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.


Sunday Morning: Deconstructing Catholic Mass attendance in the 1950s and now

Social science is not just about surveys, trend data, or focus groups. Some of my favorite types of research involve content and historical analysis. The study of art, for example, can provide some amazing insight that is not visible on a spreadsheet. Norman Rockwell’s “Sunday Morning,” as shown below (click to enlarge), has always caught my eye as an interesting piece because it brings to life some of the survey results we have been seeing for many years and it did it on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post all the way back in May of 1959 (for more see: “Sunday Morning Slackers” from the Post).

Rockwell illustrated this piece five years after appearing in the national print ad shown below, which reads, “Light their life with faith. Bring them to worship this week.” This advertisement was sponsored by Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish lay people in an effort to encourage weekly religious service attendance—especially among parents with their children. This should be the first sign of something amiss with our recollections of this time…
They needed a national ad campaign to get people to take their children to church? Wait this is the 1950s right? Didn’t everyone go to church in the 1950s?

According to his biographer (Norman Rockwell: A Life, by Laura Claridge, Random House, New York, 2001), Rockwell lived a life much more like his cover illustration than the text of the ad campaign. He was said to rarely make it to church on Sunday during his first marriage (to a Catholic woman he later divorced) or during his second marriage (to a woman of his own Episcopalian affiliation). Rockwell did have his children baptized from the second marriage but was not a regular at church services otherwise.

In itself this may come as a shock to those who view Rockwell as the visual soul of conservative, small town, religious America. As “Sunday Morning” indicates Rockwell was not shy about pointing out the realities of American religious life even in the 1950s. Take special notice of the father’s unusual morning-bed hair-style and the color of his robe. When one realizes from his biographer that Rockwell may have spent many similar Sundays in his pajamas it is more difficult to typecast the illustrator into some of his other more famous and pious illustrations regarding religion.

It is likely that the family in the illustration is Protestant. Thus, it is not the case that Rockwell was making any comment about Catholicism in this work. But the fact that it made it on to the cover of America’s magazine of record at the time indicates that it resonated with the culture of this period. This issue of the Post was published at a time when weekly Catholic Mass attendance was peaking, as measured in Gallup telephone surveys (74% in 1958 and 72% in 1959). In 2008, Gallup surveys estimated Catholic Mass attendance in any given week had fallen to 42%. Don’t giggle. I know you don’t believe that 42% of Catholics nationally attend Mass in any given week and you’re right. But why do we believe 74% did in 1958?

I am sure there will be some reading this who says, “I remember, I was there.” But what we did see in the 1950s is not important. It is what we did not see… the people who were not in the pews. You can only get an attendance percentage by dividing the Mass attendance count (numerator) by the number of self-identified Catholics in the parish boundaries that could have attended (denominator). All of this is unlikely to be found in your memories! (Note: even Robert Putnam who notorious for highlighting the declining trend lines from the 1950s says the following in American Grace: “research on the accuracy of reporting church attendance… suggests that we should take these self-reports with a grain of salt,” pg. 571).

A piece of art is one thing. Perhaps more can be said by taking a second look at a researcher who was in many Catholic parishes studying Mass attendance in the 1950s. Joseph H. Fichter, S.J., (granduncle to current CARA research associate Fr. Stephen Fichter) famously studied parish life by going door to door and taking censuses, making Mass attendance head counts, observing parish life, and documenting everything possible both qualitatively and quantitatively. 

In his 1954 study, Social Relations in the Urban Parish (University of Chicago Press), Fichter estimates Mass attendance levels based on the number of individuals registered with the parish. But he also provides the counts for what he calls “dormant Catholics” from his census within parish boundaries. These are people who self-identify their religion as Catholic but who do not attend Mass. Thirty-eight percent of the Catholics within the parish boundaries he studied in this book were dormant. Thus, at the outset we know that typical weekly attendance by the measure of this study could have been no more than 62%. But what about among the “active” Catholics? About 79% of the non-dormant Catholics attended Mass on a typical weekend. So overall, the total percentage of self-identifying Catholics attending Mass in this study was estimated to be about 49%.

This is almost exactly what we get in the early 1950s if we “correct” the Gallup trend numbers down for over-reports in each year by about 12 percentage points (Why 12 percentage points? See “The Nuances of Accurately Measuring Mass Attendance” and more recent research cited below). The figure below shows this correction for the entire Gallup series.

Attendance over-reports occur as people being interviewed over the phone respond to their interviewer with answers about their behavior that they believe to fit socially desirable expectations. So typically the respondent has just told the interviewer their religion and then they are asked how often they attend services. Many respond in a way that they believe is socially acceptable—even if it does not fit their actual pattern of attendance.

We have some early evidence of this in the Americans’ Use of Time Study, 1965-1966. Here, 57% of Americans when asked directly about their church attendance reported that they had attended in the last week. However, only 39% of these respondents actually indicated attending religious services when recording their time use hour by hour in diaries (i.e., an indirect measurement). For more on this see Philip Brenner’s excellent recent article “Identity Importance and the Overreporting of Religious Service Attendance” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (March, 2011; pgs 103-115). Brenner not only estimates this phenomenon in the United States but in Europe as well, where this issue is less of a problem. These estimates are in “Exceptional Behavior or Exceptional Identity?” in Public Opinion Quarterly (Spring, 2011; pgs. 19-41). For example, in Italy (2003) time diaries estimate church attendance to be 25% weekly but surveys measure this at 30%. In Spain (2003) attendance is estimated at 16% in time diaries compared to 19% in surveys. In Ireland (2005) these numbers respectively are 42% (time diary) and 46% (survey-based). Here, Brenner also shows that from 1975 through 2008 the average annual over-report in U.S. religious attendance is very stable and much higher than in Europe, at an average of 13.4 percentage points.

In another of Father Fichter's 1950s studies, Southern Parish: The Dynamics of a City Church (Volume I, University of Chicago Press, 1951), he showed that there was also considerable variation in Mass attendance week to week (see figure below). This again is quite similar to some indirect measurements made now. Just as today, Lent brought more Catholics to Mass than during other periods of the year.

 Joseph H. Fichter; Southern Parish: The Dynamics of a City Church; Volume I, University of Chicago Press, 1951, pg. 151.

Father Fichter’s observations also indicate that some of the Mass attendance of the 1950s was not as “active” as we might remember it. Here is a passage that likely still resonates with your observations of parish life today:

“A measure of the parishioners’ devotion to the Mass and of their fulfillment of this obligation is seen in the numbers who arrive late and who leave early. By actual count it was noted that, at all Sunday Masses, 8.37 per cent of the congregation arrived after Mass had started and that 6.35 per cent left before it was completed. … Although we have no accurate count, we have noticed that many of these persons are duplicated in both categories. In other words, those who come late also tend to leave early. … The younger males constitute the majority of those who omit part of the Mass, while older females make up the majority who arrive in church well in advance of Mass” (1951, pg. 138).

“By actual count, 35.08 per cent of the congregation read the missal all during Mass, while another 22.08 per cent read some sort of prayer-book while following the priest’s reading of the Gospel. … The remaining persons simply stare off into space, although several men in the last pews sometimes read a copy of
Our Sunday Visitor during Mass” (1951, pg. 138).

Over a year of Masses, on average, attenders were much more often female (about 7 in 10 or more) than male—a composition that can only result from some men, perhaps like the man in the Rockwell illustration above, staying home.

Today, CARA’s national surveys use a methodology that minimizes social desirability pressure on respondents to get the most accurate measurements of Mass attendance possible. Many cite our weekly Mass attendance figure in the low 20 percent range. Some also then cite Gallup’s figure from the 1950s and attempt to argue that Mass attendance has fallen from nearly 80% to just above 20%. This is misleading and inaccurate. First, as shown above, the Gallup numbers for the 1950s are inflated by over-reports just as they are in the 1970s or now. Second, CARA and most other survey-based estimates of Mass attendance measure general frequencies of attendance such as “every week” or “at least once a month.” Gallup’s church attendance question measures whether a respondent has attended in the last 7 days. Depending on the week in which this question is asked, one will get very different results. Thus, the best use of the Gallup data is in taking the average for the year in response to this question.

Currently, CARA surveys indicate that 23% of self-identified adult Catholics attend Mass every week. Yet, in any given average week, 31% of Catholics are attending (almost identical the “adjusted” 30% estimate from the Gallup trend). Note there is considerable local variation in Mass attendance levels with higher levels in the Midwest and lower in coastal urban areas). During Lent and Advent, Mass attendance increases into the mid-40 percent-range and on Christmas and Easter, an estimated 68% of Catholics attend.

Thus, if one is seeking to make a comparison of Mass attendance in the 1950s to now, the drop is not 80% to 20%. Instead it is from a peak of 62% in 1958 to about 31% now. This is still a remarkable decline. It means that the Mass attendance you see at Christmas and Easter is a lot like the attendance you might have seen in a typical week in the late-1950s. Yet, even then, as now, there is a significant number of Catholics like the father in Rockwell’s “Sunday Morning” who choose to do something else.

The slope of the Gallup declining trend is accurate. It’s the levels that are off. If you are going to use the Gallup data from the 1950s and make comparisons to CARA data in the 2000s and beyond you’ll need to adjust the Gallup trend (and our collective memory of the 1950s) down to reach reality. And this is of course is not just an artistic endeavor. As I have argued here I believe it to be statistically valid.


In Season: Millennials and Lent

Millennial Catholics (born after 1981) have a bit of a mixed reputation. On one hand some say they are more inclined to be orthodox and traditional. On the other hand some ponder whether this is a lost generation. The reality is much more complex and most often somewhere in between these notions.

It is the case that Millennial Catholics are less likely to attend Mass frequently and receive sacraments than their parents and grandparents. Their attitudes are not always consistent with Church teachings. Yet as Lent begins next week, Millennials will in some ways be among the most active Catholics this season.

A 2008 CARA Catholic Poll (CCP) includes a series of questions on Lenten devotions and practices. We were surprised to find that this is one area of the faith where there is little if any generational variation. Almost any other question you ask of Catholics does include significant differences. Lent is different.

More than one in four Millennials (27%) will receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, abstain from meat on Fridays, abstain from something else (in addition to meat on Fridays), and make extra efforts to help the needy or improve themselves. Fewer Catholics in all other generations will do all four of these things (see the green bars in the figure below). 


This differences above may be linked to the messages that young Catholics have received in recent years about Lent as they begin to develop the practices and habits they will likely hold throughout life. For example, many young Catholics now participate in service projects to help the poor in the United States and elsewhere during Lent and/or Spring Break in both high school and college. In some Catholic schools this has become a requirement.

As for other Lenten devotions and practices my hunch is that this is simply a period where Catholic identity is strongly reinforced. Next Wednesday if you are Catholic and there are no ashes on your forehead what are you saying to the local Catholic community or your family? Few if any one in the community may notice if you miss Mass but they will easily notice if you have not been to Ash Wednesday services next week.  

Also, Lent provides the opportunity for people to share their activities with others. Just the simple discussion of what one is giving up and the challenge that this creates provides something interesting to consider and talk about (perhaps even in a tweet). Not to mention Lent literally changes the menu. Is there any other time of the year McDonald's puts a poster of a Double Filet-o-fish in the window or Taco Bell starts making tacos with shrimp for a few weeks? As every professor knows the number one draw for any student activity is food. When there is a culinary element it automatically becomes more interesting.

There may be something of an effect from the Lenten messages provided by leadership as well. The image below is a Wordle created with the messages for Lent from John Paul II and Benedict XVI during the last decade (2002-2011). Wordle is a simple Linguistic tool that counts the frequency of use of words in text. It displays the most frequently used words as largest in size and places these randomly in a portrait. It’s part art and part context analysis.

Above one can see many of the words one would think to be often used (e.g., God, Jesus, Christ, life, love, and Lent). Yet also somewhat prominent are: justice, almsgiving, fasting, community, poor, poverty, and charity. I think Millennials have heard the message—perhaps even more than their parents and grandparents. Not only have they heard it but are a bit more likely than these older Catholics to fully live this out during Lent.


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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