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.

2.26.2016

How Many Catholic Converts Stay? A Quick Back of the Envelope Reality Check


It is Lent and Easter will soon be upon us. This is the time of year when the Church welcomes many new adults into the faith after they complete the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). One of the most common inquiries we get at CARA is a request for “retention rates” for those who went through RCIA. How many stay Catholic? How many stay active in parish life?

Here is an example of an RCIA director seeking and discussing these figures on a Catholic message board:

Hello! I am the RCIA director at my parish. The first class after Easter, I like to hit the class with a cold, hard statistic that I once heard. For new converts, 50% will not be attending Mass regularly one year after Holy Saturday. Is there any credible source for statistics like this? In looking around my parish, it seems that number is just about right. This is in spite of students attending classes every week for a year, making both 1/2 day retreats, Rite of Enrollment, Rite of Election, three scrutinies, and a 2-3 [hour] marathon Mass to welcome them into the church! Then, it seems they kind of just vaporize.”

At CARA we often hear even lower estimates. Some assume as few as 10% stay after becoming Catholic. Unfortunately there is no current and “credible source” for these statistics. The Church tracks the number of people entering the Church but does not observe how many remain after a year or some other period of time. Retention estimates are anecdotal.

Two years ago we presented a statistical profile of adult converts to Catholicism. At that time we noted that most who convert do so because they marry a Catholic and want to share the same faith. They also turn out to be among the most active and informed Catholics in the pews. It makes sense because they have taken a half year or more to formally educate and form themselves in a faith. Yet one could argue we are only studying those who go through RCIA and remain Catholic. What about those who don’t?

That got us thinking… A provisional English translation of the Rite became available in the mid-1970s and in 1986 the approved Rite was released. For most years since this time (and up to 2014) we have data from The Official Catholic Directory and the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae on the number of adult baptisms and receptions into full communion. If one sums the number of entries recorded here you get a total just over 4 million.

Aggregating over multiple years and studies, CARA’s national surveys of self-identified adult Catholics (CARA Catholic Polls or CCP) indicate that 8% entered the Church as adults. Three-quarters of these adults (75%) say they went through an RCIA program. Thus, we can assume that 6% of all adult self-identified Catholics are converts who have been through RCIA.

How many Catholic adults are there? According to the Census, the U.S. population in 2014 was 318.9 million. Of this, 245.2 million were adults. CARA’s aggregation of national surveys for 2014 (Pew, Gallup, PRRI, GSS) estimates that 23.2% of this population self-identified as Catholic at that time. This means there were 56.9 million Catholic adults. Six percent of these adults, who we estimate entered as adults and went through RCIA, represents a total population of 3,413,199.

We know about 4 million have entered the faith as adults since 1986. Surely, some of these people have passed away or moved outside of the United States (…also some who entered the faith in another country may have moved to the U.S. and been captured in our surveys). Yet, even if assume none have passed away or left, then 84% of these entries still self-identify as Catholic and as we have described before they tend to be very active in the faith. For example, 62% attend Mass at least once a month (compared to 48% of cradle Catholics) and 54% go to confession at least once a year (compared to 24% of cradle Catholics).

So why do so many RCIA directors, pastors and others assume retention and activity is so low? Why don’t they see the people they formed in their pews? Because many really did leave that parish. But that doesn’t mean they are not Catholic and not active in their faith in another parish. Remember 72% indicate one of the main reasons they convert to Catholicism is marriage. What do people do in and around the time they get married? They move, buy homes, start families, start careers, and have kids. Don’t take it personally that they aren’t in your pews. It’s a safe bet that they are in another parish’s pews. Actually it’s more than a safe bet. Eleven percent of people CARA has surveyed nationally in-pew, during Mass, self-identifies as a convert to Catholicism. That is higher than their share within the self-identified Catholic population (8%). This is because they are more often attending Mass than other Catholics.

The 84% retention estimate is likely on the low and conservative end. At the same time this involved surveys and there are margins of error involved. It is still a very “back of the envelope” estimate. If anyone is interested in commissioning a study to confirm this please contact us here at CARA!

Image courtesy of Dennis van Zuiglekom.

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