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.

12.03.2009

Midwest Mass Attenders Outpace Rest of the Nation

In which states are Catholics most likely to attend Mass weekly? How many Catholics attend Mass in any given week in your state?

These questions are rarely easy to answer. Although dioceses do October head counts these are generally not made public nor are they necessarily reflective of Mass attendance in general.  Surveys rarely can provide an answer because these are typically limited to national estimates and there are too few respondents in any given state or region to make an accurate estimate.

Just recently it became possible to estimate answers to these questions with the public release of the data for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (conducted in 2007). This survey includes interviews with more than 8,000 Catholics (a national survey with 1,000 respondents typically includes interviews with only about 230 Catholics. CARA Catholic Polls (CCP) typically include 1,000 Catholics).

The major limitation of using the Pew study to look at Mass attendance is that it was conducted by telephone where people are more likely to “overreport” how often they go to church (i.e. say they go more frequently than they actually do) to an interviewer. Comparing results of telephone polls and self-administered Knowledge Networks' surveys, CARA has found that Catholics are more honest in reporting their Mass attendance (as well as frequency of going to confession and financial giving) when no human interviewer is involved (for more see: “The Nuances of Accurately Measuring Mass Attendance”).   

The analysis below utilizes Pew’s data and CARA’s results for a national survey of Catholics in 2008 where telephone methods were not used (Knowledge Networks' panel and survey methods were used instead). The analysis below uses the Pew estimates that have been adjusted using the CARA estimates to control for the overreporting of Mass attendance in the Pew survey.

The Pew survey estimates that 41.4% of Catholics attend Mass weekly. This estimate is generally considered too high in comparison to Mass attendance headcounts, academic time diary research, and CARA’s series of Knowledge Networks' polls (where no interviewer is needed).

By comparison, CARA Catholic Polls (CCP) conducted with Knowledge Networks estimate that 23.3% of Catholics attend Mass weekly (an estimate consistent with headcounts and academic time diary research). Thus, CARA’s Mass attendance estimate is 56% the size of Pew’s. If we assume that the level of overreporting by respondents in the Pew survey is consistent across regions and states we can adjust for it by statistically weighting these estimates down using the CARA Mass attendance estimates.

The tables and figure below include our best estimates for the percentage of Catholics attending weekly (i.e., going at least once a week, every week) and the percentage of Catholics attending Mass in any given week (excluding Ash Wednesday, Christmas, Easter, etc. where attendance is known to be significantly higher) using these data.

Mass attendance is estimated to be highest in Midwestern states where 26% of adult Catholics attend Mass every week and 35% of adult Catholics are at Mass in any given week (as some infrequent attenders are at Mass in any given week; for more see: “The Nuances of Accurately Measuring Mass Attendance”). Mass attendance is estimated to be lowest in the West (21% weekly and 29% in any given week).

In the tables below each state is either listed in normal font, italicized or bold. States in bold have a sufficient number of interviews in the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey to where the state level estimate can be considered reliable. Whereas those in italics are based on too few interviews and may not be representative. All other states in normal font are somewhere in between these two levels of precision.

Using CARA’s state Catholic population estimates (see: Measuring Up: Aggregating data to estimate the number of Catholics at the state level) and the number of parishes in the state in 2007 (when the survey was conducted) we also provide an estimate of the number of Catholics (adults and children) attending per parish in any given week.  

Although imperfect and subject to large margins of error these estimates are the best available. A comparison of these to actual headcounts would provide a better estimate (it is also likely that the Pew adjusted data still overestimate Mass attendance as well as not all social desirability pressure is removed in CARA’s self-administered surveys—some are still likely to overreport their Mass attendance using any possible survey method).
Among the states with the most reliable estimates Pennsylvania has weekly Mass attendance estimates that are above the national average. At the other extreme, Florida Catholics have weekly Mass attendance estimates that are below the national average.

Even though California and Nevada have below average Mass attendance percentages each of these states has a large number of attenders per parish because of the relatively small number of parishes in those states compared to the number of Catholics residing there.

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