The New Evangelization has been a major effort in the Catholic Church for more than 40 years. Unfortunately, it has failed to stem several significant downward trends among faithful in the United States. Since 2000, 14 million Catholics have left the faith, parish religious-education participation of children has dropped by 24 percent, Catholic school attendance has dropped by 19 percent, baptisms of infants has dropped by 28 percent, baptism of adults has dropped by 31 percent, and sacramental Catholic marriages have dropped by 41 percent. Something is desperately wrong with the Church’s approach to the New Evangelization.
The New Emangelization Project has documented that a key driver of collapse of Catholicism in the US is a serious and growing Catholic “man-crisis.” Large numbers of baptized Catholic men have left the Faith, and many of those who remain Catholic neither know nor practice the Faith and are not committed to passing the Faith on to their children. Recent research shows that large numbers of young Catholic men are leaving the Faith, becoming “Nones,” men who have no religious affiliation. The growing losses of young Catholic men will have a devastating impact on the US Catholic Church in the coming decades, as older Catholic men pass away and young men fail to remain and marry in the Church, accelerating the losses that are already taking place.
While there are massive cultural forces outside of the Church (secularism, pluralism, anti-Christian bias, radical feminism, pornography, etc.) and missteps within the Church (failure to make men a priority, sex abuse scandals, etc.) that have contributed to the Catholic “man-crisis,” the New Emangelization Project has conducted dozens of interviews with top men’s evangelists that suggest a critical reason for the crisis is that bishops and priests have not yet made the evangelization and catechesis of men a clear priority. Men are being ignored by the Church, and they know it.
To gain deeper insight into the role of priests in the evangelization and catechesis of men, the New Emangelization Project conducted the Helping Priests Become More Effective in Evangelizing Men Survey in the fall of 2014. More than 1,400 practicing Catholic men from more than 1,000 parishes in the US participated in the survey.
Overall, the survey results suggest that only about one in five priests have made the commitment to actively evangelize and catechize men, but those who do have a dramatic impact on the faith lives of men. A large majority of men are ready to follow their priests, and in fact are longing for their bishops and priests to call, teach, and lead them. The survey underscores that large numbers of Catholic men are dissatisfied with the lack of attention from their bishops and priests.
Seven themes have emerged from the survey results.
Few priests actively evangelize men, and men are very dissatisfied.
Only about one in five priests were rated by respondents as being highly effective in the evangelization and catechesis of men in their parishes. Most priests do not have a “man-plan,” do not gather men together for evangelization and catechesis, and are not engaging men on the most basic of levels (such as showing up for scheduled men’s events, Knights of Columbus meetings, etc.). Very few priests speak to men in homilies, despite the fact that more than eight out of 10 men never participate in a parish activity other than the Mass. Further limiting the success of evangelizing men, very few priests encourage men to evangelize other men. Men see priests as preoccupied with women’s issues and believe that many priests are afraid to specifically evangelize men.
The lack of commitment to evangelizing men is perhaps due in part to the fact that bishops have not made the evangelization of men a priority; only one in four men think that their current bishop/diocese makes the evangelization of men a priority, and nine of 10 think that the diocese needs to do much more to evangelize and catechize men. Large numbers of the most faithful and practicing Catholic men are very dissatisfied with the effort of their diocese to reach out to men. This dissatisfaction contributes to the large and ongoing exodus of men from the Catholic Church.
Men need to be challenged to aspire to Catholic manhood.
In a world that is increasingly confused about what manhood and Catholicism mean, it is not surprising that many Catholic men see the need to be challenged with the truth of Catholic manhood. Unfortunately, men see few priests as decisively teaching men about Catholic manhood.
Men are hungry for priests to challenge them with the fullness of Catholic truth and to call them to the nobility and blessing of being committed Catholic men. With the rise of radical feminism, homosexuality, and gender fluidity theories, as well as the growing confusion about sex and the breakdown of families that has left many men without the guidance of fathers, men are seeking to understand better what Catholic manhood means. In a confused post-modern culture, men need to be challenged and called to be men. The Church has always been the source of heavenly leaven in broken cultures across time, and only Catholic men can lead our culture to new life in Jesus Christ and his Catholic Church.
Essential to the teaching the Faith is clarity about truth as fully revealed by Christ in his Catholic Church, particularly in the face of a relativistic culture that rejects the idea of “truth.” Men are hungry to be challenged with the truth, especially in regard to sexuality and the consequences of sin.
Men need to be taught about the basics of the Catholic faith.
One of reoccurring themes of the New Emangelization Project is that men have not learned the most basic elements of the Faith and, as a result, don’t practice the Faith. Unfortunately, the survey shows that the majority of priests have not made the catechesis of men a priority.
While the Church has a great reservoir of spiritual insight, the survey findings indicate that large numbers of men are not looking for sophisticated theology, but are looking to be led in a more vigorous way by their priests in the basics of the Faith.
Men also need priests to teach about how to engage more deeply in the sacraments and prayer. The New Emangelization Project research shows that large numbers of Catholic men do not understand or engage in the Mass, the sacrament of reconciliation, or prayer. Despite the urgent importance of drawing many more men into a passionate engagement in the sacraments and prayer, respondents perceived that few priests are actively helping men to better understand and participate in the spiritual life. If the practicing Catholic men who responded to the survey sense the need to grow in their understanding, how much more so for the majority of Catholic men who are lukewarm in their faith!
Apologetics is also an area in need of more emphasis by priests. The New Emangelization Project research shows that half of Catholic men do not believe they can adequately explain the Catholic faith to others. Only 15 percent of survey respondents “strongly agreed” that their current pastor taught men “to defend the Catholic faith with full loyalty to the Magisterium.”
The lack of solid evangelization and catechesis has contributed to the exodus of Catholic men from the Church. Respondents sense that men need to be challenged to know their faith so that they can more fully practice the Faith and help others better understand it. Men who don’t know the Faith won’t stay in the Faith.
The lack of Catholic fraternity hurts men’s faith lives.
One of the surprises from the survey is that only one in six of the highly committed Catholic men who participated in the research said they had acquaintances, close friends, and bonds of brotherhood in their parishes.
This lack of fraternity is something that few priests are actively seeking to address. Despite the fact that the New Evangelization has been a growing priority for the Church for a number of decades, the survey reveals that only 12 percent of priests make it a priority to call men to evangelize other men, which is at the core of building fraternity.
The lack of fraternity matters, for greater fraternity leads men to have more robust faith lives. Men who did have strong bonds of brotherhood in their parish were much more likely to engage in the Faith than those men who did not have strong bonds of brotherhood. Men with strong bonds of brotherhood pray more, go to Mass and confession more frequently, are more likely to read Scripture, and are much more likely to participate in men’s activities and to volunteer in their parishes.
The Church has always embraced the need for fellowship (Acts 2:42), building off ancient Israel’s understanding that fraternity is critical, for “iron sharpens iron, as one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). From the research it is clear that bonds of brotherhood lead men to grow in their faith and that most men lack Catholic fraternity.
Men hunger for more reverent liturgies.
Since Vatican II, there have been drastic changes to how the Mass has been celebrated. There has been significant liturgical experimentation, changes in architecture and music, the involvement of Eucharist ministers, and the introduction of female altar servers. As noted above, during the same timeframe, large numbers of Catholic men have left the faith.
The survey underscores the fact that many men sense that a de-sacralization of the Mass has occurred, and that many priests are failing to offer the Mass in a way that draws men deeper into the Faith: only about a third of priests were strongly rated as offering the Mass in a way that is reverent and that draws men into a deeper communion with Christ. Men also felt that the Mass had become feminized, with an overrepresentation of women in liturgical roles, music that had become feminized, and homilies that failed to speak to the challenges and needs of men.
The New Emangelization Project interviews consistently indicated that the vast majority of Catholic men lack understanding of the majesty and power of the Mass and of how they can fully participate in the Mass; there is a great need for men to be catechized about the Mass, and men know it.
Priests who focus on men have great impact.
The one in five priests who make it priority to engage men through evangelization and catechesis dramatically increase men’s understanding and practice of the Catholic faith. Priests rated highly effective in evangelizing men have a strong impact on men: men attend Mass more frequently, read Scripture more, go to confession more, participate in men’s events, volunteer more, and have more and deeper friendships and bonds of brotherhood with men in their parishes.
It is critical to note that the survey respondents were already highly committed Catholic men. Nevertheless, priests who focus on men make a significant impact on the faith lives of men, even those already actively engaged in the Faith. It is reasonable to conclude that highly effective priest-evangelizers can have a very high impact on men who are more casual about their Faith.
Digging in deeper, priests who were rated as highly effective in specific evangelization topics had a strong impact on the faith lives of their men. Priests who emphasize confession lead men to go to confession more often. Priests who teach men about the Mass lead men to attend Mass more frequently. Priests who actively evangelize men and call and challenge their men to evangelize other men result in men having greater bonds of brotherhood in their parishes.
Priests who show up for men’s events have men who show up too. Priests who personally teach Bible studies see more men participate. Priests who actively support the Knights of Columbus encourage more men to participate. When priests show up, so do men.
This survey makes it clear that priests who make a commitment to personally engage their men in evangelization and catechesis have a dramatic impact; men pray more, receive the sacraments more frequently, have deeper bonds of brotherhood, and are more active in their parishes.
Men will follow priests who lead.
Men lament the lack of leadership of their priests, and the exodus of Catholic men and survey feedback underscore that priests’ efforts to evangelize men are disastrously insufficient. Men strongly desire to have a relationship with their priests, especially those men who are already interested in evangelizing other men; too often men get discouraged because they can’t get help and engagement from their priests. Men perceive some priests to be weak and soft, afraid to engage tough issues with a forceful and uncompromising presentation of Catholic doctrine.
Despite the criticism that some respondents leveled against some priests, many believe that the large majority of priests have the ability to lead men effectively.
The survey results reveal that 70-80 percent of priests already have men’s respect, and only about 20 percent of priests have made a negative impression on men. From these findings it seems clear that many men strongly desire their priests to lead, and that if priests are able to step up, many men will follow.
The survey results suggest that great progress can be made in addressing the Catholic “man-crisis,” not by expenditures of large amounts of money, but through a mindset change among bishops and priests about the importance of evangelizing men and the commitment to take decisive new action.