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Regional Variation: The Effect on Parishes

February 2, 2015

Though secular culture is pervasive in the United States, two regions struggled disproportionately with it: the Northeast and Northwest. Here, “nones” are in greater number, and pastors’ remarks suggest that evangelization and outreach is met with greater resistance. One pastor said, “In the Northern tier of the United States, we’ve got a serious problem, and it’s only going to get worse if it doesn’t get addresses…The Northeast has become more and more unchurched.” Washington shares in the same struggle. Said a pastor, “The culture that we’re in, in the Pacific Northwest, is generally either kind of apathetic and indifferent to religion or even openly hostile and cynical about it. We live in a culture that’s very stand-offish or very antagonistic to organized religion.” Another pastor from the region concurred, adding, “Washington is one of the areas—and it may even be ‘the’ area—that has the largest percentage of people who don’t belong to or profess any organized religion. It’s sometimes called the ‘None Zone’.” Within such a culture, he added, the well-being of the younger generations is constantly at risk, from teenage suicides to petty crime to alcohol abuse. “We live in a culture,” he said, “with a lot of appeals, and a lot of influences[…] and that’s a big challenge—to be true to the essential and necessary aspects of our faith, while working to change the culture that is antagonistic to our faith without demonizing it.”

The Southeastern United States doesn’t appear to suffer from the same malady, perhaps due to Catholics’ relative minority status. In the majority of the states in the Southeastern U.S., fewer than 10% of the state population identifies as Catholic. Florida and Louisiana—with a strong history of Spanish and French culture, respectively—are the notable exceptions. The pastors we spoke with from these other Southern states inhabited a religious culture defined by other denominations, primarily Southern Baptist and Evangelical. A pastor of a Southern parish explained, “There is zero room for cultural Catholicism [here], by which I mean, if you’re from Boston or Chicago, or fill-in-the-blank, anywhere Catholicism is the majority, it’s very easy to be Catholic because your grandmother was from Ireland or Slovakia or wherever. And your sense of being Catholic is connected to belonging to the tribe, rather than a moment of personal conversion…When these people move down here, this is a part of the country where polite conversation with a stranger usually includes ‘Where do you go to church?’ When someone new moves into the neighborhood or joins your business, you invite them to join you at church. [In that context] cultural Catholics wither and die very quickly…It forces Catholics who took things for granted before coming to this part of the country to examine what they believe and make a decision.” The resulting commitment the pastor calls “Evangelical Catholicism”—someone who identifies as Catholic because she believes the Gospel is true.

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