American Protestantism has adapted to the modern age and lost followers in droves. Catholics should think twice before copying it
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, who is the Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, in the United States, has tweeted, and it is a mighty tweet, a gem amidst the dross and banality of Twitter. The Bishop has written:
Some say the Catholic Church has to become more like Protestants (e.g., married priests, women priests, abortion, gay marriage) to survive. A new ABC Poll shows that Protestant membership has declined 14% in the last 15 years! We Catholics had better look before we leap.
— Thomas J. Tobin (@bishoptjt) May 13, 2018
The poll to which Bishop Tobin refers is dealt with here. It does indeed show a decline in the proportion of Americans who describe themselves as Protestant by 14 per cent, and a rise in those who claim to have no religion to 21 per cent. Polls such as these are notoriously hard to interpret, but one thing does seem clear: the religious landscape of America is changing, and rapidly too; and the proportion of Catholics is steady.
One other thing that comes to mind reading the Bishop’s tweet is this: who are those who say that we Catholics need to become more like the Protestants? This could be one of those notorious “straw men” of which we hear so much. Indeed, I am absolutely sure that numerous theologians who are usually thought of as liberal, for want of a better term, would all strenuously deny the charge of wanting to protestantise the Catholic Church.
But step forward Tony Blair, who has openly called for the Church to “rethink” it attitude to, for example, homosexuality. Of course, Mr Blair is not a theologian, and no theologian would ever dream of saying something like this, as Tony did in 2009:
Organised religions face the same dilemma as political parties when faced with changed circumstances,” he said.
“You can either A: Hold on to your core vote, basically, you know, say ‘Look let’s not break out because if we break out we might lose what we’ve got, and at least we’ve got what we’ve got so let’s keep it’. Or B: You say ‘let’s accept that the world is changing, and let us work out how we can lead that change and actually reach out’.
The reason no theologian would ever say this is not because it is crass or stupid (it is neither) but simply because these words would put a terrible weapon into the hand of any opponent. It would lead to an instant loss of credibility.
But the sad fact is that many theologians think this way, though they would never admit it, or if they did, they would do so with so many caveats that its initial impact would be lost. And why can’t theologians fess up to the fact that they may sympathise with the Tony Blair route to Church growth? Because it opens them up to the accusation that they are willing to junk or drop millennial Church teaching in a desperate dash for growth. This looks very like undermining the foundations of the house to make the house look more attractive to potential buyers: not a good idea. Far better is the right approach of concentrating on what you have got, and emphasising the timeless truths of the faith, which is what our world needs to hear, and is, I am convinced, wanting to hear.
Bishop Tobin is of course completely correct in his brief survey of the American religious scene. American Protestantism (and this is particularly true of the Episcopal Church, the American Anglicans) has striven to adapt itself to the present age. It embraces gay rights, as well as “reproductive rights”, and long ago abandoned any opposition to artificial contraception. As it has done this, its numbers have continued to decline. As Bishop Tobin correctly surmises, Catholics should look before they leap. Let’s hope other bishops are listening.