Rodney Stark analyzes the inevitable decline of the postconciliar church from a sociologist’s perspective in The Churching of America: 1776-1990 Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy:
In the early 1960s, the American Catholic Church appeared as solid as ever. During the fifteen years following World War II, the church had undergone a new period of growth. From 1916 through the 1930s, Catholic adherents had hovered between 150 and 160 per 1,000 population. But the combined effects of the baby boom and the resumption of immigration from Europe caused the Catholic market share to jump to 190 per 1,000 by 1950 and to 235.9 by 1960.
Then, in 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, gathering all of the bishops of the church in Rome to reassess and restructure doctrine and practice.
For four years the church fathers met periodically, making decisions that resulted in many far-reaching changes. The mass was no longer to be said in Latin, but in the local language. The faithful were no longer prohibited from eating meat on Friday. Many other prohibitions on Catholic behavior were also relaxed, and many traditions were greatly deemphasized. Moreover, the council stressed a new spirit of ecumenism.
Noting that Pope John XXIII not only had called his bishops to a Vatican Council, but had at the same time appointed a Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, [Martin] Marty remarked: “ His action made John XXIII the most recognized ecumenical leader of his generation and made ecumenism a household word.” Could a really successful ecumenical age be far away?
Oddly enough, Will Herber—the Jewish spokesman who played a major role in mounting the ecumenical movement of the 1950s—warned vehemently against too much aggiornamento. Speaking before a national convention of Catholics belonging to the Newman Apostolate, Herberg criticized the many Catholic intellectuals who urged the church to “slough off its old ways and bring itself up to date by adjusting itself to the spirit of the age. I say just the opposite: in all that is important, the Church must stand firm in its witness to the truth that is eternal and unchanging; it needs no updating… If it is to remain true to its vocation, it must take its stand against the world, against the age, against the spirit of the age—because the world and the age are always, to a degree, to an important degree, in rebellion against God”.
… but we will argue that the decreasing demands in other areas were as important, and probably more so for reducing the commitment of Catholics. As Iannocone has commented, “the Catholic church has managed to arrive at the remarkable, ‘worst of both worlds’ position—discarding cherished distinctiveness in the areas of liturgy and theology, and life-style, while at the same time maintaining the very demands that its members and clergy are least willing to accept.
The distinctive sacrifices and stigmas of being Catholic were abandoned (without replacement) by the reforms of Vatican II.
Faiths that impose high costs offset them by providing high levels of reward. Hence, when people cease choosing to sacrifice we must suspect that they no longer are getting a good deal—or at least that no longer perceive the exchange as favorable…
Are the American Catholics going to go the way of the Congregationalists, Presbyterians Episcopalians and Methodists? Will they come to be just another mainline body specializing in comfortable pews, while slowly sliding downhill? Can the process somehow be reversed? We believe that in principle people can always reverse themselves and make different choices. But often they do not, and this makes it difficult to anticipate history. Nevertheless, some aspects of the future of American Catholicism seem relatively clear.
Unless the church is able to re-establish greater tension with its environment it will not be able to restore the reward needed to maintain high levels of sacrifice by the religious. It takes a vivid conception of active and potent supernatural forces to motivate people to make major sacrifices on behalf of faith, because only such active forces can plausibly deliver the great rewards on which a favorable exchange ratio rests.