Survey: Percentage of Catholics in Wisconsin Falling

By J.E. Espino
Green Bay Press-Gazette
March 13, 2009

Wisconsin's fish fry tradition at Catholic churches has no problem reeling in large crowds, but a national religion survey shows that fewer people are filling pews in churches of all faiths.

The American Religious Identification Survey, released this week, shows a 10 percentage point decline in the past 18 years in the number of Wisconsinites who identify themselves as Catholic 29 percent compared with 39 percent in 1990.

But it's not just the Roman Catholic Church that has lost ground in a generation.

Overall, the percentage of people who call themselves some type of Christian dropped in the state, all while the percentage of those claiming to have no religion increased from 6 percent to 15 percent.

Kristina DeNeve, director of spirituality and evangelization for the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, isn't discouraged by the findings. She thinks they are only a reflection of people's resistance to being put in a box.

"The survey looked at how do people identify themselves. That's all it was. Do you call yourself Catholic? Do you call yourself Buddhist? Do you call yourself nondenominational? It doesn't get at what people are doing behaviorally. It doesn't get at people's yearnings. It doesn't get at people's values," she said.

"If they asked the question a different way, I bet they'd get 15 percent or even more of Americans saying they consider themselves spiritual."

Still, there's more to the survey.

So many Americans claimed no religion at all (15 percent, up from 8 percent in 1990) that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists.

"The 'Nones' are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union," the report said.

Uncertainty about doctrines within traditional religions might be what brings people to Cornerstone Family Church in Suamico, according to its pastor.

"We get people who ask questions about certain doctrinal beliefs," the Rev. Dennis Toyne said. "We follow the Bible. We say, 'This is what the Bible says,' compared to, 'This is what the church says.'"

Cornerstone, a nondenominational church, is seeing its membership increase at least 10 percent to 20 percent a year, Toyne said.

"Our church is unique," he said. "We're a nondenominational, spiritual church. People are hungry for a genuine relationship with the Lord. We have real exuberant, heartfelt music that brings people together."

But Toyne's not knocking traditional denominational religions.

"We see the great work they do," he said. "We're not opposed to that."

Catholic strongholds in the Midwest are weakening as immigrants, retirees and young job seekers move to the South and Southwest.

The percentage of those who chose a generic label, calling themselves simply Christian, Protestant, nondenominational, evangelical or "born again" remains about the same as in 1990, 14.2 percent.

In Wisconsin, those reporting affiliation with religions other than Christianity grew from 2 percent to 4 percent.

The changes have long been evident. Parochial schools are consolidating. Some parishes have dissolved, and the church continues to grapple with a shortage of priests. Nuns, who at one time ran local hospitals and schools, have all but vacated their posts.

Cultural mores ascend

Barry Kosmin, a survey co-author, concluded from the 1990 data that many saw God as a "personal hobby," and that the country is "a greenhouse for spiritual sprouts."

He said, today "religion has become more like a fashion statement, not a deep personal commitment for many."

The survey also showed 69 percent believe in a personal God, as understood by Jews and Christians, but 30 percent made no such connection.

The religious landscape for some is such that they get to decide what to believe in. "You can think this is right or this is wrong according to how you feel. It's still not the truth," said Ken Vande Hey, a Kaukauna volunteer of Catholic youth ministries for more than 20 years. "You can choose to do wrong. But you can't make it right."

Patrick Carey, professor and chair of Catholic Theology at Marquette University's department of theology, blames growing materialism in the country and people's tendency to live "unreflective lives."

"People are not concerned with slow growth but with rapid growth almost instantaneous success. It manifests a general cultural preoccupation with material things.

"That's very difficult for religious traditions to battle, especially when it comes in such attractive forms that the media and business world can present," he said.

Those attitudes worry him because of the consequences they have outside of church walls.

"There were enormous financial rewards for the kinds of decisions that were made" by executives of major corporations, Carey said. "You can see it helped to bring about the collapse of the economy."

Catholics reach out

Disillusionment with the church in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and some financial scandals also have contributed to declining rates of Catholics in Wisconsin. The state has had its share of cases, most recently with the 2004 sentencing of Father John Feeney for molesting two youths in 1978 while he was at St. Nicholas Parish in the town of Freedom.

"The church looks like a hypocritical institution for some," Carey said.

Church attendance has been a topic of discussion for more than 40 years as a drop-off became noticeable.

"One survey in the late 1970s indicated that the largest denomination in the country was unchurched Catholics to the tune of about 37 million," Carey said.

Five years ago, the church took on a large outreach campaign. The Green Bay diocese was reorganized, and efforts were launched to call parishioners to become more involved in their faith and share it with others.

To that end, the diocese started a fair last year for those interested in exploring their "spirituality." It is a group DeNeve sees potentials to get churched.

"To be spiritual means that you have to do it in the context of other people, whether that is a large group of people or a small group of people," she said. "You can't live separate from other people. You can't be spiritual just you and God. It's got to be lived out in our everyday life in a community."

Green Bay looks to the Phoenix diocese as a model. Leaders there ran commercials on the major networks during Lent last year. Six months later they were reporting an increase in the number of people taking the Sacrament of Reconciliation and attending Mass.

All faiths face challenge

Kosmin, the American Religion Identification Study co-author, expects the number of people opting out of religion to grow from generation to generation. Carey's theology classes provide some perspective.

"Whether they're Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist or Catholic, most don't have a clue about basic Christian doctrines," he said.

"If you don't practice it, you are not going to be able to appropriate it," Carey said. "And if you don't appropriate it, you are not going to be able to apply it."

Vande Hey says a firm religious foundation is key to keeping people engaged in their faith. He said his priority as a young father in the late 1960s and '70s was for him and his wife, Jan, to bring up their five children in the church. "We taught them to pray. We all said meal prayers and night prayers. We got them involved in serving at Mass."

Their children are now adults in their 30s and 40s. Four attend services and one is slowly making his way back. "He had a few experiences that I think he's starting to get the message," said Vande Hey, who is relentless in his outreach to youth and more recently in his prison ministry and at Elizabeth Ministry International.

"Our youth are dying to hear the truth about marriage, about sex, about life. I know that when you give a young person a good experience something to be excited about with their faith they will come alive."

Derek Jeffreys, an associate professor of humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, cautions not to draw too many conclusions from the survey.

"The prediction business on this is very bad," he said, recalling a thesis being pushed more than 20 years ago signaling that Christianity was on its way out. "The world is more secular, and that did not turn out to be true. Americans it seemed became more and more religious as the 1990s went on."

J.E. Espino writes for The Post-Crescent of Appleton.


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