According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of U.S. Catholics who consider themselves “strong” members of their church has never been lower than it was in 2012.

Nearly a quarter (27%) of American Catholics called themselves “strong” Catholics last year, down more than 15 points since the mid-1980s, and among the lowest levels seen in the 38 years since first measured by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.

The decline among American Catholics is even more noteworthy when compared with American Protestants, whose strength has been rising in recent years. About half (54%) of American Protestants – double the Catholic share (27%) – described their particular religious identity as strong last year, among the highest levels since1974.

Over the past four decades, church attendance has declined among “strong” Catholics as well as among Catholics overall. The share of all Catholics who say they attend Eucharist at least once a week has dropped from 47% in 1974 to 24% in 2012; among “strong” Catholics, it has fallen more than 30 points, from 85% in 1974 to 53% last year.

Among Protestants as a whole, however, church attendance has been rather stable, although the percentage of those who attend at least once a week was higher in 2012 (38%) than in 1974 (29%). Self-reported church attendance among “strong” Protestants has fluctuated; but the share of frequent attenders was not significantly different in 2012 (60%) than in 1974 (55%).

So what’s going on with U.S. Catholics?

In a word: increasing numbers don’t feel at home in their church and are finding supportive communities and more contemporary expressions of belief in other traditions. (Most of my nephews and nieces, for example, are now actively engaged in other Christian churches.)

American Catholics are generally delighted with Pope Francis. On Sunday morning, however, they find liturgical English a pious consubstantial cacophony. They see red flags as priests get older, as familiar parishes close; and as younger priests parade around their parishes, enamored by a nineteenth century clerical ethos. They applaud the pope but find their bishops incredibly out of touch with the realities of daily life. John Myers in Newark and John Nienstedt in St. Paul are symptoms of a credibility problem not exceptional deviations.

Change is possible; and change is necessary. At every level of church life: from the parish in Southwestern, Michigan where the young Legionnaire of Christ pastor now insists on Latin masses; from the East coast parochial school, where a beloved teacher is suddenly fired, because she openly lives with her gay companion; to the West coast chancery, where the shredder is devouring records of pedophile clergymen, shifted from parish to parish, as their bishops pretended not to know they were raping Catholic children.

Change is possible; and you and I are the agents of change: blowing whistles, demanding accountability, and supporting genuinely pastoral men and women.

And let us be a contemporary church. Regardless what kind of pope, it is still primarily our responsibility. Let us not lose the ability to adapt to the needs of women and men in an ever-more-changing world. Let us be church and offer generations Y, X and the baby-boomers an attractive faith vision for today and for tomorrow.

In all of our churches, let us replace the Exit signs with Welcome signs.

The Gospel does indeed proclaim: “Where two or three are gathered, there I am….” There indeed we find our faith and our credibility as church.


8 thoughts on “American Catholic Decline

  1. I did not realize the extreme differential between strong Catholics and strong Protestants.  I thought Protestant participation was down even more than Catholic.  In our secular society where there is no ready Transcendent referent, why would Protestants be more “in church” than Catholics?   

    The Catholic potential for pastor-tyranny in our system damages us once folks realize they won’t go to hell if they miss Mass and fade from church involvement.  The lousy liturgies and insipid preaching in the Catholic scene is not put-off too.   And then the scandals sexual and financial that afflict us…   You really need to be a person of deep interiority and faith and contemplative practice to find the RC thing attractive enough to hang in there.

    Fr. Paul Milanowski in Grand Rapids told me last night of a good visit with you after your fine Marywood presentation as did Sr. Sue Tracy OP.

    1. I think people feel more at home and more welcomed in many Protestant churches. Yes I feel very good about the Grand Rapids presentation…many fine people!

  2. My daughter had a horrible thing happen to her at the Catholic Church that we had to leave the church. We tried to get help but no one would go up against the Catholic Church, Lawyers, etc. We even sent letters to the Bishop but he just ignored them. When I called the Diocese my daughter got in more trouble at the Church and school that is when we tried to get help from a Lawyer or the police, but as I said no one will go up against the Catholic church. They still send us offering envelopes, magazines and articles from the Catholic church and Diocese. I think the church doesn’t want to look like they lost members, especially the Priest at the Parish because he did nothing to help or stop the situation.

    1. I want to add to my comment above.
      I think the Catholic Religion is very beautiful and Jesus Created it.
      There is no other like it that Celebrates Jesus entire life all year long and I Love the Eucharist. But a lot of work needs to be done about the people who run it.
      Jane Doe

      1. I don’t judge those who leave. They do what they feel is most appropriate for them. The church is not restricted to the Catholic Church….Nevertheless, I am still a member because it is my tradition and I have lived and worked for that tradition all my life. I think I am too old to shift at this point…and so I am a reform-minded Catholic. 🙂

  3. Whilst I appreciate the sense in which you use the word – and this is in no sense a criticism of you personally Jack – it is perhaps within that very word “tradition” that the biggest clue lies as to what is going wrong. Tradition implies a resistance to change, new ways, new knowledge and impedes new understanding. Thus the new wine of the Spirit cannot be contained in the old wine skins of Church tradition, which the Catholic Church seems to value above all else. This makes the Church unresponsive to the ideas, views and needs of it’s members and the world at large. Perhaps this is particularly at odds with the forward thinking, innovative american psyche? Whatever the case, the heavy emphasis on tradition, at the expense of adaptability, may imply that the Catholic Church already contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. Stagnant pools tend to grow sour.

  4. People leave for many reasons but they can usually be boiled down to a betrayal of trust associated with a corrupt system of governance. It is a betrayal of the basic message of Jesus whose primary message of hope was about love and mercy and reform.
    The hierarchy by their words and actions repeatedly and universally have violated this message to preserve their power
    and deny the need for reform. The absolute power of the medieval hierarchy is absolutely abusive and without mercy or love in preserving its status. Apologists and financial supporters among the laity who are wooed by the hierarchy are complicit in perpetuating this governing corruption. This governing group defends the sodomizing of children and have no shame in doing so even though bishops on a worldwide scale are guilty of perpetuating this massive abuse of children. This is not the only abuse of power by church authorities. It is only the most obvious example of abuse to those Catholics who even pay attention, which sadly is not even close to a majority of those who still go to mass.

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