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Where Did All The Catholics Go?

Where are all the Catholics? (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Couple of interesting tweets from political scientist Ryan Burge, who studies religion as an academic, and is also a Baptist pastor. He’s an interesting person to follow on Twitter — @ryanburge:

Notice that the top chart tells what percentage of people identifying with a particular religious tradition are going to weekly services. The bottom chart tells what percentage of the overall population those people are. So, even though the Mainline Protestants have dramatically declined, those who still identify as Mainline Protestant go to services in the same percentage that they have always done. These charts are giving us an image of how many people who still identify with a particular religious tradition participate in its rites. For example, there are far fewer Mainliners in America today than there were forty years ago — the Protestant Mainline has been collapsing for decades — but those who still identify with their churches are continuing to go to services in the same numbers as they always have.

What has happened to Catholics? I suppose it could be that Catholics still identify as Catholics, even if they have ceased to participate in the life of the Church. I’ve known plenty of Catholics who for all intents and purposes have ceased to be Catholic, but who still call themselves Catholic, despite being unfaithful to their baptism. Protestants who have ceased going to church tend not to continue to identify as Methodist, or Evangelical, or whatever. I would expect that natal Orthodox Christians who have ceased to practice the faith would nevertheless identify themselves as Orthodox to a pollster.

Still, that can’t explain the entire Catholic collapse, can it? I shared Burge’s tweet with a friend who is a churchgoing Millennial Catholic. It made him disconsolate and angry at the leadership class of the Church. “Well, what a friggin’ disaster,” he texted back. “And there will be only a shrug. Nothing to see here. Just another reminder of the Catholic dumpster fire.”

Do we have data showing where the Nones are coming from? Are they mostly former Catholics, former Evangelicals, former Mainliners, or what? Anyway, if you call yourself Catholic but don’t go to mass, your kids will not even call themselves Catholic. If you don’t practice your religion, it will be lost to your family within a generation, maybe two.

If I’m a pastor of any sort, I’m going to be worried about the people who aren’t going to come back after the Covid lockdown is over. People who were coming simply because they were in the habit, but who now, having had that habit broken by the pandemic response, will stay home on Sundays.

Here’s another interesting chart from Burge’s Twitter feed:

The only religious group more partisan than Atheists are Black Protestants. The only groups more partisan than Agnostics are Black Protestants, Muslims, and White Evangelicals. The only demographic groups in which Republicans outnumber Democrats are White Evangelicals and Mormons.

I wonder what percentage of the US national media identify as atheist or agnostic…

UPDATE: Reader Lawbooks10 writes:

By the way, Rod, your point about people who don’t come back after COVID is well-taken, but I wonder, at what point will churches stop the numbers game and focus on quality of disciples over quantity of members? Obviously, we should be concerned for the state of everyone’s soul, but if the church (speaking of the broad Christian church, not the Catholic Church) is full of people who are sort of bland about their faith, then it’s just going to continue to decline. Public Masses are resuming in Texas this weekend (obviously with changes in how they are conducted). But if you are so weakly attached that a 6-week interruption breaks your attachment completely, can you really even be said to have been that attached in the first place?

I think the brute reality is that churches have to slough off the weakly attached before any sort of real reform can take place. When this topic comes up, I see many people on the comment threads always talking about how “nobody can take the bad music and irreverence at the Novus Ordo Mass, so they just leave” but that’s not my experience in parish life at all. It’s actually quite the opposite: most parishioners DON’T want changes to the music, they DON’T want Latin re-introduced, they DON’T want more reverent liturgies, they are quite happy with the sort of vanilla wafer Mass that is par for the course in most parishes. I definitely would prefer a more reverent liturgy but I’m in the distinct minority in every parish I’ve ever been to, and I know it. I don’t think more reverent liturgy is any sort of magic bullet by any means. It’s more of a symptom of a real loss of true faith/belief. I mean, if we REALLY believe that Christ, the King of the Universe, is truly present in the Eucharist, then why don’t we act like it? The real answer is that your typical Catholic, even a regular Mass-goer, doesn’t REALLY believe that. You can see similar dynamics in evangelicalism with moral therapeutic deism.

So I actually feel the opposite in some ways: I think it will be better for the church in the long-run to be reduced to a rump core of truly faithful, committed and small-o orthodox believers. That’s where the seeds of renewal are. The bland vanilla Christianity on offer at so many churches is on offer because that’s what many parishioners/attendees WANT.

I am pretty sure you are correct about that. By the way, this parody of church “worship songs” was going around my Twitter last week. I thought it was hilarious. An Orthodox friend who used to be part of a church that worshiped like this said that what makes it so funny is that it’s so true:

That song is about as far as you can get from Orthodox worship and still have music. If the choice were between staying home on Sunday and going to a church with worship music like that, I would stay home. It’s not that I think I’m a better Christian, but rather because that kind of stuff hits me viscerally, and drives me away from God. But I recognize that I am very much in the minority. Most Americans would prefer that to the ancient chants we have at our church.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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