Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Checkup Time

It’s time for a checkup. During the spring and summer every year the Vatican release’s the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae (ASE) and in the U.S., The Official Catholic Directory (OCD) is published. With the OCD out this week we’ve updated (and significantly expanded) CARA’s Frequently Requested Church Statistics page. 

This post compares the U.S. data in the 2014 OCD to the numbers released in 2000. There is good news and bad news. My bedside manner compels me to start with the good…

Ordinations to the priesthood and seminarians preparing for this vocation are up. Ordinations have increased by 12% since 2000 and the number of seminarians enrolled has increased by 5%. Yet the strongest growth among the clergy is in the number of permanent deacons who have gone from 12,378 in 2000 to 17,464 in 2013 (+41%). Essentially the Church now has enough deacons to have about one in every parish. The number of lay professional ministers (excluding vowed religious who serve in parish ministry) has also increased from 17,315 to 21,424 (+24%) or to about 1.2 per parish.

The parish-affiliated Catholic population has grown by 11% and the self-identified Catholic population has grown by 7% since 2000. Overall, the self-identified Catholic population has added 5 million. A significant portion of this growth has come from foreign-born Catholic adults which have increased by 4.4 million. CARA’s survey-based estimates of Mass attendance show a slight uptick from 22% attending weekly to 24%. With a growing Catholic population that means nationally the Church has seen the number of Catholics who go to church every week increase by more than 2.6 million since 2000 (+17%).

Now for the bad news—the things the Church needs to work on in the future to ensure its health…

The Catholic Church in the U.S. has experienced a net loss of 1,753 parishes since 2000 (-9%). Most of these losses have occurred in the Northeast and Midwest with too few parishes being opened in the South and West where Catholic population growth is concentrated. Although ordinations are up these remain insufficient to maintain the population of priests due to retirements and deaths. Overall, the number of priests in the U.S. has fallen by 7,424 since 2000 (-16%). The number of parishes without a resident priest pastor has increased by 653 to 3,496 (+23%). The ratio of active diocesan priests to parishes has decreased from 1.2 to a precarious 1.0. Although more parishes are without a resident priest pastor the Church has decreased the number of parishes where pastoral care is entrusted to a deacon or lay person (Canon 517.2) from 447 in 2000 to 388 now (-13%). Essentially, in many dioceses, parishes are being closed rather than having these entrusted to a deacon or lay person.

The number of religious sisters in the U.S. has now fallen below 50,000 after experiencing a 38% decline since 2000 (from 79,814 to 49,883). Religious brothers have experienced a decline of 24% (from 5,662 to 4,318).

Although the number of deacons and professional lay ministers are increasing there may be trouble ahead as there are fewer preparing to add themselves to these ranks. The number of permanent deacon candidates has fallen by 19% and the number of people enrolled in lay ecclesial ministry formation programs has dropped by 27% since 2000.

Catholic schools continue to face challenges with a net loss of 1,496 primary and secondary schools since 2000 (-18%). Enrollments have dropped by 478,938 (-20%). One bright note is in higher education with more than 100,000 students added to Catholic college and university enrollments since 2000 (+15%).

Sacramental practice numbers also show some declining trends. It is important to note that data for the 2014 OCD is collected in 2013 and in that year parishes are reporting the number of sacraments celebrated in the year previous (i.e., 2012). Thus, we still must wait until this time a year to see if any “Francis Effect” is evident in the 2015 OCD (which will include 2013 sacrament totals).

Baptisms of infants and minors have decreased by 22%. However, it is important to note some of this decline is in part related to fewer children being born. For example, there were 4.059 million births in the United States in 2000 and 3.953 million in 2012. In 2000, the fertility rate in the United States was very near the demographic “replacement rate” at 2.06 and is now well below this. U.S. population growth overall, not just among Catholics, is being fueled more and more by immigration.

One effect of falling fertility is you start to see strange stats like the number of first communions exceeding infant and minor baptisms in 2012 (758,034 compared to 713,302). Both first communions and confirmations are also down (-10% and -14%, respectively).

Adult conversions are also in decline with fewer adult baptisms (-51%) and receptions into full communion (-31%). Some of this is related to fewer Catholics marrying. The primary reason most adults convert to Catholicism is because they marry a Catholic. There were 2.3 million marriages in the United States in 2000 compared to 2.1 million in 2011. Not only are Americans less likely to marry now than in 2000, Catholics are less likely to marry in the Catholic Church. The number of marriages in the Church has declined by 41% since 2000 (from 261,626 to 154,450). Even the number of Catholic funerals is down 15% (…should I have noted that in the good news section?).

Since 2000, survey-based estimates of former Catholics—those raised in the faith who no longer self-identify as Catholic—have increased by 14.1 million. This is equivalent to more than 900,000 per year and this would be slightly larger than the number the Church added in baptisms and receptions into full communion in 2012 (817,757). It is still the case that Catholicism retains more of those raised in the faith than most other religions in the United States and every faith has “former members” (...some return as reverts). As the largest single faith in the United States it is also not unusual for the Catholic Church to therefore have the largest number of these former members (Why do they leave? See Pew’s Faith in Flux study). Still, the losses are very significant and there is a lot of work for those interested in New Evangelization to focus on with about 32 million former Catholics now residing in the United States.

Most who leave the faith do so in their teens and 20s. As we noted recently, some of this may be related to fewer young Catholics being enrolled in Catholic schools. It is assumed by many that the Catholics not enrolled in Catholic schools are participating in parish-based religious education. This is not the case as the numbers enrolled here are also down 24%. There are more than a million fewer children and teens in parish religious education classes now than in 2000.

This checkup gives the Church a lot to work on. Perhaps the more important checkup is a year away. With the 2015 OCD we’ll have a clearer idea of the impact of Pope Francis on the U.S. numbers. It is also the case that with unemployment declining and the economy continuing to recover we may expect to see increases in marriages, births, and baptisms. It is also important to note that globally the Church’s charts look very healthy with broad indicators of growth. 

Records image courtesy of Tom Magliery.


Do Catholic Schools Matter?

Do Catholic schools matter? This might be the question I hear more than any other (…and my colleague Mary Gautier has previously provided some answers in NCR using different data sources than what I show below). With the school year at an end here is the most current view…

The economics of schooling in many areas has become very difficult—especially in the Northeast and Midwest where many of the oldest schools are located (often in urban areas where few Catholic families reside today. For more on this: 1, 2). Whenever funding becomes tight people begin to make cost and benefit decisions.

What are the benefits? There is certainly no shortage of research on how these schools perform academically. Results lean heavily toward comparatively positive outcomes but sometimes it is difficult to disentangle these from issues of student self-selection and school admission decisions. Regardless, few question the ability of Catholic schools to educate students academically.

CARA surveys of parents reveal that the top reason parents chose to enroll children in Catholic schools is not for academics but for “quality religious education” followed by a “safe environment” (Primary Trends, Challenges, and Outlook: Catholic Elementary Schools Since 2000). “Quality academic instruction” ranks third for the reasons parents choose Catholic schools (...parents cite “tuition costs” as their biggest problem in enrolling their children followed by “insufficient tuition assistance”). Thus, if one is looking to measure “benefits” perhaps the top concern is in how well Catholic schools provide religious education and the eventual formation of knowledgeable and active Catholic adults.

It would be easy to just compare all Catholics who went to a Catholic school to all those who had not in our national surveys of self-identified Catholics. However, there are significant differences in the proportion of Catholics who attended these schools by generation. Also much has changed on these campuses. For example, schools used to be staffed mostly by religious women and men as well as clergy. Now the vast majority of school staffs are composed of lay women and men.

In CARA’s recent national surveys of the adult Catholic population (CARA Catholic Polls) a majority of those of the Pre-Vatican II Generation (born before 1943) and the Vatican II Generation (born 1943 to 1960) say they attended a Catholic primary school (51%). However, in the generations that followed many fewer report enrollment. Only 37% of Post-Vatican II Generation (born 1961 to 1981) Catholics and 23% of Millennial Generation (born 1982 or later) Catholics have attended a Catholic primary school at some point.

Perhaps the most straightforward test is to examine the effect of Catholic schooling on Mass attendance. The figure below shows Mass attendance by generation and by previous enrollment in a Catholic school as a child (…note the schooling sub-groups are not mutually exclusive. One could have attended both a Catholic primary and secondary school). Generally, those who attended a Catholic school attend Mass more frequently than those who did not attend a Catholic school in each generation. However, differences become more pronounced (and statistically significant) among younger Catholics—those of the Post-Vatican II and Millennial generations. Most Millennials did not attend a Catholic school and few of those in this group attend Mass every week (5%). A third or more of those who did attend Catholic schools are weekly attenders. I’m sure the Church would wish attendance levels were even higher among young Catholic school alumni. At the same time, if Catholic schools disappeared the Church might expect future Mass attendance levels to be well below 10% outside of Christmas, Easter, and Ash Wednesday services.

It is also the case that without schools the Church might also expect to have fewer Catholics in the United States overall. The number of confirmations celebrated in the United States has been in decline since 2009. Part of this decline is likely linked to current changes in Catholic schooling. As shown below, the likelihood that one has been confirmed is correlated with having attended a Catholic school. Among Millennials, only two-thirds of those who never attend a Catholic school are confirmed compared to 82% of those who attend a Catholic primary school and 91% of those who attend a Catholic high school.

Yet this figure likely underestimates the impact of schools on teens and young adults. As Pew found in the 2009 study, Faith in Flux, “Religious change begins early in life. Most of those who decided to leave their childhood faith say they did so before reaching age 24. … Religious commitment as a child and teenager may be related to the propensity to change religion. The survey finds key differences, for example, in the levels of teenage (ages 13-18) religious commitment between former Catholics who have become unaffiliated and those who have kept their childhood faith. Former Catholics who are now unaffiliated are much less likely than lifelong Catholics to have attended Mass regularly or to have had very strong faith as teenagers.”

It is very likely that some Catholics who never attend a Catholic school leave the faith before or shortly after becoming adults. These losses are not captured in the figure above, which only includes those who continue to self-identify as Catholic as adults. A 2003 CARA Catholic Poll estimated that nearly eight in ten Americans raised Catholic who had attend Catholic schools (primary and/or secondary) self-identified as Catholics as an adult. By comparison fewer seven in ten of those raised Catholic who did not attend a Catholic school remained Catholic as adults (CARA has not replicated the sampling and series of questions needed to measure this by Catholic schooling since 2003. However, it is known that retention rates overall have fallen since that time).
Another key area where Catholic schools have a strong impact is on vocations. As shown below, among never-married Millennial Generation male Catholics (ages 14 and older surveyed for CARA’s Consideration of Priesthood and Religious Life Among Never-Married U.S. Catholics) who have attended a Catholic school, more than one in four indicate that they have considered becoming a priest or brother. Only about one in ten of those who did not attend a Catholic educational institution indicate this. Also shown below, among never-married Post-Vatican II and Millennial Generation female Catholics (ages 14 and older) who have attended a Catholic school, 13% or more indicate that they have considered becoming a sister or nun. Only about 6% to 7% of those who did not attend a Catholic educational institution indicate this.

If fewer and fewer Catholics enroll in Catholic schools in the future either because of changing preferences or a lack of schools it will become ever more challenging for the Catholic Church to foster vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The connection between Catholic schooling and interest in vocations is found to be robust and statistically significant even after controlling for a variety of other factors (e.g., enrollment in parish-based religious education, frequency of Mass attendance, race and ethnicity, income, other youth experiences).

Catholic schools are part of a pipeline that provides a major source of vocations and ministers. As mentioned previously only 37% of Post-Vatican II Generation Catholics and 23% of Millennial Generation Catholics have attended a Catholic primary school at some point. Yet, half or more new priests (50%) and brothers (55%) attended Catholic primary schools as did 41% of new sisters and 45% of younger lay ecclesial ministers.

Without Catholic schools the next generation of Church leaders would be more difficult to recruit and form in the numbers that will be needed for a growing Catholic population (1, 2).

In the broadest view, the long-term benefits of Catholic schools in making Mass attendance more likely and helping ensure young Catholics are confirmed (and remain Catholic as adults), along with the importance these institutions play in fostering Catholic leaders likely outweigh many of the short-term financial difficulties Catholic schools currently face. The Catholic Church would be weakened significantly by continued losses of Catholic schools. At the same time there are many schools that are no longer financially feasible. There are simply too few Catholic families in some areas. These campuses should be closed (...unless they can remain open with non-Catholic students. Schools can educate and evangelize). What is essential is that the Church needs to build many new schools where Catholic families are. Where to start? There are 18 U.S. dioceses where the number of parish-connected Catholics (i.e., registered or attending Mass) per elementary school exceeds 25,000. Most of these are in the South or West.


Using demographic planning (i.e., identifying areas with many Catholic families) the Catholic Church could successfully construct new Catholic schools in many of the dioceses listed above. In a national view, these new campuses would replace closing campuses in areas of the Midwest and Northeast and maintain the Church’s capacity to provide education for the shifting U.S. Catholic population. Some of this is already occurring. Since 2005, the Church has established 347 new schools. Also during this period about three in ten schools nationally have had waiting lists (1,986 schools in 2014). But 347 new campuses are insufficient to rebuild the capacity the Church needs in the South and West (...nationally more than 1,500 campuses have closed in the last decade).

It is also the case that much of the growth in Catholic population in the South and West has been among those who self-identify their ethnicity as Hispanic. Only 14% of students in Catholic schools nationally are Hispanic while 45% of Catholics ages 18 to 29 self-identify as Hispanic. Some have wondered about the feasibility of new schools in the South and West if Hispanic parents do not choose to enroll children in sufficient numbers.

The CARA survey of Catholic parents mentioned above also revealed that once one controls for income (and other factors such as age, frequency of Mass attendance, education, and availability of financial assistance), Hispanic parents are no more or less likely to enroll children in Catholic schools than Catholic parents of some other race and/or ethnicity. Thus, the current lack of enrollments by Hispanic Catholic parents does not appear to be an issue of cultural or school preferences. The shortfall is likely mostly economic with the median household income for Hispanic families in the United States only about 64% of what the average non-Hispanic white family earns annually. In 2013, the median Catholic elementary school tuition was $3,673 per year (after adjusting for inflation this is 37% higher than what it was in 2004). Many may be simply priced out of the possibility of enrollment (...and this in turn may be negatively impacting Hispanic Catholic retention and affiliation). So the challenge is even greater than just creating new schools. The church needs new and more affordable schools.

As incredibly difficult as this may be, failing to rebuild a new model of Catholic schooling where it is needed most would likely result in Catholic retention rates falling to levels of many Protestant denominations (e.g., minorities of those raised Methodist, Episcopalian, or Presbyterian remain affiliated as such as adults). The Church would struggle to develop the next generation of leaders. Then again it would need fewer leaders because Mass attendance rates among a diminished Catholic population would result in fewer demands for sacraments and religious practice. If the Church is looking to get smaller in the future it could easily achieve this by continuing to reduce its capacity to provide school-based religious education.

That was a long way of saying, yes, of course Catholic schools matter.

Classroom image courtesy of Saint Francis Academy. 

Note: CARA Catholic Polls are conducted with GfK Custom Research’s nationally representative panel. A random sample of adult Catholics are surveyed from this panel through their computer or through a television-based interface (for those without computer and/or internet access). This reduces social desirability bias that occurs when surveys are conducted with human interviewers. It is well understood that respondents over-report their church attendance in telephone or face-to-face polling. This problem is minimized using the methods CARA employs in its national surveys.


"Religiously Knowledgeable" Atheists Believe in God?

A new Pew study has found that a majority of Americans (53%) say they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate if that candidate self-identified as an atheist. Only 5% say this characteristic would make them more likely to vote for a candidate. Perhaps Americans would think a bit differently if they knew a secret hidden (until now) in the data for Pew's U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. Recall when this was released that the media focused on:

  • Los Angeles Times: “If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist. Heresy? Perhaps. But a survey that measured Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths.” 
  • Reuters: “They may not believe in God or gods but they know a thing or two about them. Atheists and agnostics topped a survey of religious knowledge among Americans released on Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.” 
  • New York Times: “Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion. … Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions… Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics.”

Digging a bit deeper into the data (available here) you’ll find that only 47% of adult atheists and agnostics in the United States are aware that an atheist is “someone who does not believe in God” and does not believe in God themselves. Additionally, the “knowledgeable” agnostics presumably appear in the 13% who are aware of the atheist definition and don’t know if God exists. Thus, six in ten answer in a manner that one might expect. Would Americans be more likely to vote for the 5% who are unaware that an atheist is someone who does not believe in God or of the even larger 35% of atheists and agnostics who are aware of the definition but who also say they believe in God? Overall, 37% believe in God regardless of awareness of the definition. This seems like a remarkably interesting finding that was not mentioned in the widely cited study of religious knowledge (...belief in God among atheists is something Pew has documented elsewhere, see pg. 5).

The Pew report compared average religious knowledge scores across different religious affiliation sub-groups. Self-identified atheists and agnostics did indeed outscore those of other religious affiliations. But there are indications (...perhaps glimpses is a better term given sample sizes) that atheists and agnostics who don’t believe in God and/or never go to religious services are slightly less knowledgeable than other atheists and agnostics who are either open to or believing in God or who go to religious services with some frequency.

The figure below isolates the 201 atheists and agnostics surveyed who know that an atheist is someone who “does not believe in God.” It shows the average total score on the religious knowledge quiz for those among this group who 1) personally do not believe in God, 2) who are unsure of a belief in God, and 3) who believe in God. The non-believers score an impressive average of 20.6 out of 32 but those unsure of a belief in God (24.2) and those who believe in God (21.0) score even higher, on average.

Among the broader population of atheists and agnostics surveyed (independent of their knowledge of what an atheist is or their belief in God), those who go to religious services with some frequency get more correct answers on the religious knowledge quiz than those who never attend these services.

It makes sense that atheists and agnostics who go to religious services might be more knowledgeable about religion because they hear religious content there. But should those open to belief in God or those attending religious services also be more informed about science? The survey included a series of questions that measured scientific knowledge. As shown in the figures below 97% of those who do not believe in God know that Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution and other atheist and agnostic respondents were less likely to get this correct. In all other cases, those open to belief in God or who believe in God were more likely than non-believers to correctly answer three other scientific knowledge questions. The second figure shows that those with some religious service attendance were more likely than those who never attend to answer each of the science questions correctly.

In a previous post we noted that atheists have among the lowest retention rates in the United States (children raised as atheists self-identifying as such as adults). This generated a lot of discussion and a follow-up post detailing the many differences between the much larger and growing group of “Nones” (14% of U.S. adults with a “nothing in particular” religious affiliation) from those self-identifying specifically as atheists or agnostics (2% and 3% of U.S. adults, respectively). I assume this post may lead to some questions as well...

Q: Is this statistically valid? Just more than 200 atheists and agnostics were interviewed.
A: I did not create the sample nor conduct the survey. Pew did and many in the news media made much out of the “If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist” based on this very same, identical, small sample. If the results above regarding the percentages of atheist and agnostics who know the definition of an atheist or who believe in God are, in your opinion, “invalid” so is the finding that atheists and agnostics are the most knowledgeable. Recall that Pew also included other even smaller sub-groups in its analysis that made news (e.g., 117 Hispanic Catholics were interviewed and reported on. Small sub-groups are generally not uncommon in survey reports and can be found in other recent Pew research). The margins of error are, in my opinion, quite high. But then again I am just pointing to a source that made a lot of news and noting that there is more of a story in that data that I think deserves exploration in future studies with larger sample sizes.

Q: If Pew didn’t mention any of this it must not be important. Why should I trust any of this?
A: Pew doesn’t mention many results in reports that one can find in their data (e.g., our previous post). No one can completely describe all the possible relationships in a data set—especially when one is on deadline to produce a summary report when the data are fresh. Greg Smith, who worked on this study, is in my opinion one of the leading religious researchers in the country. Yet, it would be unrealistic to expect even the best researchers to uncover every possible interesting finding in their data. Often they spend many years examining and publishing out of the same data set before it is fully explored. It is also the case that Pew seems to have a very direct reporting style. They present topline and sub-group results in reports and do not venture extensively into other aspects or connections in their data (...they seem to be doing more of this in their Fact Tank blog). Thankfully, Pew provides their data to researchers to study and publish with the data further.

Q: I don’t trust CARA as a Catholic research center. What do you know about atheists?
A: When we noted the low retention rate for atheists someone replied “These were apparently culled from raw data supplied to CARA. They should perhaps then be taken with a grain of salt, as CARA is religiously affiliated, but we'll accept them as is.” When “too small an N” or “Pew didn’t report it” doesn’t make the reality of a finding one does not like disappear there is always the fallback of CARA or Georgetown being Catholic institutions. It’s nice to see we still get the benefit of the doubt by the commenter quoted above. The Catholic Church certainly listens to and learns from atheists. I would hope atheists could fathom accurate and unbiased research coming from an academic, religiously-affiliated center staffed by social scientists. In the end, math works the same for anyone, regardless of religious affiliation (...and again the data are available for anyone to download and examine themselves).

Q: Should Pew include atheists who believe in God as "real atheists" in its studies?
A: This is the standard in both academic and non-academic survey research. Self-identity is always used. Survey researchers find all kinds of oddities in polls such as “very liberal” Republicans, Catholics who do not believe in God, or Nones who are born-again Evangelicals. The world is complex and no one has a monopoly on defining membership in the “atheist” community. For example, one of the world’s most famous living “atheists,” Richard Dawkins, is an agnostic (or perhaps a “de facto” atheist) and not entirely sure God does not exist.

Q: Why blame reporters for misconceptions when all they have are the research reports?
A: Reporters should make a greater effort to skeptically depart from the press releases. Increasingly the news people follow, discuss, and trust is data-driven (1, 2, 3). Good reporters of the future will be those who can engage the data. In my own discussions with journalists I have really appreciated Jerry Filteau and Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ (also a social scientist). On a number of occasions interviews with them have led me to go back and re-examine some facet of the data. Both look for more than what is in the report and start with a skeptical or questioning point-of-view. They are the types of journalists that I can say have made me a better social scientist.

Researchers should do more to be sure misconceptions are not being made by omissions in their reports. Too often religious research for media and public consumption seems to be more of an impressionist painting than a high-definition photograph. I think it is our responsibility to note all the quirks we find—even when these may detract from the headline narratives. Reality is complex, important, and beautiful (...most of the time). Thanks to Pew, I am now confident that there really are knowledgeable atheists who know what an atheist is but who also believe in God and go to Church a few times a year (athough few people other than me are aware of this). The world is a big place and there is room enough for everyone in the portraits we paint with data.

Exam results image courtesy of Pete.

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