Before looking at the following graph, keep in mind that the Catholic Church has been around about 1,700 years. Had the church lost just 6 percentage points of its believers each of the last 17 centuries, it would now be effectively obsolete, making Catholics about as common as pagans. Again, losing 6 percentage points per century would have obsoleted it by now.
Which brings us to the precipitous decline of Hispanics who refer to themselves as Catholic in the US.
It's a safe bet that the church won't dissipate that quickly, but it's worth asking how Pope Francis could slow this decline.
I have two complementary theories, one having to do with confession and the other with the modern emphasis on autonomy - the self-defined life that is at the root of democracy and capitalism.
Sex scandals have hurt the church. That seems obvious. Less obvious is the persistent role of confession in sex scandals.
Centuries ago,a young woman confessing to immoral urges was positioned on her knees before the priest, her arms on his legs in a penitent position. Even the most sincere young priest, looking into the face of a beautiful confessor gazing up at him, her face essentially on his lap, would find it hard not to be moved as she confessed to sinful thoughts or acts. So a long time ago, the church decided that a confession booth would both take some of the sexual tension out of this situation and possibly protect the identity of easy marks from rogue priests. Things got better.
Then, in 1910, Pope Pius X decided that children should confess. He thought it was a good idea for 7 year old kids to begin admitting they were sinners. (The list of serious sins includes being late for Mass. It's never too early for someone to start feeling guilty, apparently, even for things for which parents are responsible.) And while the previous practice was to confess once or twice a year, Pius thought confession should become a weekly practice. So about the time everyone else began to listen to weekly radio programs, priests were listening to weekly confessions from prepubescent children.
After this policy, reports of sexual abuse of children rose. It's a terrible policy.
One difference between a church and business is the respect for tradition. It takes a lot to change the policy of a previous pope because that pope was the mouthpiece of God. Even so, popes do change policies. It happens and if Pope Francis cares at all about halting the decline of Catholics, he'll reverse this decision to have children confess. Let children be children and wait until they are teenagers, at least, before beginning to make them feel guilty for living in a body instead of existing as a purely spiritual being, unencumbered by carnal thoughts. That's one policy change that could help to reverse the decline of Catholics.
The second policy change will be harder because it gets at the heart of the difference between Catholics and Protestants.
Authority seems to evolve through at least two stages. In the first stage of nation-states, for instance, the monarch was the ultimate authority. Louis XIV, who ruled France until 1715, famously said, "I am the state." That same century, Thomas Jefferson penned the words, "All men are created equal," and then helped to create a constitution that would replace the monarch as the ultimate authority in a country. At the first stage, authority resides in a person and in a later stage it resides in the written word.
Catholics and Protestants alike believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. The difference is, Protestants think the Bible is the ultimate authority whereas Catholics think the ultimate authority is the clergy (and their ultimate authority is the pope). Catholics warned original Protestants that if they were going to make the Bible the ultimate authority then anyone was free to offer a new interpretation and the result would be thousands of denominations; it turns out they were right. But even in the midst of the chaos of multiple theologies, there is a certain freedom and democracy in the Protestant option. It is not just, as Martin Luther said, "We are all priests." Any Protestant, from Mary Baker Eddy to Billy Graham, is free to be pope, to head his or her own religion. And the Protestant emphasis more closely accords with the impulse of the modern world, with each person defining his or her own life rather than turning to an authority figure for instructions.
Here, too, Pope Francis has a chance to articulate relevant policy. A pope who says, "Who am I to judge," is one that people defining their own life are more likely to love than resent. It would be huge - but honest - for the Catholic Church to acknowledge their role of merely informing rather than defining the individual's conscience. There is a very real difference between a church that helps the individual to define his or her own life and one that wants to define that life.
Hispanics make up nearly half of American Catholics. Their loss is not trivial. It would be absurd for Pope Francis to ignore this problem. The good news for him, though, is that this decline could probably be slowed with just a couple of key changes. It's too late to avoid radical change; the Church is going to either radically change in terms of its numbers or in terms of its policy. We will see whether Francis has more commitment to tradition or reality and which kind of radical change he'll accept. It's too late for the status quo.