WASHINGTON — As the church suddenly faces an unexpected transition, American Catholicism is shrinking in size and splitting into two often harshly opposing camps — growing more polarized in faith, just as the nation has divided itself politically and socially. The sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the U.S. church and its hard-line stands on celibate priests, homosexuality and ordaining women have pushed many Americans away from the church, which is still the nation’s largest single denomination.
The prospect of a new pope provides a new focus for the world’s fourth-largest Catholic population, as Americans ask whether Catholicism will grow smaller but hew to traditional doctrine or follow its members as they adapt to a fast-changing society.
The latest surveys of American Catholics reveal sharp drops in weekly Mass attendance, a majority in support of legalizing same-sex marriage, and a large majority who say they do not look to the Vatican as the moral authority on sexual matters such as contraception, marriage and abortion, said William D’Antonio, a sociologist at Catholic University in Washington and author of a national survey that has tracked Catholic attitudes for 25 years.
“The laity are saying, ‘We can work things out for ourselves,’ these are matters for our own conscience, not questions where we just follow what the church is demanding," he said.
Just as Americans are now deeply divided over the role of government, Catholics have cleaved into two camps, one in which their religion is defined by its core tenets, the sacraments and concern for the poor, and another in which the church’s authority on the most personal aspects of life remains clear and essential, according to D’Antonio’s survey.
Hardly a week goes by without someone asking Elizabeth Scalia why she is still a Catholic. She has never felt a need to step away from her church, but the growing rift between American Catholics and their faith has forced her to a conclusion she once considered sad: The Catholic Church will and should become smaller, perhaps much smaller.
Scalia, like many traditional and conservative Catholics, says the experience of recent decades, as more Catholics have become more casual adherents to their faith, proves that the church should stick to its guns and accept that its beliefs may attract fewer people — and yet become more meaningful and effective.
“The world has gone superficial and promiscuous and morally avaricious and the church is standing against that," said Scalia, 54, of Long Island, N.Y., a Catholic writer. “Do we want a large church of people who aren’t paying attention, or a smaller church of people who are fervently attempting to be the faith that can heal the world? Who wants a church of people who don’t care? I wouldn’t want to be on a softball team of people who don’t care."