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.


Parish Giving During the Pandemic

Image courtesy of Dan Keck

The CARA Catholic Poll (CCP) estimates that, overall, 45% of self-identified Catholics in the United States reside in a household that regularly gives to their parish weekly offertory collection. However, this varies by frequency of Mass attendance. Among weekly attenders 92% regularly give. Among those attending less than weekly, but at least once a month, 78% give regularly. Only 20% of those attending Mass a few times a year or less give regularly.

So what is happening now that no one is attending due to the COVID-19 pandemic? No one knows for sure. Based on what we have found in previous polls, many may still give electronically or by mail. Prior to the pandemic, 48% of self-identified Catholics said they most preferred to give in person. Others preferred to give by traditional mail, to donate online, or electronically debit payments. Data from CARA’s National Survey of Catholic Parishes revealed that about half of the responding parishes provided their parishioners with the opportunity to contribute online. Some, stuck at home may now use a method that is not their most preferred. We just can’t know how many.

The other complication is in what the stay at home orders have done to the economy. Many have lost jobs and income. Others may be uncertain about the future and are spending more conservatively. It is a certainty that giving has declined.

To understand what this means it is important to know just how much Catholics gave prior to the pandemic. For two decades Catholics have reported giving about $10 per household per week. Our most recent measure puts this figure at an average of $9.43 per household per week.

As of January 2020, there were 329.1 million residents in the United States. Among adults in 2019, Gallup estimated that 22% self-identify as Catholic. Extrapolating that to the total Catholic population we can assume there are 72.4 million self-identified Catholics in the United States. With an average household size in the U.S. of 2.52 we can estimate there are approximately 28,734,015 Catholic households. Using CARA’s survey data we know that 45% of these include an individual making a household donation to a parish that averages $9.43 per week.

Calculating all of that out we can estimate that Catholic parishes nationally collect $121.9 million per week. Over 52 weeks this results in an annual estimate of giving of $6.340 billion. There are 16,914 parishes in the U.S. so that results in a budget line for average annual giving per parish of $374,867. On an annual basis that is $7,209 per week for the typical parish. This nearly matches responses to a recent CARA national survey where the median total for weekly collections reported by pastors was $7,625.

The first Sunday affected by lockdowns was March 22. As of this upcoming Sunday that will account for six weeks of affected giving. If the pandemic had never occurred the typical parish would have collected an average of $43,254 during those weeks. Perhaps a bit higher as it included Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday that have higher attendance than a typical week. Multiplying out nationally that would have been $731,596,763 for the Catholic Church in the United States as a whole for this period of the year.

Clearly some are still giving. Again, using CARA’s survey data, we know 48% of those who regularly contribute prefer to give in person. Let’s assume none of those people have sought out a new way to donate. That leaves 52% of households still able to give. Yet many have lost jobs. Estimates currently place potential unemployment rates at 13%. Others may still be working but have lost income. It is possible this is being offset by others with resources who know donations are down and are giving more. If we assume that 20% of the 52% who donate by mail or electronically can no longer do so because they have lost jobs and/or income then the number of households who might still be giving would be 5,379,008 (or 318 per parish, on average, compared to 765 in normal times). In many ways this is still a very optimistic estimate as it is also likely some of those with unaffected incomes and employment may still be acting more conservatively given economic uncertainties—even with stimulus money adding a temporary boost.

Multiplying out again that means the typical parish may be receiving $2,999 in giving per week in this very optimistic scenario. Across six weeks that totals $17,994. That is $25,260 less than they would have expected had the pandemic not occurred. That means collections may only be about 42% of what they would have been without a pandemic.

These estimates likely still paint far too rosy of a portrait. Some may not be giving because they assume their parish is closed and doesn’t need the money. But the typical parish must still maintain the facility, pay bills, and likely wishes to pay staff for as long as possible. In normal times a parish with difficulties may need to rely on a diocesan subsidy. But giving to annual appeals, depending on their timing, may also be affected by the conditions created by the pandemic.

CARA research estimates that there are 5.8 paid ministry staff persons per parish that means there are about 98,101 of these employees nationally (Note that this total includes some double counting of individuals as some clergy and lay people are on paid staffs in more than one parish). We’ve previously covered how much these employees are paid in another post. It is the case that Catholic institutions have been able to receive some loans from the Small Business Administration-administered Paycheck Protection Program. This may help fill the gap in lost giving due to stay at home orders.

CARA is currently fielding multiple surveys about how the Church and its members are affected by and dealing with the pandemic. Stay tuned for more soon…

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