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.


Is there any Catholic Left in “Lapsed" Catholics?

At a recent Fordham conference, “Lost? Twenty-Somethings and the Church,” Robert Putnam argued the following:

Roughly two-thirds of people raised as Catholics in America are no longer practicing Catholics. One third of them are still devout practicing Catholics. One-third no longer call themselves Catholics. One-third of them still call themselves Catholics but I believe are really not involved in the Church. They may be in some inspirational sense Catholic, maybe their views, but they are not at all involved with the Catholic Church.”

This reflects the results presented in American Grace (e.g., Figure 5.1 on page 138). The first third Putnam refers to are “devout” Catholics who attend Mass with some regularity. The second third are the former Catholics that have now "switched" out. This group has been documented in recent years in several other larger studies (e.g., Pew and ARIS). These people, although raised Catholic are no longer Catholic and are either affiliated with another religion or are Nones (i.e., those without affiliation).

The final third is a sub-group that Putnam defines and labels as “nominal” or “lapsed” Catholics who attend Mass only a few times a year or less often. Putnam argued at the symposium that this final third is “Catholic but in name only” and “psychologically very secular” even though they still call themselves Catholic. As Putnam and Campbell note in Amazing Grace, “we take into account not only what religious affiliation a person claims, but also whether he or she is religiously observant” (p. 137) and on this basis they have sub-divided self-identified Catholics into devout and lapsed.

I have noted concern about the accuracy of Putnam’s Faith Matters survey data in comparison to other sources elsewhere. With his comments cited above I also am worried that the limitations of his data may be leading him further astray on this topic. The Faith Matters survey does not include a significant number of interviews with many specific religious groups or sub-groups for reliable measurement nor are the questions used of a specific nature (wording, context, and content specific to different faiths) to actually validly measure how “observant” one is in their faith (the book nor associated website does not list the number of interviews with important sub-groups of the sample or margins of sampling error for these sub-groups).

Putnam appears to believe that Catholics who do not attend Mass regularly have ceased being Catholic in any sense other than simply using an identity label. These people are seemingly characterized as having left the specific beliefs and practices of their faith behind and now some generically just believe in a Judeo-Christian God and perhaps sometimes continue the traditions of attending services at Christmas and Easter periodically out of habit and conformity in the same way they might ritually put up a Christmas tree and hide Easter eggs for their children.

However, I think Putnam’s lack of background in the study of religion (and of Catholicism specifically) has left him with an unfortunate blind spot and his data are too insufficient to uncover this. Putnam, is a political scientist who has spent most of his career studying political culture in democratic societies. Little if any of his work has been focused on sociology of religion and his survey of more than 3,000 Americans does not provide sufficient insight (nor sample size) to speak to some of the intricate realities of what Catholics (and more so those of even smaller religious groups) believe or how they worship (nor does his case studies in parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago. … at one point in his remarks at the symposium Putnam awkwardly attempts to bolster his arguments by noting “I am quoting a senior official of the Chicago Archdiocese”). To fully understand the rich portrait of Americans of a specific faith one needs more than 3,000 interviews (e.g., recent surveys by Pew and ARIS include more than 35,000 each; see links above). And you certainly need to visit more than a few parishes in Chicago to say you’ve done any case studies that could create representative “vignettes.”

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that the “third” of those raised Catholic which Putnam calls “nominal” or “lapsed” Catholics are doing just fine. They are not. Catholics have an obligation to attend Mass weekly if they are physically able to attend and a Mass is available to them (not to mention other obligations). However, I think it is a gross misstatement to consider these Catholics “secular” or even generically Christian without a specific connection to the Church.

CARA has conducted more than 20 CARA Catholic Polls (CCP) since 2000. We now have in-depth interviews with more than 23,000 self-identified adult Catholics nationally. We have always found this group of infrequent or rare Mass attenders to be more than Catholics “in name only.” Instead on closer examination they seem still well “within reach” of the Church and are no lost cause nor as Putnam loves to say “on their way out the door.”

To begin let me be timely and topical (using data from CARA’s Sacraments Today poll from 2008—collected two years after the Faith Matters survey). Our survey results indicate that next week, more than four in ten of Putnam’s “lapsed” Catholics (represented by the orange bars in the figures below) will likely begin abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent. Nearly half have a statue or portrait of Mary in their home. Nearly one in four of these “nominal” Catholics are actually registered with a local Catholic parish. More than one in four wears or carries a cross or crucifix.

It is absolutely true that Catholics attending Mass at least weekly (represented by the blue bars) are much more likely to do each of these things. However, it’s hard to sweepingly call a subset of Catholics members of their faith “in name only” when some are likely to be eating a fish dinner next Friday, while wearing a cross, with a portrait of Mary hanging on the wall behind them (perhaps even reading their diocesan newspaper... as a parish registrant). 

It is also the case that many of Putnam’s “lapsed” Catholics express religious beliefs that are central to the Catholic faith (i.e., Creed beliefs). More than seven in ten have absolutely no doubt in the Holy Trinity and nearly two-thirds similarly have no doubt in Mary’s immaculate conception. Four in ten express a belief in the Real Presence.

Even though a minority expresses a belief in the Real Presence, more than seven in ten infrequent Mass attenders say they find the Eucharist to be a Catholic sacrament that is personally meaningful to them (“somewhat” or “very much”). Even more of these Catholics find the sacraments of Baptism and Marriage to be personally meaningful. These three sacraments are the most widely celebrated by American Catholics, and regardless of Mass attendance we find that most who call themselves Catholic today find them to be personally meaningful. This is no generic Christianity and certainly not secularism.

If Putnam’s nominal Catholics did have “one foot out the door” why would so many say they are “proud to be Catholic”? Two thirds of this group agrees “somewhat” or “strongly” with this statement. Among Catholics this pride extends to the almost universal practice of baptizing their children in the faith and significant majorities of Putnam’s lapsed Catholics who are parents say it is important to them that their children celebrate their First Communion and receive the sacrament of Confirmation. It looks like they might need to step back through the parish door soon?

Again, I am not arguing infrequent Mass attenders are “good Catholics.” The data cited above cannot and do not establish this. They simply indicate that the glass is not empty. We can argue if it is half full or half empty but we must recognize that there is still something “Catholic” there with this group that goes beyond a label.

This is just a sample of the evidence we have in CARA’s CCPs on this topic (more is available here: Sacraments Today) but it is certainly sufficient to indicate that there is a more complex portrait of infrequent Catholic Mass attenders than the one imagined in Putnam’s simple caricature of “Catholics in name only.” You just won’t find it in the Faith Matters survey nor in American Grace.

1. The CARA CCP results presented here do not separate out non-Hispanic white Catholics from those who self-identify their ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino(a). In his comments at the conference, Putnam notes that he is mostly speaking about "Anglo" Catholics because the Faith Matters survey indicates Hispanic Catholics "are more observant, more loyal, and more orthodox" and thus unlikely to be in the "lapsed" group. For comparison I ran the CARA data only on non-Hispanic white Catholics who attend Mass a few times a year or less often as well and there are only slight differences with two exceptions. For example, among non-Hispanic white Catholics rarely attending, 39% are registered with a parish, 39% abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, 68% express belief without doubt in the Holy Trinity, 39% express belief in the Real Presence, etc. The exceptions are among parents in this group where only 54% say it is important that their children celebrate their First Communion and 49% say the same about Confirmation). 
2. In the Church's eye's a person baptized Catholic is Catholic (as long as they do not formally renounce their faith or are in a state of excommunication... yet even then their baptism cannot be "removed"). However, the standard in the social sciences is to treat religious self-identification as the indicator of affiliation or membership.

Photo courtesy of totalAldo at Flickr Creative Commons.

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