The Ukrainian Catholic Church in the USA: Challenges and Responses

Andrew Sorokowsky

Lviv, Ukraine - Boim Chapel

In 2019, under the direction of Professor Oksana Mikheyeva, the Ukrainian Catholic University Department of Sociology conducted a sociological survey of Ukrainian Catholics in five locations in the United States. This survey has produced both quantitative and qualitative conclusions, which will eventually be made public. Certain basic facts and statistics, however, are already available. In light of these, we can outline several challenges that the Church faces, and suggest some responses. 

Demographic and Social Challenges

The Ukrainian Catholic Church in the USA is a minority within a minority. In 1980 there were some 700,000 people in the United States who considered them of Ukrainian or partly Ukrainian origin.[1] In 1981 our Church had about 245,000 members.[2] In 2010, Ukrainian Americans numbered over 931,000[3] and today exceed a million. According to our eparchial websites, however, the number of Ukrainian Catholics has fallen to about 52,000. In 1981, we had 3 high schools and 27 elementary schools (Procko 262-63). Today, our schools number six (Metropolitan Borys in “The Way” September 20, 2020, p. 2), and St. Basil Academy in Philadelphia is due to close at the end of this academic year. In 1981, the Archeparchy of Philadelphia had 98 active eparchial and mission priests;[4] today, it has 37. These statistics should be regarded, however, in the context of the decline of the Catholic Church as a whole in the United States. 

True, size and numbers aren’t everything. In a radio address on Christmas Day 1969, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (today Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) foresaw a smaller, poorer, but purer Church. Moreover, trends often reverse themselves. Even the Covid-19 pandemic could, by reminding us of the reality of death and the limitations of science and technology, lead to a revival of religion.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church in the USA includes members from three demographic groups:

First, there is the American-born diaspora, mostly descended from three “waves” of immigration from Ukrainian lands (1870-1914, 1922-1936, 1945-1953). Second, the “fourth wave” of immigration (since 1988), according to the Center for Demography of the Shevchenko Scientific Society in New York, numbers (as of 2018) 320,000 people, constituting 28 percent of the 1.128 million Ukrainian Americans. Third, a smaller group comprises converts of various religious and ethnic origins.

The American-born diaspora, however, should be understood not simply in terms of “waves” of immigration, but also in terms of socio-economic class. Each sub-group has its own characteristics with regard to religion.

Typically, descendants of working-class immigrants are culturally and linguistically assimilated, yet many remain in our Church. Others have become Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, or simply “secularized.”

Descendants of intelligentsia immigrants (primarily the post-war immigration, which had already experienced secularization in Western Ukraine and often held anti-clerical attitudes) tend to identify culturally as Ukrainian Americans. The post-war revival of religiosity (in solidarity with the catacomb Church, and as a conduit for frustrated political energy) among their parents and grandparents has affected these newer Ukrainian Americans. But with Ukraine’s attainment of independence in 1991, the political motivation for cultivating a Ukrainian identity and preserving the Ukrainian Church has practically disappeared. This leaves a sometimes weak religious commitment.

The Fourth Wave is also not a uniform group. Few of those over 50 had contact with the underground Church (one estimate is 5 percent). Those under 50 knew the post-Soviet Church, which in some ways still followed the Russian Orthodox model and lags behind other European Catholic churches in various ways.

The Fourth Wave working-class immigration appears to retain the somewhat Latinized traditional Ukrainian religious habits and attitudes of the village. The Fourth Wave intelligentsia can be divided into those over and those under 50. The first group, having grown up in Soviet conditions, often have a secular world view, with strong nationalist attitudes and an anti-clericalism born of their distaste for the Russian Orthodox Church. For the same reason, they may have an aversion to Byzantinism, even when it appears within the Greco-Catholic Church, and a sympathy for everything Western, including the Latin-rite Catholic Church. Because of their Soviet experience, they are often wary of organizations and programs imposed “from above,” and harbor a suspicion of all authorities – ecclesiastical as well as civil. In some, an upbringing and education marked by limited and selective access to Western culture may have aggravated a dearth of Christian moral and ethical principles (e.g., on such matters as abortion).

While some Fourth Wavers under 50 may have belonged to the Church in post-Soviet Ukraine, many grew up outside it. Here, they readily assimilate to post-Christian American culture. Those who enter the professional, managerial, and technical elite (e.g., in Information Technology) are reported to be generally indifferent to religion, or at least to the Church, though some may seek non-traditional forms of spirituality.

The term “diaspora” implies an aspiration to someday return to the homeland. This is now rarely the case. Ukrainians are becoming Americans and joining American communities. In the suburbs, where more and more of our people live, parishioners often live far apart and do not know each other, nor do they encounter each other in daily life. Thus, both “community” and “parish” have lost much of their significance. Since the quarantine conditions during the Covid-19 epidemic have favored on-line (virtual) networks, which have become the prime communities for many people, the virtual parish may be the trend of the future.

The Church also traditionally, and naturally, focuses on those who are already its members. But in a recent article in the magazine America, Fr. Tomás Halík, SJ urges the Church to find Jesus among the “seekers” beyond the Church.[5] Indeed, the Church needs to seek out the “seekers” both within her ranks and outside them. In doing so, it must compete with a plethora of other forms of religion and spirituality.

The American Social and Cultural Context[6]

The American socio-cultural context must also be considered. Catholics will never be entirely comfortable in a secular state, society, or culture. The United States is not a confessional state: the Constitution declares that political authority is derived from the people, and its preamble does not mention God or religion. True, as reflected in the Declaration of Independence, the United States’ Founding Fathers evidently presumed that a secular state embedded in a Christian society would have sufficient moral purpose to succeed. But American society and culture, once predominantly Protestant, have now become secular, with especial rapidity since the 1960s. The stability of our constitutional structure is consequently showing signs of stress.[7] Nevertheless, even a secular culture can produce converts, as Christopher Guly’s report on Ukrainian Catholic converts in Canada illustrates.

In the past two centuries, Western elites have largely abandoned Christianity. The combined influences of the popular understandings — and misunderstandings — of Darwin (reducing humanity to just another species arising from nature rather than divine creation), Marx (reducing history to economically based class conflict), Nietzsche (reducing human relations to a struggle for power), and Freud (reducing human feeling, thought, and behavior to sex and aggression), have undermined the Judaeo-Christian tradition by removing the notion of sin — and thus the need for redemption — as well as rejecting the existence of good and evil, of an immortal human soul, and of God himself. These modern ideas are not new – they were probably dominant among the Western intelligentsia by the mid-20th century – but it is only in the past few decades that with the spread of education and communications, they have become prevalent among the masses in the West and, to some extent, beyond it.

We seem to live today in a sort of Nietzschean “Game of Thrones” society, where the bottom has dropped out of ethics and morality, and life is reduced to a Hobbesian struggle of all against all. In such a society, the rule of law – not to mention the force of the moral law — is increasingly disregarded, and power exerted through violence becomes the only value — as we saw in several cities last summer and in Washington, DC on January 6, and as evidenced by the fact that 2020 was a record year for firearms sales. We are left with a morally empty space, where all “noble” and loving human feelings are mere calculation or at best, evolutionary adaptations to ensure brute survival. In such a world, there is no place for love.

True, there have always been countercurrents, including brief revivals of Christianity. Thus, for example, modernism’s stress on the individual psyche was reflected in the Catholic current of personalism. Today’s post-modernism, which is already penetrating mass consciousness, is to some degree a reaction against modernism. In this sense it can be seen as religion’s ally in the struggle against modernism, clearing the air by, for example, overthrowing such modernist structures of thought as Marxism. But while modernism denied Christianity and sought to overthrow its institutions, post-modernism regards them as irrelevant. Its rejection of broad synthetic concepts negates the very idea of religion, while its deconstructive, anarchic posture militates against religious or any other institutions (or the consensus needed to create them). Obsessed with sexual, racial, and other identities (currently reflected in American politics), post-modernism disposes of religion in their terms (e.g., branding European Christianity as essentially “White” and racist). Suspicious of all claims to truth and recognizing power as the only motive of human behavior, post-modernism adopts its predecessor’s commitment to personal freedom as an ultimate goal.

It is thus no wonder that college students exposed (as they should be) to both modern and post-modern ideas – or high school students taught by college-educated teachers – typically lose their faith and leave the Church. For few have the mental and moral equipment to subject recent Western intellectual trends to critical appraisal.  Even fewer have the imagination to chart a new course. Christian philosophers, scientists, and other scholars who have done so have been relegated to the sidelines of both popular and academic discourse.

For many Americans today, politics has displaced religion. For young people on the Left, politics has become a “religion without God.” (Andrew Sullivan, “Why is Wokeness Winning?” The Weekly Dish, October 16, 2020). For Evangelicals and Catholics on the Right, religion has been subsumed by politics (Andrew Sullivan, “Christianism,” The Weekly Dish, December 11, 2020). All this can be seen as part of secularization.

In North American society, our Churches offer only one of many options on what to believe and how to live. To the modern mind, notions that we take for granted — the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, permanently valid ethics and morality, an apprehensible Truth, the value of private or community worship and ritual – are alien and bizarre. They have been challenged — and rejected.

This does not mean that we should dilute our message to suit the times; quite the opposite. A robust, clear, and challenging message attracts with its truth; a flaccid, opportunistic and accommodationist one elicits yawns. Tradition reminds us that the Church is for all times and places, not just ours. But we should keep the contemporary social and cultural context in mind, and find ways to convey our message in terms that today’s society can understand.

Family Challenges

The Church generally, and naturally, envisions its flock as a parish centered on the family, both being part of a wider Ukrainian community. Based on Christian anthropology and the concept of an “immigration” or “diaspora,” this concept seems reasonable. But it is no longer adequate. The statistical probability of any Ukrainian Greco-Catholic marrying and founding a family with someone who is also Ukrainian and also Greco-Catholic is minimal. The parishioner of tomorrow may be the only Ukrainian Greco-Catholic in his or her family. The closer such parishioners come to the Church, the farther they will be from their families. Ministering to this new type of parishioner will most likely require a new pastoral approach.

The fate of the Ukrainian American Catholic family must be seen in the context of the decline of the family itself in the United States. While in 1940, 90% of American households were families, only 66.4% were families in 2010. Fertility has dropped from 3.4 children per woman to 1.8. Since 1960, single-parent births have risen from 6% to 43% in 2010. [8] In a recent international study of socio-economic conditions for raising a family, Los Angeles-based researchers Asher and Ferguson found that of the 35 members of the Organization on Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranked 34th.[9] Ukrainian Greco-Catholic evangelization must take these realities into account.

Modern technological civilization has in many ways disrupted the natural order. This has widened the gulf between Christian morality, which draws on natural law as well as revelation, and the accepted norms of contemporary life, which violate natural law in many and various ways. This is most evident in the central human issues of marriage, sex, and family. Very few young people are willing to choose between the acceptable Christian options of (1) chastity until marriage and (2) lifelong continence, or in case of marriage, among (1) early and frequent child-bearing, (2) natural family planning, and (3) some combination of both. Consequently, many if not most of those who remain in the Church find themselves in an ethically and psychologically untenable situation, which can only be overcome by either adjusting their conduct to Christian moral precepts or adjusting their precepts to their conduct. Many choose the latter, and thus effectively leave the Church.

The Challenge of Re-evangelization in a Post-Christian Society

We speak of “re-evangelization” because there are few instances in North America when we encounter someone who is utterly ignorant of the Christian message. True, that message has been distorted – the very term “Christian” has been appropriated by Evangelicals, so that our faith is now associated in the public mind with them (and with their political stance). Moreover, anti-Christian bias has infested much of American culture. Anti-Catholic bias, which has a long history in the United States, has been aggravated in recent decades by the sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. It now pervades so-called popular culture. At the same time, secular education and a post-Christian culture have resulted in a youth that is often woefully uninformed about religion in general, and about the Catholic faith in particular.

Nevertheless, in most cases what we are called to do is better described as re-evangelization. In some ways, this is more difficult than evangelization. Those who have simply left the Church out of carelessness or neglect might be persuaded to return. But those who have consciously rejected the Church, and even the faith itself, cannot so easily be brought back, or even approached. There is little that the clergy can do, for their very identity causes them to be avoided. The task thus falls to us, the laity.

There is one form of re-evangelization that can best be pursued by laity acting in concert with bishops and clergy. That is “public theology.” There are many issues in the public discourse where a Christian voice is needed. In the United States, many executive orders, legislative acts, and judicial decisions on both the federal and the state level involve issues of ethics or morality on which the Church ought to comment. Our Church does not have the resources to issue theologically grounded opinions on all or even many of these, and tends to follow the Roman Catholic lead. But from time to time, our bishops, theologians, and laity could work together to put forth an Eastern Catholic understanding of some major public issue. This would be a work of evangelization as well as a fulfillment of our duty of Christian witness. Statements by our metropolitan and bishops on last summer’s civic disorders and on the presidential succession crisis were steps in that direction.

Traditionally, our clergy have addressed their preaching to those who already believe in God and the Church. Those who do not believe in religion, God, or the Church are not likely to listen to them in the Church or outside it. The task of spreading the Gospel to them is thus left to the laity. But is our laity prepared to take up this task?  It takes considerable knowledge and sophistication. The laity must be prepared not only to meet and overcome the arguments of agnostics and atheists. They must also be able to explain and defend the most fundamental religious concepts. To many members of the most recent generations, whether born in post-Soviet Ukraine or in post-Christian America, the very notions of religion, church, and worship are utterly foreign. At the same time, the laity must teach by example and by sharing faith through friendship.

Responses

America’s Ukrainian Catholics can work together with Orthodox and Evangelicals to create a new Christian culture — a sort of parallel universe — in a new spirit. In doing so, we can dismiss three false dichotomies. First, we need not choose between a committed, activist core and a broad, inclusive church. Only the former can produce the latter.

Second, we need not oppose the principles of hierarchy and authority to synodality and conciliarism. True, the church finds herself in circumstances vastly different from the epochs in which its organizational structure, its administrative and pastoral style, were developed. Today, “authentic” horizontal relations are replacing formal, vertical, hierarchical ones. But hierarchy and authority remain essential.

Third, we need not choose between tradition and modernity. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, traditionalists are innovators too. The only difference is between progress informed by the past, and blind progressivism which, ignoring the past, only repeats its mistakes. We must be both traditional and contemporary.

Our churches can take several concrete steps in this direction. They can propagate monasticism, perhaps proposing “elders” as counsellors for the laity. They can cultivate pilgrimages – including long treks for the young and fit. They can engage with contemporary culture, involving Ukrainian American artists, writers, and musicians. The first initiatives in online adult education, promoting liturgical literacy, are promising; they should continue. Our laity can form book discussion clubs, remotely if necessary. Our church hierarchies can revitalize the laity by inviting it to elect representatives to church councils.

We have a great deal to learn from American Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Evangelicals, and others. Many American intellectuals are interested in the Eastern churches. But where are our own intellectuals? Historian Paul Johnson has pointed out the importance for religion of interaction between a society’s intellectual elite and its masses.[10] Such an interaction can be seen among Latin-rite Catholics in the US, where public intellectuals such as George Weigel communicate with committed, educated Catholics on the pages of journals like America, Communio, and First Things. We have nothing of the sort. In Canada, a handful of Catholic intellectuals are gathered about Canada’s Sheptytsky Institute, but there is no American publication comparable to Patriyarkhat. This is unfortunate, for if we could draw on both our theological sources as Eastern Christians and on our national experience, we could contribute richly to religious life in the United States.

The above-cited statistics suggest that the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the USA is at risk. Perhaps we need to get back to basics — to the eucharistic community. As Metropolitan Borys has pointed out, the Soviet-era catacomb church offers useful lessons. It may even serve us as a model. We may lose some of our real property. Having failed to nourish vocations in our own families, we are becoming dependent, like the Latin-rite Catholics, on “imported” clergy raised and educated in what is, after all, a very different society. But we cannot always rely on Ukraine, where vocations are falling, and where pastors are needed for the mission territories in the South and the East. The occasional visit by an itinerant priest celebrating the liturgy in a private home may represent the diaspora church of the future. Perhaps that would not be such a bad thing. It could give birth to a more vibrant and authentic faith.

Conclusions

The Ukrainian Catholic Church in the USA must, of course, care for immigrants – not in order to conserve their ethnic-national identity (that is not the Church’s task), but to preserve and develop their ecclesial identity. It should do so with the full awareness that immigrants to North America will become Americans. It must therefore use the English language as well as Ukrainian, and help immigrants find their place in American culture – all the while remaining Greco-Catholics in the Ukrainian Byzantine tradition.

Whether our Church can carry on evangelization, understood as a cooperative lay-clerical enterprise, in American society depends in part on how we envision the Church itself. If its mission is only to provide for recent immigrants a replica of the Church in Ukraine – or a bulwark against “Americanization” — it will soon lose those immigrants as they assimilate into American society, and it will certainly lose their children. The Church will not abandon the immigration, but the immigration will abandon the Church. The Church will also be unlikely to evangelize the broader society, for the linguistic and cultural barriers will be too high.

If, on the other hand, the Church’s mission is to help preserve and develop our Kyivan-Byzantine Christianity in the new American context, then it will serve as a home to immigrants as they assimilate into American culture and society. Only such a Church – fully conscious of its identity as a Kyivan-Byzantine Church sui juris, developed in Ukraine yet rooted in American soil – can evangelize not only its own people, but the broader society as well. Such a Church will be both Ukrainian and American. It will be precisely its Ukrainian identity that empowers it to participate in the re-evangelization of America.

The post-war diaspora and its progeny, to which many of us belong, set itself the task of preserving the Ukrainian language, culture, and faith until they could be restored in Ukraine. Patriarch Josyf Slipyj called upon his faithful to maintain the Ukrainian Catholic Church, with its language and traditions, in the diaspora. As the diaspora’s contributions to Ukraine in various fields, including religion, have shown, it succeeded in this task. Today, it is time to set ourselves a different goal. For Ukrainian Catholics, that goal should be to develop a truly patriarchal and evangelizing church in the lands of settlement.

[1] Oleh Wolowyna, Atlas of Ukrainians in the United States (2019), p. 23.

[2] Bohdan P. Procko, Ukrainian Catholics in America: A History, 2nd rev. ed. (2016), p. 263.

[3] Oleh Wolowyna, op. cit.

[4] Procko 262.

[5] https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/04/03/christianity-time-sickness

[6] An recent study of contemporary world religious trends, including a section on the United States, is Khose Kazanova, Relihiia v suchasnomu sviti: pliuralizm, sekuliaryzatsiia, hlobalizatsiia, Lviv 2019.

[7] For a brief critical discussion of religion in the American constitutional order, see S.M. Hutchens, “Law and Gospel, Constitution and Church,” Touchstone, January/February 2020, pp. 9-11.

[8] Michel Gurfinkiel, “Christian Democracy,” First Things, August-September 2020, p. 31.

[9] https://www.asherfergusson.com/raising-a-family-index/

[10] Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (1976), pp. 95-96.