Setting the Record Straight – Mass Attendance Has Dropped, But Not as Much as We May Think. Reflections on a Recent CARA Report

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… 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