Even the most dedicated Catholics are walking away from Church services
There's been a decline in attendance at Mass that is unique to (and problematic for) the Catholic Church
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It’s a little surprising to find out that the percentage of self-described Catholics hasn’t changed that much over the past 50 years. It’s gone from a little over 25% of the American public in 1972 to a little under that today, according to the General Social Survey. That means despite all the horrific scandals in the Catholic Church uncovered over the past two decades and the general trend away from organized religion, the Catholic label still isn’t as toxic as it ought to be.
But sociologist Ryan P. Burge notes that Catholics should be worried about a different metric: How often people attend church services.
There’s been an overall drop in the number of people who go to church. But even among the most dedicated believers—the sort of people who go to church at least once a week—Catholics are doing worse than other Christian denominations.
A lot worse.
In the early 1970s, about half of Catholics were weekly attenders. Today, it’s about 25%. And no, that’s not a result of the pandemic. Attendance was already down to 26% in 2018 - long before the world had ever heard the word “COVID-19.”
Note, also that the share of evangelicals who attend weekly has noticeably risen over the last fifty years (up at least a dozen percentage points). Weekly attendance for both Black and Mainline Protestants has stayed relatively stable, as well.
That suggests that while cultural Catholicism is still meaningful to a lot of people—they’ll call themselves “Catholic” if you ask them what religion they are—the actual religious aspects of the faith are a lot less appealing to even the most fervent members of the Church.
That’s an existential crisis for the Vatican.
Burge looked into whether politics played a role in this, but he says there isn’t a huge partisan difference here. It’s not like Democratic Catholics are ditching Church while Republican Catholics remain in the pews. Since the 1970s, the percentage of regularly Church-going Republicans has been cut in half, from over 55% then to under 30% today.
There has definitely been a shift along partisan lines among Catholics who attend Church less frequently or never. Democrats whose lives didn’t revolve around Church before are far less likely to want to be part of the club today. That’s partly to be expected. The Church has remained anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ at a time when both issues are core battlegrounds for progressives.
But it should be extremely troubling to Catholic leaders to see a drop in attendance from the most reliable segment of their audience.
So why is it happening? A few theories come to mind. One reason a lot of people attended Mass in the past is because their parents made them; as we begin seeing more older people comfortable with ditching organized religion, their kids aren’t pressured into attending services. It’s not like they’re clamoring to attend CCD classes if their parents aren’t forcing them to go.
There are also better ways to spend your time. Anyone who’s stopped going to any kind of church could tell you the joy of being able to sleep in on Sunday morning, using those hours to volunteer or work for some non-profit, or spending quality time with friends and family members.
These days, it’s also hard to argue that Church attendance is a societal good and that choosing otherwise makes you a bad person. We’ve seen what the Church does with its power. We’ve seen how the Church has taken the wrong position on damn near every hot-button moral issue of our time. We’ve seen how they’ve swept sexual abuse under the rug. Going to Mass doesn’t make you a good person; it brands you as the sort of person who supports (or isn’t bothered by) the Church’s cruelty.
Back in 2014, the Pew Research Center noted that, when it came to religious “switching,” Catholics faced the biggest losses. For every 1 new Catholic, 6.5 people were leaving the Church.
That was before all those Grand Jury reports about child sex abuse and subsequent bankruptcies. The Church has continued to demonize LGBTQ people while doubling down against abortion rights at a time when right-wing politicians and judges are leaving many people with no choices.
At some point, I suspect even regular Church attendees—the ones who attended not because they had strong opinions on cultural issues but felt going to Mass was the right thing to do—realized that the institution was doing far more harm than good. The Church has always hurt people but it was easier to blame the evil on a few bad eggs while defending the Church as a whole. It’s much harder to make that case today.
Again, these are just theories. Feel free to share your thoughts below about why you think even weekly Church attendees are choosing other options.
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