Is the Bottom Really Falling Out of Catholic Mass Attendance? A Recent CARA Survey Ponders the Question
Is the number of Catholics really dropping? Is the bottom really falling out of Catholic Mass attendance? If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that I have written several articles and cited several studies that detail an increasingly grave situation for the Church (e.g. HERE). Most of us are familiar with a significant number of Church closings, school closings and the like thought Catholic America. These surely strengthen the view that we are in an increasingly grave condition.
However, there are other views that see the statistics very differently and argue that the number of Catholics is about steady and even slightly growing. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) has a blog edited by Mark Gray which presents a more sanguine view of the situation and argues that, while there are concerns, the bottom is not falling out of Catholic Church membership in any statistically significant way. I would like to present excerpts of the CARA blog post and do a little running commentary. As I often do, the CARA material will be in bold, black, italics, and my remarks will be plain text red.
At the end of this post I will still argue that I think we are heading into a grave condition, However, I have great respect for the work of CARA and think their data is an essential reality check that helps us to see what is really going on.
Here then are excerpts of the CARA blog post. The complete post can be read here: CARA Blog Post
Since the end of World War II, on average, 25% of the U.S. adult population has self-identified in national surveys as Catholic (±2 to 3 percentage points attributable to margin of sampling error). This spans many trusted sources from commercial polling by Gallup and others, news media polls, exit polls, and academic surveys such as the General Social Survey and the World Values Survey…..Thus, notice that we are fairly steady in terms of our percentage of the U.S. population. That also means that, as the U.S. population has grown significantly since WW II so have our numbers. In the early 1950s there were about 35 million Catholics in the US. Today there are are over 75 million. This number however does not distinguish between practicing and non practicing Catholics. It is estimated that just over 80% of Catholics attended Mass each Sunday in the 1950s. Today it is estimated that about 25% of Catholics go each Sunday. That means that in the early 1950s about 28 million Catholics were in Church each Sunday. Today that number, even with a growing Catholic population, has dropped to 19.2 million. In other words, almost 9 million fewer Catholics are in Church now as compared to the 1950s.
The chart [at left] tracks growth in the Catholic population percentage from 2% in 1776 (45,000) to 25% in 2010 (77.7 million). The size of the circles represents the total size of the Catholic population…..In the last 40 years, the Catholic population has grown by about 75%. If it did the same in the next 40 years it would be 136 million in 2050 and represent about 31% of the projected U.S. population at that time. This however is an unlikely scenario as overall population growth has slowed in the United States and is expected to slow more as the Baby Boom, and the “echoes” from it, fade…..The highest projection accounts for differences by race and ethnicity. In recent years, polling has consistently indicated that about 60% to 65% of Hispanics/Latinos in the United States self-identify as Catholic. However, there is also evidence that this percentage is dipping slightly lower. This projection assumes this falls even further—to only about 55% and that Catholic self-identification among the non-Hispanic population measures about 18.5%. Both assumptions are on the conservative side. However, even with only assuming 55% Catholic identification among Hispanics/Latinos, the rapid growth expected in this sub-group will likely boost Catholic population numbers significantly (this is even the case if it falls further than 55%). This projection leads to an expected growth in the Catholic population of 65% between 2010 and 2050 with a Catholic population total of 128 million in 40 years, representing 29.2% of the total U.S. population. OK, so the bottom line is that our numbers of overall Catholics will continue to grow significantly even using rather conservative premises. It looks like, within forty years we will surely top 100 million Catholics in the US. A huge number overall. However, will they attend Mass and support the work of the Church? What if the U.S. numbers of practicing Catholics drop to European levels which are currently only 10% going to Mass each week. That means there would be only 10 million at Mass on Sunday, a drop of another 9 million. It is not clear that the numbers will drop that low and as well will see, the 25% practicing Catholic number seems to be rather a stable number at this time. If it holds steady then we will see growth in the numbers in our pews each Sunday. But the key question is, will it hold steady or grow? Or will it drop further? That surely depends on us evangelizing and working to restore people to the Sacraments! It may also be affected by other things such as the economy, the emergence (or not) of some significant crisis and so forth. A final factor that is probably hard to guage is what happens to the children and grandchildren of non-practicing Catholics? Will they continue to self-identify as Catholics or will that “identity” fade as the generations proceed? It’s hard to know. Thus, while the overall news of a growing Catholic population looks good, there are on-going questions about how many of them will, in any meaningful way, practice the Catholic faith and/or hand it on to their children and grandchildren.
Question: Didn’t Pew find that nearly “one in three” people raised Catholic leave the faith leading to an astounding “one in ten” adult Americans who are formerly Catholic? How could the population grow with losses like these? Answer: …the “one in three” finding drawn from the Pew study is consistently quoted without context. Most often the number is used to drive a narrative—an undeniable signal of extraordinary crisis…..All things considered, Catholicism does a better job of keeping those raised in the faith than any Protestant denomination (68% of those raised Catholic remain so as adults). The Chart at left shows the data for other denominations. I would like to mine the data deeper on the “unaffiliated nones” category which I presume refers to the mega church members and/or evangelicals. I have long thought that we too quickly admire the numbers present in mega-churches and have long suspected that they don’t keep their members for a long time. I have a lot of anecdotal evidence that people go for a year or so and eventually get bored or disillusioned and move on to another mega-church, then to another. At some point they leave the system altogether and I thus suspect the mega-Church phenomenon will run its course and the numbers overall will diminish in that “branch of Zion.” But there is good news here if we compare ourselves to other Churches. However, it is still an awful fact that one-third of those raised Catholic later leave the Church and lose the sacraments. This is still an awful number..
The CARA post then addresses the Church closing phenomenon.
…..For generations Catholic immigrants have often started their new lives in industrial urban areas. They created parishes where others spoke the same language. Sometimes a Polish parish would be built across from a parish where Italian was the language in use. The sheer number of people involved led to a boom in parish construction and along with schools—often in close proximity to each other. Yet, in the post-World War II era things began to shift. Many Catholics moved to the suburbs and away from the Northeast and Midwest into the Sunbelt. New waves of Catholic immigration from Latin America have led to even more growth in the South from coast to coast. The Catholic population has realigned itself in the course of a few generations. People move, parishes and schools do not. Many of the parish and school closings one reads about are in inner cities of the Northeast and Midwest where Catholic population has waned. ….OK fair enough. But I would argue that we still cannot avoid the fact that there are 9 million fewer Catholics in Church on Sunday than in the early 1950s. The other factors mentioned here are not insignificant, but neither is 9 million fewer Catholics in the pews. Many of the over-churched urban areas would still have many more thriving parishes if even 50% were still going every Sunday. I surely doubt we would be closing as many parishes, even in depopulated urban centers, if Catholics were, as a whole, more faithful.
Although Catholic Mass attendance did decline in recent decades from a peak in the 1950s, there has been no decline in Mass attendance percentages nationally in the last decade. Just under one in four Catholics attends Mass every week. About a third of Catholics attend in any given week and more than two-thirds attend Mass at Christmas, Easter, and on Ash Wednesday. More than four in ten self-identified Catholics attend Mass at least once a month. So the good news is that we may have bottomed out. You can click to the “no decline” study at the blue text above and sure enough, the number of weekly attendants has hovered steadily in the low 20%s for over ten years now. There is little guarantee we will stay here however and I remain concerned that the number is going to head even lower as secularism continues to increase and the unchurched generations become even more detatched from things spiritual. Even the great Christmas and Easter holy days are becoming silenced in our culture.
In the end, I find looking at the CARA analysis helpful in distinguishing the true problem. The overall number of Catholics is, in fact rising. However the critical factor seems to be that Mass attendance has dropped dramatically since the 1950s, from over 80% to around 20-25% now. This indicates a very critical condition indeed. Tell me any organization in which 80% of its members were inactive that you would call healthy. Our condition is critical. It is helpful to know that we seem to have stabilized at this number. That is, we haven’t gone lower in over ten years. However I am concerned that the 25% number is soft and wonder if it will be stable for long. Rampant secularism, the moral malaise of many, a hostile culture etc. all stand to likely erode that number even further.
I pray for a miracle to be sure. I pray for an evangelizing spirit among Catholics. The Church at the upper right of this post is St. Mary of the Angels in Chicago. Ten years ago it was boarded up and slated for demolition. But Opus Dei agreed to take it and brought it back to life. Today it is a thriving parish. But generally, we have become very sleepy and many have barely noticed as large numbers of fellow Catholics have slipped away. In the end, the greatest tragedy is not the numbers per se but the fact that almost 80% of our Catholic brothers and sisters are away from the sacraments, away from the medicine they need, and not having the gospel preached to them. These 80% live in a poisonous culture wherein their mind will increasingly darken without the help of the Sacraments and the Word of God. This is tragic and if we have any real love for them we will not rest until they are restored to God’s house. God asked Cain one day, “Where’s your brother?” And God still asks this of us. We may protest that we have murdered no one. And yet, many of them will die spiritually if we remain indifferent. “Where is your brother?…Where?”
This song says, Come and go with me to my Father’s House