People say that numbers don’t lie. But do numbers tell the entire truth? The question is important in trying to get an accurate picture of the current situation and future prospects of American Catholicism. Depending on which numbers you look at, two very different versions emerge.
In one, the Church in the United States appears to be vibrant and growing, with more than 68 million members — the largest number ever — together with a vast network of parishes, schools and other institutions staffed by hundreds of thousands of priests, Religious and lay people. This is the picture of a healthy, vigorous religious body with bright prospects.
Other numbers paint a dark picture. For example, three out of four of the 68.1 million Catholic adults won’t attend Mass next Sunday, and many who do won’t come back the following week. Parishes and schools are closing, and priests, brothers and sisters are growing older as their numbers decline. In this picture, the future is a big question mark.
Both accounts of American Catholicism have lots of numbers to support them. Neither, it’s safe to say, is the whole picture by itself. To get even an approximation of that, we have to dig into the numbers more deeply than people usually do and see what they’re really saying.
A disclaimer at the start : Numbers don’t get at the essentials of faith — the action of God’s grace, the response of human hearts, the quiet revolutions worked by sanctity. Usually all this happens beyond the reach of counting and quantifying.
Still, the numbers are important. They are signs pointing to inner realities that have genuine religious significance. They don’t tell us everything, but they tell us a lot.
Here, then, are some of the numbers of American Catholicism today, drawn from current sources and recent studies.
Coming and going
According to the 2009 Official Catholic Directory (the “Kenedy Directory,” as it’s sometimes called ), Catholics in the United States total 68,115,001. That’s a million more than last year and 22 percent of the total U.S. population. It’s also an increase of 6 million in the past decade.
Furthermore, many people believe the real numbers are a good deal higher, because the Catholic Directory methodology — essentially, getting numbers from dioceses, which in turn must rely on the figures provided by their parishes — tends to produce an under count. In any case, Catholics are far and away the largest U.S. religious group, a distinction they’ve enjoyed for many years.
These numbers are impressive. But they leave much unsaid — including departures from the Church.
Years ago there was a joke in religious circles to the effect that Catholics were the largest religious group in the country and ex-Catholics the second largest. Now it appears that the joke was simple truth.
In February 2008 results of a “religious landscape survey” by the respected Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life concluded that 10.1 percent of all Americans — more than 38 million people — used to be Catholics and aren’t any more.
The Pew figure has been challenged as being too high. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a Catholic research institute based at Georgetown University, estimates that ex-Catholics are 8.1 percent of the population. Whatever the number may be, it is plainly very large.
A study recently released by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., said the number of religiously non affiliated Americans had grown from 8.2 percent of the population in 1990 to 15 percent last year. Ex-Catholics made up about 24 percent of the total group, but among those who have lately dropped out of religion, ex-Catholics are 35 percent .
So what keeps the Catholic population growing? Two things: converts and immigration — especially immigration. Take that away, and the number of Catholics in the United States would be falling.
Americans who have switched to Catholicism from some other religion or no religion make up 2.6 percent of the total adult population. That obviously isn’t enough to compensate for the 8 percent to 10 percent who have left the Church. But the continuing influx of Catholic immigrants, especially Hispanics, is more than enough to do that.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of U.S. Hispanics in 2000 was 35.3 million. An estimated 73 percent of them were baptized as Catholics. Hispanics are expected to make up half or more of the total Catholic population by mid century. But it’s said that as many as 100,000 of them leave the Church yearly, with many going to fundamentalist and pentecostal sects.
Along with overall changes in population figures, dramatic shifts are occurring in the geographical face of American Catholicism.
Last March, an “American Religious Identification Survey” conducted by the Program on Public Values of Trinity College concluded that the Catholic share of the adult population was now about one-third of the total in California and Texas and one-fourth in Florida. Immigration was the main explanation.
In the Northeast, though, the Catholic share had fallen from 4 3 percent to 36 percent . The Catholic population of New England had dropped a million. In Rhode Island, long the most heavily Catholic state in the nation, the percentage of Catholics fell from 62 percent to 46 percent ; in New York, from 44 percent to 37 percent , with an overall loss of 800,000.
Stunning changes also have taken place over the years among priests, religious sisters and religious brothers.
In 1965, the total number of Catholic priests in the United States was 58,632. That included 35,925 diocesan priests and 22,707 religious order priests. By 2009, the total was 40,666, including 27,594 diocesan and 13,072 Religious. There were 994 priestly ordinations in 1965 and 8,325 graduate-level seminarians; the latest figures are 472 ordinations and 3,357 seminarians.
At the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, the Church worldwide presently is observing a “Year for Priests.” These numbers, which are replicated in other Western countries, perhaps suggest why. A special “year” for priests may not change things much, but the p ope presumably wishes to do what he can.
Declines among sisters and brothers have been even steeper. Religious women numbered 179,954 in 1965 and are 59,601 now. The figures for brothers were 12,271 then and 4,863 now.
Helping to soften the blow in parishes has been the emergence of permanent deacons and lay ministers. Deacons, authorized by the Second Vatican Council , began to appear in the United States in the early 1970s and now total 16,380. “Lay ecclesial ministers” — salaried staff people working in parishes and church institutions — number around 35,000, with a far larger number of laity serving as volunteers in various ministerial roles.
In Catholic schools, lay teachers have largely replaced teaching sisters , as well as priests and brothers. In 1965, there were 104,314 teaching sisters and 75,103 lay teachers; current figures are 5,169 sisters and 167,861 lay people.
As for the schools themselves, in 1965 there were 10,931 Catholic elementary schools with 4,566,809 students. Now, according to CARA, there are 6,028 schools with 2,557,000 students. Schools and students declined sharply in the 1970s, stabilized for a while, and now are dropping again. At the secondary level, in 1965 there were 2,465 Catholic high schools enrolling 708,535 students. Now there are 1,220 schools with 624,515 students.
Not surprisingly, the number of children and young people receiving Catholic religious education in non school programs has risen over the years. At the elementary level the figure now is 3,145,424 and at the secondary level, 689,552.
It’s hard to know what to say in a statistical sketch about Catholic colleges and universities. Over the last 40 years, many have deliberately reduced their ties to the Church and become secular institutions in everything but name. Back in 1965 there were 304 Catholic colleges and universities with 708,535 students. Now, officially, there are 234 Catholic colleges and universities enrolling 794,321.
Shrugging off sacraments
Of central importance in assessing the state of the Church is religious participation. And for Catholics the heart of it is participation in the Eucharist — the Mass.
When Sunday Mass attendance began slipping some years back, some people were fond of saying that going to Mass wasn’t the only, or even the best, test of a good Catholic. Talk like that isn’t heard much these days, as Mass attendance has continued to drop. No doubt there is more to being a good Catholic than going to Mass, but people who don’t go to Mass regularly can hardly be said to be linked in any vital sense to the community of faith that the Eucharist creates and sustains.
How things currently stand on this matter of Mass attendance is more complex, and more disturbing, than is usually recognized.
Back in 1965, about 70 percent of Catholics in the United States went to Mass on any given Sunday. Different sources give different percentages for Mass attendance now — apparently because of differences in the way they collect their data — but CARA, a reliable if not infallible source, put it at 31.4 percent of the country’s Catholic adults as of last year. That’s about 16.1 million adults at Sunday (or Saturday evening) Mass every week.
But the story doesn’t stop there. Currently, a notably smaller number — 23 percent of Catholic adults — say they attend Mass every week. On any given Sunday, the rest of the congregation is composed of children and people who drop in once in a while and will be replaced by others dropping in next week.
Generational differences are striking here. Among Catholics who grew up before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), 45 percent go to Mass weekly or more often. But among young Catholics, the figure falls to 18 percent .
Even so, these figures look pretty good by comparison with some other countries. In France, for instance, a recent survey found that from 1972 to 2009, weekly Mass attendance dropped from 20 percent to 4.5 percent , with more than 65 percent of the weekly attendees older than 50 years old. In the same time frame, the number of people in France calling themselves Catholics has fallen from 87 percent to 64 percent .
Reception of the Sacrament of Penance, or Reconciliation, is another problem area for American Catholicism. As of 2008, CARA reports, 30 percent of U.S. Catholics reported making a sacramental confession less than once a year with another 45 percent saying they never did that. By contrast, only 2 percent reported receiving the sacrament once a month or more.
For those who recall the long lines outside confessionals every Saturday evening, this is mind-blowing. As with Mass attendance, so with confession, it’s no doubt true that God can forgive sins in other ways. But it’s questionable whether Catholics who shrug off the sacrament even though it’s available to them have the attitude forgiveness requires.
Other numbers also help tell the story of contemporary U.S. Catholicism. Data from opinion surveys repeatedly have shown that large numbers of American Catholics either don’t know basic teachings of the Church or else reject them. But the numbers cited here are enough to draw a powerful picture of a religious body with serious problems.
Back in 1944-45, Christian Century, an influential Protestant magazine, featured an eight-part series on the question, “Can Catholicism Win America?” Editor Harold Fey alerted readers to the fact that the Catholic Church was committed to “winning the total body of American culture to Catholicism.” And Fey thought the Catholics had a good chance of succeeding, since even then they were “mobilizing powerful forces to move this nation toward a cultural unity in which the Roman Catholic Church will be dominant.”
That was then, now is now. Fey needn’t have worried. The issue for American Catholicism now isn’t cultural dominance, it’s survival in anything approaching its present dimensions.
Take another look at those dropout numbers.
Actually, the Catholic Church in America is doing pretty well in comparison with Protestant denominations. While Jews and Mormons have higher percentages of adult members who stay with the religion they were raised in (76 percent and 70 percent , respectively), Catholics at 68 percent are well ahead of Baptists (60 percent ), Lutherans (59 percent ), Methodists (47 percent ), Pentecostals (also 47 percent ), Episcopalians (45 percent ), and Presbyterians (40 percent ).
In absolute terms, nevertheless, the number of dropouts from Catholicism is terribly high, whether you accept Pew’s figure of 10 percent of all Americans or CARA’s 8.1 percent . Either way, that’s a lot of ex-Catholics.
Why do they quit? The Pew Forum tried to answer that question earlier this year in a survey called “Faith in Flux , ” which it conducted as a followup to its “religious landscape survey” published a year earlier. The new survey was based on in-depth interviews with people covered in the previous study.
The Pew people summed up their conclusions like this:
“Many people who leave the Catholic Church do so for religious reasons; two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated [from any church] say they left the Catholic faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, as do half of former Catholics who are now Protestant. Fewer than three-in-ten former Catholics … say the clergy sexual abuse scandal factored into their decision.”
No doubt they do say that, but some skepticism seems in order. In conducting their interviews, the researchers read former Catholics a list of specific reasons for quitting and asked if they agreed. It stands to reason that people who leave the Church and later are offered reasons for doing so will say yes to the reasons that sound reasonable to them now. That doesn’t necessarily tell much about the reason or reasons that were operative when they quit.
The Pew researchers probably are on firmer ground in reporting that “most former Catholics say they gradually drifted away.” Most dropouts quit before the age of 24. And it’s hardly uncommon for people in late adolescence or early adulthood to be heavily into sexual behavior — cohabitation, for instance — that may lead them to seek excuses for severing ties with the Church. With so few members of this age group attending Mass regularly or going to confession, that seems a good bet.
Recent figures on converts to Catholicism don’t offer much comfort either. Although, as noted earlier, adult converts, along with immigration, are a factor keeping the Catholic population from declining, the number of converts also may have begun to drop. It’s also a well - known fact that among adult converts who come into the Church via the RCIA program, as almost all now do, as many as half drop out again within a year.
According to the Catholic Directory, in 2008 — when baptisms and confirmations fell by less than 2 percent and Catholic marriages by less than 3 percent — the number of adult baptisms and receptions into the Church dropped 9 percent , from 136,778 to a bit over 124,000. But this wasn’t something new. The figure in 2007 was down 12 percent from the 155,439 recorded in 2006.
Ever since figures in this category began to be reported, the annual total has been well over 150,000, and in one year 178,000, until the last two years. So why the abrupt recent drop? Is it a temporary blip or a long-term trend? At the moment, nobody knows.
Smaller, more orthodox
Against the picture of American Catholicism sketched by the numbers , certain tentative conclusions about American Catholicism in the years ahead emerge. It is likely to be much more Hispanic, a good deal smaller, and probably more deliberately orthodox than it is now in matters of doctrine and discipline.
The shifts toward downsizing and movement to the right can be seen now in the priesthood and women’s religious life. Today’s younger priests and seminarians, especially those preparing for the diocesan priesthood, are regularly described as more doctrinally and liturgically conservative than those ordained in the 1960s and 1970s.
Among women Religious, some institutes appear headed for extinction as numbers fall and members age. A recent CARA study found that 91 percent of American religious sisters — as well as 75 percent of priests — are 60 or older. The exceptions are traditional orders, which are attracting significant numbers of new members. The New York Times said these findings confirm “what has long been suspected … [the] more modern religious orders are attracting the fewest new numbers.”
Several months ago, the Holy See ordered an “apostolic visitation” — a formal investigation — of U.S. women’s religious communities to determine what was going on. Separately, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith launched a doctrinal investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group to which most superiors of American women’s institutes belong. Some sisters were indignant, but for others the Vatican moves were a case of closing the barn door after the horse is stolen.
But even if American Catholicism in the future is numerically smaller than now, many hope it will be stronger, more united and more committed than now. As some see it, sloughing off of outmoded institutions and elements of the recent, troubled past could be a healthy step.
Not to be excluded, of course, are a great renewal, a strong numerical revival and a stunning new burst of evangelization directed to American culture. It would be crazy to predict . But it’s a matter of faith that God can work miracles if he wants.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.
Pontiff on "Quiet Attrition" (sidebar)
During his pastoral visit to the United States in April 200 8, Pope Benedict XVI met with the Catholic bishops of the country at T he Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. After his formal address, the Pope answered several written questions, one of which referred to the “quiet attrition” among Catholics who abandon the faith, some by an explicit decision and some by simply drifting away from Mass and the Church. This was Pope Benedict’s response in part:
“Certainly much of this has to do with the passing away of a religious culture, sometimes disparagingly referred to as a ‘ghetto,’ which reinforced participation and identification with the Church. ... One of the great challenges facing the Church in this country is that of cultivating a Catholic identity which is based not so much on externals as on a way of thinking and acting grounded in the Gospel and enriched by the Church’s living tradition. ...
“We need to acknowledge with concern the almost complete eclipse of an eschatological sense in many of our traditionally Christian societies. ... Faith and hope are the inspiration and basis of our efforts to prepare for the coming of the kingdom of God. In Christianity, there can be no room for purely private religion. ... To the extent that religion becomes a purely private affair, it loses its very soul.”
The Good News (sidebar)
Converts to the faith and immigration are contributing to the growth of the Catholic population in the United States, which now totals 68 million people
The Bad News
8.1 % to 10.1 % of all Americans — as many as 38 million people — used to be Catholic, but have left the Church
The Worse News
23 % of Catholic adults in the United States who say they attend Mass weekly
The Worst News
4.5% of Catholic adults in France who say they attend Mass weekly
That was Then . . . (sidebar)
In 1965, the total number of Catholic priests in the United States was 58,632.
This is Now
In 2009, that number had dropped to 40,666 .
Measuring Up (sidebar)
It might be easy to forget when concentrating on the state of American Catholicism that U.S. faithful make up just a small percentage of the universal Church.
The U.S. Catholic population is 5.8 percent of the world’s faithful.
Looking at U.S. vocations within the universal Church, we have 10.5 percent of the world’s priests, 10 percent and 9 percent of the brothers and sisters, respectively, and 43.6 percent of the total number of permanent deacons.
Catholic Self-Identification 1990-2008 (sidebar)
March’s “American Religious Identification Survey,” which was conducted by the Program on Public Values of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., concluded that the Catholic share of the adult population has increased in the South and West, while the percentage of the Catholics in the Northeast and Midwest has dropped.