Catholic analyst on the state of the Church in the US: There is crisis, but far more hope

Published June 3, 2024


Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) in Washington, D.C., where his work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, the lay vocation, and public life. He served for 23 years as senior aide and special assistant to Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., in Denver and Philadelphia. Maier previously served for 15 years as editor-in-chief of the National Catholic Register. His book “True Confessions: Voices of Faith from a Life in the Church” (Ignatius) was released in February. 

Maier spoke with CatholicVote on May 31 about why, despite religious and political crises – Trump’s conviction included – there are many inspiring sources of hope and renewal that Catholics should not miss.

CatholicVote: Your book is an impressive piece of work; essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the state of the Catholic Church today in the United States. But I’ll start with two obvious questions: Why did you write it, and why did you choose that title?

Maier: One of the reasons was timing. We’re at a pivotal moment for the Church, both in the United States and globally, because of today’s massive social changes driven by science and technology. To respond in a fruitful way, we need unity and evangelical confidence as a Church. Instead we too often have ambiguity and confusion.

There’s always been some tension in U.S.-Roman Church relations because of distance and differences in culture. And Rome, for a very long time, was skeptical of the American political system because of its Protestant and Enlightenment founding. But it’s also true that American Catholics have always been faithful and very generous to the Holy See. So I think this pontificate’s criticisms of the U.S. Church, her leaders, and her people have often been ill-informed and sometimes ill-willed. That’s regrettable. Counting my time at the EPPC, I’ve served in diocesan and other Church-related work for 46 years. My experience of the many bishops, priests, and laypeople I’ve known has been overwhelmingly positive. I wrote “True Confessions” to offer an honest and more accurate portrait of the Church in the United States today, because so much of it is healthy and good, and I show that.

As for the title, it has two sources. The first is simple. In baptism we inherit both the privilege and the duty to be “confessors” of the faith, not just in our words but also in our actions. Every one of the men and women I spoke with for the book —103 of them over a 17-month period — is a “confessor” of Jesus Christ by the witness of their lives. They deserved to be heard and I gave them a voice. The second source is a bit more personal, because I was a screenwriter and story analyst in LA early in my career. The 1981 film “True Confessions” has always been one of my favorite movies: It’s a rough and not at all pious story of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. But in the end, it’s profoundly Catholic.

CV: Who did you include and exclude in the interviews you did while developing the book?

Maier: People chronically unhappy with the Church and her teaching already get plenty of media attention. They don’t need mine. And I avoided the fringes on the ecclesial right and left. I was interested in faithful Catholics, whatever their background, who love the Church, believe what she teaches, and live — or sincerely try to live — their Christian convictions in their everyday affairs. These folks were salt of the earth: very candid in their concerns and criticisms, but also deeply moving in their testimonies. And the conversations with bishops — 30 of them — were remarkably frank and refreshing; very much a source of hope. But so was nearly every interview I conducted with priests, deacons, religious, and lay people. Hope, confidence, and zeal — these were the recurrent themes in the face of the difficulties the Church faces.

CV: As a scholar, you’re affiliated with a DC policy institute, an institute looking to influence government action and political thinking. So why would you focus on the Catholic Church?

Maier: The Catholic Church is the single biggest and best-organized religious community in the United States. And the EPPC is almost unique in the gravity it attaches to religion as a culture-building and culture-reforming force. So it’s a logical area of study and action. The Church is meant to be a sanctifying leaven in society. That needs to be our goal. A healthy, vigorous Catholic Church naturally has a positive effect on the society in which it evangelizes and serves — including a people’s economic and political life. So faith is enormously important for human flourishing, which places faithful Catholics in a hugely important cultural role . . . if we have the will and the spine to pursue it.

CV: Which brings us to yet another election year. How should we think about November 2024?

Maier: Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump — and I have no illusions about his personal character — his May 30 convictions in New York are a disaster for the country. Division, conflict, and cynicism about our legal and political processes will intensify. And inevitably so: No one can seriously believe in the purity of the prosecution’s motives. So we’ve really reached a Rubicon moment. The Democratic Party, as it currently stands, will do just about anything to keep power. Which confirms what several of the bishops whom I interviewed say in “True Confessions”: There’s an undercurrent of totalitarianism in current government actions that Catholics need to recognize and remember when it comes time to make their own political choices.

Public engagement is part of our Christian duty. So what should we do in 2024? We can start by reading the 1998 U.S. bishops’ pastoral statement, “Living the Gospel of Life,” and act accordingly. It’s one of the finest texts the bishops have ever produced: short, very clear, and focused on the foundational issues of Christian citizenship. In the end, voting comes down to a matter of personal conscience. But if we claim to be Catholic and we don’t lie when we pray, then conscience needs to be formed in truth; it’s never a free-floating, magically self-absolving opinion machine. A lot of issues are important, but some are more important, more foundational, than others. 

In other words, some things are always grievously wrong and can never be excused or minimized: euthanasia, genocide, intentionally targeting innocent civilians in war . . . and killing an unborn child. Issues like immigration policy and the permissive homicide involved in every abortion are different in kind, different in their nature, not merely in their degree. So in an election where — to put it kindly — neither major candidate is admirable, the Maier family will vote for whomever is less distant from “living the Gospel of life.”

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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