Are American Catholics in Decline?

Professors Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, who teach sociology at the University of Washington and Purdue University respectively, think the Catholic Church will suffer membership reverses characteristic of mainline Protestant denominations. The two professors offered the following observations on the present situation of the American Catholic Church in their analysis, published in 1992, of the development of American religions entitled The Churching of America: 1776-1990:

We think it unlikely that the American Catholic Church will be able to halt its transformation from an energetic sect into a sedate mainline body.... What we do expect is that the American Catholic Church will behave like a member of the mainline. No longer in tension with the surrounding culture, the church will generate less commitment from its membership and will gradually fail to compete with a new generation of upstart sects. We believe that, as has been true for the Methodists and many other bodies, its contribution to the churching of America is drawing to an end. The recent inability of the church to hold its own within the rapidly growing Hispanic community reinforces this judgement.


Current information describing Catholic religious activities indicates that the predictions of the two professors about the future of American Catholicism are simply not being fulfilled. Catholic membership rolls grow at about the rate of present population increases. Catholics continue to celebrate significant life events with church sacraments. Finally, while some Hispanics have indeed opted out of Catholic Church membership, the majority participate in parish life and provide much of the growth that has occurred in Catholic membership over the past two decades. A more detailed look at these three factors suggests that American Catholics work hard at being actively religious.

Sedate Catholics?

Stark and Finke believe that Catholics will soon resemble sedate mainline Protestant denominations and lose members. (The underlying assumption is that groups that make more demands on their members, as Evangelicals do, retain a higher level of vitality than less demanding groups.) The term member in this context refers to a list of full or confirmed participants rather than a census of total adherents.

The nine major mainline Protestant denominations lost 22 percent of their membership between 1970 and 1997, a decline of 5.8 million. These churches certainly exert a diminished influence on the American religious landscape. For the same time period, nine energetic Evangelical denominations gained 6.4 million new adherents, a startling membership increase of 40 percent.

Stark and Finke suggest that American Catholicism will follow the mainline pattern of dwindling membership rather than the pattern of Evangelical growth. In fact, Catholic membership patterns between 1970 and 1997 more closely resemble the gains of Evangelical churches. (In order to make a sensible comparison to Protestant membership data, I assume that Catholic adult membership probably represents about 77 percent of the total number of Catholic adherents given in the Official Catholic Directory. This proportion corresponds to the ratio of confirmed to total adherents in Protestant denominations.)

Catholic full or confirmed membership grew from 37.1 million in 1970 to 47.4 million by 1997, an increase of 27.7 percent. Adult Catholics now represent 53 percent of the combined total number of Catholics and members of the 18 major Protestant denominations in the United States. The number of Catholics increased at about the rate of total population growth during a period of significant organizational turmoil. These data contradict the conclusion that American Catholics will follow the mainline pattern of dwindling membership.

Sacramental Life

Catholic participation in the sacraments represents a second sign of organizational vitality. Statistics describing the infant baptismal rateinfant baptisms per 1,000 Catholicscertainly support the Rev. Andrew Greeley’s comments on the religious participation of young Catholics (Commonweal, 12/17/99). Greeley wrote: "Young people are still strongly attached to Catholicism, if in their own way. Despite all that we (pope, bishops, priests, lay staff, lay intellectuals) have done to them, we have not been able to drive them away from Catholicism." A common theory of religious behavior posits that young adults who start out being uninterested in religion return to church when children begin to arrive. If there were indeed a revolution happening, young married couples would break the expected cycle and not bring their newborn children to baptism.

The opposite seems to be happening. The infant baptismal rate remained unchanged between 1990 and 1998 at 16.3 per thousand. The total population birth rate actually declined somewhat over the same time period, from 16.7 in 1990 to 14.6 for 1998. Young Catholic married couples regularly answer the ritual question "What do you seek of the church?" with the reply "baptism" on behalf of about one million youngsters or 25 percent of all births in the United States every year. This pattern hardly represents a picture of an organization whose influence in the American religious community is waning.

When these baptized infants grow up, do their parents bring them back for first Communion? In recent weeks I have conducted a non-scientific poll of friends active in church work. I asked, "How many from a baptismal group show up eight years later for first Communion?" My friends’ answers tended to be pessimistic, ranging from a dismal 25 percent to a less dreary 65 percent. Only one optimist ventured 90 percent.

If infants baptized between 1982 and 1990 represent the potential first communicants for the period 1990-98, on average 85 percent of the members of the baptismal group show up for first Communion, according to data from the Official Catholic Directory. Since eight-year-olds go hardly anywhere without their parents, these data support the contention that young Catholic married couples do participate in parish religious programs.

It’s all well and good to point to successes with second-graders, you say, but what happens when we lose contact with them during the dreaded teenage years? The answer is that the church does rather well, given the inherent difficulties of any communication between teens and adults. If the 1977-85 baptismal group forms the basis for confirmations between 1990 and 1998, then on average 59 percent of the baptismal group participate in the confirmation ritualnot a bad percentage considering that in our culture 13-year-olds probably can tell their parents no and make it stick.

The Catholic funeral rate recorded in the Official Catholic Directory gives another picture of Catholic participation in the liturgical life of the church. In 1990 the Catholic funeral rate was 7.8 per 1,000 members, while in general Americans died that year at a rate of 8.6 per 1,000 population. These rates remained relatively unchanged during the 1990’s.

Marriage data suggest that fewer Catholics participate in church wedding ceremonies than would be expected. Americans in 1980 married at the rate of 10.5 weddings per 1,000 of population; Catholic marriage and population data for 1980 from the Official Catholic Directory (1981) reflect a rate of 6.33 church weddings per thousand Catholics. This disparity between total population and Catholic marriage rates remained constant throughout the 1980’s.

There is a likely answer to the puzzle of the difference between the Catholic and total population marriage rates. Since World War II American family stability has changed dramatically. The number of divorces ballooned from 407,000 in 1960 to 1,165,000 in 1989. This increase in the number of divorces led to a dramatic growth in remarriages. The number of remarriages almost tripled from 345,000 to 837,000 between 1960 and 1989. It is reasonable to suspect that Catholics have divorced and remarried at about the population rate. Catholic second marriages, however, could not be recognized as sacramental unions and therefore are not counted in statistics provided by the Official Catholic Directory.

This hypothesis is supported by a strong positive relationship between first marriages in the population and Catholic marriages reported in the directory. This means that there is a strong positive relationship between first marriages for all Americans and Catholic sacramental marriages. Catholic marriage rate changes probably parallel changing patterns in the entire population. Catholic remarriages are simply not being included in any count provided by the Official Catholic Directory.

Hispanic Catholics

Finally, Stark and Finke stated that the failure of the American Catholic Church to hold its own with Hispanics represents a sure sign of a lack of organizational energy. Few argue these days that Hispanics are culturally Catholic. Survey research clearly indicates that about one-third of Hispanics in this country claim other-than-Catholic membership, particularly in Protestant evangelical sects. The fact that so many Hispanics could find a more welcome religious community elsewhere represents a distinct failure for the American Catholic Church. Still, one should not come away from this discussion with the impression that all Hispanics have lost interest in the activities of the Catholic Church.

At present American Catholic Church membership in the 50 states and the District of Columbia is about 31 percent Hispanic. Presuming that present patterns continue, Catholic Church mailing lists in 50 years may well top 100 million, with about two-thirds of the names showing Hispanic origins. A glance at Catholic membership statistics between 1980 and 1985 shows the impact of the burgeoning Hispanic population. The total number of American Catholics grew by 7.9 million from 47.6 million in 1980 to 55.5 million by 1995. The Hispanic Catholic population about doubled for the same period from 7.7 million to 14.2 million. The American Catholic Church continues to add new members substantially through increases in the Hispanic population.

Nowhere is the increase of the Latino population more evident than in southern California. The total population for the three-county area that comprises the Archdiocese of Los Angeles increased by 561,851 between 1990 and 1996. Within this larger group, the Catholic population increased by 688,257, while the non-Catholic population actually shrank by 126,406. The number of Catholics as a share of all residents increased from 28.5 percent to 33.5 percent. The pattern of a growing total of Catholics closely paralleled a growth in the Hispanic population of 652,622. Should present patterns persist for two decades, Los Angeles residents would be 52 percent Hispanic and 43 percent Catholic by the year 2020. The Archbishop of Los Angeles would serve as pastor of one of the largest Hispanic communities in the world.

Professors Stark and Finke offered a general theory of religious organizational evolution according to which energetic sects or new religious movements gradually accommodate members’ wishes for fewer sacrificesand accordingly lose attractiveness. Methodists removed their prohibition against attending circuses; Catholics no longer fear the fires of hell for a lapse in Sunday Mass attendance. This process of secularization leads to the principle that mainline bodies are always headed for inertia and the sideline. The two researchers see American Catholicism heading down the slippery slope of secularization to complacency.

Current Catholic membership and sacramental participation data, however, conflict with the notion that American Catholic religious behavior resembles the patterns of mainline denominations. The Catholic population increases at about the rate that baptisms exceed funerals. Catholic families participate in first Communion at the impressive rate of 85 percent and confirmation at 59 percent. Catholic weddings recorded in the Official Catholic Directory closely parallel first marriages in the total population. Much of the Catholic Church population growth has occurred in tandem with Hispanic increases. For all of the post-Vatican II turmoil, American Catholicism still seems to present sufficient challenges to involve members in core religious activities.

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