By the numbers

The visit of Pope Francis to the United States has guaranteed that we are all drowning in factoids about Catholic beliefs, rates of practice, voting patterns, sexual proclivities and hypocrisies.

The news stories generated by these statistics generally fall along two lines: OMG, they are all a bunch of backwards-looking fanatics (less frequent), or OMG, ordinary Catholics don’t believe a word of what the Church teaches (more frequent).

A particularly favorite source for such data is the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Pew is notable for the interest it takes in religion, though at times I am puzzled at how — when it comes to Catholics — they do seem always to find the glass half empty. Some of this may have to do with how and where the data is collected. In last week’s issue of OSV Newsweekly, CARA’s Mark Gray pointed out that a recent Pew survey on Catholic identity may have been a tad skewed by who it sampled and where, particularly focusing on the small number of Hispanic respondents.

In any case, I applaud Pew for its religious focus. I particularly appreciated its 2008 survey on U.S. Religious Retention Rates. Pew looked at the percentage of those Americans who in adulthood remained affiliated with the faith of their youth. In other words, how likely is it that our kids will say that they are Catholic when they are adults?

Now we have all heard the dire statistics about how many Catholics stop going to Mass. And we know that there is a lot to be worried about. But the good news that doesn’t get reported is that Catholics rank the highest among the mainstream Christian groups in terms of adult affiliation at 68 percent. That’s right, in this survey, 68 percent of adults identified themselves with the Catholic Faith they were raised in.

Who did better than Catholics? Hindus (84 percent), Jews (76), Muslims (76), Greek Orthodox (73) and Mormons (70).

Who did worse? All other mainstream Christian denominations: Baptists (60 percent), Methodists (45), Congregrationalists (37) and more. Perhaps most heartening was the fact that “nones” — those not identified with any faith — did poorly (38 percent), and atheists did the worst of all (30 percent). Maybe our motto should be: If you want your kids to be Christian, raise them atheist.

Now as we know, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Simply because one “affiliates” does not mean one is a practicing believer. CARA — an excellent Catholic research institution based at Georgetown — tells us that in 2014, 104.5 million Americans were Catholic at some point in their life. About 78 million currently self-identify as Catholic. A little more than 38 million attend Mass at least once a month, and a little fewer than 19 million attend weekly. So when a pollster asks if an interviewee is Catholic, it is important to know which group he or she falls into. Likewise, a pollster should be committed to conducting the survey in Spanish if an accurate portrait of Catholic opinions is to be described.

At the end of the day, pollsters of all stripes will find that there is good news and bad news regarding Catholics. The number of Catholics is growing. The color of the Church is changing. Some teachings are widely ignored, yet the Catholic moral universe remains relevant, and there is still great openness to the Faith.

So what do we conclude? Are we falling apart? Not by a long shot. The papal visit is a reminder of how engaged we remain. The Church is a messy, discordant, rambunctious choir, and it has been for 2,000 years. Fear is useless, Jesus said. What is needed is trust. The hard work of the New Evangelization still remains. And we are all called to be laborers in this vineyard.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.