Lapsed Catholics–Reflections on a Hospital Census

“I was raised – and still consider myself to be – Catholic, though I’m non-practicing and haven’t fulfilled my Easter duty since sometime during the Nixon years. I’m assailed by all kinds of stimulating doubts, but I do believe in God.”
— Thomas Mallon, American Novelist.

What’s the largest religious denomination in the US?  Lapsed Catholic!  (The title of this piece should have given you a hint.)   I can’t find the reference, but I’ve read that about 20% of those with a nominal religious faith are lapsed Catholics.   A recent Pew survey states that six Catholics leave the Church for every new convert entering at Easter,  which–given the birth rate for Catholics–means that the Catholic population is declining at a rapid rate.

These statistics come to mind every time I do  my volunteer stint as an aide to the Catholic Chaplain at the local hospital. At first  (1998), I was both a Eucharistic Minister (to be correct, EOMHC) giving Holy Communion to patients and a clerk, preparing 3×5 cards with patient information for the priest and other Eucharistic Ministers. After my legs, wind and energy gave out in 2011, I’ve only done the clerical work.

In order that the Catholic Chaplain might have patient information for his rounds, I convinced the IT people at the hospital to prepare a special census of Catholic patients, giving admission date, their age, marital status, home town, and of course, their hospital room location. The cards are filled out by the priest or EOMHC with the date of visit, whether the patient is a practicing Catholic, and whether he/she has received or is able to receive Holy Communion.  There is one other datum that goes on this census—a HIPAA privacy stipulation, “No Religion”, if the patient does not want to be visited by a hospital chaplain, Catholic or otherwise.    There is a general hospital census that gives patient names, hospital location and religious affiliation.  The religious categories include the Jewish, Muslim, the Protestant denominations, Roman Catholic, Byzantine Catholic, the various Orthodox denominations and even some off-the-shelf ones–WICCA, American Indian–as well as “none”, “no religious preference”.

The hospital is in a region of Pennsylvania that used to be called “coal country”.    There are many small towns–“patches”, remnants of coal company  towns–perched in the Appalachian hills and mountains.   Nowadays one is more likely to see the monstrous windmills on top of hills, rather than the culms–piles of leftover coal tailings.   The miners were immigrants–Polish, South Slavs, Irish, italians–so they were predominantly Catholic, Byzantine Catholic, or Orthodox.   In these towns there used to be a Catholic Church for each ethnicity–Italian, German, Polish, Irish–but with population decline, younger people leaving and consolidation of parishes, that is no longer the case.   Nevertheless, the plurality of patients are nominally Catholic, and since it is more likely for old people to be in a hospital than younger, there are many more older Catholics than younger (less than 40 years) on the Catholic census.

Now, I’m not going to attempt a statistical analysis of my recollections–after all, didn’t Mark Twain (or was it Disraeli?) say “There are lies, damn lies and statistics”?     But if you, dear reader, are willing to accept anecdotal musings, then please bear with me.    What I do recall is that the proportion of practicing Catholics, those who are properly disposed to receive Holy Communion, has decreased from a majority (60%?) in 1998-2001 to about 1/3 currently.   In the critical care units, there are some who do not want to be anointed–perhaps they’re thinking it’s “Last Rites”–and a few, even in the face of dying, who do not want to see a priest.   The number of divorced Catholics has correspondingly increased and the proportion of unmarried mothers has increased from about 1/4 to  almost 1/2 (and thank God, they are there, that the babies will not have been aborted).   The proportion of those who call themselves Catholic but don’t want visits from a priest or EOMHC has also increased.   However, not all of those who have the HIPAA designation really intend it to be so.   Some of those with a HIPAA designation request a visit by a priest or to receive Holy Communion, so it may be that they are confused in the Admissions interview

Do these qualitative impressions suggest that the Church is moribund here?  Are the statistics of the Pew Report confirmed?   One might almost think so, but then that impression is belied by what I see at Mass:  many old people (most of whom are younger than me), but also lots of young families with many, many children.    I think the outer dead skin of lukewarm believers has sloughed off, to leave a healthy, vibrant limb of the faithful.   And please God, let it remain so in these troubled times.