A New Model for Understanding the Dynamics of Catholic Disaffiliation

Public discourse surrounding disaffiliation from the Catholic Church tends to adopt a reductive posture toward the phenomenon. Upon the publication of a Pew or Gallup poll, the usual causes for disaffiliation are rehashed. There is a perceived conflict between science and religion. The Church is too involved in politics, with too many bishops and priests supporting President Donald Trump.[1] There are the endless sexual abuse crises in Catholicism. Catechesis is terrible, no one knows the faith, and that is why people consciously uncouple from the Church. Mass is boring, the preaching is terrible, and the music an assault upon the senses. The Church only cares about sex and is especially hostile to LGBTQ+ members.

Without a doubt, people leave the Church for all these reasons and more.[2] And yet, can the phenomenon of disaffiliation be understood exclusively as a causal response to this significant cataloging of grievances and real wounds? It would certainly be easier for the Church if this was the case. If bad catechesis is the reason for disaffiliation, then better faith formation will yield infinite fruit. If people leave the Church because of the sexual abuse crisis or the treatment of LGBTQ+ Catholics, then more transparency and a welcoming Church will lead to inevitable ecclesial growth.

The Church’s strategic response to these issues may be considered a good. We should have more transparency in the Church around accusations of sexual abuse. The Church should adopt a consistent ethic of life, maintaining a prophetic posture in which both Republicans and Democrats are challenged by our commitment to solidarity, the dignity of life, and the common good. LGBTQ+ members should not be treated as plagues in our parishes but greeted as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Liturgies should inspire devotion rather than dulling the senses.

If the Church strategically and aptly responds to every single possible reason people have left, will this lead to sudden growth in affiliation? This question cannot be answered with absolute scientific surety. We do know that disaffiliation is not unique to Roman Catholicism. Episcopalians allow gay marriage, include women in positions of leadership, and have not suffered from the sexual abuse crisis in the same way that Rome has. Still, there is regular handwringing among Episcopalians around declining membership. Beyond this, many of those who have disaffiliated from the Catholic Church have received a robust Catholic formation. They no longer identify as Catholic despite and sometimes because of the catechesis they received.

For these reasons, I suggest that disaffiliation and affiliation alike must be understood not exclusively as concerned with individual events in the life of a person, rather, we must contemplate the social reality in which we abide. Here, I do not mean that we can simply blame boogeymen such as secularization, individualism, and relativism tout court.[3] Blaming “-isms”—while cathartic—abstracts us from the concrete forms of life that men and women take up in the world. People do not leave the Church because they have embraced a philosophy of relativism or individualism. For this reason, we need a social theory attentive to those concrete forms of life, to the experience of the human person abiding in late modernity.[4]

The German sociologist Harmut Rosa’s The Uncontrollability of the World is an ally in understanding the social environment in which disaffiliation and affiliation unfold without falling prey to blaming the -isms. Further, the social recognition of uncontrollability emerging out of the COVID-19 pandemic—implicitly addressed by Rosa at the end of the book—provides a horizon of hope for future affiliation in the Church.  

Hans Rosa and the Religious Disposition of Resonance

Rosa opens The Uncontrollability of the World by speaking about snow. Young children await the arrival of the first snow with a posture of total receptivity. When will that first snow arrive? Will school be cancelled? Yet, the technological innovations of modernity have taken this resonant hope away from us. When there is no snow on the slopes, we can create our own. Forget snow days! There is now digital learning. We have mastered snow, gaining a control that we previously did not possess. Yet, as Rosa argues, this increase of our capacity for control turns the world into a space of aggression. He writes:

The sociocultural formation of modernity thus turns out to be, in a way, doubly calibrated for the strategy of making the world controllable. We are structurally compelled (from without) and culturally driven (from within) to turn the world into a point of aggression. It appears to us as something to be known, exploited, attained, appropriated, mastered, and controlled. And often this is not just about bringing things—segments of world—within reach, but about making them faster, easier, cheaper, more efficient, less resistant, more reliably controllable.[5] 

Think about air travel. Air travel enables us to control both space and time. Whereas a trip from South Bend to London would have taken weeks on horse then on a ship, I can now travel from my home, across an ocean, and land in another country in a matter of seven to eight hours. Further, with the ubiquitous adoption of Zoom, I do not even need to travel to London. I can log onto my computer two minutes beforehand, arriving in London just in time for a meeting.

Ironically, this control does not lead to comfort but anxiety. Because I expect such control—presuming control as my birthright—I react with what I feel is justified anger when that control is taken away. A thunderstorm at an airport interrupts that London flight. Passengers line up at the counter, angry at the employee who has no control over whether that flight takes off. The aggressiveness of even rational passengers in this instance is not directed toward this person but the loss of control. When my internet does not work (and I miss that London meeting), I angrily tweet at my internet provider reminding them that I pay for their services. What I forget is that internet and power sometimes go out. I do not have control over everything, nor do the poor workers of my internet provider who are berated by customers during outages. 

But the social structures of modern life encourage me to think that I do in fact possess such control. Rosa describes four dimensions of control operative in modernity. First, we believe that we have the control to see everything, inventing microscopes and telescopes that bestow to us seemingly infinite access into dimensions of the cosmos that no human person could gaze upon before. Second, we control distance, creating rockets and microtechnology that allow us to transverse time and space. Third, we manage everything including our bodies, the sky, the sea, the rising of the sun and its setting through the production of electric lights. Fourth, we make things useful, instrumentalizing the whole world, including the process of education. These features of modernity form us to expect a type of control where the whole world can be grasped by us.

Consider the political and social reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. At least part of our anger toward this pandemic was that we could not control this bug. Whether COVID-19 was born in a lab or passed on in a marketplace, we did not possess control over this illness. There were some things that we could do. We tried to keep physical distance, wash our hands, and wear masks. But none of these are fail safe efforts to keep one from contracting COVID-19. The rest of life also needed to happen and that meant for most human beings an impossibility of taking up absolute physical distancing.

The groundswell of anger from the political-social body was an unrecognized public aggression toward the lack of control. The economy shut down. We could not produce vaccines overnight. The government did not respond with an immediate plan. Things took time, and we did not want them to take any time. Our desire for a return to normalcy, at least partially, was a desire for a return to control.

Rosa identifies not only aggression as a response to modernity but a kind of ennui. For Rosa, our disenchantment or alienation (that is, a lack of relatedness to the world around us) emerges because of the modern structural and individual obsession with control. Human beings do not experience the world first and foremost as that which is to be controlled but instead that which is to be related to. He writes, “The basic mode of vibrant human existence consists not in exerting control over things but in resonating with them, making them respond to us—thus experiencing self-efficacy—and responding to them in turn.”[6]   

Rosa’s thesis of The Uncontrollability of the World relates to the human vocation to resonance. In a world of alienation, where all objects are reified through control, we cease being affected by the world around us. Human beings and objects are no longer intrinsically important but available exclusively for our use. Nothing and no one possess a call or appeal. Furthermore, resonance is linked to self-efficacy. I am moved by an object or person, taken outside of my desire for control, invited to respond to that person. Through self-efficacy, I participate in the world. My voice has an effect. And this capacity for participation in the world transforms the self. Rosa notes that experiencing “resonance transforms us . . . If we no longer allow ourselves to be called or transformed, if we find ourselves no longer able to effectively respond to the multitude of voices all around us, then we feel dead inside.”[7] Adaptive transformation is ultimately mutual. The world around me is transformed as I am transformed through the resonant relationship.

Lastly, resonance depends on a certain uncontrollability. There is no method to resonate with the world for resonant relationship always comes as gift. No one can make someone fall in love with them, to stare into their eyes and guarantee the return gift of self (Tinder, be damned). Further, I cannot “control” the ways and the precise moment in time that this relationship will transform me. Resonant relationships take time and space, a certain openness to existence that the obsessive desire for control makes perilously impossible.    

If Rosa’s social theory—grounded in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology—does not make sense, think instead about Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, in the film Groundhog Day.[8] Phil operates exclusively out of control. He wants to get in and out of Punxsutawney, declining the opportunity to wonder at the festival in this small Pennsylvania town. But the uncontrollability of weather (especially ironic since Phil is a weatherman) stops their progress. Phil then begins to live the same day again and again. Initially, he refuses to resonate with this world, finding ways to “control” the world around him. He will commit suicide. He will have sex. He will seek to feel anything.

It is only after he resonates with Andie Macdowell’s Rita character that time begins to move again. He sees the snow not as obstacle but as gift. He recognizes his alienation from time itself as part of this gift, learning to play the piano and serve the once despised citizens of Punxsutawney. He embraces Rita as companion rather than sexual object. He allows himself to enter resonant relationships, such that the world itself becomes a space of meaning rather than defined by technique or control.

For Rosa, resonance is ultimately a religious disposition.[9] The world is accommodating and responsive, transforming us in the process. Belief in God as expressed through prayer is an openness to a transcendent resonant relationship: “There is the one who hears you, who understands you, who can find ways and means of reaching you and responding to you.[10] According to Rosa, modern doubt is caused by an increasingly non-resonant world, the introduction of Enlightenment technique into all modes of knowing.

Although Rosa defines this a “Catholic” rather than “Protestant” account of religion, his primary interlocutors are mostly non-Catholics such as Martin Buber, William James, and Friederich Schleiermacher. Here, Rosa is also relying too closely on Charles Taylor’s (a Catholic) own account of secularization and disenchantment in his magisterial A Secular Age. According to it, religious belief declines when the world becomes mute. But, we can plainly see that the main problem raised by disaffiliation is not rejection of all spiritual modes of existence but professing belief that in the Catholic Church a particular kind of resonant experience is available. The rejection of the Church does not mean that human beings have lost a “sacramental” or “enchanted” view of the cosmos. Yes, enchantment has migrated, perhaps, toward technology, science, and nature. But the Church as an institution with a particular kind of access to the “one who hears you, who understands you” is rejected.[11]   

Despite Rosa’s attenuated account of religiosity, his treatment of control and resonance relative to institutions may shed further light on the problem of disaffiliation. After all, if our primary desire in late modern society is control, then it is our expectation that the institutions to which we belong display picture-perfect control over the world. As Rosa writes:

A society that, in all these processes and in the face of all uncontrollabilities that accompany them, is structurally compelled to constantly ask, “Who is responsible for this? Who bears the costs?” will systematically run into difficulties. We witness such problems in schools, government agencies, private companies, care facilities, grocery stores, social clubs and so on—in any place where designated officials . . . are authorized to handle every conceivable occurrence, for which they are trained and prepared and armed with comprehensive informational materials, and where records and documentations have to be produced about everything.[12]  

If institutions prove themselves to be incompetent in meeting our expectations for maintaining control, then leadership must be blamed and overthrown. If this does not happen, it may be time for me to leave, finding a new institution to belong to or maintaining an apathetic coolness toward the dysfunctional institution. We see this in the way that U.S. citizens treat elections as almost apocalyptic irruptions of hope into the world, where a Biden or a Trump will at last “save” the nation by getting the economy, jobs, international relations, and immigration “under control.”

Rosa does not address the Catholic Church, but certainly much of the anger directed toward the Church today relates to a sense that the Church has lost control. We see this among both progressive and traditional Catholics. Once again, I note that some control is good. It is good to have diocesan review boards for sexual abuse accusations that are objective and to develop processes where bishops are chosen not through cronyism but through prayerful discernment of the People of God.

But even with these reforms, the Church will not gain complete control over leadership. There will still be Theodore McCarricks and Marcial Maciels. There will still be boring homilists, terrible liturgical music, and hypocrisy in the parish. The Vatican will still be slow. People will still leave the Church of their own volition despite our extraordinary plans for evangelization and catechesis. At least, history shows this to be the case.

Returning once more to resonance theory, Rosa notes that such uncontrollability does not mean the end of human flourishing even within our institutions. Resonance is even more possible in these situations where there is not perfect control. Rosa gives the example of those who are not able to have children. He writes,

Listening and responding constitute a different attitude from planning, doing, and calculating. If I remain childless despite wanting to have children, I can try to listen to “what life is trying to tell me” and to respond in the form of how I live my life.[13]

Rather than solve the problem of childlessness, I let myself be attuned to the situation, contemplating what it means. I recognize the precarity of life, perhaps even coming to a new-found gratitude for every child.

Could we ask someone to take up the same attitude toward the Church? For example, imagine that I find bishops to be incompetent hypocrites. I could say, “Yes, that’s the end—it’s time to move on.” But I could also stay. And in staying, I might contemplate the fact that Christ is still present in this community of incompetent hypocrites of which I am also a member despite my hypocrisy and profound incompetency. And thereby, come to an even deeper affiliation with the Church, a recognition that divine love has chosen to dwell here among this community of bedraggled disciples, who despite our many disagreements and heavy sins, still raise our voice in praise to the living God.  

Perhaps, the problem of disaffiliation therefore cannot be solved through a brand-new pastoral plan, hiring consultants, and purchasing a great new book that puts together best practices that will renew your parish. Nor for that matter will a book on apologetics or changing doctrines for the modern mindset lead people to magically “rejoin” the Church. Rather, we must find a way for the Church to resonate with men and women once again as a Eucharistic reality—a communion of love that unites heaven and earth, accompanying us through the uncontrollability of our lives. Here, we are all on pilgrimage together, seeking not control, but instead offering ourselves as a sacrifice of love in the world along with the angels and the saints. Such an approach takes patience, listening, and the stability of belonging to those who mourn and weep in this valley of tears together.

A Horizon of Affiliation 

Rosa has much more to say about speed, control, and resonance in his work. But our task was not to attend to Rosa but to rethink the dynamics of both disaffiliation and affiliation in the Catholic Church. Rosa has identified the social malaise of late modernity not as an “-ism” but a spiritual ailment. We want to control everything, and we want institutions that can control everything. But we cannot. And they cannot.  

The good news is that we seem to be learning that lesson in the waning days of the COVID-19 pandemic. After nearly 100 years without a major worldwide pandemic, we have had one. Yes, there was more that we could do to stop the death of so many people. Our institutions failed, as they often do. But pandemics will continue to happen despite the over-confident claims of at least some epidemiologists and politicians. Death, in the end, is inescapable for all of us. This sudden loss of control is something that the Church must respond to in our age. This is the question on the hearts of men and women right now who have lost loved ones, jobs, missed funerals and weddings, and who likely long for human contact in general.   

In this time where the myth of control has fallen apart, we may be able to invite men and women to not return to the old normal. That includes the Church leadership itself. The universal answer to every problem is not a new document, a new strategy, or displaying new levels of competency in all leadership. Rather, the path that the Church must take is to a spiritual renewal of the Church as a Eucharistic gift of communion and sacrifice in the world. After all, belonging to the Church is not akin to joining a political party. Rather, it is communion through belonging to one another in Christ. Articulating the contours of this Eucharistic renewal of the Church, which may make possible a renaissance of affiliation, is the task of the second part of this series now available here.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Learn about our Summer Liturgy Series, "Will They Come Back After COVID?: Disaffiliation, Affiliation, and the Liturgy" 

[1] For a recent presentation that treats the relationship between secularization and political party, see David Campbell, Geoffrey Layman, and John Green, Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2021), 138-151.

[2] Disaffiliation rarely unfolds because of a single event in the life of a person but is a process. See Stephen Bullivant, Catherine Knowles, Hannah Vaughan-Spruce, and Bernadette Duncan, Why Catholics Leave, What They Miss, and How They Might Return (New York: Paulist, 2019).  

[3] See my Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2014), 35-50.

[4] I use the term late modernity instead of postmodernity because I agree with those social theorists that understand postmodern discourse as the logical consequence of modernity itself rather than an inauguration of a new age.

[5] Harmut Rosa, The Uncontrollability of the World (Medford, MA: Polity, 2020), 14.

[6] Ibid., 31.

[7] Ibid., 34.

[8] Or basically, any character that Bill Murray has ever played.

[9] See his Hans Rosa, Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World (Medford, MA: Polity, 2019), 258-267.

[10] Ibid., 261.

[11] Catholics themselves fall into this problem of reducing “sacramentality” into a category relating exclusively to presence. See, Timothy O’Malley, “The Liturgical Metaphysics of Gift in Introduction to Christianity,” in Gift to the Church and World: Fifty Years of Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2021), 255-272.

[12] Rosa, The Uncontrollability of the World, 93.

[13] Ibid., 63.

Featured Image: Canaletto, Ruins of the Dresden Cathedral, 1765; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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