Catholics in America are on the move, with their numbers more equally distributed across the country than in 1950, when most lived in the Northeast and Midwest. They also account for about one-fourth of the population in the United States and have the highest retention rate among the large religions. Parishes are fewer, but bigger, and most people are happy with their parishes.
These facts were among those presented on Nov. 1 to the First Friday Club of Cleveland by Jesuit Father Tom Gaunt, who has been executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University since 2011. His topic was “Catholics in America: 1958-2018.”
CARA conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church in order to help the Church’s self-understanding, to serve the research needs of Church decision-makers and to advance scholarly research on religion, especially Catholicism.
Father Gaunt said CARA’s data shows that Catholics, like the rest of the U.S. population, are mobile. In 1950, 46 percent of the Catholic population lived in the Northeast and another 30 percent in the Midwest, with just 12 percent each in the South and West. Fast forward to 2010, and things have evened out across the country with about 28 percent of Catholics living in the Northeast, 25 percent in the West, 24 percent in the South and 23 percent in the Midwest.
These changes can pose problems for the bishops, Father Gaunt said. In the Northeast and Midwest, bishops are worrying about how to find the money to keep churches and schools open. Meanwhile, in the West, “The bishops can’t build churches fast enough and there are waiting lists at the schools,” he said, adding this illustrates a challenge to the Church: “People move; buildings don’t.”
Because of these population shifts, some parishes in the West have huge congregations. The dioceses/archdioceses with the largest increase in Catholics from 2006 to 2010 was Atlanta, Georgia, followed by Fresno, California; Phoenix, Arizona; San Bernardino and Sacramento in California; Fort Worth, Dallas and Galveston-Houston in Texas; and Orange in California.
Cleveland is just below the middle of the pack of the 10 dioceses/archdioceses with the largest reported decreases in Catholics. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was at the top, followed by Rockford and Peoria in Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; Hartford, Connecticut; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland; Syracuse, New York; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Newark, New Jersey.
“On the media end, you may hear that the Church is collapsing, but that’s not true,” Father Gaunt said. It’s a growth vs loss situation, with mobility shifting Catholic population away from what previously were the traditional Catholic areas. About 70 million people self-identify as Catholics, he added, which is a fairly stable number that has grown slightly. Catholicism remains the largest religion, followed by Southern Baptist, which has about 15 million people.
He said converts or “reverts,” those who return to the Church later in life, often are more active.
The largest percentage of those who identify as Catholics across the country is white and the Hispanic/Latino percentage of Catholics is growing — particularly in the West and South. The next largest group is Asian.
Catholics have the highest retention rate for those raised in the faith among the big religions – about 68 percent, Father Gaunt said.
He noted there are declines in sacraments, especially infant baptisms, first Communions, confirmations, Catholics who marry in the Church, adult entries into the faith and deaths registered by the Church, mainly because people are not practicing their faith. The decrease in deaths registered by parishes can be attributed – at least in part — to mobility.
“If the kids move, for example to Atlanta, and grandma stays in Cleveland, but eventually can’t stay alone in her home, she may move closer to them. But she is no longer connected with a parish,” he said. And when she dies, the family may not notify her previous parish. “There is no parish connection. People still say they’re Catholic, but the level of engagement drops.”
He said enrollment in Catholic elementary and high schools also is declining, with the enrollment in the parish school of religion mirroring these statistics.
“But enrollment in Catholic colleges and universities is steady – if not increasing,” he said, and this has an impact on later engagement with the faith.
Mass attendance figures have remained fairly steady during a 20-year study, with about 22-25 percent of people saying they attend Mass regularly. Father Gaunt said there was an uptick in 2001 after 9/11 for all major religions, but after about six months, things returned to a normal number.
With parishes closing in the Northeast and Midwest, there are fewer – but larger – parishes. Yet most people are happy with their parish, he said, with one notable exception. “Those in a consolidated parish where their parish closed may not be happy because it was a traumatic event. We’ll have to keep on watching the data.”
Father Gaunt said in-pew surveys show the things that attract most people to their parishes are an open, welcoming spirit; the quality of the liturgy; the quality of the preaching and the sense of belonging they feel.
According to CARA data, challenges facing the Church today include shifting locations of the Catholic population; declines in Catholic elementary and high school enrollments yet increases in Catholic college and university enrollments; determining where – if at all – faith formation occurs and how to build on the ethnic/cultural traditions and customs of families, including devotions, activities and celebrations.
Also, Father Gaunt said these puzzles raise questions: Why people continue to identify as Catholics even though they are disengaged with the local parish; Catholics have a high retention rate and weekly Mass attendance remains consistent.
“Religious attendance is pretty low across the board,” he said, noting that fewer people in the pews is not a uniquely Catholic problem.
CARA continues to collect and analyze data to gain a clearer picture of the U.S. Catholic Church, Father Gaunt said, following this philosophy: “Report the data – it speaks for itself.”
Bishop Nelson Perez will address the club’s next meeting on Nov. 29 at the Westin Cleveland Downtown, 777 St. Clair Ave. NE, Cleveland. Registration begins at 11:15 a.m., with lunch at noon and the program to follow. Cost is $25; tables of 10 can be purchased.