Steinfels Urges Bishops to Stem the Catholic Church's "Crisis of Attrition"

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Open Letter Published in Commonweal Before the U.S. Bishops’ November Meeting Calls for Urgent Response to a Meltdown in Catholic Identity

Peter Steinfels, prominent Catholic author and former New York Times columnist, has published an article in Commonweal ( calling for an urgent response from American bishops to a growing crisis in Catholic Church membership and identity.

In the article, currently on the Commonweal Web site and appearing in the print issue dated October 22, Steinfels writes: “Month after month, year after year, I see decisions (but mostly nondecisions) by Catholic leaders steadily reducing even further the chances that the faith will be the central reality and priceless blessing in my grandsons’ lives that it was in mine.”

Citing recent data on religious allegiance from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Steinfels notes that one out of every three adult Americans who were raised Catholic have left the church. While many factors are at work in this startling decline, it is bishops who hold the principal responsibility to find ways to respond to it — a responsibility, Steinfels claims, that they have so far largely neglected.

Steinfels points out that at the upcoming Fall General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore on November 15-18, there is “an agenda that deals with many things — but not these devastating losses” in church allegiance. He expresses sympathy for bishops who are “constantly called upon to boost morale and lift up spirits in the face of daunting tasks” rather than dwell on “ominous trends” or potentially divisive findings.

Bishops are not the only ones who should be alarmed, he writes, “but they are, as they often remind us, the church’s authoritative leaders. . . . It is hard to imagine a reversal of the current trends without a concerted effort on their part.”

A respected commentator on religious life and the Catholic Church in the United States, Peter Steinfels is the former editor of Commonweal and was, until earlier this year, a religion correspondent and columnist for The New York Times. He is also the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, and co-director of Fordham University’s Center for Religion and Culture.

Noting that each generation of young Americans has moved a greater distance from organized religion of every type, Steinfels points out that church teachings on homosexuality “and its identification with high-octane conservative politics” have widened the divide, as have the sexual-abuse revelations surrounding the Catholic Church worldwide. Steinfels’s article describes a variety of possible ways to address the crisis — but calls primarily for an open acknowledgement from the bishops that such a devastating crisis exists.

Steinfels’s article, “Further Adrift,” appears online at

Commonweal is a biweekly journal of opinion published by lay Catholics since 1924, offering commentary on religion, politics, culture, media and the arts. The magazine’s Web site is at

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Thomas Baker
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