Is it inappropriate to write about Ukrainian church affairs in the US in the midst of Ukraine’s desperate struggle to defeat Russian aggression? Not really. It’s not just because our churches both in Ukraine and the diaspora contribute to the war effort, in terms of providing both military chaplains on the front, and material aid for refugees and other war victims (the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, for example, has distributed over eight million dollars in aid). Nor is it only because we must give the lie to Russia’s claims to be fighting a “holy war” against Western godlessness and immorality, personified by a secularized pro-Western Ukraine. It is also because once a just peace is won, Ukraine’s moral as well as material reconstruction will require the participation of religious organizations — not without input from the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the USA (UCC).

But the diaspora religious communities cannot provide effective guidance and support if their own houses are not in order. This is certainly true of the UCC, whose metropolitan archbishop has taken energetic steps to revive the life of his flock in today’s difficult circumstances.

Those circumstances were already dark before Covid and the war. The statistics are not encouraging. In 1990, the number of US residents of Ukrainian origin was 721,000, and the four eparchies of the Ukrainian Catholic Church totaled a little over 158,000 members. By 2017, when the number of Ukrainian Americans had reached around a million, Ukrainian Catholic membership had dwindled to about 49,000. If in the 1960s, there were perhaps 100,000 Ukrainian Catholics in the Philadelphia Archeparchy, by 2019 there were officially only 10,000 and actually about 7,000. A similar decline is seen in Canada, where in 1990 there were 202,000 Ukrainian Catholics, but in 2017 only about 48,000.

Why do people leave their church? Do they dislike their pastor? Do they disagree with Catholic moral and ethical teachings? Have they joined some other church or religion? Have they lost their faith altogether? Or are their purported reasons, at least in part, a rationalization for more personal motives, stemming from adultery, divorce, or sexual issues? Or is it just plain laziness? After all, being a fully practicing Ukrainian Catholic requires lifelong study (not just childhood catechesis), prayer, fasting, charity, and active participation in a complex ritual. It is not a simple religion. And yet at bottom, it is quite simple.

Finding the causes of disaffiliation (the technical term for leaving the church) was the principal motive behind a recent study of lay attitudes initiated by Immaculate Conception parish of Palatine, Illinois. A deeper motive, no doubt, was the pain of seeing the younger generation leaving the church. Parishioner John Bilos came up with the idea of a wide-ranging survey. An exploratory group was formed comprising Mr. Bilos, the pastor Rev. Mykhailo Kuzma, Dr. Donna Dobrowolsky, Myron Kuropas (a pioneer of Ukrainian immigration studies), Stefko Kuropas, Slawko Pihut, and Lou Zink. Expert consultants including the demographer Dr. Oleh Wolowyna, and opinion survey specialist Jaroslaw Martyniuk, were contacted. A study group was formed consisting of Fr. Andriy Chirovsky, Bishop Bohdan Danylo, Donna Dobrowolsky, and this writer. The group engaged Professor Oksana Mikheieva of the Department of Sociology at the Ukrainian Catholic University and a team of Ukrainian researchers. U.S. volunteers helped out with logistics.

During the summer of 2019, the research team studied five communities, collecting 922 filled-in questionnaires and conducting 95 in-depth individual interviews. The onset of Covid in early 2020, and the escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war two years later, delayed analysis and publication of the results of this research. The final report has been translated into English by Olenka Galadza and will be published by the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies in their journal Logos.

Parish surveys, it is true, are nothing new. But they are normally conducted using questionnaires mailed or distributed to registered parishioners. They do not cover those who have left the church, or who were baptized but never joined a parish. Moreover — and despite guarantees of anonymity — some respondents may be reluctant to voice critical opinions in a survey conducted by church authorities.

Seeking to fill this gap, in the winter and spring of 2012 Mrs. Roma Hayda and this writer prepared and sent out questionnaires to contacts and organizations of the Ukrainian diaspora in the US, mostly by e-mail. These reached some of the disaffiliated as well as current parishioners. The survey was brief, consisting of twelve multiple-choice questions. We received 221 responses from 17 states and the District of Columbia. In reporting to the community, we acknowledged that this was an amateur effort, and that a proper sociological survey was still needed.

Seven years later, the need was met. The Palatine study was the first systematic effort by professional sociologists to gauge lay Ukrainian Catholic attitudes in the US. The study was primarily qualitative, because the absence of detailed statistics made a full quantitative study impossible. Such statistics were unavailable because while the US census may ask about ethnic origin, it does not ordinarily collect data on religious affiliation. One must therefore rely on parish statistics and self-identification by interviewees, which does not provide a full picture. We cannot, for example, determine the number of our people who are religious believers but are not registered with any church or parish without contacting all one million Ukrainian Americans.

Nevertheless, the qualitative research by the UCU sociologists had the virtue of going beyond the parishes to reach individuals who had left the church: a number of the disaffiliated were interviewed or responded to written questionnaires. They provided a variety of reasons for their estrangement from the UCC, which the report conveys through anonymous quotations.

Like any science, sociology is a tool that should be used with an understanding of its limitations as well as its potential. It can tell us about the beliefs, attitudes, and expectations of those within a religious organization as well as outside of it. But numbers and statistics are not everything. Sociology cannot capture the entirety of spiritual experience. It is one thing to describe social attitudes, quite another to identify their causes, and yet another to prescribe remedies. All the same, sociological study can help ensure that the church’s planning and policy are based on verifiable facts.

Disaffiliation and Isolation

It would be a mistake to assume that disaffiliation is peculiar to the UCC. It is a problem for Roman Catholics, for the various Orthodox Churches, and for religious organizations in the West in general. In the US, the decline of “organized religion,” and of the Roman Catholic Church in particular, as well as the rise of the “nones” among youth, are well known and documented[1].

The reasons for such trends, however, are elusive. In a recent book, The Time of Empty Churches, the Czech theologian Fr. Tomáš Halík finds the causes of the decline of religiosity among his people not in the usual suspects of “godlessness, materialism, consumerism, and liberalism,” but in “the inability of the majority of the hierarchy and clergy to understand contemporary culture and society[2].” He characterizes contemporary Czech society as not atheistic but “apatheistic,” that is, indifferent. People ask many questions, he notes, but “do not find answers in the Church—and today do not even expect any from her.” In a review of Fr. Halík’s book, Fr. Roman Ostrovs’kyi asks whether the same situation has not already arisen in Ukraine[3]. It probably has arisen in the US.

One way to try to understand this phenomenon is to look at broad historical trends. Since the eighteenth century, there has been a movement in the West “from status to contract.” Whereas in medieval society, people were born into a status that they could not change, in the modern age their status has become negotiable. The ultimate consequence has been the current notion that we are free to change not only our social or economic status, but our very identities: “you can be anything you want to be” – a billionaire, a rock star, a person of another sex – and you may even demand that the public authorities recognize your preferences. In the religious sphere, this trend appears as a passage from obligatory “cradle Catholicism” to religious affiliation (or disaffiliation) by choice. Given the alternatives of a sometimes difficult, demanding religion like Christianity on the one hand, and agnosticism or atheism combined with a flaccid ideology of “openness, tolerance, diversity, and inclusion” on the other, it is not surprising that many choose the latter. At the same time, those who choose faith do so not out of habit or compulsion, but as a conscious and voluntary choice. They understand that the essence of religion is not a set of dreary obligations and abstract propositions, but a thrilling encounter with the divine.

The epochal change from status to contract has taken place, however, in European societies where Christianity had long ago become an integral part of the culture, so that the very mentality of each nation was deeply and naturally Christian. Even non-practicing or nominal Catholics and Orthodox still thought in Catholic or Orthodox terms. In eastern Ukraine, communist ideology eroded much of this mental landscape. In the US, the Catholic mentality of major immigrant groups gradually ceded to the dominant American Protestant one, even among those who remained practicing Catholics. Today, American Catholicism seems to be splitting into two camps. Some, following the mainline Protestant trajectory, become only nominal believers or secular liberals. A smaller group, attempting to reassert its Catholic identity, becomes self-consciously and affirmatively Catholic, often in an overtly traditionalist mode – all the while unable to divest itself of Protestant and Americanist influence – with incongruous results. What has been lost in both cases, it seems, is the natural, instinctive Christianity of our forebears.

But that is North America. For Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular, less than a third of whose members are in the West, the future seems to lie in the global South: in the Philippines, Mexico, in Africa and Asia. In countries like India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Vietnam, persecution only seems to strengthen Christian resistance. Burgeoning African Catholicism is generally more “conservative” (in the sense of resisting politicization and ideological fads) than that of Western Europe and America—perhaps, one is tempted to speculate, because hardship and persecution focus the mind. The Church in the “developed world,” by contrast, is becoming more “liberal” (in the sense of morally permissive and politically leftist) as it declines. Whether this is a case of causation rather than mere correlation is an interesting question.

Some distinctions, however, should be made. For example, a recent study by the Springtide Research Institute suggests that while young Americans have less faith in religious institutions and are less inclined to participate in “organized religion” than previous generations, many remain “religious”; they just do not affiliate with any particular church or faith[4]. Furthermore, the study shows that since Covid, members of Generation Z tend to be lonely and seek spiritual guidance from trusted mentors—though not the clergy. Thus, as Springtide executive director Prof. Josh Packard points out, the term “disaffiliation” does not provide the whole picture: young people may be abandoning their churches, but they are not necessarily abandoning their personal spiritual quests. There is still the evolutionary need to overcome the impermanence of the self, through contact with the transcendent. In that perspective, the historic offer of salvation provides a clear choice.

For Ukrainian Catholics, this situation has been complicated by the challenge of inculturation. If Eastern Christianity has been deeply inculturated in Ukraine over the past millennium, here in America it must be inculturated anew. As our diaspora becomes gradually Americanized, our Christianized Ukrainian culture gives way to an American culture that is already in the process of de-Christianization. What is the diaspora church to do? Should it try to salvage a fading Ukrainian Christian culture which, separated from its homeland, will always be somewhat artificial? Or should it find a way to imbue American culture with Eastern Christianity? The former project sounds like a losing proposition. The latter has barely been attempted. But it would be no small task, as the Anglo-Protestant culture of the United States is at least as remote from the East Slavic cultural matrix in which Kyivan Byzantine Christianity developed as it is from continental European culture.

Since 2020, the public health restrictions occasioned by the Covid pandemic have put a large dent in church attendance. In The Time of Empty Churches, Fr. Tomáš Halík, discussing the effects of Covid, sees the “forced abstinence from the Eucharist” as a “rare manifestation of God’s pedagogy” and “an opportunity to go deep into oneself and ask oneself some fundamental questions[5].” For those with a healthy spiritual appetite, isolation from church rituals, sacraments, and the companionship of the parish community is a particularly harsh ascesis. For others, however, the restrictions serve as an opportunity to stop attending, even after those restrictions are lifted[6].

The elderly isolated, who may never frequent a church lest they catch Covid, RSV, influenza, or some other communicable disease, must rely on live streaming from those parishes that offer it. Perhaps from time to time a roving priest will visit them to hear confession; perhaps someone will come around to distribute communion. Will they receive last rites in their own rite? In a way, their situation resembles that of Greek-Catholics in Ukraine between 1945 and 1990, whose religious participation (unless they were in the small percentage connected with the catacomb church, or attended the few open Latin-rite churches) consisted of listening to services on Vatican Radio.

Sex, Feminism, Gender

Some observers have pointed to the Protestant influence on American Catholicism, evidenced by such alleged Puritan traits as an obsession with sex. But sexuality is central to humanity and its survival. Traditional religions regulate it carefully. In the West, however, the epochal change has been the separation of sex from human reproduction. As the basis of the “sexual revolution” advocated by Wilhelm Reich, this separation was successfully carried out with the aid of contraceptive technologies. Critics have pointed to the consequences: an abandonment of standards (not just practices) of personal morality, a failure of marriage, a breakdown of the family, and the lonely, atomized society of today[7]. Thus, the Church is left tending to the largely predictable (and predicted) psychological traumas of a society that rejected her warnings. For many of us, it is too late to repair the damage. But if there is (or can be) a Byzantine Catholic theology of sex and reproduction, we should know about it. The theologians at the Sheptytsky Institute in Toronto (the only place in North America where such a project can be undertaken) could discover or develop it. The recently created Center for Ukrainian Church Studies, funded by Bishop Emeritus Basil Losten as part of the Institute for the Study of Eastern Christianity at the Catholic University of America, might eventually become a center of theological development as well.

Even though it is important for the Church to develop a deeper understanding of sexuality (or more broadly, Eros), this approach would be inadequate. To merely study the problem is to misunderstand and underestimate it. Following Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich considered religion a delusion masking unfulfilled sexual desire – much as Marx considered it a delusion concealing economic oppression[8]. In Reich’s view, the sexual revolution would expose religion as a kind of “false consciousness.” Sexual liberation would lead to true human happiness. Religion would thus become irrelevant.

This became the tacit and largely unconscious creed of the 1960s generation in the West. Those who tried to “cling to religion” while participating in the epochal dissolution of “traditional morality” sought to resolve the contradictions between religion (whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim) and the “new morality.” Their vain attempts continue today, taking the form of convoluted self-justifications, sometimes supported by theological acrobatics. American Catholics’ defiance of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae became an ongoing crisis not only in sexual ethics, but in the church’s authority. Many straightforward souls simply abandoned the strictures of religion and embraced the new lifestyle. It is they who have set the tone of the last three or four decades in the Western world. Few have been willing to state that the path their society has taken these last sixty years has been mistaken, and to live in opposition to it, at the cost of ridicule and marginalization. Unless they exercise the “Benedict option” (discussed below), those few, cut off from social opportunities to marry and pass their faith on to children, appear headed for extinction.

Societal changes in attitudes toward sex are inseparable from the second and third waves of feminism. It has been said that if 19th-century capitalists had behaved according to the Christianity they professed, communism would never have arisen. Similarly, one could speculate that had yesterday’s males behaved like Christian gentlemen, feminism might not have been necessary. Perhaps – though a phrase like “Christian gentlemen” is hardly part of the feminist lexicon. In North America, the imbalance between male and female has been real enough (though it has also been observed that it was Protestantism that accentuated the masculine element in the family)[9]. Equal rights and dignity for women remain necessary and attainable goals. But today feminism, like most “isms,” has fallen victim to its own contradictions. Western feminists, while ostensibly asserting their female identity, imitate men in speech, dress, and behavior, even erasing the very differences that distinguish them as women. Some scorn or repress essential traits of femininity such as motherhood. In their zeal for liberty, they elevate the self-violence of abortion (which early feminists considered to be a crime inflicted on women by men unwilling to take the consequences of their actions) to the status of a cherished freedom and even a constitutional right.

In her study of early Ukrainian feminism, Martha Bohachevsky argued that Ukrainian women developed their own kind of feminism, distinguishable from what was then fashionable in the West[10]. Will they manage to do so now? If they do, can they harmonize it with church teaching? Or will church teaching evolve to accommodate women’s concerns? Will the church incorporate feminism in its social doctrine? Will it reconceptualize the family, or will it reassert the patriarchal family as normative? In any case, if the UCC is to develop a Christian approach to women’s issues rather than simply relying on Latin models, it will have to rely on theologians like those gathered at Canada’s Sheptytsky Institute.

For many Ukrainians, the related issue of “gender” – a term once confined to grammar — has generated more heat than light. There is confusion between gender as a social reality (the subject of “gender studies”) and gender as an ideology. The former is factually demonstrable: historically, male and female social and economic “gender roles” have been somewhat fluid: witness the participation of women in Ukraine’s armed forces). Gender ideology, however, is seen by many as an attempt to override biological male-female distinctions in violation of the natural order. Thus, last year the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations opposed the Istanbul Convention on violence against women[11] because it allegedly smuggled elements of gender ideology into binding law. To some, unfortunately, their opposition only confirmed the stereotype of traditionalist, male-dominated religions supporting wife-beaters and misogynists.

But the concern was real enough: by accepting the terminology of an ideology, we consciously or unconsciously accept the underlying concepts. It has been argued that by imposing “gender” and other Western ideologies upon developing nations through various international agreements, agencies, and non-governmental organizations, the West is disrupting those nations’ traditional cultures and moral-ethical systems. It does this in part by recruiting local elites (for example, through scholarships and grants) into its economic and political networks. It would be ironic if the West, having freed Ukraine from Russian imperio-colonialism, were to subject this traditionally Christian nation to this kind of “ideological colonization.” It would be even more ironic if our North American diaspora were to become its enablers.

Christian America?

The thought that Americans could be subverting a nation’s Christian culture will seem outlandish to those who think of America as a Christian civilization. While a few decades ago the US was held up as an example of how an advanced industrialized nation can remain highly “religious,” today this is not so clear. Some commentators have observed that its Protestant ethos, which has sustained American character and success (and has colored American Catholicism), has faded, or is morphing into politics. Others argue that the liberalism that lies at the basis of the American political system, and which has always treated religion as a strictly private matter about which the state must remain agnostic, is in effect biased against religion. This is because separating religion (and not just the church) from the state and its public life marginalizes it, making it irrelevant. What, they ask, can justify such discrimination against religion, when any number of philosophies are acceptable in public discourse?

Some believe, furthermore, that even the best political system is not sustainable without a guiding philosophical or religious idea. Roughly until the 1960s, the US was animated by a generalized Christian ethos, chiefly Protestant but with increasing Catholic participation, culminating in the vague and perhaps superficial idea of the “Judaeo-Christian tradition.” Yet today, in a philosophically pluralist society, where there is no longer an agreed-upon truth or set of values, it may be that an agnostic state—one that excludes religious beliefs and denies the possibility of knowing ultimate truth—is inevitable.

Of course, we still have the watchword “freedom,” which we proclaim at every opportunity. But as historian Timothy Snyder pointed out in his recent commencement address at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, freedom without a commitment to truth is meaningless[12]. In the absence of a consensus on what truth is, whether it exists at all, or whether it even matters — our commitment to freedom is not sustainable.

Given the United States’ massive support of Ukraine during this war, and the likely growth of its influence afterwards, this could have troubling implications for that country’s churches. Must we project the moral black hole at the heart of our society onto more traditional cultures? Europe exerts a similar influence. Recently, a Ukrainian academic and feminist confidently predicted that the European Union and related non-governmental organizations would push Ukraine towards their views of gender issues and abortion despite the opposition of Ukrainian churches and religious organizations. That is precisely what Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin repeatedly predict. The Ukrainian churches’ failed attempt to block adoption of the Istanbul Convention, even if ill-advised, may be a harbinger of future conflicts.

* * *

Faith, Apostasy, Evangelization

There is a general stereotype of the poor and uneducated losing their religiosity as they become educated and affluent. This has been challenged by studies showing that the poor are not as religious as was assumed, and that those with the highest incomes and education are actually more religious[13]. It may be that the loss of religiosity is most common among those in the middle, in terms of both income and education. And it is they who make up the bulk of our American diaspora. The semi-educated – that is, most college-educated Americans – have understood enough to reject what parents and church have taught them, but not enough for a deep re-assessment; enough to absorb currently fashionable trends and theories, but not enough to challenge them; enough to pose questions, but not enough to answer them. The college-educated are quick to grasp the latest ideas, theories, and philosophies, but many lack the intellectual equipment for critical analysis – perhaps because their universities have not given them a background in philosophy. Nor are they likely to have any conception of theology. Thus, they lack the intellectual support for whatever remains of their faith. Faith comes from wisdom, not merely knowledge or intelligence. And wisdom, I have observed, is most commonly found among those with the most education, and those with none. The latter draw on common sense and tradition. The former have processed the “received wisdom” and gone beyond it.

But if that is so, why are there so few religious believers among our intellectuals? This may be because of the academic world’s ideological conformism, which marginalizes original thinkers who can integrate reason and knowledge with faith. Perhaps this is why, with our limited numbers in North America, our diaspora does not have Christian public intellectuals, as do the far more numerous Roman Catholics. True, we do have a Christian intelligentsia in the broad sense (including professionals and entrepreneurs). But we lack lay leaders who could re-imagine and revive religious life.

This was not always so. Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky’s inspiring leadership in inter-war western Ukraine raised a crop of prominent Catholic intellectuals, most of whom emigrated to the West after World War II. Among them were psychologist Wolodymyr Janiw (1908-91), longtime rector of the Ukrainian Free University in Munich, and Bohdan Bociurkiw (1925-98), professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. In the US, they included professors Leonid Rudnytzky (born 1935) and Miroslav Labunka (1927-2003), both at La Salle University in Philadelphia, Bohdan Lonchyna (1917-85) of Fordham University in New York, and Vasyl Markus (1922-2012) of Loyola University in Chicago. The last three can be regarded as public intellectuals by virtue of their leadership in the Ukrainian Patriarchal movement. Professor Rudnytzky has been prime mover in the St. Sophia Religious Association of Ukrainian Catholics. They have no successors. There is, to be sure, a new generation of Ukrainian-born scholars making academic careers in the US. But none of them appears to have any connection to the Church. The reasons may be obscure, but the phenomenon is striking.

In the absence of lay leaders, the task of evangelization is left to the institutional Church. At the same time, that task appears more difficult than it was a generation or two ago. If Christian America is fading into the past, the Christian West is already history. But perhaps it is not that simple. In his 2022 Erasmus Lecture, Bishop Anthony Fisher of Australia suggested that parts of the “West” are simultaneously post-Christian, Christian, and even pre-Christian. Pointing out that the Church had experienced steep declines in the past, the bishop called for a hopeful and creative evangelization[14]. Results of the Palatine survey suggest that before our church can evangelize the world, however, it needs to evangelize its own people. The Ukrainian Catholic Church in the USA is facing a “fourth wave” many of whom are not as attached to language or church as the third wave and are more inclined to assimilate. Those who have retained a patriotic loyalty to Ukraine, especially after the recent Russian offensive, do not necessarily associate nationality with the Church. True, the fourth wave has filled the pews of some of our emptying churches. But those new members are only a fraction of the whole. And the kind of religiosity they have brought from the village or town, marked by Latin-style devotional practices and emotional pietism, is not likely to survive the pragmatic materialism of American culture, especially among their young.

Effective evangelization must be carried on not only in space (“to the ends of the earth”), but in time. There are few places on earth that the Christian message has not reached in some form. But Christianization is not a one-time event. The Baptism of Rus’ over a thousand years ago did not make all succeeding generations permanently Christian. True, the Ukrainian village preserved a particular synthesis of pagan and Christian practices, tied to the agricultural calendar, which has survived into modern times. But as soon as our villagers left for the mines and factories of Pennsylvania, Detroit, or the Donbas, or the offices of Kyiv, Lviv or New York, they became detached from that Christian village culture. They became more or less “secular,” even if they maintained an incongruous and ultimately unstable mix of folk Christianity and the mechanical rhythms of modern life. Moreover, in the modern age, each new generation makes its own choice. Thus, if Christianity is to endure, evangelization must be an ongoing process. And since there can no longer be any religious compulsion — indeed, there are strong counter-pressures from culture, society, and sometimes even the state—there is no guarantee of success. Christians believe that the Church will endure to the end of time. But the Church that Christ encounters at the Second Coming may be that of Africa or China. There is no certainty that the Church of North America will still be there.

Too often, churchmen engaged in evangelization seem oblivious of the society around them, and assume that their audience is already committed to the faith. They seem to ignore the fact that for many, neither the church, nor any “organized religion,” has any appeal. The promise that fulfilling the rigorous demands of a complex religion – regular church attendance, fasting and prayer, confession and penance — will save us from sin and death has little appeal to those who don’t believe in sin and accept the permanence of death. One has to start with basics, such as the very idea of the existence of God, of the soul, or of anything that cannot be apprehended by the senses. Nor can we assume that the truth of the Christian message is self-evident. I have known perfectly intelligent people who could make no sense of the New Testament. In a disenchanted age, the merely rational, literal-minded materialist cannot believe in angels, spirits, or miracles even if he wants to. Today’s young person, innocent of any religious upbringing or education, may look at the bewildering array of world philosophies and religions and ask why this particular one should be true. Is our clergy prepared to discuss such matters with skeptics and unbelievers?

At the same time, those who are drawn to religion have a variety of expectations. Some seek what critics call a “therapeutic” church. In today’s stressful times, shaken by war and pandemic, no one can be blamed for seeking a peaceful sanctuary. Even people who eschew formal religion for psychological therapy sometimes return to their religious roots[15]. Others, motivated by a sense of justice and solicitude for the poor, see the Church as a vehicle of social activism. And probably for most of our diaspora, the Ukrainian Church serves as a marker of ethnic identity and a manifestation of nationalism. All these expectations are of course flawed, and sometimes downright mistaken and potentially heretical. They may, it is true, lead some to a fuller and more orthodox faith. But whether they are legitimate approaches to evangelization is another matter.

Naturally, the prime evangelizers are bishops and priests. The Palatine survey reflected a generally positive impression of our pastors. Today, many are from Ukraine, and those are some of the best and brightest. Many of them, being married with children, have battled the twin monsters of our youth culture and our public school system. But Ukraine needs its priests too, especially now that vocations have begun to drop off, while the war imposes extra burdens. Besides, few non-native Americans can understand American society (which even natives can find perplexing) well enough to evangelize it. Moreover, there is something anomalous about importing priests from a foreign country, even if we share its cultural heritage. Every land, every culture, should produce its own clergy. Perhaps when we find we have no more pastors, it may occur to us to encourage our children to enter that most vital of callings.

Tent or cult?

There is a discussion among Roman Catholics as to whether the Church should be a broad, inclusive tent (Isaiah 54:2) or a narrow, active elite. There is good scriptural as well as papal authority for the tent model. Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis said it was not enough for the Church to open her doors; she had to go out into the streets and squares and seek guests for the Lord’s banquet[16].

The danger of an inclusive church, however, is that it may no longer be recognizably Catholic. The surrounding society may weaken the community’s moral resilience. Surveys have shown that substantial numbers of Americans who self-identify as Catholic neither practice the faith nor accept its fundamental tenets. Moreover, we are living in a society where even basic norms of civilized life have declined. For example, according to a 2021 survey by the US Centers for Disease Control, nearly 15% of adolescent girls are raped, and 13% attempt suicide[17]. Nihilism is becoming the default philosophy of the young. Shouldn’t the church seal itself off from all that outer darkness?

It can be objected that a small local church risks becoming a sort of cult—a conceptual bubble, a discursive echo-chamber, out of touch not only with society, but with church authority itself. Yet a small church can be strong — if it is concentrated, dedicated, with an active intelligentsia. In an interview with Peter Seewald published in 1997, the late Pope Benedict XVI said that while it was regrettable that people were leaving Christianity, the faith might be in better hands with “small, insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world that let God in.[18]” In his 2017 book The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher proposed that American Christians form compact communities to resist the secularizing trend of the surrounding culture[19].

In the final analysis, however, one cannot plan a broad or narrow Church. The Church must be faithful to Christ; its dimensions are beyond our control. In the case of the UCC, a small and scattered church may well be the inevitable result. We no longer have the compact northeast US communities that produced our church leaders and active laity. Dispersed across the United States, we do not easily coalesce into territorial parishes[20] . The church of the future may exist virtually, in a series of concentric circles with a core of clergy and monastics surrounded by a narrow ring of active, devoted laity and a wide outer circle of committed though less active members, connected only by the internet and meeting physically for confession and communion only where and when circumstances permit.

A related dilemma is whether the UCC should be a Ukrainian church – that is, one serving immigrants in their native language – or an American church using English. Trying to do both places high demands on bishops and priests. The first option is essentially conservative – preserving a patch of Ukraine for newcomers. The second would have to be highly innovative and flexible in order to successfully “translate” our complex church culture into an American cultural idiom.

But if the Ukrainian Catholic Church should evolve into an American church in the Byzantine rite, what would distinguish it from the Ruthenian Church? Very little. After all, the two separate hierarchies of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were created chiefly because the Transcarpathians and the Galicians could not agree on their ethnic identity – not for any theological reason. At the least, they should share seminary facilities, teaching staff, and programs. At the most, they could merge. It is the Kyivan redaction of the Byzantine rite, and not the ethnic or national orientation of its practitioners, that makes our church a valuable element of the Church Universal.

Demography and the Family

Today, the committed Ukrainian Catholic is becoming a lone individual facing a post-Christian society and state where anti-Catholic and anti-religious bias are increasingly acceptable. Can that individual find moral support in a viable church community? The future of such a community depends to a great degree on endogamy among Ukrainian Catholics. This is because the basic unit of the Church is the parish, the basic unit of the parish is the family (though there are of course single members), and the core of the family is the married couple. Endogamy depends to some extent on population density and cohesion. Early Ukrainian immigrants to the US lived in well-knit communities, though assimilation took its toll. The Third Wave gravitated to northern and eastern cities, forming “ghettos.” Furthermore, it was politically motivated to encourage endogamy. Thus, new Ukrainian Catholic families arose to replace the assimilated members of the pre-war immigration. But outside these communities, marriage within one’s ethnic and religious tradition was difficult and rare. In my home parish in San Francisco, the number of people of my generation who regularly attended church could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Hence, in such communities, exogamy was almost universal. Today, geographic dispersal is becoming the rule rather than the exception[21]. The Ukrainian family is a vanishing phenomenon. You may trust in divine providence, but you cannot plan to build a Church upon a statistical improbability.

Moreover, the Third Wave’s compulsion to “marry Ukrainian” put ethnicity, rather than religion, at the center. This, too, may have contributed to church losses. On the other hand, those who put faith at the center of marriage and family often found spouses among Latin-rite Catholics (though finding a Latin-rite Catholic who had not left the Church was not easy). Here again, losses to our church resulted. To expect both ethnic and confessional endogamy is unrealistic.

Our churches’ losses, however, began much earlier. While western Ukrainian villagers preserved faith, church, and religious culture, the intelligentsia was considerably secularized by the turn of the 20th century, roughly in tandem with western Europe. It is from this intelligentsia that much of the Third Wave is descended.

Today, the Third Wave has practically died out, while its progeny have joined the American mainstream. The Fourth Wave from Soviet and post-Soviet Ukraine was only partly churched to begin with; the communist assault on religion was in some ways successful. Fourth Wavers also appear to be more prone to assimilation with an increasingly secular American culture. After all, most of them left Ukraine voluntarily, and few could have been so naïve as to think that their descendants would be Ukrainian in any significant sense. With Ukraine independent, that would be more a personal desideratum than a patriotic imperative. Even in the midst of a war, anxiety about the survival of Ukrainian language and culture is no longer a motive. Adding all these factors to the geographic dispersal noted above, one would expect the Ukrainian church population to have decreased drastically. The above statistics indicate exactly that.

Despite the above-mentioned exogamy and assimilation, the Church’s pastoral activity posits the Ukrainian Catholic family. This is understandable. For comparison, one can look to the largely successful emphasis by the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) on family values. But they retain a geographic concentration and a strong religious solidarity; moreover, they do not limit marriage to a single ethnic group. In the Ukrainian Catholic Church – apart, perhaps, from a few priestly families — it would be surprising to see a family where parents, children, and grandchildren all actively participated in religious life. Yet our Church’s pastoral approach is based on the family model.

The general decline of marriage in America further threatens the practicability of that model. One observer estimates a marriage collapse of 86% since 1970. People are marrying later; 40 percent of those who do, divorce; and a growing percentage are not marrying at all. Fewer children are born – and of those, 40 percent lack married parents[22]. We may protest (without evidence) that these phenomena do not affect our people. But we cannot insulate ourselves from the fragmentation all around us. We are captive to the broader trends in Western society.

As the Ukrainian Catholic family declines, it becomes likely that our typical future parishioner will be the lone believer – or perhaps the “family fanatic” who sneaks off every week to participate in strange rituals at a remote location while the rest of the household engages in wholesome American Sunday morning activities like sleeping in, having brunch, or playing sports. (Whether the family fanatic’s exemplary lifestyle of prayer, fasting, and charity will evangelize friends and relatives—or prompt them to call Social Services–is an open question.) True, the fully churched extended family, and the sole religious practitioner, may be extreme cases. For most people, the reality will be somewhere in between. But I suspect it will tend toward the latter. Pastoral planners should take note. Perhaps their approach, now focused on an institution that belongs to some ideal world, should be broadened to embrace the lone believer.

That is not to say that the Church should not encourage large, cohesive families. Indeed, Mary Eberstadt argues that the decline of the family is the chief cause of “secularization[23].” Ninety years ago, British historian Christopher Dawson predicted that the demise of the patriarchal family would lead to a weakening of religion and of culture in general[24]. His warning was prescient.

Modernization, Secularization, and Culture

The often-used term “secularization” has several meanings, and is almost too broad to be useful[25]. But secularization in the simple sense of a decline of religiosity in a given population is certainly applicable to Ukrainian Americans. Among immigrants, communism’s subconscious effects — as Fr. Halík notes with regard to the Czechs — are persistent and long-lasting, and they have not spared the Fourth Wave. Atheist education, compounding the Russian Orthodox Church’s scandalous discrediting of religion among Ukrainian intellectuals by its collaboration with the state, has produced a thoroughly secularized intelligentsia. As a result, its transition to Western secularism is smooth and easy.

Secularization is commonly seen as an aspect of modernization, that is, the inevitable transition to modernity. Modernity, we are told, is necessarily secular. We decry Stalin’s destruction of the Ukrainian Churches, which was part and parcel of his destruction of Ukrainian culture — and through artificial famine, of the Ukrainian village and traditional way of life. But it can be argued that this was all a part of modernization, and that what was objectionable was the method, not the goal. After all, modern capitalism has been equally effective in eradicating distinct national cultures (East European radio stations, for example, now play little besides American pop, or imitations thereof). Agribusiness can be faulted for the disappearance of the Ukrainian village and its traditional way of life. Isn’t capitalist modernity destroying religion too – not by a direct assault, as did communism, but by simply ignoring it or deeming it irrelevant – arguably a more effective method?

The assumption that modernization necessarily means secularization, however, has been challenged. There is no inevitability in history, and there is no such thing as a single line of “progress.” Societies can take the wrong path, and have done so repeatedly (note today’s Russia). If we have taken the wrong path of modernization, we can start anew. As Charles Taylor and others have argued, there can be an alternative modernity — one that embraces the religious. But it has to be created – and that, obviously, requires creativity.

Yet how can we deal with a modernity that explicitly rejects both religion and church? Fr. Tomaš Hálik advocates Pope Benedict XVI’s solution: “education and intellectual dialogue with an agnostic society.” The Czech theologian calls for a transformed Christianity, including “a profoundly contemplated faith, open, incarnated in the culture of our society, conceptualized in dialogue with philosophy, science, and art,” which values the dialogue of faith and doubt[26]. Dialogue is pointless, however, if the parties do not agree on the purpose of the dialogue. If the Christian side intends to win over the agnostic side to its position, the latter may not be interested — unless the Christian side is correspondingly willing to be persuaded of the truth of agnosticism. Dialogue only makes sense if both sides are open to an unanticipated change in their views. On the other hand, Christian engagement with philosophy, science, and culture can enrich all parties and permit them to better define their positions without threatening their basic postulates. As for doubt – is it not the inescapable shadow of faith? Today, the fact that the Ukrainian Catholic archeparchy of Philadelphia is headed by a Harvard Ph.D in History bodes well for the Church’s engagement with the “agnostic” world of science, scholarship, and the arts.

For many years, that kind of church engagement with the secular world was lacking. Some two decades ago, a leading Ukrainian American scholar criticized the Catholic Church’s “self-marginalization,” a result of its “paternalistic control and anathematization.” Disputing the common narrative that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has “always” been with the people, he pointed to its nineteenth-century legacy of “clericalism, loyalism, and obscurantism.” At the same time, he lamented the intelligentsia’s resulting anti-clericalism (in both eastern and western Ukraine) and “the one-sidedness that it introduced into Ukrainian cultural and intellectual life, a certain atrophy of the genuinely spiritual and religious[27].” Indeed, one may ask how many contemporary Ukrainian writers have engaged seriously with religion. In Eastern Ukraine, the fact that religious life was largely the domain of an alien church, beholden to a repressive state since the eighteenth century, has (with a few notable exceptions) stunted and distorted the spiritual development of our intelligentsia.

Yet it is culture that may offer the most promising prospects for spiritual revival, in America as well as in Ukraine. Here, however, the institutional Church (bishops and clergy) cannot work alone. They can, finances permitting, commission churches, icons and iconostases. But culture is chiefly a task for the laity. This means not only contributing to the culture of the church, but – perhaps more important – projecting the faith of the church onto the surrounding society by means of the arts.

This means involving artists both within our community and outside of it. Outsiders sometimes have a better appreciation and understanding of our tradition than we do. The Greek Americans offer an example. For the design of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox church at the World Trade Center site in New York, they commissioned the renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The result, consecrated and opened in 2022, is aesthetically pleasing and indisputably modern as well as faithful to the Greek Byzantine tradition. It is not a triumphalistic “statement,” but a modestly graceful structure that humbly invites everyone – not just the Greek immigrant looking for familiar cultural markers – to enter and pray.

Some claim that our Kyivan Byzantine ritual, with its choral singing, pageantry, icons and incense, draws new converts. No doubt it does. But it leaves others cold. For one thing, we, the laity, need to improve our church music. This involves two tasks. The first is to ensure that we have well-directed choirs sing at every major service as a complement to congregational singing. The second is to perfect our choral repertory. This means using good modern church music (Roman Hurko and Valentyn Silvestrov come to mind) as well as classics like Vedel, Berezovsky, and Bortniansky. What we should not do is repeat the mistake of many Latin-rite Catholic music directors who, in a well-intentioned but wrongheaded misapplication of Vatican II, have been catering for half a century to their parishioners’ undemanding tastes with soothing pseudo-pop, instead of drawing on half a millennium of magnificent music from Palestrina to Poulenc – or offering something truly new and edgy.

We should also look beyond the church to the “secular” culture that nevertheless points towards God. One promising avenue is literature—not just Ukrainian-language literature “in exile,” but English-language literature in the Ukrainian tradition. (If that seems like a strange proposition, consider how W.B. Yeats and James Joyce, writing in English, contributed to Irish culture.) In the United States, Jewish-American prose frequently draws on religious tradition. As far as I know, the small corpus of Ukrainian-American writing does so but rarely. Poetry is particularly well suited for spiritual themes. Serious poetry cannot avoid them, and the best verse of even a secularized culture touches on the religious, at least obliquely, if only to question or protest. Recently, California state Poet Laureate Dana Gioia called for a renewal of religious poetry, using fresh language in place of well-worn theological phraseology[28]. He has also advocated poetry in the church, such as new translations of the Psalms. Those texts are familiar to us from the Byzantine liturgy – perhaps so familiar that we ignore them. They have long inspired poets, among them Taras Shevchenko. Yet today, the world of our Church and the world of our literature seem to be galaxies apart.

This is less true of painting. Worldwide, there is in fact a good deal of contemporary art on spiritual themes[29]. What about Ukrainian painting? One wonders what would have happened if in his final years, the baptized Greek-Catholic Andy Warhol had gained the attention of the Ukrainian Catholics living just several blocks away in New York’s East Village. Might it have sparked a revolution in our art? Fortunately, there has been a renaissance of icon-painting in Ukraine. Lviv’s Icon Art gallery, and the school of iconography associated with it, have attracted the attention of American art curator Mary Elizabeth Podles[30]. One would expect, of course, that the Church, as in the past, would support contemporary religious art through moral, if not financial, support. Such an engagement with contemporary culture would surely contribute to a revival of our church life.

That is not to say that culture should be simply exploited as an evangelical tool. But because a healthy, well-developed culture inevitably contains a spiritual element, it has often had an evangelizing effect.


The above reflections are based on personal experience, observation, discussion, and a variety of sources, including the report of the Ukrainian Catholic University’s study of five Ukrainian American communities[31]. Naturally, others may reach different conclusions.

Today, religious believers inhabit a mental universe that sets them apart from the contemporary world. In the Soviet Union, this might have landed them in a psychiatric prison. Like the Ukrainian patriots, with whom they overlapped, the Greek-Catholic faithful formed a kind of invisible alternative society. In the relatively free and tolerant USA, religious believers are similarly forming an alternative culture, though they have not suffered systematic persecution. The Ukrainian Catholic Church is one of its many components. Together with other religious believers, its faithful can challenge — and perhaps transform — the greater secular world.

[1] I am indebted to Mr. Thomas Storck for his illuminating comments on the Roman Catholic Church in the USA as well as on other matters treated in this paper.

[2] A Ukrainian translation, Chas porozhnikh khramiv, was recently published by Svichado in Lviv and reviewed by Fr. Dr. Roman Ostrovs’kyi in Patriyarkhat, “‘Chas Porozhnikh Khramiv’ ta ‘Zhyttia bez Boha,’” Patriyarkhat, no. 5 (September-October 2022), pp. 35-39.

[3] Id., 36.

[4] Charles C. Camosy, “Study Shows Younger People Lack Faith in Religious Institutions,” Crux, February 17, 2021.

[5] Ostrovs’kyi, p. 35.

[6] Bob Smietana, “More Americans Stay Away from Church as Pandemic Nears Year Three, Religion News Service, January 5, 2023. More Americans stay away from church as pandemic nears year three (

[7] Anthony Esolen, “Marriage Fading,” Touchstone, January-February 2023, p. 33. These phenomena seem to vindicate Christopher Dawson’s prediction of far-reaching consequences of a breakdown of the patriarchal family for religion and culture. Christopher Dawson, “The Patriarchal Family in History,” in Dynamics of World History, London 1956, pp. 156-66, reproduced in

[8] Carlo Lancellotti, “Sexual Colonization,” Touchstone, January-February 2023, pp. 43-48.

[9] Dawson, op. cit. If Dawson was right, complaints about male dominance would be better addressed to Protestant influence on Catholicism than to the Catholic tradition itself, which accords women a stronger family and social role, as reflected in civil law as well as history.

[10] Marta Bohachevsky, Feminists despite Themselves: Women in Ukrainian Community Life, 1884-1939 (1988), published in Ukrainian as Білим по білому (2018).

[11] Signed by Ukraine in 2011, ratified by Parliament on June 20, 2022, and signed by President Zelensky on June 21, 2022.

[12] Timothy Snyder, “Freedom Is To Do the Right Thing,”

[13] Mary Eberstadt, “Secularization Revisited: Why There’s Hope for Faith,” National Review, December 15, 2022, citing sociological studies from the US and abroad.

[14] Anthony Fisher, “The West: Post- or Pre-Christian?” First Things, February 2023.

[15] Thus, two of the three protagonists in the recent novel The Last Workshop (by Chris Chouteau, Richard Balaban, and Julie Bowden, 2022), which describes group therapy at California’s famed Esalen Institute, draw on their respective Jewish and Christian traditions.

[16] See his interview in La Civiltà Cattolica, September 19, 2013.

[17] Donna St. George, “Teen Girls ‘Engulfed’ in Violence and Trauma,” Washington Post, February 13, 2023.

[18] Published as Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium (1997).

[19] Rod Dreher, “Benedict Option FAQ,” The American Conservative, October 6, 2015. The title, which refers to St. Benedict of Nursia, founder of Western monasticism, is taken from the conclusion of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1984 book After Virtue. For Ukrainian Catholics, the Rule of St. Basil, though intended for monastics, could serve as a source of guiding principles for such communities.

[20] For statistics on dispersal, see Oleh Wolowyna, Atlas of Ukrainians in the United States, 2019.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Esolen, “Marriage Fading,” 33. “If we want to fill our churches,” writes Esolen, “we must, in the order of nature, form the human beings who will fill them.” Those human beings would be capable of a full life, love, marriage and family. Id., 36. Current trends point in the opposite direction.

[23] Eberstadt, op. cit.

[24] Dawson, op. cit.

[25] I discuss secularization and modernization in “Sekuliaryzatsia: diahnoz i likuvannia,” Patriyarkhat, No. 6 (439), 2013.

[26] Ostrovs’kyi, op. cit., pp. 36, 37.

[27] George Grabowicz, Introduction, Harvard Ukrainian Studies vol. 26, no. 1-4 (2002-2003) (“Ukrainian Church History”), 15-16.

[28] Dana Gioia, “Christianity and Poetry,” First Things, August 2022.

[29] For examples, see any issue of the Seattle-based journal Image.

[30] Mary Elizabeth Podles, “Ivanka Demchuk’s Icon of the Annunciation,” Touchstone, January-February 2023, p. 62.

[31] The report of the UCU study is published in English translation in the latest issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, Vol. 63, obtainable from the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, University of St. Michael’s College, 81 St. Mary Street, Toronto Ontario M5S1J4 Canada.