The days when Catholics overwhelmingly went to Mass, as they did in movies such as Bing Crosby's 1944 film "Going My Way," are long gone.
And surveys show that while the Church has a high retention rate for members, the nation's largest denomination has a sad statistic: One in ten Americans say they used to be Catholic but are no more.
Surely no business would tolerate such a loss rate so what can the church do to stem it?
William Byron, a priest and business professor at St. Joseph's University, near Philadelphia, says the Church needs to do "exit interviews" and listen closely to the answers.
Byron writes in the new America magazine about the idea, which he attributes to a now-retired corporate CEO, Larry Bossidy's address a few years ago to the Leadership Roundtable, a group of lay Catholics who want to bring business sense to Church administration and organization.
Byron points out:
Immigration, largely Hispanic, is still shoring up the aggregate numbers for the Catholic Church in the United States, but there has been a dramatic decline in Sunday Mass attendance and church life among U.S.-born Catholics, not to mention the drift of Hispanic Catholics toward Pentecostal sects.
The church in America must face the fact that it has failed to communicate the Good News cheerfully and effectively to a population adrift on a sea of materialism and under constant attack from the forces of secularism, not to mention the diabolical powers that are at work in our world.
In a chat last week Byron told me.
We could discover the negotiables and the non-negotiables, what might be changed and what cannot. If it's preaching or some of the women's issues or the way someone answers the rectory telephone, many of these can be addressed now or explained with a better understanding of the Church's teachings.
Some of the questions Bryon would like to ask:
- Why have you stopped attending Sunday Mass regularly? Byron, 83, a former pastor of Holy Trinity in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC., says, "Catholics respond to good teaching and good liturgy. and they vote with their feet, going to the parishes that meet those needs."
- Are there any changes your parish might make that would prompt you to return?
- Are there any doctrinal issues that trouble you?
Some people confuse traditions -- like fish on Friday -- with disciplinary rules. Like the fish requirement, disciplinary rules are not dogma and they might be dropped.
What about some Catholics' push for married clergy? Byron points out that St. Peter had a mother-in-law, that celibacy was introduced centuries after the Church was established. He says,
Nothing is impossible with God so maybe it will be time for a change.
A he wrote in America, the point of exit interviews is to...
...Elicit honest answers to open-ended questions aimed at identifying specific Catholic doctrines or practices that may have been factors in the break. I presume that there may be misunderstandings of doctrine that require attention...
In the absence of good data, church leaders might be accused of sleepwalking into the future or walking with eyes and ears closed to those they want to serve.