Archbishop Timothy Dolan, newly elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein in a recent interview that one of his top priorities will be to reach out to the tens of millions of disaffected Catholics in the U.S. population.
I was particularly interested to hear that because when I recently wrote about the phenomenon in a piece headlined "The 'had it' Catholics" -- former Catholics, if considered as a group, would make up the second largest denomination in the country -- I called the USCCB to ask if anyone was tracking or investigating the development. The answer: No one was looking into it.
In the recent interview, Dolan cited recent studies showing that only half of young Catholics marry in the church and that weekly Mass attendance has dropped from a high of 78 percent during the 1960s to 35 percent today.
He expressed urgency in finding out what he can do to help people return to the church.
I have no delusions that he might be waiting for a suggestion from these quarters, but for what it's worth, I hope he and his fellow bishops don't start by trying to figure out where those who left went wrong and work back from that premise to develop programs and billboards.
I hope, instead, that they begin by quietly talking to the disillusioned and disaffected, and really listening to why people have walked away. The bishops might discover, among those who have gone elsewhere, that their motives were not sinister, their frustrations and anger not unfounded or irrational. They might encounter some who feel deeply betrayed and others who simply are exhausted with the familiar battles.
They might find such conversations illuminating, challenging, convicting and even inspiring. Good material, perhaps, for the program people.