Jack Gannone was about to have a defining moment, one that would unite him with more than a billion people of 200 nations and 600 languages.

Like most of them, he never saw it coming.

The day was April 23, a Sunday, and inside the sparely modern sanctuary of St. Eleanor Roman Catholic Church in Collegeville, Pa., 6-month-old Jack squirmed on his mother’s lap.

“Parents, do you understand what you are about to do?” the Rev. Andrew Brownholtz asked. John Gannone and Sara Benton nodded.

Suddenly Jack found himself tilted head-back over a marble font. He did not howl, but gave a what-in-the-world roll of his eyes toward the vaulted ceiling as holy water streamed onto his downy brown hair.

“I baptize you,” the priest intoned, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

In that instant, Jack Gannone became a Roman Catholic, a member of the largest Christian church on Earth, one of an estimated 67 million adherents in the United States and nearly 1.5 million in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Statistically, he probably will remain in the fold for life. Although American Catholics have a higher dropout rate than Protestants of any major denomination, 80 percent stay at least nominally in the church from cradle to grave.

But what kind of Catholic might Jack – and indeed, any of his 21st-century soul mates – grow up to be?

If today’s strong trends are an accurate compass, they point to someone whom the hierarchy has never gladly embraced: a Catholic who lives the faith on his or her own terms.

Spiritual autonomy

From baby boomers through Gen Xers and Millennials, a streak of spiritual autonomy is growing more pronounced among those who count themselves as practicing Catholics. Religious scholars scan the horizon and see little that might reverse the slow drift away from not only the dictates of Rome but also some core teachings of the faith.

“My sense is that this is an enduring condition, not just an anomaly,” said Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University in Washington and author of “Roman Catholicism in America,” a 1999 portrait of the U.S. church.

“There’s a tension between Catholicism and American culture,” he said. “American culture is winning out.”

With that comes a deepening dilemma that the church has long faced in Europe, where institutional Catholicism is in near-collapse and Pope Benedict XVI has decried a “dictatorship of secularism.”

“What can the church do? If she stands by her moral teaching, then she will be seen as standing in judgment” of a sizable portion of the membership, said the Rev. Timothy Radcliffe, former master general of the religious order of Dominicans. “If she does not, then she will be seen as surrendering to modernity.”

Some of that “modernity” is evident in a Zogby International telephone poll of 1,901 Catholics nationwide, conducted in March for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. Of young adults ages 18 to 35, fewer than half said they:

n Attend Mass weekly (46 percent)

n Go to confession at all (31 percent)

n Consider it important that priests be unmarried (48 percent)

n Think that the church alone has the final say on sex outside marriage (25 percent)

n Believe that same-sex physical relations are always wrong (47 percent)

n Support the prohibition against artificial birth control (26 percent)

On some issues, opinions varied little from the youngest to the oldest respondents. They found common ground in a question about abortion: About half of all age groups thought both the church and the individual should have a say. Across generations, two-thirds of respondents said the church should be more democratic in its decision-making.

But increasingly, it is the young who stretch the fabric of one-size-fits-all Catholicism, according to an author of the poll, and who do not want the church standing in judgment.

“They want an institution that understands how they live, that is responsive to their attitudes and opinions,” said Matthew T. Loveland, an assistant professor of sociology at Le Moyne, which was founded by Jesuits.

He recalled asking his students earlier this spring to define a “good” Catholic. “Did it mean going to Mass, or confession, or doing this and not that?” he said. “And their answer wasn’t “yes’ or “no.’ It was more like, “What a stupid question!”‘

Yet even among those who eschewed some of the rules, the poll found a durable bond with Catholicism. The majority of 18- to 35-year-olds said:

n There is “something special about being Catholic” (81 percent).

n Their Catholic identity “connects” them with their families (86 percent).

n It’s important for younger generations of their families to “grow up to be Catholic” (91 percent).

n They like the rituals, art, music (91 percent).

“They think of themselves as Catholic, regardless of whether they agree with church teachings,” Loveland said. Still, their accelerating autonomy should concern church leaders, he added, for it “opens up the possibility of their breaking away.”

In recent years, discontented voices of all ages have been heard over the media microphone, calling for changes ranging from women’s ordination to the opening of the church’s ledgers. But the angriest have been in response to the pedophilia scandals in the clergy. A survey for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that nearly 4,500 priests had been involved in more than 11,000 alleged cases of child sexual abuse since 1950.

Beneath the public outrage, though, is something bigger, more profound, and unconnected to the scandals, said David Gibson, a former Vatican Radio reporter who is now an author of books on Catholicism and a TV commentator.

“Americans felt the hierarchy had been reprimanding and remonstrating about their faithlessness and their dissenting and perceived shortcoming for decades,” Gibson said. “There was this sense that they couldn’t do anything right, that they weren’t being listened to.

“The sex-abuse crisis became the way to give voice to all that frustration.”

‘Prickly apartness’

The dissatisfaction has been evolving since the 1960s out of a “minimalist” understanding of the faith, said Bishop Joseph Galante of the 488,000-member Camden (N.J.) Diocese.

Rooted in an 18th-century Protestant nation, the American Catholic Church spent its formative decades in an atmosphere of intense anti-“papist” bigotry. From hostile soil sprang an ironweed of an institution, one whose prelates kept the faithful just that – faithful – by maintaining what author Charles Morris termed a “prickly apartness” from mainstream culture well into the 20th century.

In 1934 in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which had gained a reputation for straight-and-narrow Catholicism, the famously severe Cardinal Dennis Dougherty banned members from movie theaters “under pain of mortal sin.” (The ban has never been formally lifted.)

Everywhere, though, Catholic identity was reinforced with obligatory Sunday Mass, confession, and meatless Fridays.

“I don’t know if (members) internalized why we did those things,” Galante said.

That would prove a problem when, in 1966, Pope Paul VI relaxed the ban on eating meat on Fridays. Millions who believed such abstinence had been prescribed by God felt “hoodwinked,” Galante said.

Unaware of the difference between church discipline – which is changeable – and doctrine, many Catholics began to suspect that other practices, such as Mass and confession, were “made up,” he said, and “the whole pyramid fell down.”

Like many in the clergy and the laity, Galante has ideas on how that pyramid might be rebuilt. They include better education of young Catholics on the “whys” of the faith, and a closing of the power gap between clergy and laity. They do not include a return to lock-step obedience.

“People aren’t afraid of anything anymore. They’re not afraid of hell. … Fear does not regulate behavior as it used to,” Galante said.

“Until we get serious about … bringing people to a much better understanding of what it means to be Catholic, we’re going to be spinning our wheels.”

Other recent surveys have painted an even more dramatically changed group portrait of young American Catholics than that in the Inquirer/Le Moyne/Zogby poll.

In a national study of Catholic attitudes commissioned by the independent weekly National Catholic Reporter and published last fall, researchers Dean Hoge, James Davidson and Mary Gautier found that among the 18- to 25-year-olds, only one in three planned to never leave the church. Just 15 percent said they attend Mass weekly.

Few priests are emerging from the younger generations. Many dioceses predict that their ranks of active priests could shrink by as much as three-quarters by 2025. Last month at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., Cardinal Justin Rigali ordained this year’s Philadelphia graduates – a total of three new priests.

Rigali is not despairing of the future, however.

“Young people respond remarkably when introduced to traditional practices such as devotions to the Holy Eucharist and to Mary,” he said on a CD that he recorded in response to The Philadelphia Inquirer’s written questions.

He noted that the Philadelphia Archdiocese had received nearly 1,000 converts in the last year. “There are so many positive signs that the Catholic Church is vibrant and strong in the United States,” he said. “So many people are living their faith with conviction and generosity.”

Planting the cross

Such optimism for American Catholicism is more likely to be heard outside the United States than within. Because, even for an institution built on absolutes, some things are relative.

The U.S. church looks robust to Catholic leaders in most other parts of world, and even to some critical eyes in the Vatican.

In Europe and South America, the church is struggling for relevance in nations it once defined. In parts of Africa and Asia, it is seeking to plant the cross on frontiers made inhospitable by governments and entrenched religions.

Archbishop John Foley, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications, ran down a list of American Catholicism’s strengths in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer: “The percentage of Mass attendance is much higher than in Europe; parish life is relatively vital; your fraternal organizations, like the Knights of Columbus, are flourishing.”

He added, “You’re building parish schools, which is remarkable.”

Some sea-change trends that are worrisome to many Americans look like blessings when viewed through that international lens.

One is the towering immigrant wave. Nationwide, Latinos make up 42 percent of the Catholic population, with the highest concentrations in the South and Southwest. Were immigration to stay at its current pace, the number of Hispanic Catholics would go from 30 million to 70 million by midcentury, making them the majority in the U.S. church.

For an Anglo-centric institution with a priesthood that is just 4 percent Hispanic, the challenges are immense. Yet so is the payoff, said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, president of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., and a publisher of Benedict’s books.

“We have immigration coming from South America – people who share our Western traditions,” he said. Whatever happens in the faith’s traditional base, they virtually guarantee church growth.

The Latino infusion, Fessio said, separates the fate of Catholicism in America from that of its ancestor across the Atlantic.

Immigration into Europe has been markedly Muslim – hardly a source of new Catholic life on a continent where the birthrates of its traditional ethnic stock are some of the world’s lowest.

More so than anywhere else, the church there is in grave decline. Mass attendance, baptisms, confirmations and church marriages are dramatically down among Europe’s 280 million Catholics, particularly the young “postmoderns” skeptical of institutions of nearly any kind. In polls, most describe themselves as “spiritual,” but not religious.

There are two prizes that not only Catholicism but also all of Christianity has longed to claim: Africa and Asia.

Yet Africa is no easy hunting ground for converts. Like much of the world today, it is a competitive marketplace of religions – but also a notoriously bloody one as Christianity and Islam, rooted there 1,000 years ago, vie for souls.

In Asia, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam are so entrenched that Christianity is predicted to make only modest gains in the next half-century.

If there is any tantalizing opportunity for the church in Asia, however, it is China.

After nearly five decades of atheistic communism, most of China’s 1.3 billion people profess no religious identity. The government allows five faiths to be publicly practiced, and Catholicism is one, claiming 4.5 million followers. But this church is not “Roman.”

It is the “Patriotic” Catholic Church, controlled by Beijing. Its priests say Mass in Latin and are forbidden to condemn birth control or abortion. Some bishops have reportedly been forced to marry to prove loyalty to the state.

Casual Catholic

The hands that held Jack Gannone over the baptismal font at St. Eleanor’s wore a gold wedding band and a silver Buddhist “Om” ring, symbolizing the unity of being.

His mother, Sara Benton, is an Episcopalian who has been practicing yoga meditation since graduate school. At first, “it was purely a physical exercise,” said the 38-year-old social worker. “But when I practiced it very regularly, I found myself feeling more empathic and grounded.”

Benton already has started Jack on “baby yoga,” stretching his arms and legs into the positions she will teach him as he grows older.

“Some people say it can detract from religion,” she said. “I’d say it can enhance it. Yoga in its purest form is a way to connect to the world around you.”

Although she stays Episcopalian “because that’s how I was raised,” Benton said she is not a regular churchgoer. So baptizing Jack a Catholic, like his father, was “the easy choice.”

John Gannone, 37, a mailing-equipment salesman, admits to being casual about Sunday Mass attendance. But “I do believe Jesus died for our sins,” he explained as his little boy napped in their Skippack, Pa., home. “I want that to be a part of Jack’s life.”

Jack is due to start kindergarten at St. Eleanor’s parish school in 2010, and his father hopes he will go on to Catholic high school and college.

“It would be nice if he stayed Catholic,” Gannone said, but added, “I’m not going to disown him if he doesn’t.”

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