The Church in America Has What Global Catholicism Needs

by Napa Institute
Published In February 29, 2024

Is the Catholic Church in the United States dying? The Vatican’s representative in the U.S., Cardinal Christophe Pierre, intimated as much in November. In an interview with America magazine, he declared that “nobody comes” to church anymore, while “seminaries are now empty” and nuns “have disappeared.” It’s true that the church in America faces many challenges, yet it’s uniquely focused on evangelization and in some senses flourishing. Global Catholicism could learn a lot from the U.S. example of empowering everyday Catholics to preach the gospel.

Cardinal Pierre’s comments, which he reinforced at the fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, came amid a broader Catholic discussion of “synodality.” The Vatican is hosting a three-year global meeting on the topic, which is generally understood to mean involving regular, or “lay,” Catholics in church governance. The hope is that doing so will spark a new era of evangelization, but in some regions, such as Germany and other parts of Europe, synodality is being used to weaken Catholic teaching in order to make the Church more “welcoming.” It’s hard to see how compromising on morality will inspire evangelization, which depends on fidelity to Jesus Christ’s inherently countercultural message.

The church in America shows a better way to empower the faithful without undermining Catholic teaching. Throughout the world, Catholicism is largely hierarchical, with priests and religious sisters doing most evangelical and missionary work. In the U.S., by contrast, evangelization is largely led by a vast array of Catholic nonprofits and movements — at least 4,100 of them, according to Cause IQ. Called “lay apostolates” in Catholic lingo, in reference to their reliance on non-priests to continue the apostles’ missionary work, these groups give everyday Catholics a chance to embrace the shared responsibility of spreading the faith.

Lay apostolates are classically American, reflecting the spirit of voluntary association that defines our country. When de Tocqueville, a French Catholic, observed that in America, “each new need immediately awakens the idea of association,” he was also describing Catholicism down to the present day. When everyday Catholics see a need in the church, they don’t wait for priests or nuns to act — they tackle it themselves.

Take the Knights of Columbus, founded in 1882. Today, they have in the United States over 10,000 local councils, which hold Bible studies, organize blood drives, protect millions of Catholic families with life insurance, and much more. The Fellowship of Catholic University Students — FOCUS — has been evangelizing on campuses for nearly 30 years. Other lay apostolates do everything from caring for pregnant mothers considering abortion to providing humanitarian aid to immigrants to making Catholic teaching accessible via smartphone apps, social media, and other platforms. If anything, it appears that the number and influence of lay apostolates are growing rapidly.

Nowhere else in the global church do everyday Catholics play such a powerful role. While lay apostolates exist in other countries, there are generally few and have much less impact. Few countries are as favorable to nonprofits as the U.S., which encourages them via the tax code. Yet the biggest reason that lay apostolates are globally sparse is likely the widespread practice of leaving evangelization to local church hierarchy. It’s a reflection of the “clericalism” that Pope Francis routinely and rightly condemns. Yet while many commentators have focused on clericalism in the U.S., our country is arguably the least susceptible to it, given the spirit of independent action of everyday Catholics.

Their work of lay apostolates in the broader society is a key reason why 150,000 Americans convert to Catholicism every year. According to the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, 35 percent of America’s nearly 5,000 seminarians have been impacted by FOCUS, the campus ministry group, and some seminaries are seeing surging enrollment. Compare that with Germany, which saw fewer than 50 new seminarians in 2022 — a decline of more than 75 percent in less than two decades. Ireland has a mere 20 seminarians total, and much of Europe is seeing precipitous declines in priestly vocations as well as parish attendance.

Amid the Vatican’s push for “synodality,” American-style lay apostolates should be front and center. The global church should make their cultivation a top priority, especially if the alternative is a weakening of Catholic teaching on faith and morals. U.S. Catholicism has already shaped the church for the better, contributing to the 20th-century embrace of religious liberty. Yet its greatest gift may be the power of lay apostolates. The best way to breathe new life into the Catholic Church — both in the United States and around the world — is to empower everyday Catholics to embrace their role in spreading the true and unsullied faith.

TIM BUSCH is the founder of the Napa Institute, a Catholic organization.

Read Full Article on National Review

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