It’s not every day the Catholic Church actively seeks public input. Yet, here in Vermont, Bishop Christopher Coyne has been making it an increasingly regular occurrence. In recent weeks, Coyne has been crisscrossing the state, holding a series of town hall meetings in which local Catholics are invited to ask questions and provide comment.
The meetings have created a refreshing sense of openness for an institution that has historically maintained a rigid, insular and secretive hierarchy of leadership. Vermont Catholics have shown their appreciation by turning out in numbers that rival attendance at Sunday services. The Feb. 5 meeting held at Christ the King Church in Rutland drew around 100 people, with more than a dozen stepping up to the microphone to ask Coyne about a range of topics, including sexual abuse, abortion, women in the clergy, allowing priests to marry and the lack of young people in the Church.
Coyne is a natural in front of a crowd — genial, disarming and quick with a joke. A former chair of communications for the U.S. Conference of Bishops, who also managed communications for the Diocese of Boston during the sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s, he understands the value of transparency and good public relations.
Naturally, the Church’s disgraceful history of sexual abuse and subsequent coverups was top of mind among many in attendance at the Rutland town hall. Like many other Catholic dioceses around the world, the Diocese of Burlington was not immune from this sin. Coyne was contrite and gracious, allowing speakers to voice their anger, sadness and shame without countering it with deflection, obfuscation or spin.
Another issue on many people’s minds was the lack of young people in the pews. Like the rest of the state, Vermont’s Catholic community isn’t getting any younger. While the issue was a common refrain, there’s no clear solution. Coyne acknowledged that younger generations have strayed from organized religion in general, choosing alternative, individualized paths to spiritual fulfillment.
One strategy popular with many in attendance was lowering the age of confirmation from 10th grade to sixth. According to Coyne, research has shown children begin to disengage and question their faith around age 13. Yet, aside from the vague and unquantifiable assertion that it would strengthen their faith, it was unclear exactly how administering the sacrament earlier would reduce attrition later.
Coyne reframed the problem, saying the question isn’t how the Church attracts young people, it’s why would young people want to come to church? He acknowledged how, compared to protestant megachurches, Catholic Churches can feel cold, stodgy and unwelcoming. Given the choice between the two, Coyne said he understands why they’d choose the megachurch.
But lower confirmation ages and friendlier parishes aren’t likely to reverse the outflow of young people in any meaningful way. The root of the problem is more difficult to address. The truth is there are significant aspects of Catholic dogma that are simply out of step with young people, many of whom are more socially progressive. The Church’s rigid positions on issues like reproductive health, abortion, same-sex marriage, sexual orientation and gender identity are nonstarters.
It’s also a nonstarter to expect the Church to reverse course on any of these issues, at least not in the short term. A religious system is defined by boundaries. Over time, those boundaries may shift, but such changes happen over long periods of time and after serious deliberation. That said, at a certain point, clinging to outdated dogmas will only further distance the Church from modern society.
There is no easy fix to this. With its numbers declining — especially in the United States and Europe — the dearth of young Catholics is becoming an existential threat to the future of the Church. If the Catholic Church wants to continue to thrive, it must open more than its ears. It must take tangible action to reform itself, without compromising its core beliefs, in order to appeal the next generations of Catholics.