Forty years ago, as the falloff in Sunday Mass attendance by American Catholics was becoming too obvious to ignore, Catholic voices began to be raised here and there saying it didn’t really matter. “You aren’t a good Catholic just because you go to church,” these people seemed to enjoy telling us. “What counts is what you do outside church.”
Two responses, which too seldom were offered at the time, were relevant. One was that evidence was lacking to show that most Catholics who skipped Mass had found other ways of expressing their presumed religious fervor. The other reply, arguably more to the point, was that the Second Vatican Council only had lately stressed the centrality of Sunday Eucharist in Catholic life, and staying away from Mass was hardly consistent with that.
And now, four decades later? A new study underlines the evident reality that the slippage in church attendance persists. It also offers the cold comfort of situating the decline in Mass attendance in the context of a decline in churchgoing by American Christians generally. The notable exceptions, it seems, are white evangelical Protestants, for whom the weekly attendance rate is around 60 percent. Hats off to them! For the rest, including Catholics, the numbers range from depressing to dismal.
The study, by a group called the Public Religion Research Institute, also compares what people say about their church attendance in live telephone interviews with what they say when they are answering questions in the impersonal medium of an online questionnaire. In brief, they are more likely to admit to not going to church in the latter situation than when actually speaking to somebody else.
Although the media made much of this finding, this particular disparity has always been recognized and often been reported, at least in general terms. In the present instance its significance as it applies to the Catholic respondents can be seen in the fact that while 41 percent claimed to go to Mass weekly or more often when talking to an interviewer, that fell to 37 percent when the question was answered online. The same pattern existed for other Mass attendance categories: “occasionally”— 44 percent on the phone, 34 percent online; “seldom or never” — 15 percent on the phone, 33 percent online (up a whopping 18 percent).
Attendance was, as noted, considerably higher among white evangelical Protestants (and among black Protestants too) and substantially lower among white mainline Protestants. Not surprisingly, attendance at church was lowest among the religiously unaffiliated, with “seldom or never” the response of 73 percent in phone interviews and 91 percent online.
If there is any consolation to be found here, it may actually reside in people’s tendency to overstate their church attendance when they are talking to someone else. Reflecting, as it obviously does, the universal human craving to look good in others’ eyes, this suggests that some people feel a residual sense of embarrassment, verging on guilt, about not going to church as often as they know they should.
Here perhaps is an opening for getting at least some of these people back to regular attendance. It’s a simple argument: If you want X, you have to do Y — for instance, if you want to be a fan of the local ball team, you have to watch them play once in a while or at least you need to read about them in the sports page. Just so, if you want to be a friend of God, the minimal requirement is dropping in at church and saying hello on Sunday. That’s what friends do.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.