Some years before he was elected pope, Joseph Ratzinger was asked what he thought about the health of the Church. He answered that she was doing very well; she was just a lot smaller than most people thought. He was exactly right. We need to think of the Church in our age as a seed of life embedded in layers of dead tissue. We also need to distinguish the Church in the emerging world from the Church in developed nations.
In the emerging world, the Church has few material resources. She rarely has adequate money for education, development, or ministry. She faces well-financed and aggressive Islamic growth, and cults and competing religious groups of every sort. And she suffers various forms of state harassment and persecution in China, North Korea, Vietnam, across the Islamic world, and even in India.
The situation in developed nations is more ambiguous. In some places the Church has ample resources. She supports a wide variety of important educational institutions and service ministries. She often has an effective public voice.
But Catholic and other Christian influence on daily life in the developed world is rapidly diminishing. In western Europe, the number of Catholics who attend Mass is very low, and the number of people who identify as Catholic is declining. While American religious belief and practice remain high by European standards, these facts are changing. Roughly seventy-five million Americans claim to be Catholic, but less than a quarter of them attend Mass on most Sundays. Some 69 percent of American Catholic adults say they would not encourage someone to become a priest or religious sister. The implications of that one piece of data for the sacramental and apostolic life of the Church in the United States are enormous.
How did this happen? I can only speak for my own country. The American Founders were far friendlier to religious faith than their French revolutionary counterparts. Well into the 1940s, American government and religious bodies often worked in a mutually supportive way—and very effectively—to serve the common good.