Robert David SullivanNovember 10, 2021
(iStock/Hiraman) (iStock/Hiraman) 

Only 8 percent of young U.S. Catholics (ages 18 to 35) said their faith was weakened by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a national survey released on Nov. 9 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, but nearly one-third expect to attend Mass less often after the pandemic than they had before. Perhaps of greater concern to the church, 73 percent agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that they could be a good Catholic without going to Mass every Sunday. And only 39 percent agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that they could never imagine themselves leaving the Catholic Church.

The survey indicated that 13 percent of Catholic young adults attended Mass at least once a week before the Covid-19 pandemic, and 6 percent of respondents said they had been “very” involved with parish activities other than attending Mass. The crisis of Catholic clergy sexually abusing minors was the most frequently given reason for not being more active in parish life.

Nearly three-quarters of young U.S. Catholics say they can be a good Catholic without going to Mass every Sunday, according to a new CARA survey.

The CARA national survey, “Faith and Spiritual Life of Catholics in the United States,” polled 2,214 young adults and was conducted between July 10 and Aug. 16, 2020. The survey was designed to develop a better understanding of the faith and spiritual life of Catholics in the United States, especially Hispanics and young adults, and how to meet their needs.

The survey also indicated that more than one-third of young Catholics have participated in a faith-related group as an adult, with weekly Mass attenders most likely to report such participation.

Overall, 37 percent of respondents said they have participated in at least one Catholic group during their lives; these included young adult groups (15 percent of the total), religious institute volunteer groups (9 percent), the Knights of Columbus (6 percent) and pro-life groups (5 percent). The most frequent participation for weekly Mass attenders was in parish or diocesan young adult groups (34 percent), religious institute volunteer groups (19 percent), pro-life groups (15 percent), the St. Vincent de Paul Society (11 percent) and the Knights of Columbus (10 percent).

Among young U.S. Catholics, 73 percent agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that they could be a good Catholic without going to Mass every Sunday.

Seventy-four percent of those who were active in a Catholic group agreed “somewhat” or “very much” that they were motivated to participate out of a desire to learn from new experiences. Other common motivations were to nourish spiritual life (70 percent), to “reduce negative feelings” (69 percent), to act or express important convictions concerning serving others (69 percent) and to develop and strengthen social ties to others (65 percent).

The most common activity at Catholic group meetings was prayer, reported by 65 percent of all group participants (and by 71 percent of women but only 58 percent of men). This was followed by socializing (36 percent), reading and discussing Scripture (30 percent), faith sharing (29 percent), group silence (23 percent) and discussing spirituality (19 percent).

The most common meeting location was within a parish (28 percent), followed by a school, college or university (15 percent), a public space (15 percent), in members’ homes (13 percent) and online (9 percent). Hispanic respondents were more likely to say their community meets in members’ homes (25 percent), and men were more likely to say their community meets online (16 percent).

Mass attendance and parish life

Thirteen percent of Catholics ages 18 to 35 reported to CARA researchers that they attended Mass at least once a week before the Covid-19 pandemic. This was similar to the 17 percent of all Americans aged 18 through 29 who said they attended religious services at least once a week, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014.

Another 21 percent of young Catholics said they attended Mass at least once a month, 31 percent attended a few times a year, and 36 percent said they rarely or never attended Mass. The most common reason given for not attending Mass was a lack of time (57 percent), followed by not believing that missing Mass is a sin (55 percent), family responsibilities (44 percent), identification as “not a very religious person” (43 percent) and a preference to practice their faith outside of their parish (43 percent).

Six percent of respondents said they were “very” involved with parish activities and ministries, other than attending Mass, prior to the pandemic. Thirteen percent said they were “somewhat” involved, and 17 percent were involved “a little.” Most (64 percent) said they were not involved “at all” in these ministries and activities.

When Catholic young adults were asked about possible reasons that they were not more active in parish life (including but not limited to attending Mass), 44 percent said allegations of Catholic clergy sexually abusing minors were “very” or “somewhat” important, followed by the church’s teachings on homosexuality (42 percent), feeling that older generations have too much influence in the parish (35 percent), the church’s teachings on the use of birth control (34 percent), the roles available to women in the church (33 percent), a feeling that the church is not open to dialogue with other religious faiths (33 percent) and the church’s teachings on divorce and remarriage (32 percent).

When Catholic young adults were asked why they were not more active in parish life, 44 percent said allegations of Catholic clergy sexually abusing minors were “very” or “somewhat” important.

Young women were more likely than young men to say teaching on birth control was a “very” important factor in not being active in parish life (20 percent vs. 11 percent). But it is possible that most young Catholics simply tune out church teaching on this topic: A Pew Research Center poll in 2016 found that only 8 percent of U.S. Catholics (and 13 percent of regular Mass-goers) agreed that contraception is morally wrong.

Forty-two percent of respondents said they live in households that are registered with a Catholic parish. Hispanics were less likely than non-Hispanics to say they live in such a household (36 percent vs. 47 percent).

Three percent of respondents said that they participated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation once a month or more before the pandemic. Eleven percent participated several times a year, and 17 percent once a year. Most either participated less than once a year (31 percent) or never (38 percent).

Twenty-eight percent of the respondents (and 56 percent of Hispanics) said they have participated in a quinceañera. One-quarter (and 46 percent of Hispanics) have celebrated the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos. Twenty-four percent (and 42 percent of Hispanics) have celebrated the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Effects of the pandemic on Catholic life

Eleven percent of Catholic young adults said they watched Mass on television or online “very often” during the pandemic. A majority, 54 percent, said they did not watch Mass “at all.” Most respondents, 57 percent, said they have not changed how often they pray during the pandemic, but 28 percent said they have prayed more, and 14 percent said they have prayed less often.

A majority (51 percent) of respondents said they will return to their typical frequency of Mass attendance once the pandemic has passed; however, 36 percent said they will attend Mass less often, and 14 said they will attend more frequently. Of those who had attended Mass weekly, 31 percent said they will attend less frequently in the future.

Twenty-one percent said experiencing the pandemic has strengthened their faith, compared with the 8 percent who said their faith has been weakened.

Thirty percent of respondents said that their household had regularly contributed to the weekly offertory collection at their parish before the pandemic, with a median amount of $10 per week. Only 13 percent said their household regularly contributed during the pandemic, but the reported median amount rose to $20 per week. A majority (53 percent) said they expect their household to contribute to their parish with their old frequency when the pandemic ends, but 34 percent expect to give less frequently and 13 percent more frequently.

Overall, 18 percent of respondents said their parish has reached out to them during the pandemic. This figure rose to 34 percent in households registered with a parish.

In an open-ended question about how they practiced their faith outside of the parish before the pandemic, 31 percent indicated they did so by praying; that figure rose to 42 percent when asked about activities during the pandemic. But 21 percent indicated they were not doing anything to practice their faith at home during the pandemic.

Twenty-one percent said experiencing the pandemic has strengthened their faith, compared with the 8 percent who said their faith has been weakened. Seventy-one percent said experiencing the pandemic has not changed their faith. Those in the youngest age group in the survey (18 to 20) were more likely than those in the oldest age group (30 to 35) to say the pandemic has weakened their faith (14 percent vs. 6 percent).

Faith at home and in everyday life

More than a quarter of Catholic young adults (27 percent) in the CARA survey said they wear or carry a crucifix or cross. Seventeen percent said they wear or carry a religious medal or pin of a saint or angel, 12 percent said they carry prayer cards or coins, and 4 percent said they wear or carry a scapular. Hispanics were more likely than non-Hispanics to say they wear or carry a crucifix or cross (31 percent vs. 24 percent) or prayer cards or coins (17 percent vs. 9 percent).

Asked about a list of possible religious items, 45 percent of respondents said that they have a visible cross or crucifix in their homes, followed by a rosary (42 percent), art depicting Mary or Jesus (24 percent each), holy water (21 percent) and prayer cards (18 percent).

Twenty-four percent of Catholic young adults said they pray individually at least once a day, and another 21 percent said they do so at least once a week (outside of Mass). About one-quarter said they prayed with family members at least once a week, and 11 percent prayed with a group outside of their family at least weekly. One survey respondent listed among their regular activities “game night every Friday night and Bible study group every Tuesday night,” and another listed “praying in the car with other passengers.” But 41 percent said they rarely or never pray with family, and 61 percent said they rarely or never pray with a group of people outside their family, aside from attending Mass.

Twenty-four percent of Catholic young adults said they pray individually at least once a day, and another 21 percent said they do so at least once a week (outside of Mass).

Seventy-three percent of respondents agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that they could be a good Catholic without going to Mass every Sunday. Forty-four percent agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that they think of themselves as a practicing Catholic. Fifty-seven percent agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that helping the poor and needy is a moral obligation for Catholics.

Thirty-nine percent agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that they could never imagine themselves leaving the Catholic Church, 33 percent neither agreed nor disagreed, and 28 percent disagreed “somewhat” or “strongly.” Seventeen “strongly” agreed that there have been times recently when they have struggled with their faith, and another 29 percent “somewhat” agreed.

Thirty-one percent agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that in deciding what is morally acceptable, they look to church teaching and statements made by the pope and bishops for forming their conscience.

Fifty-three percent of respondents said they abstained from meat on Fridays during Lent in 2020. Those ages 21 to 24 are more likely than those ages 30 to 35 to have abstained from meat (61 percent vs. 48 percent). About four in 10 gave up or abstained from something else besides meat on Fridays. Thirty-five percent said they received ashes on Ash Wednesday, and 34 percent said they made extra efforts during Lent in 2020 to give money to the needy or to improve their personal habits and behavior.

Respondents were most likely to say they did the following at least once a month before the pandemic: helping neighbors (34 percent), volunteering at a school (20 percent), assisting a fundraiser with donations (20 percent), participating in a community service project (18 percent) or visiting the sick or elderly (18 percent).

Among those who indicated that they do community or volunteer work, 16 percent said that their Catholic faith is “very” important in motivating them to do these things. Thirty percent said their faith was “somewhat” important and 34 percent said this was “only a little” important in motivating them. One in five said their faith did “not at all” motivate them.

Major findings from the National Survey of Small Christian Communities

In a separate survey, CARA contacted small Christian communities (which it abbreviated as SCCs), which for the purposes of the survey were defined as groups that have at least some Catholic members, are located in the United States, and are not communities of men or women religious. This study was conducted between November 2019 and July 2020 and included responses from 646 groups. These groups included, on average, 12 women and seven men. Half of the groups (51 percent) were affiliated with a bigger organization like the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, the National Council of Catholic Women or a religious order.

Respondents indicated that the biggest challenge facing their groups is finding times to meet that work for everyone (reported by 36 percent of all groups). The most frequently cited benefit of the groups was “community and friendship” (84 percent). Respondents in mostly Hispanic groups were more likely than respondents in other groups to feel “very satisfied” with their group, particularly “as a way to learn and develop skills” (75 percent versus 51 percent of other respondents).

These findings were supplemented by interviews with 14 English-speaking and eight Spanish-speaking Catholics working with SCCs in the United States. A few interviewees stated that during the financial crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, SCC coordinators were among the first staff members to be laid off. There were also complaints of a lack of support for SCCs by parishes; this problem was related to the shortage of priests, to pastors not realizing the beneficial potential of SCCs, a lack of “continuity” when pastors change and pastors being weary of SCCs after the sexual abuse scandals.

Interviewees also felt strongly that the successful engagement of young people in SCCs requires that the church listens to these young people and gives them agency. Some interviewees observed that the pandemic intensified problems for young people (e.g., loneliness and unemployment) and that this is a particularly important time for the church to support them.

Some interviewees pointed out that racism in the church is still prevalent to the point that it negatively affects involvement of racial and ethnic minorities in SCCs. A couple of interviewees indicated that while the Catholic faithful acknowledge the presence of racism in the society in general, they do not actively discuss it or act on it within their SCCs. One interviewee said, “What we found out from our black parishioners is that they don’t experience overt racism, they experienced actions or responses that people probably aren’t aware of. And so, for example, the black person sees that we're praying the ‘Our Father’ and they’ll hold hands with people next to them, but if they’re next to a black person they may not do that.”

“What we found out from our black parishioners is that they don’t experience overt racism, they experienced actions or responses that people probably aren’t aware of.”

The SCC surveys suggested that Hispanic Catholic groups are attended by significantly more people than other groups’ meetings. Several of the interviewees who have been involved in SCC both in the United States and in other places around the world observed that it is not so much that Hispanics are more interested in joining those groups in bigger numbers, but that whites are harder to engage. One interviewee said that Hispanics are “more age-inclusive” and likelier to bring their children to groups; another said that non-Hispanic whites are more likely to “separate into groups by gender.”

[Related: Being family: What Latino Catholics can teach the rest of the U.S. church about community.]

These interviewees described non-Hispanic whites in the United States as more individualistic (as opposed to communal and family-centered), more agenda-driven (e.g., forming a six-week group to celebrate Lent and then disbanding), more focused on accomplishing things and less interested in socializing after formal meetings, more private (as opposed to willing to freely share their inner life with others) and more intellectual (sharing from their head rather than from the heart).

One Spanish-speaking respondent noted, “Hispanic SCCs are more communitarian in nature (than white groups) and they find it more difficult to transition from in-person to online meeting format during the pandemic.” Another said, “Hispanics have a different way of proceeding with the matters of the church…. Americans have too many rules, too many formalities, no spontaneity. Everything is controlled.”

Notes on methodology:

CARA conducted the young Catholics survey between July 10 and August 16, 2020, with NORC’s AmeriSpeak Panel as a sample source (394 respondents) that was supplemented by nonprobability online opt-in sample (Dynata; 1,820 respondents). This study was offered in English and Spanish, and it was administered as an online web survey and telephone interviews. Fifty-three percent of respondents were female and 47 percent were male. Forty-three percent of respondents were Hispanic and 44 percent were non-Hispanic white. Six percent of respondents were Asian, 4 percent Black or African American, and 3 percent some other race or ethnicity.

The margin of sampling error for the sample is ±3.59%. The full CARA report has more information on the demographic characteristics of respondents, as well as their age of baptism and other elements of their history with the church.

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