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.


A Decade of Pope Francis

How has the Catholic Church changed in the 10 years Pope Francis has led the Catholic Church? It is difficult to say.

The first issue is that we always have lags in data. The Official Catholic Directory (OCD), which provides statistics for the United States is published each year in the Fall and represents the Church on January 1st of that same year. But the sacraments data in that volume represent the year prior. The current edition for 2022 gives a view of sacraments celebrated in 2021. The Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae (ASE) provides global data from the Vatican and this has an even longer lag. The current edition is for 2020. So we can compare the data measuring 2013 to the current volumes for the U.S. and the world but then we run into the second and I might say bigger problem...

Remember this time three years ago in 2020? Yeah. The world changed and has not yet returned to the “normal” of 2019. Any impact, positive or negative, Pope Francis may have had will be overshadowed by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic when our most current data represents 2020 and 2021. We know looking at Church data for these years we are going to see lower levels of Mass attendance and sacramental practice with the impact of lockdowns, restrictions, and hesitancy for people to gather in crowds in enclosed spaces during those two years.

Globally, if we compare 2013 to 2020, the Catholic population grew by 8.4% from 1.254 billion to 1.360 billion. The number of diocesan priests is virtually unchanged (11 fewer in the world). The number of permanent deacons has increased by 13% to 48,259 in 2020. On the negative side the number of religious sisters and brothers continue a long decline (-11% and -9%, respectively). There were 74,029 fewer sisters and 4,684 fewer brothers in 2020 than in 2013. The number of parishes increased by 1,480 to a world total of 224,376 (for context there are 280,521 diocesan priests).

Now for the really bad news with that COVID-19 asterisk and another longer term surprise. The number of annual baptisms declined by 2,021,627 (-13%) in 2020 compared to 2013. The number of marriages declined by 702,246 (-27%). Confirmations and first communions also dropped (-12% and -13%, respectively). Yet, there is something more than a pandemic affecting these numbers. They’ve been in decline for some time even as the Catholic population grows. How does that math work?

In the last 60 years, we have seen a dramatic demographic transformation of the world’s population. According the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (WDI), life expectancies at birth have been increasing globally from 51 years in 1960 to 72 years in 2020. At the same time, the birth rate (per 1,000 people) has fallen from 32 in 1960 to 17 in 2020 (we've covered this before). Our population “pyramid” is losing its base and evolving into more of a “pole.” According to the United Nations Population Division, in 2013, there were an estimated 143 million births around the world. There were 138 million in 2019 and 135 million in 2020. The number of births is expected to decline annually into the foreseeable future eventually being outnumbered by deaths in 2085 according to U.N. projections. The population will grow in the decades ahead as life expectancies continue to increase but at the same time births will decline and that will result in fewer baptisms, fewer first communions, fewer students, and yes even fewer marriages annually just by the numbers of the demographic shift we are experiencing. 

As far as we can tell, Mass attendance has remained fairly stable absent the interruptions of the pandemic and lockdowns. We can compare the sixth and seventh wave of the World Values Survey (WVS). The sixth wave was conducted from 2010 to 2014 and the seventh from 2017 to 2022. There are thirteen countries surveyed in both waves allowing for comparison. These countries were home to 516 million Catholics in 2020 representing 41% of the global Catholic population.[1] Looking at the responses to the survey by the Catholics surveyed in the WVS and applying this to those countries Catholic populations we can estimate that Mass attendance was unchanged from the 2010-2014 surveys and the 2017-2022 surveys (at 45% for weekly attendance in the aggregated sampled countries, ranging from 14% in Germany to 94% in Nigeria). Yet the number of Catholics in these countries increased during the time between the sixth and seventh waves resulting in a 7% increase in weekly attenders. For more on global Mass attendance see our previous post

Now turning to the United States, it is important to put in context that only 5% of the world’s Catholics live in this country. If one were to evaluate changes in the Catholic Church, a more global lens would always be recommended. With that said, things are not going as well in the United States as they have globally.

According to the General Social Survey (GSS), weekly Mass attendance among Catholics in the U.S. declined from 25% in 2012 to 17% in 2020-21. We have seen similar trends in our own tracking but are also seeing a rebound to 2019 levels in more recent polls and measurements. Daily prayer declined from 59% to 51% from 2012 to 2020-21. Unlike Mass attendance, one can pray at home and this should not have been affected by the pandemic. If anything, one might think Catholics would be praying more often  during that time.

Looking at statistics from the OCD, there is a consistent pattern of declines across nearly every available measure in the United States when comparing the 2013 and 2022 volumes. The number of diocesan priests is down 8%. There are 27% fewer sisters (-13,581), 19% fewer brothers (-802), and 15% fewer religious priests (-1,775). The one positive measure is an increase in permanent deacons from 17,473 to 18,043 (up 3%).

With fewer clergy there are also fewer parishes. These have declined from 17,472 to 16,429, a 6% drop. Although the number of missions grew by 3% adding 60 sites. There are declines in Catholic schools and the numbers enrolled in them with the exception of one outlier. The number of private Catholic elementary schools increased by 8% and the number of students enrolled in them by 14%.

The analysis of U.S. sacramental data mirrors the global trend. As the Catholic population remains essentially stable, 66.6 million in 2013 compared to 66.5 million in 2022, the number of baptisms (-299,975), first communions (-220,540), confirmations (-67,683), and marriages (-55,239) fell during the same period. It is important to note again that the 2022 OCD is reporting sacramental data from earlier during the pandemic. Even with the aforementioned demographic shifts occurring we would expect the numbers for that year to be dismal. Although it should be noted that the 2022 OCD figures are improvements of the what was reported in the 2021 OCD.

In sum, no one should be giving Pope Francis a 10-year report card based on the most current data available and when more comparable post-COVID-19 data are available, any “grades” given for changes in the number of sacraments celebrated should be considered within the context of what is happening demographically across the globe.

[1] These countries include: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Germany, New Zealand, Nigeria, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Slovenia, Spain


Where Is Mass Attendance Highest and Lowest?

Which country has the highest Catholic Mass attendance? We can’t say for sure because surveys have not been conducted on the topic in every country in the world. The World Values Survey (WVS) is in its seventh wave (beginning in the 1980s) and has data for 36 countries with large Catholic populations. Among these, weekly or more frequent Mass attendance is highest among adult self-identified Catholics in Nigeria (94%), Kenya (73%), and Lebanon (69%). The next segment of countries, where half or more Catholics attend every week includes the Philippines (56%), Colombia (54%), Poland (52%), and Ecuador (50%). Fewer than half, but a third or more attends every week in Bosnia and Herzegovina (48%), Mexico (47%), Nicaragua (45%), Bolivia (42%), Slovakia (40%), Italy (34%), and Peru (33%). Click the image below to see a larger version.

Between three in ten and a quarter of Catholics attends Mass every week in Venezuela (30%), Albania (29%), Spain (27%), Croatia (27%), New Zealand (25%), and the United Kingdom (25%).

In CARA’s polling, about 24% of Catholics in the United States attended Mass every week or more often prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019. In our most recent poll in late summer 2022, 17% of adult Catholics reported attending Mass this frequently with 5% watching Mass online or television from home instead. Other countries with similar Catholic Mass attendance as in the United States are Hungary (24%), Slovenia (24%), Uruguay (23%), Australia (21%), Argentina (21%), Portugal (20%), the Czech Republic (20%), and Austria (17%). The lowest levels of weekly attendance are observed in Lithuania (16%), Germany (14%), Canada (14%), Latvia (11%), Switzerland (11%), Brazil (8%), France (8%), and the Netherlands (7%).

One might assume that the more religious Catholics are in a country, the more likely they are to be frequent Mass attenders. Yet, there is not a strong correlation between the numbers identifying as a "religious" Catholic and frequent Mass attendance (an R2 of .097).

The WVS asked respondents, "Independently of whether you go to church or not, would you say you are…  A religious person, not a religious person, an Atheist, or don’t know." The scatterplot below shows the relationship between the percentage of Catholic respondents in a country identifying as a religious person and the percentage indicating that they attend Mass once a week or more often.

There are countries where there is a close relationship between answers to both questions including the Netherlands, Argentina, Ecuador, the Philippines, Kenya, and Nigeria. But for many other countries their placement is far from the regression line. Lebanon, for example, has very high Mass attendance, comparatively speaking, but the share of Catholics there considering themselves to be religious is substantially lower in comparison to other countries. Ninety-seven percent of Catholics in Uruguay consider themselves to be a religious person, yet only 23% of Catholics there attend Mass weekly or more often. Click the image below to see a larger version.

Other than Uruguay, the countries where Catholics are most likely to consider themselves to be religious are Nigeria (95%), Albania (94%), Slovakia (93%), the Czech Republic (92%), Italy (92%), Lithuania (92%), Kenya (92%), Colombia (92%), Bolivia (91%), and Poland (90%).

More than three-fourths but fewer than nine in ten Catholics in the following countries consider themselves to be a religious person: Croatia (88%), Bosnia and Herzegovina (88%), Slovenia (87%), Hungary (86%), Portugal (85%), Latvia (85%), Peru (84%), Philippines (83%), Ecuador (82%), Brazil (82%), Argentina (79%), the Netherlands (78%), Mexico (77%), and Nicaragua (76%).

Catholics in the United States come in just under this group with 74% considering themselves to be a religious person. The U.S. is followed by France (72%), Austria (69%), Australia (67%), Spain (67%), Germany (65%), Switzerland (63%), Lebanon (62%), the United Kingdom (59%), Venezuela (57%), Canada (55%), and New Zealand (55%).

In terms of identifying as a religious person, Catholics in the United States and France are quite similar (74% and 72%, respectively). Yet, only 8% of Catholics in France attends Mass weekly compared to 17% of Catholics in the United States (and 24% attending weekly prior to the pandemic).

While there seems to be a disconnect between identifying as a religious person and attending Mass weekly there is a third factor that may explain the comparative distribution of both of these attributes. If you’ve looked closely at the countries you might have noticed some economic clustering.

GDP is the total value of all goods and services produced in a country in one year. When you divide this by the population you get GDP per capita, which is the standard measure of the average comparative wealth per person between countries (data: World Development Indicators, World Bank). 

The fit between GDP per capita and frequency of Mass attendance is stronger than religiosity and Mass attendance (R2 of .575 compared to .097), albeit in a curvilinear relationship. Mass attendance falls sharply as GDP per capita rises to $10,000 and then this drop slows and flattens as GDP per capita continues to increase. This scatterplot has some outliers. Brazil, for example, is quite distant from the regression line with lower than expected Mass attendance and Italy has nearly the opposite with higher attendance than would be expected using GDP per capita as a predictor.  

Religiosity has a more linear, yet weaker, relationship with GDP per capita (R2 of .399). There is a large cluster of countries with GDP per capita less than $25,000 that have among the highest shares of Catholics self-identifying as religious. In higher income countries, religiosity falls. There is a cluster of countries in Western Europe, North America, and Oceania with lower levels of religious self-identification. Switzerland, with the highest GDP per capita of the countries surveyed, has both low levels of weekly Mass attendance and relatively smaller numbers of Catholics self-identifying as religious persons. In this scatterplot, Lebanon is the most significant outlier with lower than expected levels of religious self-identification.

In this small sample of countries, we can surmise that Catholicism is strongest in what is often called the developing world where GDP per capita are lower, while it appears to be contracting in wealthier "developed" countries. The precise mechanisms associated with economic development and wealth that are impacting Catholics' participation in the faith and identification as religious are unclear. Whatever they are, they matter significantly.

Note: In survey research, self-reported frequencies of Mass attendance can be inflated by social desirability bias. However, this bias may be relatively similar across populations. Thus, the differences between countries in attendance are likely accurate although actual Mass attendance levels may be lower than reported. Nigeria has the highest share of weekly attenders at 94%. According to the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2020, Nigeria was home to 32,576,000 Catholics and 4,406 parishes. With the reported frequency of attendance there would be 6,920 weekly attenders per parish. This would require numerous Masses each weekend. Kenya is home to 16,467,000 Catholics in 6,353 parishes. Taking account of their reported frequencies of Mass attendance this would result in 1,900 weekly attenders per parish, which is not unreasonable.

 Creative Commons image of a Catholic Mass in Abuja, Nigeria courtesy of Jeremy Weate.


Updated Catholic Populations for 2022

A decade ago, we posted about a “micro-scoping view of the Catholic population.” It has been enough time that we felt we needed to update this.

Both the General Social Survey (GSS) and Gallup estimate that 22% of U.S. adults self-identify as Catholic. As of July 1, 2022, the Census Bureau estimated that there were 332,838,183 residents of the United States and that 77.8% of them are ages 18 and older. Applying these two percentages to that population total we estimate that there are 56,968,583 Catholic adults in the country. If we assume the children of some of these adults have similar religious affiliations to their parents then we expect that there is likely 73,224,400 Catholics of any age in the country.

Some might note that you can’t be unbaptized and there are also those who no longer self-identify as Catholics. We can use the General Social Survey to estimate how sizeable this population is. A total of 33.9% of U.S. adults indicate they were raised Catholic. With 22% continuing to self-identify as Catholic that means 11.9% of U.S. adults formerly self-identified as Catholic but no longer do so. This is equivalent to 30,814,825 adults who were presumably baptized but no longer consider themselves Catholic (we cannot estimate the number of minors who have left the faith and are now former Catholics). That also means the total population of people baptized Catholics in the country is 87,783,408 (some were baptized outside the U.S. and later immigrated here). 


The next group you can zero in on are what we call “parish-connected” Catholics. These are self-identified Catholics who attend Mass with some frequency and most register with a parish. At Christmas and Easter there are approximately 52,721,568 Catholics who attend Mass in 2022 (this total includes those who attend more often). That is equivalent to about 3,180 people in the typical parish. A total of 41,957,581 are in households registered with a Catholic parish. Of the aforementioned Mass attenders at Christmas and Easter, 32,950,980 attends Mass at least once a month (this total includes those who attend more often).

The next group is the “very active and involved” Catholics encompassing 17,573,856 weekly Mass attenders and 8,944,068 who are “very involved” with their parish outside of Mass. Respectively that encompasses 1,060 weekly attenders in the typical parish with 540 being “very active” outside of Mass.

The final group includes those professionals involved in ministry (albeit not all in parishes). This includes 141,382 people who are priests, vowed religious, permanent deacons, and lay ecclesial ministers. Technically, that would mean there are 2.1 priests per parish with a total population of 34,923. However, some are religious priests who are less likely to be involved in parish ministry than diocesan priests. Among both these groups there is a significant number who are retired and no longer active in ministry today. When you break things down to active diocesan priests per parish it comes out to about 1.0. Yet these priests are not evenly distributed across dioceses so some do not have enough diocesan priests for there to be one priest assigned to each parish.

Using CARA Catholic Polls (CCP) we can estimate other populations estimates that may be of interest. Some 58.3 million Catholics were born in the United States and 14.9 million were born elsewhere. A total of 48.0 million adult Catholics received the Sacrament of Confirmation. Among Catholic adults, 23.0 million attended a Catholic school at some point when they were young (according to NCEA, 1.345 million Catholic minors are currently attending Catholic schools). There are 4.4 million self-identified Catholics who were not raised Catholic who later converted to Catholicism.

The largest generation of Catholics, currently, are Millennials (19.8 million) followed by Generation X (18.3 million), and then Baby Boomers (15.8 million). A total of 33.7 million Catholic adults are married or widowed, 8.2 million are divorced or separated, and 15.0 million have never married (of which 11.4 million are Millennials).

There are 16.2 million Catholic Democrats compared to 12.4 million Republicans. Yet, there are more Catholic conservatives than liberals (19.3 million compared to 13.7 million). Most adult Catholics are not affiliated with a political party (25.9 million) and 23.9 million consider themselves to be “middle of the road” when it comes to political ideology.

Correction 8/10/2022: A former version of this blog included an estimate for minors who had left the faith. This led to larger estimates of "former Catholics" than is likely. However, we cannot assume the share of minors who have left is similar to the share of adults. Presumably this is less common among children and teenagers.

Search This Blog

Blog Archive

© 2009-2021 CARA, Mark M. Gray. Background image courtesy of muohace_dc.