Why does Connecticut lead the nation in disaffected Catholics?

This story appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.
A packed Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, Conn., during a Mass marking the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the archdiocese's mother church, in this 2012 file photo. (CNS/Bob Mullen)

A packed Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, Conn., during a Mass marking the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the archdiocese's mother church, in this 2012 file photo. (CNS/Bob Mullen)

by Peter Feuerherd

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If the late comic Rodney Dangerfield were a state, he might be Connecticut.

It doesn't get a lot of respect. Small in size (number 48 out of 50); with a name difficult to spell, it suffers from an identity crisis: is it a New York City suburb? Or a slice of New England with leanings towards Boston? Its baseball sympathies includes a mythical dividing line between Red Sox Nation and New York Yankeedom.

The state does lead the nation in per capita personal income. At the same time, its combination of affluent suburban towns mixed with struggling cities like Bridgeport and Hartford makes it number two in income inequality.

Now Connecticut can add another number one to its list: it is tops, according to a 2015 Pew study, in the percentage of baptized Catholics who no longer consider themselves Catholics (see page 143 of this study appendix).

According to Pew, the number of nones — those who respond that they do not consider themselves part of any religious tradition — is growing. Many of the nones are former Catholics. Nationwide, over a seven-year period from 2007 to 2014, self-identifying Catholics in the U.S. population fell from 23 to 20 percent. Connecticut leads with a 10 percent drop.

What's up with the Nutmeg State?

NCR asked prominent Connecticut Catholics and Mark Silk, a non-Catholic religion scholar and writer, to address reasons and suggest solutions.

First, the possible reasons:

The Pew study indicates that Catholics in Massachusetts, just behind Connecticut in this category, were hit hard by the Boston Archdiocese sex abuse scandals.

The fallout may well have infected bordering states as well. Boston is a media link for much of Connecticut.

Connecticut's three dioceses were not immune. When then Bridgeport Bishop Edward Egan's testimony in a priest sex abuse case was made public, many Catholics were outraged as he distanced himself from priest sex abusers, calling them independent contractors whom the church had little control over.

The Bridgeport diocese has long fought a legal case to prevent the disclosure of names in sex abuse scandals. And a series of financial scandals, including one involving a prominent priest who in 2015 was convicted of using church funds for the cathedral in Bridgeport to peddle illegal drugs, caused Connecticut Catholics to question church financial administration.

"Catholics no longer trust the church, bishops or priests," said Joseph O'Callaghan, a founder of the Voice of the Faithful chapter in the Bridgeport diocese.

Reaction to the scandals included a proposed state law which would have put state regulations over church finances, an unprecedented proposal which was only quashed after an intense lobbying campaign by Connecticut's dioceses.

Sources cited other reasons as well: the church fails to connect with younger, better educated Catholics, who have rejected Catholic doctrines on sexuality and culture war issues. Younger Catholics often consider themselves spiritual, not religious and seek connection to God outside church structures. Liturgies are frequently uninspired and homilies lack impact. In a northeastern state with liberal tendencies, the church's attention to various culture war issues such as opposition to gay marriage is seen as retrograde. And there are old issues such as a male-only priesthood and church governance concerns.

Yet Connecticut is far from alone in these issues, which begs the question, "What makes the state number one in disaffected Catholics?"

Answers can be found in demographics and history.

"What would one expect in a relatively affluent state where the majority of people vote Democrat and the vast majority are ethically liberal and don't identify much with the face of the American episcopate?" said Paul Lakeland, professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University, a Jesuit-affiliated institution.

Connecticut's Catholic base is older, and far more likely to be of European extraction than other heavily Catholic states, such as those in the Southwest. It has relatively few Latino Catholics and other new immigrants.

Mark Silk, a professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford, said that old-time, northeastern Catholicism had "a tribal identity" that has frayed over recent years.

The numbers indicate that Connecticut is only marginally different — perhaps statistically insignificant — from other northeastern states such as neighboring Massachusetts and Rhode Island in its percentage of disaffiliated Catholics.

The heavy Catholic practice of the 1950s in New England was unprecedented perhaps in the history of the world, said Silk. Urban enclaves filled with Catholics reinforced church practice. Suburbanization shattered that Catholic tribal identity in Connecticut, along with the politics of the state. Catholic Democrats were forced to build coalitions with Jews and old-time Yankee Protestants to gain power. Even in the Civil War, while Irish Catholics in New York rioted against the military draft, the Irish in Connecticut supported the Union. Perhaps, surmised Silk, Catholic tribalism had less of a shelf life in Connecticut.

Silk reminds Catholics that the problem of disaffiliation is not confined to Catholics. Evangelicals and their mainline Protestant cousins also suffer from defections.

"I don't think anyone has a recipe for preventing that," said Silk.

Still, Bridgeport Bishop Frank Caggiano is trying to stem the tide.

His diocese, small in area, consists of the city of Bridgeport and its Fairfield County suburbs. He came to the diocese in 2013, having served as an auxiliary bishop in his native Brooklyn, N.Y., diocese.

In an interview with NCR, he said the diocesan priority is evangelization, although he is not willing to concede that Fairfield County has a greater percentage of disaffiliated Catholics than other similar regions. He suggested that the suburban counties surrounding New York City, which includes Fairfield, have similar demographics and most likely similar numbers of disaffiliated Catholics.

"The reasons are complicated," he said, theorizing, "We are reaping the entire disregard of an entire generation in catechesis and parish life."

He is 57, a relatively young bishop. He said the falloff in practice among those of his baby boomer generation is now even more severe with their children, who are starting their own families.

"Seeds sown in an earlier generation are coming to fruition," he said.

He cited Pope Francis as a model evangelizer, welcoming those who feel disaffected. The Bridgeport diocese, following that theme, has conducted a diocesan synod with evangelization as its goal. Caggiano met with the local Voice of the Faithful chapter soon after he arrived. He is optimistic that, even if there has been a growth of "nones" among young Catholics in particular, they are turned off to organized religion but still have a relationship with God.

"They are not nones to the spiritual life. They are nones for the religious life," he said.

Lakeland said more welcoming liturgies would be a help, and finds that Catholicism in the Midwest could offer a model.

"In my extensive travels in the Midwest I feel a fresher church, where people (and especially clergy) seem less hidebound than in New England. Strange that Ohio could be Oz to Fairfield's Kansas," he said.

Silk, who is Jewish, is a medieval scholar who has studied Catholicism extensively. He said that church stances on culture war issues remains a hard sell in places like Connecticut.

"It doesn't make it easier to attract people by holding the line on same-sex marriage and birth control," he said

Offering what he called "free advice from a non-Catholic," he suggested that American bishops be more outwardly supportive of Pope Francis' teachings on climate change and social justice, which are generally popular with millennial Catholics.

The Mass, he said, could also use an infusion of better homilies and music. "That old dependence on people receiving the sacraments will not be enough anymore," he said.

Caggiano said that interest in revitalizing parish life is strong in his diocese, and agreed that more conscious efforts need to be exerted to improve liturgical life. The Bridgeport diocesan synod emphasized more outreach to disaffected groups and on improving Sunday worship.

They are lofty goals. Results will not come easy, he predicted. "It will take time. Quick fixes never work," he said.

[Peter Feuerherd is a professor of communications and journalism at St. John's University in New York and contributor to NCR's Field Hospital blog.]

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