While the world ponders smoke signals from Rome, the happy wonky warriors at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life have taken it upon themselves to prevent the mood among the world's Catholics from getting too giddy. Recent releases from Pew researchers have detailed the things about the church most faithful think are its biggest problems (sex abuse crisis is the no-surprise number one answer) and Pope Benedict's ineffectual efforts to reverse the general decline of religiosity in Europe. Now they've decided it an appropriate moment to release the latest data on the rapid decline of Catholic identity in the United States. Sigh.
As you might have guessed, the news on that front is not good; it's even a bit alarming. According to Pew, the percentage of U.S. Catholics who consider themselves “strong” members of the Roman Catholic Church has never been lower than it was in 2012. The analysis is based on new data from the GSS, a long-running national survey carried out by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
I can't blame Pew for wanting to jump on a hot story and all things Catholic appear to be welcome fodder for cable talking heads this week, but can you guys come up with something positive to say about the church before the end of the conclave? Anyway, the Pew numbers remain worth hearing as a cautionary during this week of pontifical fascination:
· About a quarter (27 percent) of American Catholics called themselves “strong” Catholics last year, down more than 15 points since the mid-1980s and among the lowest levels seen in the 38 years since strength of religious identity was first measured in the GSS.
· The decline among U.S. Catholics is even starker when they are compared with Protestants, whose strength of religious identification has been rising in recent years. About half (54 percent) of American Protestants – double the Catholic share (27 percent) – described their particular religious identity as strong last year, among the highest levels since the GSS began asking the question in 1974. Strength of religious identity is associated in the GSS with higher levels of religious commitment, such as more frequent attendance at worship services. In general, “strong” Catholics report going to Mass more often than do Catholics as a whole, and “strong” Protestants say they attend church more often than do Protestants overall.
· Over the past four decades, self-reported church attendance has declined among “strong” Catholics as well as among Catholics overall. The share of all Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week has dropped from 47 percent in 1974 to 24 percent in 2012; among “strong” Catholics, it has fallen more than 30 points, from 85 percent in 1974 to 53 percent last year.
· Among Protestants as a whole, self-reported church attendance has been fairly stable, although the share of those who attend at least once a week was somewhat higher in 2012 (38 percent) than in 1974 (29 percent). Self-reported church attendance among “strong” Protestants has fluctuated over the years, but the share of frequent attenders was not significantly different in 2012 (60 percent) than in 1974 (55 percent).
· In 1974, Catholics were more likely than Protestants to report attending religious services at least once a week (47 percent vs. 29 percent). By 2012, the situation had reversed: Protestants overall were more likely than Catholics to say they attend church weekly or more often (38 percent vs. 24 percent). Similarly, in 1974 “strong” Catholics reported going to church more frequently than did “strong” Protestants (85 percent vs. 55 percent), but in recent years “strong” Protestants have reported attending church about as often as “strong” Catholics do (60 percent vs. 53 percent in 2012).