us anything, they teach us that a Catholic Church reformed according to a liberal Protestant model would prove unappealing to everyone except the reformers themselves and the small number who share their rather specialized ecclesiastical sensibility.

Sociologists of religion conventionally distinguish three forms of organized religion: the church , the sect , and the denomination . Some religions offer pure examples of one of these three types, but often they change with time, drifting from one type to another. As a result, many religions turn out to be mixed, a combination of two and sometimes all three types.

The development of this sociological typology began nearly a century ago with certain German scholars”notably Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch”who were studying the Reformation. They found they had to make a distinction between two radically different forms of Protestantism. On the one hand were those religions”like the Church of England or the Lutheran Church in northern Germany”organized on a territorial basis with the premise that everyone ought to be a member of the body politic’s official church. On the other hand were those religions”like the Baptists, Quakers, or Mennonites-organized on a “gathered” basis where membership was voluntary, not automatic, and where only the “elect” belonged, not the entire population of the realm. Troeltsch and Weber assigned the term “church” to the territorial religions and “sect” to the gathered religions.

It turns out, however, that church and sect differ in more than how they get their members. Churches are large, embracing at their limit all members of a society, while sects are small. Churches tend to be strongly ritualistic, while sects downplay ritualism. Churches emphasize hierarchical authority, drawing a sharp distinction between clergy and laity, while sects are more democratic, de-emphasizing the clergy/laity distinction. Churches prefer centralization, sects congregational autonomy. Churches run to ornate buildings, sects to simplicity. Sects emphasize the subjective side of religion, especially the cultivation of strong religious feelings, while churches are wary of emotional religion. Sects have a strong sense of in-group solidarity that is far weaker in churches. Sects draw a sharp distinction between themselves and the outside world”a distinction churches can hardly be expected to draw since their members include the whole social world. The average sectarian takes religion far more seriously than does the average church member, a difference in psychological investment that is reflected in the far higher levels of time and money contributed by sectarians.

When sociologists tried to apply in America this distinction between churches and sects, they found it an imperfect fit. There are plenty of sects in the United States: this country has been the world’s greatest breeding ground of Protestant sects. But there is no American church, if only because no American religion ever embraced a majority of Americans. A further conceptual problem, however, is that the United States”and, increasingly, other parts of the world”have a third form of religion, neither church nor sect. This third form, whatever resemblances it has to the other two, differs from them in the quite fundamental respect of tolerance.

Both church and sect claim to be the sole true religion. They teach their members that outside their particular religion there is no salvation, or at least that outside their religion the road to salvation is much steeper and rockier. God, they contend, does not agree with the great American religious slogan of the 1950s: “Attend the church of your choice.” Instead God’s slogan is: “Attend the church of My choice.” Churches and sects tend equally to religious intolerance. For centuries churches translated this intolerance into religious persecution, while sects have often championed religious freedom; but this is largely because sects were never strong enough to persecute others, and if they meant to have freedom for themselves they would have to insist on freedom for all. If churches no longer persecute and sects rarely or never did, this is not because they now regard all religions as equally meritorious. While not legally intolerant, they remain “intolerant” and “judgmental” at the level of extra-legal evaluation.

By contrast, American “third form” religions are marked by high levels of tolerance. The attitude typical of their members is something like this: “It is good to have a religion. We happen to prefer ours, but we think it’s fine that you prefer yours. The important thing is that we honor God, not what building we use when giving this honor.” These third-form religions are called “denominations,” and the denominational attitude has long flourished among members of the so-called mainline churches: Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, etc.

For a long time American Catholics stood outside this circle of genial tolerance. Catholicism clung to its “first form” habit of mind, insisting that it was the one true church”which was viewed by otherwise tolerant Protestants as unmannerly at best and dangerous at worst. But with time Catholics softened and Protestants mellowed. In the 1960s, with the election of John Kennedy, the coming of Vatican II, and the disappearance of the Catholic ghetto, the mutual suspicions of Catholics and mainline Protestants largely evaporated. Catholics entered the hitherto all-Protestant circle of interdenominational tolerance.

In other words, American Catholicism, which had striven to be a church in a society that had no room for churches, had become a denomination. This is not to say that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a formal statement in which they renounced their claim to belong to the one true church. But denominationalism is a matter more of practice and attitude than of credal formulas. For the last quarter century Catholics, both clerical and lay, have tended to think and act as though Catholicism is simply the biggest of America’s many denominations.

Barring an unlikely conversion of all Americans to Catholicism, the Catholic Church can never become the church in this country. For better or worse, the United States has always been and likely always will be a nation of incorrigible religious pluralism.

Neither can the American Catholic Church become a sect, for the simple reason that the sectarian religious style is completely alien to Catholicism. It is true that during its long exclusion from the American mainstream, Catholicism took on such traits of sectarianism as enhanced solidarity and suspicion of outsiders. But these feelings were never as strong as those in a genuine sect. A “quasi-ghetto” response is the one Catholicism typically makes in social situations where the powers that be are experienced as alien and hostile: British-ruled Ireland and Communist-ruled Poland are other examples. In the absence of an anti-Catholic political or social regime, it is virtually impossible for American Catholicism to regain even the limited sectarian traits it had under the old Protestant establishment.

Here is the great Catholic problem: if the Catholic Church in America cannot be a church, and will not be a sect, it must settle for a denomination. The trouble is that denominationalism is inherently unstable: Almost from its inception it enters into a state of decline that eventually becomes precipitous, leading to something like full disintegration. The history of denominationalism in America is a history of decline. At first the denomination begins a relative decline, shrinking as a percentage of the population. Eventually this becomes an absolute decline in numbers, a phenomenon that has hit nearly all mainline Protestant denominations in the last thirty years. And if this absolute decline cannot be arrested, it finally turns into a rout.

The reasons for this pattern of decline are debatable, but the fact of it is not. A vivid illustration is the transformation of the Methodists from sect to denomination. Beginning as a sect in the eighteenth century and remaining one through much of the nineteenth, the Methodists entered a golden age of growth and expansion. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, they began to shake off their old sectarian narrowness in order to “progress” to denominationalism. In the course of the next century, Methodism became a thoroughgoing denomination. The price for “going mainline” has been numerical decline, at first a relative decline and then, since the 1960s, a reduction in absolute numbers.

There is at least some relation between denominational decline and social class. The denominational style seems more congenial to those with somewhat higher levels of education, occupation, and income, while the sectarian style suits those of lower social rank. When families rise from lower to higher social rank (a common phenomenon in sectarianism, with its typically strict moral code and strong in-group support), the upgrading causes later generations to feel uncomfortable with their religion’s sectarian style, and they demand a shift to something more denominational. And the more socially and economically successful they become, the more denominational they insist their religion be. The result, not surprisingly, is decline. America’s higher social classes are generally “moderate” in religious style, not “enthusiastic.” The moderate denominations, considering zeal a sign of social vulgarity, tend not to spread the faith through missionary activity; they will not even make hearty efforts to instill the faith in their own children. By contrast, the enthusiastic sects, full of zeal, spare no efforts in proselytizing both their own children and the world at large.

The latitudinarian spirit of tolerance that lies at the heart of denominationalism is fatal in the long run, for the tolerant find it difficult to halt their nonjudgmentalism short of disaster. The denominationalists begin by being broadly tolerant of other religions, which makes it difficult to be enthusiastic for their own. They typically move to being broadly tolerant of unorthodox views and practices within their own religion: If “heresy” is fine in other religions, how can it be condemned at home? Finally, denominationalists become tolerant of views and practices that are quite nonreligious and even antireligious. If all religions are equally meritorious and all heresies equally tolerable, then approval cannot be withheld from beliefs that are hardly religious at all”beliefs that lie far closer to the regions of agnosticism and atheism than to the regions of orthodox Christianity. And how then can a line be drawn between religion in general and irreligion, insisting that those who fall on the wrong side of the line are outside the pale of respectability?

There is something attractive in this tolerance”for those who are intellectually curious and temperamentally cosmopolitan, something very attractive indeed. But it is no way to make religions numerically prosperous. And even on its own terms there turns out to be something peculiar about this tolerance in actual practice. The denominational mentality in full bloom seems tolerant of nearly everything except the sectarians. Liberal Protestants and liberal Catholics alike tend to be more open to outright secularism than to sectarian Protestantism; and the more liberal the Protestant or Catholic in question, the more true this is. The secularist is regarded as an ally in a great struggle for maximum tolerance and mutual respect, while the sectarian is viewed as a misguided and often perverse enemy.

Having embraced denominationalism, American Catholicism has begun to mirror the decline we have seen over and over again in the mainline Protestant churches. And since an escape from denominationalism is unknown in American history, the decline appears to be irreversible.

As both a Catholic and an American, however, I am reluctant to accept this conclusion. And there are in fact four reasons for being somewhat more optimistic about the long-term future of Catholicism in the United States.

The first reason lies in the fact that we have already seen the effect of the Protestant denominational experience. When the more liberal Protestant churches started on the denominational high road in the nineteenth century, it was with no intention of weakening their essential Christian content. Quite the opposite, they hoped to become more purely Christian than ever: on the one hand, purging the faith of sectarian excrescences while retaining the pure core of Christian doctrine; and on the other fulfilling the gospel injunction “that all may be one” (an ideal sectarians seemed to care little about). It is easy enough to see now that the logic of denominationalism gradually drains the Christianity out of Christian churches and empties church pews. But this is no proof that the old champions of denominationalism were either fools or anti-Christians. All it proves is that people of good will make mistakes when not in possession of infallible crystal balls.

But American Catholicism does not need crystal balls. All it needs is an awareness of the history of denominational Protestantism. Since liberal Protestants have already tried the experiment, there is no need for Catholics to repeat it. If Catholics are neither fools nor anti-Christians, they will avoid carrying their religion’s current denominational tendency through to the bitter end. It may not be clear at the moment just what needs to be done; but an awareness that something needs to be done is a first step in the right direction.

The second reason for Catholic hope comes with the recruits from mainline Protestantism. As liberal Protestantism shows a continuing incapacity to resist secularism both in society and in the churches themselves, anti-secularist members of these churches will be faced with three options. One is to stay and fight, a fight that becomes increasingly discouraging with the passage of time. A second is to switch by joining a conservative Protestant sect. And a third is to join the Catholics. There is no way of predicting what proportions will choose which option, but Catholicism is already getting its share. These new Catholics are deliberate and self-conscious opponents of the denominational ideal, and their mere presence in the Church slows the Catholic drift toward absolute denominationalism. If they are religious intellectuals, their writing, teaching, and preaching slow it down even more. This is nothing new”in the last two centuries some of the most effective Catholic opponents of liberal religion have come from the outside: John Henry Newman in England, Jacques Maritain in France, and others.

A third reason for Catholics not to despair lies in the fact that Catholicism is far more international than any Protestant denomination. This greater internationalism is not simply a matter of a more numerous and widespread membership, but also of its international governance. There is nothing in the Protestant world that corresponds to the Vatican, and American Catholicism lacks the national independence that Protestant denominations have always had. While Catholicism in the United States may be able to travel a certain distance down the denominational road, it will not be able to go all the way unless it is able to carry the rest of the Catholic world, including Rome itself, with it. And this is not a likely prospect.

The fourth reason things may not be as bad as they seem is the structure of government in the Catholic Church. A combination of papal monarchy and an aristocracy of bishops, Catholicism may be the least democratic of contemporary Christian churches. At the diocesan level, the bishops become lesser monarchs and their priests a lesser aristocracy. And all these monarchs and aristocrats compose an order sharply differentiated from the Church’s lay majority by being ordained, celibate, and all-male.

Regarding things from a purely sociological point of view, we may say that thoroughgoing denominationalization of the Catholic Church is against the interests of the clerical order. If the Catholic Church makes no distinctive claims to truth and legitimacy, why should the authority of this clerical order be tolerated? Why not become like Protestant denominations, with a democratized and decentralized authority shifted from pope, bishop, and priest in the direction of the laity? It is not unusual to find priests and even bishops eager to make the shift. But a screening process for promotion guarantees that little of this eagerness is found in the upper ranks of the Church, and the Catholic clerical order is unlikely to embrace the denominational ideal in a deliberate and intentional way unless two or three popes in a row lead the way.

These four reasons for hope”the prior knowledge of Protestant denominationalism, the influx of anti-denominational converts, the undenominational internationalism of Catholicism, and the conservative structure of the Catholic hierarchy”constitute hope, not solid expectation, much less scientific prediction. If American Catholicism is to save itself, it must deliberately reject denominationalism. But it cannot do this unless it can find some other path to follow, and in the United States it can become neither a local sect nor a national American church. Finding some fourth way of being a religious organization will be a challenge of enormous proportions. Yet unless this challenge is met, the future of American Catholicism will be a relentless erosion of Christian content and a steady decline in membership.

A religion cannot avoid reduction to denominational status unless it is willing to claim to be better than all competing religions. But in contemporary America, denominationalized and democratized as it is, it is considered bad religious manners to make this claim; and most Catholics, both clergy and laity, are understandably reluctant to appear unmannerly in the eyes of their non-Catholic neighbors. Sectarian Protestants willing to claim that their faith is better than that of their neighbors pay the price of strong social disapproval and any number of negative stereotypes.

If American Catholicism is to find its “fourth way,” Catholics will have to learn both how to claim to belong to a religion that is better than other religions and to do so in such a way as to give minimal offense to their non-Catholic neighbors. It is easy to assert, as sects and churches traditionally have, that one religion is true and all others false. It is equally easy to claim, as denominations do, that many religions are equally true. What is difficult is to find a way to say, in the neighborly way the American situation demands, that while many religions have a partial grasp of the truth, only one’s own sees truth steady and sees it whole. Yet unless American Catholics master the knack of making this tactful fourth way assertion, they will see their religion continue down the road toward denominationalism and decline.

David R. Carlin is Associate Professor of Sociology at the Community College of Rhode Island.