We usually think of the 1950s as an era when just about everyone went to Church. But the cover from the 1959 Saturday Evening Post at the right indicates that even at that time there were already trends underway that indicated not all was perfect in paradise. It is a long and unfortunate trend that men have often left the spiritual upbringing of the Church to their wives and stayed home on Sundays.

A recent CARA blog post written by Mark Gray takes a closer look at the data of Mass attendance from the 1950s and indicates that our perceptions of the high mass attendance in the 1950s may need some adjustment. This is due to the fact that much of the data was based on self-reporting of Catholics. Such reporting is often unreliable since, bluntly stated, people tell fibs to survey takers. Sometimes they tell fibs to themselves. Consider the scenario:

  1. Poll taker: Do you go to church on Sundays?
  2. Respondent: Sure! (Which really means sometimes).
  3. Poll taker: Of the 52 Sundays a year, how many would you say you are in Church?
  4. Respondent: Oh, at least 50 (Which really means more like 10).

The fact is, people like to look good to poll takers, and often answer the question in flattering ways rather than purely truthful ways. This was even more likely the case in the 1950s when Sunday Church attendance was more of a social expectation than today.

Even today, 42% of Catholics polled say they go to Mass each Sunday. But we know from harder data (such as head counts) that the number is closer to 30%

I’d like to put some excerpts of the CARA blog post here and make a few comments along the way. The actual article is fairly long and you can read the rest here: Deconstructing Mass Attendance Numbers

As usual, the Article excerpts will be in bold, black italics, and my remarks in plain text red.

Didn’t everyone go to church in the 1950s?…. But the fact that [the Norman Rockwell Painting above] made it on to the cover of America’s magazine of record at the time indicates that it resonated with the culture of this period [1959]. This issue of the Post was published at a time when weekly Catholic Mass attendance was peaking, as measured in Gallup telephone surveys (74% in 1958 and 72% in 1959).

[But] in 2008, Gallup surveys estimated Catholic Mass attendance in any given week had fallen to 42%. Don’t giggle. I know you don’t believe that 42% of Catholics nationally attend Mass in any given week and you’re right. But why do we believe 74% did in 1958?  [Well said. Many of us who quote statistics on Mass attendance exaggerate the 1950s number upward and the current numbers downward because it suits our point. I have been guilty of this. It reminds me of an old GK Chesterton sayings, Many people use statistics like a drunkard uses a light pole, for support rather than enlightenment].

You can only get an attendance percentage by dividing the Mass attendance count….by the number of self-identified Catholics in the parish boundaries that could have attended. [And this sort of data is harder data than self reporting Catholics called on the phone who will tend to exaggerate the frequency of their attendance. This sort of data is a lot harder to come by and requires careful headcounts in parishes. Many dioceses conduct an October headcount. But even four weeks of data is not, of itself enough since there are great seasonal swings in many parishes. Real data collection is hard work].

Perhaps more can be said by taking a second look at a researcher who was in many Catholic parishes studying Mass attendance in the 1950s. Joseph H. Fichter, S.J., (granduncle to current CARA research associate Fr. Stephen Fichter) famously studied parish life by going door to door and taking censuses, making Mass attendance head counts, observing parish life, and documenting everything possible both qualitatively and quantitatively. [Like I said, data collection is hard work]

Fichter estimates Mass attendance levels based on the number of individuals registered with the parish. But he also provides the counts for dormant Catholics…. people who self-identify their religion as Catholic but who do not attend Mass [at all]. Thirty-eight percent of the Catholics within the parish boundaries he studied in this book were dormant. Thus, at the outset we know that typical weekly attendance by the measure of this study could have been no more than 62%. But [the number drops further when we consider that only] 79% of the non-dormant Catholics attended Mass on a typical weekend. So [in combining these two facts] the total percentage of self-identifying Catholics attending Mass in this study was estimated to be about 49%. [OK, I see your eyes crossing with all the numbers. But the critical number is that  the number of Catholics attending Mass EVERY  week was really closer to 49% in the 1950s when properly adjusted.  So the 74% number is too high. Mark Gray explains why in the next paragraph].

Attendance over-reports [in Gallup-like surveys] occur as people being interviewed over the phone respond to their interviewer with answers about their behavior that they believe to fit socially desirable expectations. So typically the respondent has just told the interviewer their religion and then they are asked how often they attend services. Many respond in a way that they believe is socially acceptable—even if it does not fit their actual pattern of attendance.

We have some early evidence of this in the Americans’ Use of Time Study, 1965-1966. Here, 57% of Americans when asked directly about their church attendance reported that they had attended in the last week. However, only 39% of these respondents actually indicated attending religious services when recording their time use hour by hour in diaries (i.e., an indirect measurement)…. [OK, so basically people lie, err....fib. Fact is we do tend to over estimate how good we do   :-) ].

Father Fichter’s observations also indicate that some of the Mass attendance of the 1950s was not as “active” [i.e. devout] as we might remember it. Here is a passage that likely still resonates with your observations of parish life today:

“A measure of the parishioners’ devotion to the Mass and of their fulfillment of this obligation is seen in the numbers who arrive late and who leave early. By actual count it was noted that, at all Sunday Masses, 8.37 per cent of the congregation arrived after Mass had started and that 6.35 per cent left before it was completed. … Although we have no accurate count, we have noticed that many of these persons are duplicated in both categories. In other words, those who come late also tend to leave early. … The younger males constitute the majority of those who omit part of the Mass, while older females make up the majority who arrive in church well in advance of Mass” (1951, pg. 138)……“By actual count, 35.08 per cent of the congregation read the missal all during Mass, while another 22.08 per cent read some sort of prayer-book while following the priest’s reading of the Gospel. … The remaining persons simply stare off into space, although several men in the last pews sometimes read a copy of Our Sunday Visitor during Mass” (1951, pg. 138). [Oops, maybe a little less devout than some of us remember. I DO remember the silly legalisms of the past where people asked questions like, "How late can I be to Mass and still fulfill my obligation?" My sense is that the trends noted here are a little worse today despite the Mass being in English. A lot of Catholics still give the impression that they are at Mass merely to "check off the God box" and that they seek the fastest Mass possible. Many are devout today, but many are not].

Over a year of Masses, on average, attenders were much more often female (about 7 in 10 or more) than male—a composition that can only result from some men, perhaps like the man in the Rockwell illustration above, staying home. [I want to post on this topic sometime soon].

Many cite CARA’s weekly Mass attendance figure in the low 20 percent range. Some also then cite Gallup’s figure from the 1950s and attempt to argue that Mass attendance has fallen from nearly 80% to just above 20%. This is misleading and inaccurate…..as shown above, the Gallup numbers for the 1950s are inflated…. [Again, I plead guilty to some of this].

Currently, CARA surveys indicate that 23% of self-identified adult Catholics attend Mass every week. Yet, in any given average week, 31% of Catholics are attending…. Note there is considerable local variation in Mass attendance levels with higher levels in the Midwest and lower in coastal urban areas). During Lent and Advent, Mass attendance increases into the mid-40 percent-range and on Christmas and Easter, an estimated 68% of Catholics attend. [This is a good distinction. I sometimes hear the 23% number and other times the 31% number and wonder which it is].

[OK, so what's the Bottom Line?]

Thus, if one is seeking to make a comparison of Mass attendance in the 1950s to now, the drop is not 80% to 20%. Instead it is from a peak of 62% in 1958 to about 31% now. This is still a remarkable decline. It means that the Mass attendance you see at Christmas and Easter is a lot like the attendance you might have seen in a typical week in the late-1950s.

OK I know, it was a lot of numbers, but in the end, the report suggests that we need to trim a bit off the extremes and bring both numbers a little more toward the middle. In the end, we have still suffered an enormous decline and the recent wave of church and school closings demonstrates that. In these leaner times we do well to consider that it is more important than ever that we be at our posts. It is simply a fact that we need one another to survive.

Photo Credit: Sunday Morning; Norman Rockwell; Published: May 16, 1959; © 1959 SEPS

This song says, I Need You To Survive


35 Responses

  1. JJ says:

    I found a youtube video that expresses the Catholic experinces of many young people in the Church. I hope you bloggers will listen to this POWERFUL Testimoney. OK Here it is,


  2. Kevin J. says:

    These kinds of reality checks are important.

    However, it’s also important to consider how many people who didn’t / don’t attend Mass live in areas far from churches or who are forced to work on Sundays because of economic circumstances. I’d bet stricter Sunday work laws and store closing laws helped encourage church attendance, especially among poorer folk. And it also helped that the media of the time explicitly encouraged churchgoing as normal.

    • Cynthia BC says:

      In most parishes Vigil Mass is an option for those who need to work on Sundays. Not everyone does so for “economic circumstances” but to serve a legitimate need, such as those of hospital patients.

      Church attendance isn’t about having nothing better to do, it’s about setting priorities.

      • Kevin J. says:

        Many people can be in rough economic straits. The new father of two holding down two part-time jobs and trying to complete his education will have a hard time getting to Mass than those of us in better positions. Telling him to “get his priorities straight” isn’t going to work when society as a whole sees nothing wrong with Sunday work and pressures him to work even if it means missing church.

        • Cynthia BC says:

          I did NOT say “get priorities straight.” I said that Church attendance is a matter of setting priorities. There’s a difference. Even the hypothetical person you cite is setting his priorities. It is his choice to work to get ahead, no one’s forcing him to it. Kudos to him for pursuing the American Dream, but he’s decided that Mass is a leisure activity, not a priority.

          If one’s economic circumstances are so dire that one must work every waking hour, reinstating blue laws won’t get one into Church. If Target or Wal-mart isn’t available, one will seek out other work.

          It is important to keep in mind that people aren’t absent from church because stores are open. Stores are open because people aren’t in church, and those people demanded the additional business hours.

          Furthermore, no one is forced to work for an employer that requires weekend shifts. Nobody from the retail industry is going to show up one’s house to haul one to Target in chains. Perhaps employment opportunities are limited by location, skill set, or whatever. But it’s wrong to finger Evil Employers as a reason people aren’t in church.

    • I am sure this is a factor. I know people who can’t make even the Sat vigil mass due to work schedules. Retail workers are in the worst situation

    • Kaylan says:

      I agree with this assessment of “times passed”. Now work on Sundays is normal for society and Catholics are expected to show up. It’s rare to find a boss who will excuse you, especially those who work in blue collar jobs where they cannot dictate what days they want off.

      I also think taking head counts depends on the season. If you do it in winter, many people may not come to Mass if the weather is bad or driving is dangerous. Elderly may also not attend if they fear slipping on the ice.

  3. Dave says:

    Shout out to the castelleres of Catalunya! que vagi bé! :)

  4. David says:

    Reverend Monsignor, is it necessarily a silly or legalistic question to ask what parts of the Mass one must be present for in order to fulfill one’s Sunday obligation?

    Obviously if someone is coming at it from the perspective of, “How little Mass can I get away with?” then that is a sinful attitude in itself. But it strikes me that sometimes even devout Catholics might be delayed on their way to Sunday Mass, or have a serious reason to leave early.

    In my own experience, the priests at the parish nearest me often subject the Mass to strange additions (in order to make it more “relevant” or something, I think), sometimes pushing Mass to 75 min. But I teach the parish’s confirmation class, which begins 60 min after the Mass starts. There are certainly times I’ve had to leave after Communion so as not to be more than 10 min late to my class.

    In situations like these, it is good to have a rule to know with certainty whether or not one has fulfilled the obligation. My understanding is that one has to be present from the beginning of the Gospel to the time that the chalice veil is placed back over the chalice (or would be if one were being used).

    • You said: “Obviously if someone is coming at it from the perspective of, “How little Mass can I get away with?” then that is a sinful attitude in itself.” And this is exactly what I am getting at.

    • Kaylan says:

      I should think adding more to the end of Mass, or rather making it longer, would only deter people, especially those who really need to come to Mass. In today’s world, people are used to “fast paced” everything and making Mass longer would probably not help. Plus, parents with young children would have a hard time. I know, because I have to take a large family myself and keeping little ones quiet and comfortable for an hour is very difficult. I would love to just pray at Mass but the majority of my time as a parent is helping the children, watching them and keeping them from making too much noise. Thus, lengthening the Mass would only be difficult to the parents (in my humble opinion). I think parish councils need to think of this when they are changing things.

      • Erin Manning says:

        Kaylan, I think pastors and liturgists need to hear from people like you! In our parish, for instance, we have been having a reverent, quiet Mass during Lent, thanks in part to using the Latin Chant Mass settings. The priest also processes out in silence–but the effect of that is broken by the time spent after communion celebrating people’s birthdays and anniversaries and finding out who the visitors are! I have to admit–when my children were small that sort of thing was often the “breaking point” for the children, who had already been good for almost a whole hour and who expected one more “prayer” (e.g., final blessing) and one more song, and who instead got announcements, a speech from the DRE or head of the parish school, financial reports (!) and many other “insertions” before the final blessing was ever given.

        Let’s keep the Mass the Mass, and set aside time for parish celebrations of birthdays or anniversaries as well as parish presentations regarding finances or religious education (brief announcements are fine; I’m talking about speeches of a few minutes’ length) *outside* the Mass. Who knows–maybe more people would come!

  5. qwertyuiop says:

    Another possible research surrogate for mass attendance would be inflation-adjusted per capita collections.

  6. Nick says:

    Thanks be to God we are a Church of Heaven and of Earth and not just Earth.

  7. Ryan Ellis says:

    Let me get this straight.

    A 50% decline in Mass attendance (from 60 to 30 percent) is somehow not so bad because at least is isn’t a 75% decline in Mass attendance (from 80 to 20 percent)?

    The Novus Ordo crisis critique is still operative. It’s just gone from a 75% number to a 50% number.

    The real bottom line is that Mass attendance (along with virtually every other metric you can have) fell into a pit just as the Traditional Latin Mass was abandoned.

    Speaking as someone who goes to a reverent Novus Ordo but isn’t blind to a preponderance of data, the conclusion is fairly obvious: since most Catholics get 100% of their formation from the Mass, and the Mass changed, and then Catholics turned bad, the Mass is to blame. It just has to be.

    Lex orandi, lex credendi, and all that. A=B, B=C, C=A.

    • Arnold says:

      Societal trends also contributed greatly to the downturn. Do not blame the NO solely for it. How many people who avoid Mass now do so because they pine for the Extraordinary Form. I do think though that solid preaching and a reverent celebration of the NO can help make up for some of the decline.

        • Elizabeth says:

          Monsignor, I agree that social trends form a large part of the reason for the decline in mass attendence. But I also wonder if the switch to the vernacular and to the subsequent innovations popular in many parishes hasn’t also been a much greater cause than some realize. Even if those who stay away don’t necessarily do so because they are pining for the TLM, I’m willing to bet that the decreased emphasis on sin, heaven, hell and the unfortunate fact that many NO Masses are irreverent and sometimes even heretical has a role in making many Catholics, practicing or not, take Mass and the Church a lot less seriously. I have never been to Confession that has had more than 6-8 people waiting, even in a large Cathedral; in my own parish, there’s never more than 4 people and I am usually the youngest by at least about 40 years (I’m 23, I would guess the average age of confession-goers in my parish is 70). And every week, 98% of the congregation is receiving communion. So even of those who are at Mass, there seems to be a much less reverent attitude towards the Faith, much less a sense of duty (i.e. going to Confession regularly and abstaining from communion if you haven’t), and a tendency to not take it too seriously. Now, I cannot prove causation, but with Father Z recently reporting that a diocese was hosting a ‘Clown Stations of the Cross,’ surely we can all agree that whether in the form of TLMs, Latin NOs or just better/more strict adherence to the rubrics, we could do a lot more to foster a reverence that has been lost in my generation?

    • Michael says:

      Post hoc,ergo propter hoc: perhaps the most famous of logical fallacies. Correlation does NOT imply causation. I have never attended a TLM, so I have no real opinion about its worth relative to the Novus Ordo, but it seems to me that the reasons for switching to the vernacular for Mass make some sense. Not sure if/why anything important other than the language changed, since I was born after the change started. But that is not really relevant- my point is that it is not safe to blame the fall-off in attendance on the change in the Mass, especially when there are many other possible explanations, such as the general trend towards secularization and materialism in our society.

  8. Paul-Joseph Stines says:

    “They were not as good as we thought, so maybe we might not be so bad after all.”

    I really don’t think come Judgment Day that Christ will be all that impressed with our, “OK, but I wasn’t as bad as that other guy,” mentality. The one and only standard we should compare ourselves with is that of Christ.

    The surveys only serve to tell us how poorly we are doing in proclaiming and living the gospel.

  9. Tantumblogo says:

    I don’t think the actual percentage values mean a great deal – Mass attendance has still fallen through the floor. I’m not sure what the point of the article is, save to perhaps beat a straw man to death (I read alot of blogs, and I can’t recall seeing one say that 100%, or 80%, of Catholics assisted at Mass every week in the 50′s. – They just say that attendance has collapsed since that time frame.)

    And besides, by the 50′s we’re well into the period where modernism was infecting everything, including the Church.

  10. Brad says:

    The magazine cover is no matter for chuckling. Whether 158, 958, 1958, 2011, the father depicted is the antithesis of St. Joseph and is repeating Adam’s crime.

  11. Arnold says:

    If every Catholic did show up for Mass, most or many of our churches wouldn’t be able to accommodate them. My parish church seats 300 but there are over 1,500 registered Catholics and four Masses. I have no idea how many inactive and unregistered ones there are. As for the level of devotion in the 1950′s, the era I grew up in, there was much of that attitude of barely getting by with one’s obligation. Some people did choose the fastest Mass, preferably the 30 minute ‘quickie.’ I also remember once during the early 1950′s at my parish in Des Moines, Iowa, when there was adoration at the end of the Sunday Mass. Many got up to leave just as the host was being displayed in the monstrance on the altar. Father stopped, stood up and emotionalltyreproached those who turned their back on Christ in the Eucharist. I will never forget that moment.

  12. Anthony S. Layne says:

    @ Ryan: “The real bottom line is that Mass attendance (along with virtually every other metric you can have) fell into a pit just as the Traditional Latin Mass was abandoned.”

    In logic, that’s known as a post hoc fallacy. There was a heckuva lot going on in the 1960s that affected Mass attendance, though the real drop in numbers (as shown by research done at the NORC) occurred after 1968 and the promulgation of Humanae Vitae. As far as the NO Mass goes, the problem isn’t so much with the structure as with: 1) the language of the English translation, which is soon to be corrected; and 2) the individual celebrants who allowed liturgical abuses into their celebrations, which is bound to be corrected in the next 10-20 years through the “biological solution”. And as Msgr. Pope points out, much of it was already present in the Church before the NO was fabricated. I’d also have to dispute your contention that “most Catholics get 100% of their formation from the Mass”; they also get it through their formal religious education and through the influence of their families, particularly their parents. Yes, lex orandi, lex credendi, but let’s not start looking at re-imposition of the TLM as if it’ll act as some kind of magic elixir that will solve all of our problems.

  13. Tito W. says:

    For some reason I never thought that studies of Mass attendance were being made. As a statistician I wonder if the data from these studies or observations was ever collated and analyzed for significance etc. I have been making empirical observations of attendance of two Masses (in Florida). The first is at a popular neighborhood Church at the 06:45 am Mass, this Mass is given in the “Ordinary” Liturgy; and the attendance has been enough to have an extimated 50 to 60% occupancy of the Church. The other Mass I have been observing is one given at the Chapel of a local Cathedral, it is given at 12:30 pm, this Mass is given in the “Extraordinary” Liturgy; attendance here is “Standing-Room-Only” and practically all age groups are quite well represented, from single elderly persons to complete families. I find this rather remarkable. So I pose an interesting suggestion, migth it not be that the “Extraordinary” Liturgy is the preferred one?.
    I have been told in confidence that one of the difficulties in having the Extraordinary Mass is that there are not enough Priests that know Latin. In a Latin American Country I was visiting I learned that most of the young Seminarists are requesting that they be taught Latin so that they may be allowed to say the Extraoridnary Mass. Something to think about.
    God Bless us all.
    Tito W.

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