Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

So Much For The ‘Francis Effect’

New Gallup numbers show steady decline in US Catholicism

Where’d everybody go? (Jurga Jot/Shutterstock)

So much for the so-called “Francis effect” in US Catholicism. Gallup reports:

From 2014 to 2017, an average of 39% of Catholics reported attending church in the past seven days. This is down from an average of 45% from 2005 to 2008 and represents a steep decline from 75% in 1955.

By contrast, the 45% of Protestants who reported attending church weekly from 2014 to 2017 is essentially unchanged from a decade ago and is largely consistent with the long-term trend.

As Gallup first reported in 2009, the steepest decline in church attendance among U.S. Catholics occurred between the 1950s and 1970s, when the percentage saying they had attended church in the past seven days fell by more than 20 percentage points. It then fell an average of four points per decade through the mid-1990s before stabilizing in the mid-2000s. Since then, the downward trend has resumed, with the percentage attending in the past week falling another six points in the past decade.


Although the percentages saying they have attended church in the past seven days are relatively low, it should be noted that majorities of self-identified Protestants and Catholics of most ages are still active churchgoers. This is seen in responses to a separate question in which majorities say they attend once a month, nearly weekly or weekly. The only exception is Catholics aged 21 to 29; the majority of these say they seldom or never attend. [Emphasis mine — RD]


After stabilizing in the mid-2000s, weekly church attendance among U.S. Catholics has resumed its downward trajectory over the past decade. In particular, older Catholics have become less likely to report attending church in the past seven days — so that now, for the first time, a majority of Catholics in no generational group attend weekly. Further, given that young Catholics are even less devout, it appears the decline in church attendance will only continue. One advantage the Catholic Church has is that the overall proportion of Americans identifying as Catholic is holding fairly steady. However, that too may not last given the dwindling Catholic percentage among younger generations.

Read the whole thing. 

This analysis does not separate out Evangelical Protestants from Mainline Protestants, or Pentecostals. Ergo, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions from it regarding Protestants. For Catholics, though, the news is very bad, and reveals that the “Francis effect” — the idea that having a more liberal, personable pope has drawn the disaffected back to Catholicism — is anecdotal and driven by wishful thinking.

However, we have to be fair. Does anybody really think these numbers would be different if Benedict XVI were still in office? Seriously? Religious conservatives like me are fond of thinking that if only leaders of religious institutions would do what we wish they would do, things would turn around. That’s not true, at least not in the short term. Monsignor Charles Pope, an ardent proponent of the traditional Latin mass, has published a warning to his fellow trads. Excerpts (emphases below are in the original):

Some years ago (as far back at the early 1980s) we who love the Traditional Latin Mass often said (or it heard said) that if we would just return to the beautiful Latin Mass our churches would again be filled.

At first this appeared to be happening. As many dioceses (through the various indults of the 1980s and 1990s) began to offer the Traditional Latin Mass, those churches were filled, often to standing room only. Liturgical progressives were horrified and traditionalists were joyfully pleased and felt vindicated.

But as the availability of the Traditional Latin Mass has increased, it seems that a certain ceiling has been reached.

In my own archdiocese, although we offer the Traditional Latin Mass in five different locations, we’ve never been able to attract more than a total of about a thousand people. That’s only one-half of one percent of the total number of Catholics who attend Mass in this archdiocese each Sunday.

One of our parishes generously offers a Solemn High Mass once a month on Sunday afternoon, a Mass that I myself have celebrated for over 25 years. But we have gone from seeing the church almost full, to two-thirds full, to now only about one-third full.

Explanations abound among the traditional Catholics I speak to about the lack of growth in attendance at the Traditional Latin Mass. Some say that it is because more options are now available. But one of the promises was that if parishes would just offer the Traditional Latin Mass each parish would be filled again. Others say there are parking issues, or that the Mass times are not convenient, or that the Masses are too far away. But these things were all true 20 years ago when the Solemn Mass was thriving.

It seems that a ceiling has been hit. The Traditional Latin Mass appeals to a certain niche group of Catholics, but the number in that group appears to have reached its maximum.

Some traditional Catholics I speak to say, “If only the archdiocese would promote us more,” or “If only the bishop would celebrate it at all or more frequently.” Perhaps, but many other niche groups in the archdiocese say the same thing about their particular interest.

At the end of the day, for any particular movement, prayer form, organization, or even liturgy, the job of promoting it must belong to those who love it most. Shepherds don’t have sheep; sheep have sheep.

Monsignor Pope criticizes his fellow trads for what in his telling sounds like an “if we build it, they will come” mentality — as if the Latin mass was so obviously superior that people would flock to it. This is a challenge too for us in the Orthodox Church in this country. The Orthodox liturgy is so beautiful, and its spirituality so rich and deep, that we often forget that we need to evangelize as well. Nobody will come unless they know about it.

Again, I’m not as sure about the particular prospects for Protestants, but for Catholics, the Gallup numbers and trends point to why pursuing a Catholic form of the Benedict Option is the best prospect for securing a Catholic future. Here’s why.

The Benedict Option is not a strategy for direct evangelization, but rather for shoring up a fast-eroding base. Gallup, along with many other researchers, shows that religion in America is in steep decline overall, because young people are walking away from the faith. Catholicism is in worse trouble than Evangelical Protestantism, but all Christians are in trouble. Why is this?

No doubt insufficient evangelism is part of the problem (e.g., not enough evangelism, or ineffective evangelical techniques). Mostly, though, I think that the churches are not remotely responsive to the vast cultural changes happening around us in liquid modernity. I’ve written here many times about how Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the real religion of American Christians, and how far too much of standard American Christianity is MTD. The Catch-22 here is that a watered-down, non-demanding, emotionally satisfying MTD is what grabs to greater numbers of people, but they don’t stick around, because there’s not much to it beyond surface appeal. But a church that tries more serious discipleship is simply not going to draw the big numbers, because Christian discipleship is demanding.

It’s a false choice to say that a church has to choose between evangelism or discipleship. In his apostolic exhortation this week, Pope Francis has a lot of good things to say about evangelism, and serving the world, and he has good things to say about the need for prayer.

It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service. Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission.


Yes, “contemplatives even in the midst of action.” But doing that requires formation, discipleship, strong catechesis, and spiritual discipline. There’s very little about that in the apostolic exhortation. This is what the traddier Catholics could bring to their common mission, but the Pope seems to dismiss them all as “Pelagians”. As Father Dwight Longenecker said, “It seems to me that the Holy Father keeps attacking precisely the wrong problem. In the Catholic Church I have come to know, the problem is not punctilious observance of the liturgy and laws. This, it seems to me, makes up a tiny minority of Catholicism.”

The Benedict Option concept is not a full retreat from the world, but a strategic one, in the sense that it recognizes that if Christians are to serve the world faithfully as Christians, then they need to be less given over to worldliness. The trad website Rorate Caeli quotes the last will and testament of the recently deceased German Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who was a towering liberal influence on the post-Vatican II German church. This is quite a confession:

In the period after 1945, we, all of of us, even in the Church, dug our hands into this world, buried our selves in the immanent realm. This applies to me as well. I ask God and man for forgiveness. The renewal must come from deep faith, hope, and love. Therefore, I call to everyone in the words of my motto, which come from St. Paul, and which have become ever more important to me: Stand fast in the faith!

Strengthen those who stand, indeed! From a Ben Op point of view, the goal is not only to evangelize, but also to develop the spiritual disciplines and catechesis that will enable Christians to stand fast in the faith in these turbulent post-Christian times. This will probably not arrest the decline in the short run — Ross Douthat’s new book on Pope Francis features a convincing analysis of why the hopes of conservative JP2 and BXVI Catholics failed, as has the liberal Catholic project — but building a strong and committed core is laying the groundwork not only for endurance through this time of trial, but of growth in the future.

Pope Francis has urged Catholics to “go to the margins” with the Gospel. Fine, but what do you do when the center is not holding? What do you do when the Catholics you send to the margins don’t have anything specifically Catholic to share with the marginalized?

(By the way, I want to point out that Pope Francis has just apologized for what he terms his “serious errors of judgment and perception” regarding the Chilean bishop who covered up for a molester priest, and who was in turn defended by the pope [the bishop, not the molester]. I wrote about that angrily on this site, and want to report that good news of the pope’s repentance and apology. Good for Francis.)




Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now