In the Catholic Church in the U.S. Growing or Shrinking? Some surprising conclusions from CARA data.

Graphic by CARA

There are different ways of assessing the relative health or distress of the Catholic Church here in America. In yesterday’s blog we discussed some signs of vitality, in terms of both clergy and laity becoming more focused on the urgency of evangelization, and of personal conversion. There are many other ways of noting our strengths and struggles.

One of the most obvious metrics is to look at the raw numbers and ask, “Is the Catholic Church in America growing or shrinking?” A recent article at the blog of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) addresses this question, and I would like to present a quick summary of some of the findings. But at the end of the day I am also left with a fundamental question.

First a quick summary of the article. (The Full Article is HERE)

The article appears on the CARA blog “1964,” and is authored by Mark Gray, the usual researcher and blogger at the site. He is critiquing a study released recently by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which seeks to make a case for “disappearing Catholics” in American culture. Mark Gray of CARA unambiguously states that the PRRI study is just plain wrong, and emphasizes that the Catholic share of the US population has remained relatively stable at about 25% (+ or – 3) of the US population. He further argues that, while some hold that we are retaining this percentage only due to immigration, the overall effect of immigration is far less than most people assume.

The usual narrative, or “conventional wisdom” is that the Catholic Church has been hemorrhaging numbers and that massive amounts of people are leaving the Church, which is only being saved by the arrival of large numbers of Hispanic immigrants.

But this “conventional wisdom” is largely set aside by the fact that foreign-born Catholics make up only 24% of the US Catholic population. Immigration from the south has also leveled off a great deal since 2007. Thus while immigration has contributed to the stability of the Catholic population percentage, it is not nearly the to the degree argued by many.

Another largely overlooked factor in the stability of Catholic numbers, is the phenomenon known as “reverts.” The fact is, there is a lot of “coming and going” in the Church. And while much is made of those who go forth from the Church, (ca 12% of cradle Catholics leave), the fact is, many will go eventually come back. Currently there are some 5 million Catholics who describe themselves as “reverts,” i.e. those who have returned after a significant absence.

The number of new converts is also not insignificant.

Gray therefore speaks of a kind of “life-cycle” that makes up the overall Catholic total of 25% of the US population (See diagram above from CARA). In this life-cycle, some go out of the Church, leaving her never to return. Others leave, but doing in fact return to the Church later in life. And to the number of returning Catholics is added the numbers of immigrants entering the U.S. Church, and those who convert to the Church later in life from other denominations, or from unbelief.

This is a complex life-cycle which is not easily captured by many snapshot polls that observe only a moment in time. And while polls that depict the numbers of those who leave often make the news, the more complex numbers stretched out over the life-cycle of Catholic demographics, do not make the news and are not easily reduced to headlines.

This leads Mark great to comment on why he thinks some numbers make the news, and other don’t:

So if life-cycle effects are so important to explaining how the US Catholic population percentage remains stable, and how the US Catholic population continues to grow, why isn’t this part of the conventional wisdom? In part, because I don’t think there are many people who want to hear it. Most religion reporters ignore research that indicates growth in, or satisfaction with the Catholic Church (while they go mega–front page crazy over stories that mention religious decline)… Even within the Church many don’t want to hear it. Both “progressive” and “traditional” Catholics want to be able to argue that the Church is losing members and can only regain them by urgently doing _________. Many would like to continue believing the Church is hemorrhaging members, and that Mass attendance is declining, even though neither of these claims can be found in the data. [2]

Gray has written elsewhere that Mass attendance has remained relatively stable at 25% of Catholics for over a decade now. And you can see that HERE.

OK, so, according to Mark Gray and the data he presents, it’s steady as you go for the Church in the past two decades both in terms of our percentage of the U.S. population and Mass attendance. I have great respect both for CARA and Mark Gray, and have read their material over the years. I find a deep respect for the data at CARA and a distinct hesitation by them to spin the data for some cause. This is good scholarship and I respect it.

But I do wonder how to square the data with my own experience as a priest. Of course my experience is only anecdotal, but it does join  with the experience of many other priests and lay people I know. And my felt experience is that the Church is shrinking in many ways. As a youngster and even into college years I remember standing room only at most parishes for the principal liturgies. I remember full schools with waiting lists, and a kind of building boom as the Church claimed the suburbs. Now most parishes look to be significantly eroded here in the DC area. We have closed many schools and some parishes are not far from closure as well. According to our October “headcount” data, the number attending Mass in the past 12 years has dropped every year about 1% such that we have lost about 25,000 Catholics attending Mass overall in the DC area, though the population of DC has overall increased by about 13% in the past decade. Sacramental data, especially weddings have also declined over the last decades.

Now, of course Washington DC and its suburbs is a small sliver of data compared to the overall national numbers in the Church. Further, one might reasonably expect that the forces of secularization would be stronger in what is both a large urban area, and which trends liberal. And yet, many other dioceses have taken to closing schools and parishes throughout the country and this too adds to the impression of a loss scenario, not a steady as you go scenario. But again, as Mark Gray points out, the bad news gets the headlines.

So what are we to make of the national data and our local experience? Again, I trust CARA and Mark Gray is a straight shooter. But I am interested in your thoughts and even more your experience and actual data.

I am struck by his observation that many “want” the Church to be losing members for any number of reasons and agendas. So before you or I simply say what we think, it might be good to check a few of our premises that might color how we see things.

I personally experience a little disconnect with the analysis that Church numbers are steady, especially when it comes to Mass attendance and sacraments. But my sample is small: me and a few close friends and relatives.

How say you? What is your experience? Is the Church in your area growing, shrinking or holding steady?

This video is from 2009

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

Last One Out Turn Out the Lights! – The serious consequences of low Mass attendance, low birthrates, and, my own politically incorrect solution.

I’ve been catching up with news from other nearby dioceses. The Diocese of Allentown Pennsylvania recently decided to close 44 of its  140 parishes. The Diocese of Scranton closed 90 parishes last year. Similar things are happening all over the country. Luckily here in Washington, nothing yet in terms of parishes, although schools have closed.

What is happening? The Catholic Population has almost doubled in 60 years. Yet Churches and schools close. How is this? Well, consider that in 1950 more than 80% of Catholics attended Mass every Sunday. That number has dropped to below 30%. The number is probably lower in urban areas of the Northeast and higher in the Midwest. This is a grave loss of faith and the fact is we cannot sustain what previous generations gave us on 30% attendance.The younger generation coming of age has much lower attendance numbers generally below 20% . Stated soberly we are in serious trouble.

Regarding our schools, birthrates among Catholics have plummeted. When I was a kid back in the 1960s it was common for families to have 5 or 6 kids. Today one or two is the norm. We seem to be contracepting and aborting ourselves right out of existence. If it wasn’t for our vigorous Latino immigration, the Catholic Church in America would be in far more serious trouble. More on birthrates in a minute.

The decision that the majority of Catholics have made to no longer attend Church has consequences. Many once filled Church buildings have grown empty in recent years. At a certain point a parish is no longer sustainable financially. Neither are schools, hospitals, and seminaries.

Usual Solutions: Some will argue that the Church needs to “update” to attract more members and lighten up on her moral teachings. But look at the main-lne Protestant Churches who have done that. They are in worse shape than we. Departing from Biblical truth is not the answer. We DO need to work on our liturgies, priests need to be better preachers, and we need to reinvigorate an evangelical spirit among Catholics.  But in the end we simply have to state it plain, we have experienced a wide spread loss of faith and that is why there is such a drop. Preaching and liturgy weren’t great in the past either but we still packed em in. This is ultimately about a loss of faith. 80% to 30% is a huge drop. We cannot sustain what we had with this kind of a drop. There are consequences. Closed churches were once filled to standing room only and are sad evidence of the non-sustainability due to the current attitude among Catholics who think Church attendance and support is not a necessary component of being Catholic. We need to reinvigorate the notion that it is a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday. The New Catechism teaches this clearly (cf CCC #2181). We also need to reconnect people with the necessity of the sacraments for their salvation. For example Jesus says “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and Drink His Blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). Thus, to be away from Holy Communion is a kind of spiritual suicide.

Politically Incorrect Solution – We also need to have bigger families. Sorry to be politically incorrect but Catholics and Christians in general are simply being replaced. The Muslims have big families we have tiny ones. You do the math. It is almost as if God is saying to us, if you do not love life, then you will be replaced by others who do.  Contraception in the end is a form of cultural suicide. Abortion that tags along with it has also devastated our numbers.

In the end, it is about faith and being faithful to God’s House. Either we all are faithful and we thrive or we are not and we start shutting down. Further it is about loving life. Either we marry, are fruitful and multiply, and thus thrive or we turn away from life, decrease and die. If we fail to choose life, then last one out turn out the lights.

OK, So here it is fellow Catholics: Be faithful, be fruitful. Sow abundantly and reap abundantly. Get to Mass every Sunday. Get married (first), then have lots of baies and raise them Catholic!  🙂   It’s not brain surgery is it?  God has a plan and it’s not that hard to decipher.

Here’s a graph of mass attendance by age and another of why people say they miss Mass. You can double click on the graphs below to enlarge them.      SOURCE: CARA