14 December 2010

The Lost Symbol, Masons and Catholics

Dan Brown's latest novel, The Last Symbol, like its prequels, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, is a mediocre offering when viewed as a thriller or an exposition of character. On the other hand, compared to art and architecture history lectures, they are rather compelling. And, all three books are basically art and architecture history lessons framed in treasure hunt, conspiracy theory driven thrillers.

These days, with a very small number of notable exceptions (Denver International Airport comes to mind), no one seems bothered to inject mystery or hidden meaning into anything. One needs to go back to the Beatles album covers to find that kind of mischief afoot.

At the heart of The Lost Symbol is a conflict between the Free Masons and some of the Holy Orders the Catholic Church. As it turns out, however, both sides of this conflict seem to be dying on the vine.

Free Masonry was designed to weather persecution. There was once an anti-Masonic political party, and my alma mater was active in the anti-Masonic movement. It has been condemned by the Pope. Apathy, however, proved a more challenging adversary. The Masons still own some prime real estate in Washington D.C., Denver and elsewhere, and still have some powerful members. But, service clubs of all kinds have seen their memberships age, their membership rolls shrink, and their participation decline. The Masons have not been an exception to this rule. In 1941, they had about 4.1 million members in the United States, as of 2006, the total membership was about 1.5 million. The aura of power surrounding the Masons has also faded. The Masons are enjoying a minor resurgence, but the average age of a Mason in California is still 65 years old.

The Roman Catholic religious orders of monks and nuns featured in Dan Brown's earlier two books have seen an even more stark decline. Last year, the Church announced that:

[B]etween 2005 and 2006 the number "members of the consecrated life" fell by just under 10%.

The number of members, predominantly women, some engaged only in constant prayer, others working as teachers, health workers and missionaries, fell 94,790 to 945,210. . . Of the total, 753,400 members were women, while 191,810 were men, including 136,171 priests and 532 permanent deacons.

The situation in the United States is not the exception to this trend:

When Vatican II closed, sisters numbered 180,000 in the United States. Today there are about 65,000 sisters, with an average age of 69.

There is also a shortage of priests in the Catholic Church, although a less dramatic one, even though the church's membership ranks are healthy (1.1 billion worldwide). For example:

Only 23 seminarians are expected to be ordained for New York City over the next four years. . . . Currently there are only 648 diocesan priests for the Archdiocese of New York, which has 2.5 million Catholics.


As the number of Catholics in the United States has risen, the number of priests has steadily dropped. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are nearly 29,000 priests, about 20 percent fewer than 40 years ago.

There are more than 60 million Catholics in the United States, about 2,000 per diocesan priest, nationally. More statistics along the same lines can be found here and here.

The trends are likely to continue:

"Ninety-one percent of nuns and 75 percent of priests are 60 or older, and most of the rest are at least 50."


Maju said...

An interesting, well written and particularly intriguing article, thanks.

"The number of [Catholic religious people] fell 94,790 to 945,210".

Do you realize that's total decimation in a single year?! At that rate they will be extinct by 2016. (Good news but rather unexpected).

I have two wannabee nuns in my extended family but both quit (one early and the other later but both did anyhow). The rigidity of Catholic discipline is too much for even the most devout of them. They had that Vatican II council that attempted for once to stay in line with society almost in advance, upon arrival of the Toyotist era in the 60s. But it was sabotaged from the inside, specially since Wojtyla.

A quality of the Toyotist period is the disgust for hierarchies and even certain lack of leadership in general, which caused the eclipse of autocratic figures like De Gaulle, Franco or even the URSS eventually as well. Certainly the Catholic Church should be affected but even I am surprised to the extent of this demographic crisis, really.

It has some millennialist vibes to it, admittedly.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

"well written"

If you say so, I wouldn't call it my finest writing.

"Do you realize that's total decimation in a single year?!"


"At that rate they will be extinct by 2016."

No. A 10% decline per year would reduce the total by about 65% by 2016 as the base number falls each year.

There are some very practical problems posed by this development. Some of the religious orders own considerable property. For example, there is a Catholic order whose hospital holdings in Colorado make it one of the three largest hospital owners in the state by market share. Vesting such immense enterprises in the management of an increasing tiny and elderly group of women who got into their current posts because they had no interest in worldly affairs grows more problematic each year as the number of nuns shrinks and their average age grows greater. It also risks the possibility of a small number of women entering holy orders with a mere pretense of religious conviction when their actual desire is to control a billion dollar empire. The problem is not so much incompetence (one can hire professional managers after all, and they do), but fecklessness with the dotty ideas of someone in early stage Alzheimer's potentially influencing the professional lives of tens of thousands of ordinary people and the medical well being of millions of people.

Maju said...

"... as the base number falls each year".

Well, I was imagining a steady or even increasing figure of c. 100,000 "casualties" per year. We are talking elderly nuns, not interest rates. But I can't say exactly.

As for the problems derived from the collapse of the Catholic Church, I can agree in very generic terms but, well, nothing that cannot be solved by nationalization, you know. After all is built by donations, so it belongs to the people ultimately. That's my philosophy.

Jude said...

In the early 1970s, one of my cousin's grandfathers from Mexico visited Colorado for the first time. He spoke no English. When he met my grandfather, who spoke no Spanish, they discovered they were both Masons by flashing some secret signs at each other, and the two men thus became instant friends. It was the only practical use I ever saw for any of the clubs my grandparents belonged to. I noticed the article you linked to didn't have accurate figures for Latin American countries. I'd be curious to know if enrollments in Mexico have dropped as well.