Monday, March 09, 2009

Survey: New England Catholic population plummeting.

Today's Boston Globe has a story on the findings of the American Religious Identification Survey conducted by researchers at Trinity College in Connecticut. Comparing data from identical surveys conducted in 1990, 2001 and 2008, the team at Trinity College found evidence of a dramatic decline in the number of self-identified Catholics in the Northeast and a perceptible increase in the Catholic population of states like California and Texas. Here's more from the Globe:

The Catholic population in New England, long the most Catholic region in the country, is plummeting, according to a large survey of religious affiliation in the United States.

The American Religious Identification Survey, a national study being released today by Trinity College in Hartford, finds that the Catholic population of New England fell by more than 1 million in the past two decades, even while the overall population of the region was growing. The study, based on 54,000 telephone interviews conducted last year, found that the six-state region is now 36 percent Catholic, down from 50 percent in 1990.

In Massachusetts, the decline is particularly striking - in 1990, Catholics made up a majority of the state, with 54 percent of the residents, but in 2008, the Catholic population was 39 percent. At the same time, the percentage of the state's residents who say they have no religious affiliation rose sharply, from 8 percent to 22 percent.

. . .

The study confirms findings by other studies, particularly by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, that have found the size of the Catholic population in the United States to be relatively stable - about one-quarter of the nation's population - as immigration by Catholics, mostly from Latin America, makes up for a decrease in American Catholics whose families emigrated from Europe.

The Trinity study finds that, even as the number and percentage of Catholics in New England are falling, the percentage in the Southwest and West is growing, so that in California the population is 37 percent Catholic, up from 29 percent in 1990, and in Texas it is 32 percent Catholic, up from 23 percent.
To read the rest of the Globe story, click here. If you'd like to read the survey report and parse the data for yourself, take a look at the ARIS website. This survey confirms the findings of the Pew Forum report released last year, suggesting that the Catholic population in the United States is holding steady thanks to immigration. Catholic decline in the Northeast and the Midwest and the growth of the Catholic population in the West and Southwest seem to be taking place independently: while the level of religious practice and identification among Catholics is falling in areas that were once predominantly Catholic, a new wave of Catholic immigrants seems to be revitalizing the Church in parts of the country that were traditionally less Catholic.

Echoing a point I made last year in response to the Pew Forum report, I think that the ARIS survey needs to be thoughtfully and prayerfully received by American Catholics. The question of how to respond to the influx of Catholic immigrants from Latin America and Asia has already received a lot of attention, as well it should. However, I think we need to think much more seriously about the impact of secularization on the Catholic Church in this country and the questions that this phenomenon raises.

The reason that the Catholic population has declined so much in New England isn't that Catholics are moving away or changing religions; the reason that the Catholic population has plummeted is that many Catholics there have given up religion altogether. In other words, most of them haven't abandoned Catholicism in order to become Mormons, join Protestant megachurches, or practice Wicca - they've simply lost interest in religious practice. My experience with cradle Catholics who have joined the ranks of the religiously "unaffiliated" is that many of them retain a sense that Catholicism is unique and distinctive. In a way, many of them see the Catholic Church as 'the only show in town' as far as religion is concerned: they may have become disaffected with the Church for any number of reasons, but they would never consider affiliating with any other religious group.

Whenever I go home to Massachusetts to visit my family, I see evidence of the religious decline that the ARIS survey points to. Attending daily Mass on weekday mornings, I'm usually the youngest person present by several decades. Though I may see some parents with small children at Sunday Mass, young adults are very scarce. Outside of large metropolitan areas, it's difficult to find programs at the parish level that reach out to young Catholics or give them a reason to stay active in the Church after they've received the sacraments of initiation. In a way, my own vocation confirms my sense that the local Church in New England hasn't offered much to young adults: it wasn't until I went to Georgetown that I really experienced the Church as something truly compelling and vibrant.

Secularization is a complex phenomenon with many causes, and I think that it is best understood as a reality within which the Church must work and not as a "problem" that we can try to solve or overcome. Focusing on a 'faithful remnant' who are increasingly removed from the cultural mainstream does not strike me as an adequate pastoral strategy. We must be willing to reach out to people who were baptized into the Catholic Church and may retain a nebulous sense of cultural Catholicism (represented by the 'only show in town' mentality that I noted above) but who are presently "unaffiliated" or effectively unchurched. We must find ways to show these Catholics that faith can make a positive difference in their lives. I hope and pray that we will have the courage and the creativity to respond to this challenge. AMDG.


At 3/09/2009 8:32 PM, Blogger Steve said...

As a late 20-something Catholic in New England, these findings are not at all surprising. Sometimes even during Sunday mass, I am the youngest person in attendance by several decades.

I don't think this is a problem that only the Catholic Church is having, however. In my neck of the woods, mainline protestant churches as well as Jewish synagogues are also closing/consolidating. Even fraternal organizations like the Masons and the Lions are mainly comprised of members who are old and gray.

I wonder if anything is replacing the churches as the centers of community life? I fear we're becoming a society full of very lonely people who, nonetheless, aggressively assert that we have all the answers.

At 3/09/2009 9:16 PM, Blogger Kent Paul said...

this is disappointing... thanks for sharing

At 3/10/2009 11:25 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


You're right that this isn't just a Catholic problem. Offhand, I can think of at least two Protestant churches near where I grew up that have closed in the last several years because their congregations had shrunk dramatically. One of the church buildings was bought by the local historical society and was turned into a museum, but the other is still awaiting a buyer.

On a macro level, the ARIS survey observed similar trends toward 'disaffiliation' among Protestants and Jews as it found among Catholics. Though the media likes to make a fuss about the growth of Protestant megachurches, the data seem to suggest that more mainline Protestants are dropping out of religion than are switching to evangelical churches.

I agree that there seems to be a link between the drop in religious practice and the drop in civic involvement generally. I remember there was a book on that general phenomenon a few years ago (the title was "Bowling Alone" - I confess I haven't actually read it), which I think made the case that we were moving toward a more atomistic society with more loners than joiners.

I also wonder if there is a correlation between the decline in involvement in community organizations and the growth of 'virtual' communities that spring up through Internet affinity groups and the like. It seems to me that people still like to connect with likeminded individuals, but they're doing it at arms length and with less of a sense of personal investment. It will be interesting to see where this leads. Hopefully people will realize that they need to be part of real-world communities and that all their needs can't be met by technology.

At 3/17/2009 7:38 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

As a parent of one of the few teens you'll see at Sunday Mass (and who at 50 is often the youngest at morning Mass!), I suspect we are failing that age group in a serious way, and have been for a long time. There is virtually no way, for example, to have a single group to prepare parents of children receiving the sacraments. Most of the parents cannot name the seven sacraments, and what they need is very different from the parents who attend Church every week. We have failed now two generations...

On a positive note, my parish is looking at where its future lies and has put together a committee which includes teens to elders (the youngest on the committee is my son, at 14, the oldest nearly 80); our history and our future in one room.

At 6/03/2014 7:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The new mass, which Roger Scruton calls "kitsch," is too social,too ordinary, and overall too boring. Who wants to hear "Good morning, folks," instead of "Introibo ad altare Dei"? And even priests admit they feel more devout when celebrating ad orientem. This mass is the fruit of liberal Catholicism.


Post a Comment

<< Home