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.


The Future of Religious Affiliation in America: The other half of the news that is fit to print

I am just finishing a semester teaching a course on theory and evidence for secularization and preparing for next semester where I will teach a class on forecasting and prediction. The intersection of these two courses has me thinking about the future of religion in America and there is some new data out to review on the topic. Pew just released a study on global religious affiliation and non-affiliation. Approximately 16% of people around the world do not have a religious affiliation amounting to about 1.1 billion in all. Some 50.9 million of these people reside in the United States representing 4.5% of the world’s “Nones” (...75% of global Nones live either in China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, or Taiwan... for more on international numbers see my next post).

This comes on the heels of Gallup releasing new data that concluded that “God is alive and well” in the United States. This research, based on a massive series of surveys in which one out of every thousand Americans was asked about their religion in 2012, has gone largely unnoticed by religion reporters. Not that reporters are required to cover anything but this is a bit odd as Gallup’s sample size is nearly ten times larger than many of the most highly regarded studies on this topic in the U.S. (e.g., Pew or ARIS). The sample is a hundred times larger sample than the one used by Robert Putnam and David Campbell used to write American Grace,which was widely covered by the media. The New York Times covered Pew’s research with “Study Finds One in 6 Follows No Religion” but made no mention of Gallup’s, which also provides some much needed insight on religion in America. Was it just not newsworthy? Here were some of the key Gallup findings:
  • Sixty-nine percent of American adults are very or moderately religious.
  • Religiousness increases with age, albeit not in a smooth path but rather in stages. Americans are least religious at age 23 and most religious at age 80.
  • Trends in the age composition of the American public suggest that religion may become increasingly important in the years to come. This is mostly the result of the fact that the number of Americans who are 65 and older will essentially double over the next 20 years, dramatically increasing the number of older Americans. As long as these aging baby boomers become more religious as they age—following the path of their elders—the average religiousness in the population will go up.

That final point sure seems a bit provocative and worthy of note or further exploration. The news “problem” with the Gallup’s study may be in that it looks at religiosity through the lens of the life-cycle rather than then the “linear” secularization model that is the dominant “conventional wisdom” (…even as this has largely been discarded in the academic world in both theory and evidence. Comte, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and Freud are all dead, yet religion lives on). Both Gallup and Pew reveal similar things about religion in the U.S. There is a large and growing number of Americans who are without any attachment to organized religion—although many are still personally religious or spiritual and believe in God. But there also remains a much larger group that is religiously affiliated.

What about the future? Gallup has placed a bet on growth in religiosity given the demographic changes expected ahead. At the same time The New York Times and most other secular news organizations are fixated on perspectives about the demise of religion in America (…just follow the trail of headlines in the archives). Who will win that bet?

Gallup is correct that
life-cycle effects are important (even if they are largely unnoticed) and are being “stretched” by a growing “adultolesence” that has taken the rather typical dip in religiosity many American have always experienced in their teens and 20s into the 30s. One simple piece of evidence can be found in the age structure of Nones. Look in any recent decade and you’ll find that Nones are always disproportionally young—as if they are the “Lost Boys” never aging. Where are all the senior citizen Nones who had no affiliation in their 20s in the late-1960s?

Adultolescence is only part of the puzzle. Religious affiliation is being affected in the same way that all kinds of membership organizations in America have been since the 1950s from PTOs to the Shriners. For Robert Putnam the primary cause for this membership decline was television (…Bowling Alone is one of the most important books I have ever read). People are not as likely to bowl in leagues anymore—even though bowling may be something they still enjoy. Similarly, there are many Americans who do not belong to a church anymore but who believe in God and consider themselves religious. Too many jump to the conclusion that a lack of affiliation means a lack of religiosity. The Gallup study is important in clarifying this common mistake. Just as Putnam highlighted the effects of TV (…still America’s #1 leisure time “activity” and growing by the year) I think we can now add in the hours we spend on iPhones, tablets, video games, Facebook, etc. to the demise of face to face participation in membership organizations (...on average, teenagers spend more than an hour and a half per day just texting... and a day is still only 24 hours!). We focus so much on the simple number of people who are not in churches on Sunday. Why don’t we ever study what they do instead? In CARA’s research we know many Catholics cite family obligations, work, illness, etc. It might be interesting to know how many are playing Assassin’s Creed instead of saying the Nicene Creed at Mass. We just don’t know. The Gallup study is betting that the 20-year-old without a religious affiliation playing video games on Sundays now will be in a church 35 years from now.

As always I’m really only interested in where the data lead. This requires one to try to disentangle period, life-cycle, and generational effects. In the figure below we see the trends in lack of religious affiliation by generation. This was very uncommon among Americans born before 1942. It was never common among the Lost Generation (born 1883 to 1900) and the G.I. Generation (born 1901 to 1924). Yet this begins to tick up among the Silent Generation (born 1942 to 1960) in the 1990s. This of course is a pattern that the Gallup life-cycle model would not predict. With each successive generation from the Boomers (born 1943 to 1960) to the Millennials (born 1982 or later) there is significant growth in non-affiliation as if parents are increasingly unable to pass on their affiliation. This coincides with what Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” model would predict. The generations raised with a television in their living rooms are less likely to be connected to organized religion (…or other secular institutions). Those born in the digital age are even more disconnected from real-world membership institutions. I don’t think the figure below leads one to be very confident that those playing video games on Sundays now will be praying in churches at mid-century when they are in their late 50s. 

As shown below, Protestant churches have felt the brunt of these changes. A majority of Baby Boomers self-identify as Protestant or Christian (excluding Orthodox Christians), yet only about four in ten Millennials identify as such. This is a reality that would be unrecognizable to the Lost Generation—the youth of a century prior who were 76% Protestant. This is visible linear change.

However, something quite different is occurring among U.S. Catholics. Here, there is remarkable stability across generations (even growth compared to the oldest generations). Some believe this pattern can be completely explained by immigration. Yet as I’ve noted elsewhere the numbers for that argument just don’t add up as nicely as it is assumed and the reality we see in survey data shows a significant number of Catholics who may lose affiliation for a time returning later in life as the Gallup life-cycle model predicts. Immigration is important (as it has always been for Catholics in the U.S.), but the religious life-cycle may be as well.

So I think Gallup may be partially correct in its predictions. Catholicism seems to “stick” more than Protestant affiliations and this may be important in understanding the future of religious affiliation in the U.S. The Church has a higher retention rate of its youth than individual Protestant denominations and some who left revert back later in life (...the None retention rate is even lower. Not the “Lost Boys” after all...). Immigration is expected to continue to be important as well even as some of this has been on the decline since 2007 (...and the Catholic population percentage has remained steady).

I am less hesitant about making one prediction. I am 100% sure religion and God will still be alive and well in America, as Gallup argues, when The New York Times prints its final edition (1, 2, 3). Some institutions survive cultural changes better than others. Those who don’t see the changes coming probably weren
t paying attention to all of the relevant data.


Santa Claus: To believe or not to believe?

It’s seems odd how troubling Santa Claus has become. Among religious and non-religious alike there are those who second guess, for various reasons (e.g., secularism, commercialism, honesty), whether Santa should be “invited” over for Christmas in the 21st century.

I can remember my two childhood confrontations with faith in Santa in the 1970s (before you could Google any doubts). I can’t remember the precise age but I can recall pushing my bed to a window overlooking another house. I tried to stay up until I saw him and his sleigh land on their roof. Without ready access to caffeine I failed. The next Christmas I set out a pen, paper, and inkpad with the milk and cookies and requested Santa’s autograph and a stamp of Rudolph’s hoof. It was my first real try at data collection. My handwriting analysis was inconclusive but I did know, even at that age, the difference between a beagle’s paw print and a reindeer’s hoof. But maybe Santa was in a hurry and my dog was nearby? (Others have had more success at collecting evidence).

Santa is certainly no St. Nicholas and whether one is Christian or not there was a time not long ago when most American children believed in him. Eighty six percent of Americans in the most recent survey asking such a question (…that I can analyze) said they believed in Santa as a child. This is highest among Catholics at 94%. Even most non-Christians and the currently unaffiliated (…”Nones” who may have been religious earlier in life) say they believed in their youth.

If you’re a parent you may be asking yourself does my child believe or are they just pretending to believe? If kids today are anything like we were in our youth they will likely begin to have doubts around age 10—the most frequently noted age for this. Nearly half of adult Catholics (48%) who believed in Santa say they stopped believing in the jolly old man before age 9. Overall, for American adults of all faiths, only about 2% of those raised to believe in Santa continue to believe in him as an adult (...comparatively speaking not a good “retention” rate). 

Even as very few believe as adults, six in ten Catholics (61 percent) say Santa Claus is still “somewhat” or “very” important to their holiday celebrations now as adults—more so than any other affiliation group. Minorities of Evangelical and Mainline Protestants say Santa is at least “somewhat” important to them this time of year. Some may find it surprising then that majorities of those who are of other religions or who have no affiliation say Santa is
somewhat” or “very” important to them. 

Is there an Evangelical Protestant “war” on Santa that I have been unaware of? A majority of Evangelical Protestants (55%) also agreed that the Santa Claus tradition detracts from the religious significance of the Christmas holiday. Fewer Catholics (47%) and Mainline Protestants (43%) agreed that this is the case. 

The Associated Press replicated the childhood belief in Santa question in December 2011. Data are not yet available for public analysis but the topline results are essentially the same at 84%. The earliest poll I can find that asked this question was conducted by ABC News in 1993. Here childhood belief stood at 86%. So belief in Santa seems quite stable. You still need to bake the cookies and put out the milk (or hot buttered rum). You never know…

Photo above courtesy of Bart Fields from Flickr Commons.


Tracking Changes… Accepted?

In August 2011, CARA released results of a survey that showed only about one in four adult Catholics and nearly six in ten of those who attend Mass weekly were aware of the changes to the English-language liturgy that would begin during Advent 2011. Now more than a year later, CARA has revisited the revisions to the Mass in a new survey that replicated some of the questions we asked in 2011. As far as I am aware this is the only “pre and post” national data examining Catholic reactions to changes in the liturgy (although note that these surveys use two different random samples, the same individuals were not interviewed in both polls). CARA conducted this research for Rev. Anthony J. Pogorelc, S.S., M.Div., Ph.D at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America. He constructed the framework and questions and has presented the results for the study at the annual meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association in Phoenix on November 9. Here is some of what we found…

In September 2012, nearly a year after the changes took effect, seven in ten U.S. adult self-identified Catholics agree that the new translation of the Mass is a good thing (with 20 percent agreeing “strongly”). Nearly a quarter “disagree” (23 percent) and 7 percent “strongly” disagree with this statement.

Catholics who attend Mass weekly are among the most likely to agree that the new translation of the Mass is a good thing. Eighty-four percent responded as such (47 percent “strongly” agree with this statement). By comparison, 63 percent of those who rarely or never attend Mass agree with this statement (only 4 percent “strongly” agree).

Regular Mass attendance levels remained the same in the 2012 survey compared to 2011 with both polls estimating that about a quarter of adult Catholics (24 percent) attend Mass weekly or more often (weekly Mass attendance levels of have been steady since 2000). However, there was a slight decline in the total percentage of Catholics saying they attend Mass monthly (i.e., once a month or a few times a month) from 25 percent in 2011 to 19 percent in 2012. However, this difference is just within the surveys’ margins of sampling error and thus may be due to random variations between two samples. CARA will continue to track Mass attendance in its polls to see if a new pattern is emerging. It is also the case that there have been no statistically significant changes in the numbers of Americans who self-identify as Catholic in the last year either. Thus, there was no identifiable exodus from the Church that could be related to the changes in the liturgy.

Respondents in the 2012 poll were asked, “During an average Mass, would you say that you have noticed that the language of the prayers that are said during Mass have (1) remained about the same, (2) changed to a small extent, (3) changed to a moderate extent, or (4) changed to a great extent?” Four in ten respondents (40 percent) said they had noticed the language of these prayers had changed to a small extent and 23 percent said these had changed to a moderate extent. Only 6 percent said they noticed changes to a great extent and 31 percent said that the language of these prayers had remained about the same as far as they noticed. Those who have perceived less change are those most likely to agree that the new translation is a good thing. Among those who feel the language was changed to a great extent, a majority disagree that the new translation is a good thing (65 percent). However, this group makes up only a small number of respondents (6 percent).

A series of agree or disagree questions were asked of respondents in both the 2011 and 2012 surveys. These are compared in the table below which shows the 2012 results and the percentage point change in agreement from 2011.

Respondents were less likely to agree with all statements in 2012 than in the 2011 survey. However, in most cases, the differences between the surveys is within the margin of sampling error. In one instance, respondents are discernibly less likely to agree at least “somewhat” with the statement: “The words of the prayers recited by the priest and people make it easier for me to participate in the Mass” (79 percent in 2012 compared to 86 percent in 2011). This shift may represent the learning curve some Catholics have experienced with the revisions.

Catholics who attend Mass more frequently are more likely to agree with all four of the statements regarding the Mass in 2012. It is also the case that among weekly Mass attenders there are no significant differences in responses to these questions between 2012 and 2011.

If there is one note of caution for the future in the data it is in generational differences. As shown in the figure below, Millennials (adults born after 1981) are more likely than older Catholics to “disagree” that the new translation is a good thing and less likely to “strongly” agree with that statement. These differences are beyond margin of sampling error. At the same time it is also the case that significant majorities in each generation agree with that the translation is a good thing.

The 2012 survey was completed by 1,047 self-identified Catholics who were 18 years of age or older resulting in an overall sampling margin of error of ±3.0 percentage points. Sixty-seven percent of the GfK Custom Research (formerly Knowledge Networks) panel members invited to take the survey completed it. The survey was in the field from September 10 to September 18, 2012. The 2011 survey included 1,239 self-identified Catholics who were 18 years of age or older resulting in a sampling margin of error of ±2.8 percentage points. Fifty-seven percent of the Knowledge Networks panel members invited to take the survey completed it.

…On an unrelated note I apologize for having been on a mini-sabbatical from the blog of late with work, travel, and even a bit of vacation. I spent Election Day in Disneyland, which I hear may have been more of a “real” experience than watching what could be seen on MSNBC or Fox News that evening (...or thereafter)! Glad to see some voices recently calling out these networks for what they are (Wash Post, Huff Post, NY Times). I'll have more analysis of the changing Catholic electorate and a bunch of new CARA data on other topics to post here so be warned that the blog may take on a bit of an Advent calendar quality in the days ahead.


Were U.S. Catholics Raptured? ... Again?

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released The 2012 American Values Study last week, which looks at religious affiliation and election issues among those of different affiliations. The second line of the Executive Summary was a surprise:

While Catholics and white mainline Protestants remain two of the largest religious groups in the United States, they have each experienced significant declines in membership.” [emphasis added]

There are fewer Catholics in the United States now than in the past? When was the population ever higher? The claim in the PRRI report is incorrect. As I understand it, this may have just been a poor choice of words rather than something that the PRRI researchers literally intended to say or believed. Regardless, it is the kind of thing that gets picked up and then repeated in error by a religion reporter (example). Then your pastor reads it and puts it in a homily. Your great aunt posts it on Facebook. Before you know it this suddenly becomes "conventional wisdom."

It is true that Catholicism, like all religious affiliations, does not retain all of those raised in the faith (although the Church's retention rate is higher than many others) but that does not mean that the overall number of Americans self-identifying as Catholic is in decline. Just look at the unaffiliated, the fastest growing (non)affiliation which loses more of it's youth (as they later become religiously affiliated), as a percentage, than the Catholic Church or any other major religious group (i.e., retention rates reported on pg. 9 of the PRRI report). PRRI researchers seem to have similarly relied on only part of the "ledger" of affiliation in that second line of the Executive Summary. Your bank account would likely have "significant declines in its balance" if you similarly did not pay close attention to how and when all deposits are made. The PRRI researchers later in the report provide a bit of a qualification:

[T]he Catholic share of the U.S. population has remained relatively stable, despite losing a significant number of adherents (12%) and attracting relatively few converts from other religions (2%). The primary explanation for this paradox is an influx of Catholic immigrants, mostly from central and South America.” [emphasis added]

This already has become a classic of "conventional wisdom" in commentary on Catholic affiliation. You know, the Catholic Church is "hemorrhaging" members and their places are being filled by immigrants. Yet researchers rarely present data or do the simple math that would provide any evidence for how much immigration plays a part in the population dynamics. It just "has to be true." I have responded to different aspects of claims of membership decline and the effects of immigration in the past (1, 23, 4) but I'll try to be more clear and present new data to show that this notion just does not add up the way it is imagined. It won't stop people from claiming this but maybe your great aunt will discover this post in a Google search and I can save her from making a misleading Facebook post. I try to do my part.

The figure below includes three of the highest quality long-term series of surveys that we have to study religious change over time (...and you need a "moving picture" to do this. A one-survey snapshot is insufficient. Some knowledge of demography and attention to how religious affiliation varies over the life-cycle is also important). The first is Gallup’s religious affiliation data (details). In Gallup's 2011 surveys, Catholic affiliation among U.S. adults was estimated to be 23%. In its first observation of the series, in 1948, Gallup measured Catholic affiliation at 22%. For the series overall, this averages 25%. The second source is the American National Election Study (ANES). This survey’s sample (details) is based on citizens so if immigration is so important to maintaining the stability of the Catholic population percentage we should see a big drop in Catholic affiliation here. From 1948 to 2010 the Catholic share of respondents in this survey averaged 23% with 21% self-identifying as such in 1948 and 19% self-identifying as such in 2008 (the most recent data point for the ANES. Another will be released in a few months). The final series (details) has a shorter range. This is the General Social Survey (GSS) which began in 1972. Here, Catholic affiliation has averaged 26% for the series with an initial observation in 1972 of 25% and the most recent observation in 2010 of 25%.  

Differences within all three series are generally within margins of error. You'll find recent survey estimates for the adult Catholic resident population percentage typically ranging anywhere from 20% to 26% with occasional outliers in either direction. Taking any one of these surveys within this range and assuming that it is showing a decline or an increase would be bad science. Margin of error really does matter (more on this below). Thus, each of the three historical trends represent the stability that you can see in the figure below. The black line running through the figure represents a triangulated aggregation (by average) of these three Catholic population estimates. This smooths out some of the random variations (i.e., sampling error and occasional outliers) in each source and provides a more reliable estimate than relying on any one source.

Of course a stable Catholic population percentage amidst a growing U.S. population means that the absolute number of adults self-identifying as Catholic over time is increasing. Even a decline in the population percentage does not always result in a decline in the actual population. A sub-group population can still be growing and adding net positive members but fail to grow as fast as the overall population and thus lose a percentage point or more. Below I will isolate changes since 1980, which coincides with the beginning of the most recent wave of immigration the U.S. has experienced. If immigration is the only thing "holding up" the Catholic population we should definitely see it clearly in the post-1980 period.

The U.S. Census Bureau provides population estimates by year and by age group for the United States (and other countries) in a publicly accessible database (details). I collected adult population totals (those ages 18 and older) from 1980 and 2011 and multiplied each annual total by the aggregated Catholic population percentage for each year from the figure above. This results in the trend you can see below. Don't make too much of the sharp waves in the figure as these represent fluctuations within the margin of error from the surveys measuring Catholic affiliation. With these data the adult Catholic population, as measured by self-affiliation, is estimated to have grown by 32 percent from 41.3 million in 1980 to 54.7 million in 2011. It is not possible to measure the change in the under-18 Catholic population. However, The Official Catholic Directory records 30.4 million infant and child baptisms between 1980 and 2011 with 17.8 million of these occurring since 1993 which are not yet "visible" to national polls that almost always use adult samples. Some of those baptized will no longer affiliate themselves as Catholic later in life as we know that a good chunk of those leaving the Church do so in their youth. Some return when they are older as "reverts." These reverts, as I will explain below, are an important part of the story of how the Catholic population percentage has maintained stability.

How much of this increase in affiliation is related to immigration? Another question frequently asked in surveys is country of birth and parents' country of birth. Below, I use these from the GSS and Pew's Social and Demographic Trends survey for 2011 to estimate the impact of immigration (Note: the GSS is not fielded every year and in recent years shifted to being done every other year. With the exception of 2011, I have interpolated any other missing year using data from the neighboring years. This is a reasonable method as the distribution for place of birth does not shift annually in the aggregate like attitudes can). The figure below breaks out the adult Catholic population into three stacked groups. The first are those born in the U.S. to native-born parents. The second are those born in the U.S. who have one or both parents born outside the U.S. The final group includes all those who are foreign-born.

The adult Catholic population born in the United States to native-born parents grew by 24% from 1980 to 2011 from 27.4 million to 34.1 million. This population is not in decline as many assume and continues to make up a majority of the U.S. adult Catholic population. The number of U.S. adult Catholics who are foreign-born or native-born children of at least one foreign-born parent grew from 13.9 million in 1980 to 20.6 million in 2011. This represents a 48% growth rate. Not all of this growth is directly related to immigration and some of this is linked to differences in fertility rates. For example, the 2011 birth rate (i.e., births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44) for Hispanic females was 17.5 compared to 10.8 for non-Hispanic white females. It is clear from the figure below that the Catholic population has gained some membership through immigration and the children of immigrants throughout the period (it should also be noted this statement would be true for most of American history in regards to Catholics and for some other religions in recent decades as well—including Nones. With native-born fertility rates falling below replacement, there are a variety of groups that now grow primarily through a combination of immigration and generational replacement). However, it is also the case that this growth is insufficient to explain the whole "paradox." More interestingly the percentage of adult Catholics indicating that they were born outside the U.S. is now in decline (since 2007) and the adult Catholic population percentage has continued to remain stable. This has occurred as immigration rates from Mexico have collapsed (1, 2).

The figure below shows the breakdown of the adult Catholic population by place of birth in 2011. About a quarter of adult Catholics (24%) are foreign-born representing 13.1 million individuals. This is up from 10% of Catholics being foreign-born in 1980. This is certainly part of the Catholic population growth story but it is also clearly not the only story or perhaps even the biggest story in the numbers. In 1980, 66% of adult Catholics were born in the United States to native-born parents. In 2011, this segment consisted of 62% of adult Catholics.

Also of interest is the declining numbers of Catholic adults who report that they are a child of a foreign-born parent(s) (i.e., 23% in 1980 and 14% in 2011). This may represent those who were children of the last waves of European immigration from the early 20th century passing away. The figure below shows how the proportion each group adds up to the total Catholic population percentage (i.e., summing the numbers equates the U.S. adult Catholic population percentage that was 23% in 2011. Note that the PRRI measurement of 22% is not statistically different from 2011). You can see there is a declining percentage for native-born Catholics due to their slower growth rate, but again the numbers of these individuals is growing in the aggregate population as shown above.


Immigration has contributed to the stability of the Catholic population percentage, as shown above, but not nearly to the degree argued by many (...Pew's 2007 data shows specifically that there are not enough foreign-born Catholics in the population to make up for the numbers of native-born Catholics who are estimated to have left. These data also document that a sizeable number of those who have left Catholicism are foreign-born. Note there is a difference between the results in Pew's report and what one can find in the data that are publicly available. No researcher is ever able to include a completely comprehensive analysis of their data in a single report). Thus, on the second statement highlighted above, I believe PRRI is simply putting too much emphasis on foreign-born Catholics to solve the paradox (...and they certainly are not alone in doing so). At the same time, I will reiterate that the PRRI statement is absolutely factually incorrect in claiming that the Catholic Church in the United States has experienced a decline in members (...even if one wanted to stretch to a "decline" in parish registration this would still be inaccurate as many young Catholics and Hispanic Catholics do not register but are still attending Mass with some regularity. We know this at CARA because we have surveyed more than 385,000 Catholics in-pew, during Mass to date). It is also incorrect when others make the assumption that there are fewer native-born Catholic adults with native-born Catholic parents now than in the past and that this group is declining in number (...someone let Robert Putnam know).

So what makes up the difference? Most pollsters don't think much about demography and seem to forget that there is an important population that is not often in our view. Polls are generally done with adults ages 18 and older. Here lies some of the briefly "disappearing Catholics." Consistent with CARA's own surveys, Pew notes that "Almost half of Catholics who are now unaffiliated (48%) left Catholicism before reaching age 18" (i.e., before they ever enter the population we regularly survey). Notice that PRRI estimates that those raised Catholic are equivalent to 31% percent of the population (p. 9) and Pew similarly estimates this to be 31.4% (p. 26 of the Religious Landscape report). Yet, as shown previously, the Catholic population percentage has never actually been 31% since the 1940s (...or in any earlier period of U.S. history). Some insight into teen religious affiliation can be seen in a recent CARA study. We conducted a national survey including an over-sample of 677 teens, ages 14 to 17, in Catholic households. Their Catholic parent(s) provided permission for their children to respond. Of this group CARA found that 174 or 26% did not self-identify as Catholic even though their parent(s) do and presumably some are unaware of a change in their child's affiliation. Many of the teens who leave their childhood religion grow up and continue to have no affiliation or join another faith. But as noted previously some come back to the Catholic Church later in their lives as "reverts" or returned Catholics (...and this is nothing new as Hoge et al. wrote about the topic in 1981). The complete solution to the "paradox" of the stable Catholic population percentage is a combination of immigration and fertility effects along with minors raised in the faith who leave as teens and later return to the faith most often in their 30s and 40s.

To better understand the revert process in more depth one would need a panel study which includes children or teens who are interviewed in their youth and again at later points in their life as adults. These surveys exist but it is unlikely that many include a religious affiliation question. If the U.S. Census asked religious affiliation this would also help us understand these life-cycle changes as well.

We do know reverts are in the Catholic population and in the pews. They tell us so when we ask. CARA surveys estimate there are more than 5 million Catholic reverts nationally (i.e., equivalent to 9% of all adult Catholics). PRRI or Pew don't "see" them because the structure of their questions do not allow them to. Both have asked for a respondent's current affiliation and the affiliation they were raised in. If I grew up in a Catholic household, stopped affiliating as such for a time, and later came back I would look like a "cradle Catholic" in their polls even though I had "switched" out for a time. Also there are many who were raised Catholic but who are now unaffiliated (leaving as minors) who will return to the Church in the future contributing to growth of the adult population (i.e., if history continues to repeat itself... and it may not. If it doesn't the Catholic population will likely be in decline).

We can see reverts in other Catholic populations as well. For example, Ireland asks about religion in its census. This is broken down by cohort in the table below across 20 years. The first row of the table isolates the cohort born between 1987 and 1991 who were under 5 in 1991. We can follow this group ten years later seeing their numbers when they aged 10 to 14 and finally can examine their population total when they are 20 to 24. The first four cohorts including those under 40 are all showing a decline in population. But then we see growth in the next three cohorts among those who are currently ages 40 to 54. Each cohort is lowest in numbers when they are in the 20 to 29 age range. The same thing happening again and again in the same way (i.e., unlikely to be related to something like changing patterns of immigration). Each experiences growth from their 20s into their 30s. For example, the cohort born between 1972 and 1981 showed losses as they reached their 20s and growth moving into their 30s. It's hasn't yet been enough growth to wipe out the losses from the 20s, but if this group is anything like those born 1962 to 1971 they should be back in positive territory in 2021 in their 40s.

So if life-cycle effects are so important to explaining how the U.S. Catholic population percentage remains stable and how the U.S. Catholic population continues to grow, why isn't this a part of "conventional wisdom" yet? In part because I don't think there are many people who want to hear it. Most religion reporters ignore research that indicates growth in or satisfaction with the Catholic Church. For example, Pew did a study in August that showed "large majorities of Catholics are satisfied with Church leaders." Oh you didn't hear about that? Even within the Church many don't want to hear it. Both "progressive" and "traditional" Catholics want to be able to argue that the Church is losing members and can only regain them by urgently doing __________. Many would like to continue believing the Church is hemorrhaging members and that Mass attendance is declining even though neither of these claims can be found in the data (the Mass attendance trend can be seen here). Reality marches on whether we pay attention or not...

A final note... PRRI did not provide much information in the report about margin of error and statistical significance other than the overall N and margin of error. This N is printed under every figure even though this cannot be reflective of some of these (e.g., anything summarizing results for likely voters). I estimated my own sub-group margins of error for the report (here). There are several findings in the study where I really wonder about statistical significance. For example, the researchers really had to stretch the data thin to get to likely voters by religion and race and ethnicity. When a national random sample survey has 3,003 interviews it is difficult to drill down to the levels this report tries to get to without having to deal with very large margins of error. At the same time, I will note that this practice is not uncommon among some pollsters and social scientists ( just makes it more difficult for readers to parse out the most meaningful findings). For example, the 2006 Faith Matters survey used by Robert Putnam and David Campbell in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us includes a sample of only 212 Hispanic Catholics (sub-group Ns and margins of error were not published in the book). There was a lot made of differences between Hispanic Catholics and non-Hispanic Catholics in that book based on very few interviews and readers were never made aware of this (...I have noted my skepticism of some of their findings previously). 

I think any research organization that is releasing data that they intend to be read by the media and disseminated to the public needs to be very careful about what is put into print. Saying the the Catholic population has declined significantly is going to be something that catches the eye of religion reporters and regurgitated. When that statement is false and people are misled, even when it is unintentional, it can't effectively be "pulled back." Reporters don't write a new story and even if they issue corrections these receive little notice. Similarly I think it is important that researchers provide some context of differences and changes that are statistically significant and those that are not. Reporters and the public tend to take even the slightest differences within polling far too literally. Science is about helping people understand the realities of this world. We shouldn't cloud this with results that are incorrect or insignificant.

Photo above courtesy of Patrick Gage from Flickr Commons. 


Author Meets (Online) Critics: CARA Vocations Study

CARA released a new study this week on interest in vocations among never-married Catholics showing that a small percentage of Catholics have very seriously considered becoming a priest (among men) or member of a religious community (among men and women). Although small in percentage terms, this is equivalent to a large number of individuals in actual population. The study has made its way into the Catholic press and received some notice in the comments sections on websites. I thought I might respond to a few of these here in an “author meets his online critics” post. Here are two that I think are saying something similar:

-The article is wishful thinking. So where are they?

-Obviously it’s wrong else how could you explain the Los Angeles Archdiocese, the largest, wealthiest Archdiocese in the world can’t field more than a small handful of priests each year.

This report never implies in any way, “problem solved.” This study was not commissioned to prove there is no problem or to make people feel good. The fact that it was commissioned at all is because there is a pressing problem. The Church has a declining number of priests and vowed religious and the current numbers of people choosing a vocation is insufficient to meet the Church’s future needs. It is also the case that the Church’s population of priests, religious brothers, and religious sisters lacks the racial and ethnic diversity of the U.S. Catholic population. Why is this happening?

We are the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. This name fits well because we do applied research. We’re not like the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which conducts and releases research to advance public knowledge and awareness. Most often we are doing research to assist a client in dealing with a problem or challenge. Our goal with the vocations study was simply to find out who is interested in vocations and how they became interested to help the Church better understand this process.

But just identifying that many have considered a vocation does not mean that many are “on the way.” Interest is just the first hurdle in the process and there are so many more hurdles (e.g., getting past discouragement, meeting education requirements, dealing with college loan debt, personally coming to terms with a new way of life, formation) between someone who is considering a vocation and living that vocation. Just finding many interested doesn’t mean that many will follow through on their consideration. You can see this in another comment about the report:

-I too find these statistics possibly misleading. I “seriously considered” seminary myself about 3 or 4 years ago; I know two others who did as well. Of the three of us, one has married, I’m still single, only the third has actually begun seminary studies. I even visited a seminary.

Yes, it would be misleading if one assumes that consideration of a vocation means that this person always follows through on this. The study obviously never makes such a claim. One of the more troubling aspects of conducting research that gets released to the public is in knowing that many will read a news story and very few will ever see the broader report and thus some will end up making some invalid assumptions. This project was the first in a number of studies CARA is conducting examining the vocations process. In the most recent report we focus on the beginning—looking to the moments when people initially consider a vocation. More CARA research will be released soon that addresses some of the other hurdles “in the way” and how those interested in vocations are dealing with these. It won’t always be good news (e.g., see this CARA study on student loan debt and vocations).

So why publicly release applied research? If this is all just about solving a problem why even bother with news stories? In this case I think I can clearly explain with the figure below:

One of the most important factors leading to the consideration of vocations is you (and at least two of your close friends, family, and fellow parishioners). We’ve noted before how damaging discouragement can be. It turns out encouragement is equally powerful (...and positive). Those who have had three or more people encourage them to consider a vocation are significantly more likely to become interested in this.

The bad news here is that many Catholics don’t or won’t encourage vocations. In the study we asked respondents who said they have not and would not encourage why this was the case. The most common answer given was that this is an individual decision and “none of my business.” The figure above shows you just how many Catholics become interested on their own (i.e., considering a vocation “a little” seriously or more). A report like this is made public so that all the Catholics out there who are concerned that their parish may not have a resident priest in the future or that the school has no more religious sisters on staff will now know that they are part of the process. Only a fraction of those who consider vocations follow through on this interest. More people making it just to consideration will likely lead to more vocations overall.


Millions of Never-Married Catholics Have Considered Vocations

We've focused on Catholics' consideration of vocations before. But we've never had a whole survey devoted to the topic... until now. In winter 2012, the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned CARA to conduct a national poll of never-married Catholics ages 14 and older regarding their consideration of a vocation. CARA partnered with GfK Custom Research (formerly Knowledge Networks) to conduct the survey in May and June 2012. The survey was completed by 1,428 respondents (resulting in a margin of sampling error of ±2.6 percentage points).

The study, available online now, has many surprises. Although many speak of priest shortages and steep declines in the number of men and women religious, the survey reveals that there is no shortage of individuals who seriously consider these vocations among never-married Catholics in the United States. Three percent of men say they have "very seriously" considered becoming a priest or religious brother and 2 percent of women indicate they have "very seriously" considered becoming a religious sister. This is equivalent to 352,800 never-married men and 254,800 never-married women. Millions of never-married Catholics are estimated to have considered these vocations at least "a little seriously" based on the survey results.

This study identifies subgroups in the never-married Catholic population—including teens and adults—and compares those who have considered a vocation at least "a little seriously" to those who say they have not considered this or who say they did so, but not seriously. Overall, 12 percent of male respondents say they considered becoming a priest or brother at least a little seriously. Ten percent of female respondents say they considered becoming a religious sister at least a little seriously. The subgroups that are especially likely to have considered a vocation include:
  • Weekly Mass attenders (now and in high school)
  • Those who attended Catholic educational institutions at any level (excluding parish-based religious education)
  • Those who participated in Church-related groups, programs, or activities as a youth or young adult
  • Those who lived in households where parents talked to them about religion at least once a week
  • Those who say their faith is the most important part of their life (now and in high school)
  • Those who participate in prayer and devotional activities, groups, or programs (e.g., Bible study, Eucharistic adoration, retreats, or prayer groups)
  • Those who pray the rosary at least weekly (alone or in a group)
  • Those belonging to a group that encourages devotion to Mary
  • Those who were encouraged to consider a vocation by someone else (e.g., family, friends, clergy, religious)
  • Those who regularly read the Bible or pray with Scripture
  • Those who personally know priests and men and women religious (in their extended family or outside of it)
  • Those who have participated in parish ministry (e.g., Lectors, Ministers of Holy Communion, Youth Ministers)
  • Those who have participated in World Youth Day or a National Catholic Youth Conference
  • Those who have recently accessed religious and spiritual content in traditional or new media
The study utilizes a form of regression analysis to sort through these different influences (and more) to isolate those that are most important and influential. 

Consideration of Becoming a Priest or Religious Brother among Men
Among male respondents, after controlling for all other factors, those who attended a Catholic secondary school (grades 9-12) are more likely to have considered becoming a priest or religious brother. Compared to those who did not attend a Catholic secondary school, these respondents are more than six times as likely to have considered a vocation. Participation in a parish youth group during primary school years (grades K-8) is also strongly related to vocational consideration. These respondents are more than five times as likely to consider a becoming a priest or religious brother than those who did not participate in a parish youth group. Given that 75 percent of male respondents who have considered a vocation report that they first did so when they were 18 or younger, these two results provide some of the strongest evidence of a possible causal effect.

Encouragement from others is also important. Respondents who have one person encouraging them are nearly twice as likely to consider a vocation as those who are not encouraged. Each additional person encouraging these respondents increases the likelihood of consideration. The effect is additive. Respondents who had three persons encourage them would be expected to be more than five times more likely to consider a vocation than someone who was not encouraged by anyone.

Knowing someone who has become a priest, religious sister or brother, or seminarian also has a positive effect. Respondents who personally know one of these individuals are more than one and a half times more likely than someone who does not to consider a vocation themselves. This effect is also additive and knowing more of these individuals would be expected to increase the likelihood of a respondent considering a vocation.

Attendance at World Youth Day or at a National Catholic Youth Conference has a positive effect for male consideration of a vocation. Those who attended either of these events are more than four times as likely as those who have not to say they have considered becoming a priest or brother.

Finally, those who have recently used traditional media (television, radio, print) to access content about religion or spirituality in the 12 months prior to the survey are more likely than those who did not to say they have considered a vocation. Note however, that this media use in most cases occurred well after their initial consideration. Thus, what this more likely demonstrates is that people who have considered a vocation are more likely than those who have not to use traditional media to currently follow religion and spirituality content. Those who have used one type of traditional media in the last year are nearly twice as likely to say they have considered a vocation than those who have not used these media recently. The effect is additive, so use of two or three traditional media to access religious or spiritual content is associated with an even greater likelihood of vocational consideration. This finding is potentially useful in understanding how male never-married Catholics who have considered becoming a priest or religious brother can be reached now.

Note that neither generation nor race and ethnicity are statistically significant in the full model. Thus, there is nothing about a person’s age or race and ethnicity that are associated with lower or higher likelihoods of consideration, controlling for all other factors. Any disproportionality in the race and ethnicity of men who decide to become priests or religious brothers are in part likely to be related to being less likely to attend Catholic schools or to be involved in youth groups, comparatively lower levels of encouragement, or not personally knowing clergy or religious. This could also be related to factors that are important after consideration of a vocation is made by individuals, such as meeting requirements for entry into a formation program.

Consideration of Becoming a Religious Sister among Women
Among female respondents, the model predicting consideration of becoming a religious sister includes many parallel results to the model for male respondents. 

Whereas secondary school is important for male vocational consideration, it is attendance at a Catholic primary school which is important for female vocational consideration. Female respondents who attended a Catholic primary school are more than three times as likely as those who did not to consider becoming a religious sister. Parish youth group participation is also important for female respondents. However, unlike males, it is participation during high school years rather than primary school years that has an effect. Women who participated in a parish youth group during these teen years are more than nine times as likely to consider becoming a religious sister.

Similar to male respondents, encouragement is also a positive factor. With nearly the same effect as is demonstrated among men, women are nearly twice as likely to consider a vocation when encouraged by another person to do so.

Also parallel to men, women who have used traditional media in the last year to consume or follow religious or spiritual content are more likely than those who do not to say they have considered a vocation.

Among the adults surveyed (excluding those ages 14 to 17 in the sample) who say they have considered a vocation, most report that they did so between the ages of 13 and 24. Additionally, one in four Catholic females who have considered becoming a religious sister did so before they were a teenager. 

Although most Catholics who are becoming priests, religious brothers, or religious sisters now are typically in their 30s or even older, it is likely that the roots of these vocations were established in their teen years or even earlier.

In Their Own Words
Respondents who said they had never considered a vocation were asked in an open ended question, “Why do you think you have never considered this?” Their responses to this question were coded into categories based on their content.

Among male respondents who have never considered a vocation as a priest or religious brother, the most common responses to the question were related to a general lack of interest (39 percent), celibacy (18 percent), not having a calling to seek a vocation (8 percent), having other life goals (8 percent), and having some doubts about their faith or not feeling religious enough to seek a vocation (8 percent). One percent of comments referenced the issue of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

Among female respondents who have never considered a vocation as a religious sister, the most common responses were related to a general lack of interest (31 percent), celibacy (16 percent), not having a calling to seek a vocation (11 percent), discomfort with the lifestyle they would need to adopt (10 percent), and having some doubts about their faith or not feeling religious enough to seek a vocation (9 percent).


Twenty Years of Change and Stability: Lay Ecclesial Ministers in the U.S. Church

In August, CARA released a report profiling the demography, background, and views of the people who work for or who are volunteers in U.S. Catholic parishes as part of the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership study. A revised version of that report is now available including breakdowns of the data specific to Lay Ecclesial Ministers (LEM). These are vowed religious and other lay people who are in parish ministry for 20 hours or more per week (most often paid and most often having had some form of professional training. Visit here for more about the background of lay ecclesial ministry).

The first national profile of LEMs was published in 1992 by Philip J. Murnion and was followed in 1997 by a study conducted by Murnion and David DeLambo. The latter author replicated these studies again in 2005 and CARA and Emerging Models released a new update for 2011 and 2012. There is a lot in the revised report linked above about how LEMs view their parish and their ministry. However, across the Emerging Models studies there is not a table that allows one easily to compare LEMs to the earlier Murnion and DeLambo data. But there is now one provided below:

The number of LEMs has grown by more than 16,000 in the last two decades (+76%) and these ministers now total nearly 38,000. The gender make-up of LEMs has been quite stable over time and most LEMs are female. However, there has been a big shift in how many are religious sisters. Two decades ago more than four in ten LEMs were vowed religious (mostly religious sisters with a small number of brothers serving in this capacity as well). Now, only 14 percent are religious sisters or brothers. 

One effect of this shift is that the percentage of LEMs with graduate or professional degrees has dipped slightly in the past decade (53% in 1992 to 46% now). The median age has dropped as well (58 in 1992 and 55 now). LEMs have also become more racially and ethnically diverse. About one in ten in 2012 self-identify as Hispanic or Latino.  

There are other interesting nuggets in the new data that cannot be compared cross-time with the earlier studies. For example, the median annual salary reported by paid LEMs is $35,000 compared to $28,000 for all others in paid ministry or service to a parish. Eight in ten LEMs (79%) say they are either "somewhat" or "very much" satisfied with their ministry wages or salary. Most LEMs are living in households with others earning incomes or they are working second jobs themselves (20% have other non-ministry employment outside the parish). Two-thirds (64%) live in households with a combined income of at least $55,000.

On average, LEMs work more than 40 hours per week in their parish and one in four (24%) agree "very much" that they often feel overworked. Half of LEMs say their overall satisfaction with their parish is "excellent" and 42% say this is "good."

Sixty-one percent of LEMs agree "somewhat" or "very much" that they wanted to be involved in parish ministry when they were growing up. Six in ten (60%) attended a Catholic primary school (K-8), 47% went to a Catholic high school, and 58% have attended a Catholic college, university, or seminary. Eight in ten (79%) entered ministry to be of service to the Church. Three in four (73%) say they did so answering God's call. Nine in ten (89%) agree "very much" that their ministry is a vocation and not just a job.


Spot the difference...

Recently I was contacted several times by a reporter at The Economist for some data. I’ve always felt that this is one of the last few intelligent magazines on the racks. But I also recall being concerned after speaking to this reporter and thinking, “he doesn’t quite get the Church.” He seemed stunned to find out that the Catholic Church in the United States doesn’t have a neat and tidy set of financials done annually. He felt the Church should be doing what any multinational corporation would do. I kept telling him the Church is not Walmart.

I just read the story in this week’s Economist and it has shaken my opinion of the publication a bit. I’m not concerned about any anti-Catholic “bias” or the rehashing of the financial fallout of the sex abuse crisis or diocesan bankruptcies. Instead I am concerned about the lack of understanding of what the Church is as an institution in the piece. Here’s a taste:

[T]he finances of the Catholic church in America are an unholy mess. … The church’s finances look poorly co-ordinated.

[T]here are now over 6,800 Catholic schools (5% of the national total); 630 hospitals (11%) plus a similar number of smaller health facilities; and 244 colleges and universities. … All these institutions are subject to the oversight of a bishop or a religious order. The Economist estimates that annual spending by the church and entities owned by the church was around $170 billion in 2010 (the church does not release such figures). … For purposes of secular comparison, in 2010 General Electric’s revenue was $150 billion and Walmart employed roughly 2m people.”

Where that money comes from is hard to say (the church does not release numbers on this either). Some of it is from the offerings of the faithful. Anecdotal evidence suggests that America’s Catholics give about $10 per week on average. Assuming that one-third attend church regularly, that would put the annual offertory income at around $13 billion.

I am guessing The Economist does not have a copy of the Code of Canon Law. Even a glancing read of the Code would have revealed that the Church is quite clearly not run like a multinational corporation such as Walmart or General Electric and I for one am glad it’s not. The sole objective of the modern corporation is to extract and grow profits and in doing so it creates economic growth, wealth, and products and services we desire. But it sadly has no capacity for social justice. Even if a corporate CEO did devote corporate resources for a “good cause” shareholders could sue for neglect of fiduciary responsibility. As many Americans have learned in the last four years of recession and recovery, the modern corporation is no paragon of transparency and ethics (…as a great documentary, The Corporation, demonstrates these institutions really are “people” under the law. The kind of people that would likely be diagnosed as psychopaths using The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

Why don’t the people and institutions that make up the Church in the United States take the time to communicate their budgets and revenue together in an annual hierarchical manner so the Church can produce a financial report that The Economist needs for its story? Because it would be an extraordinary waste of the Church’s resources and time. The Church is not in the business of generating profits like a corporation. It provides ministry, charity, and service to the communities it exists in. It also has no legal obligation to provide what The Economist desires.

As an institution, the Church is nearly 2,000 years old and its structure was fashioned well before modern communication. This reality required significant local autonomy. Priests were responsible for parishes, bishops for dioceses. This same feudal-like structure persists. Add on to this the development of colleges, schools, hospitals, and charities that were often associated with religious orders. Separate aspects of the Church operate for the most part independently—with their own leadership, budgets, revenues, and obligations (perhaps some of the frustration from The Economist comes from the realization that financials do exist for each of these institutions and organizations but it would take forever to collect and tally them all).

I hate to break this to The Economist but there is no “U.S. Catholic Church.” However, one of the best descriptions of all that is the Church in the United States can be found in The Official Catholic Directory. If you are listed in it you are an official part of the Church and you are tax exempt. CARA and Georgetown University are in the OCD under the Archdiocese of Washington. However, we don’t share our financials with Cardinal Wuerl (...we have annual audits and answer to a Board of Directors). He in no way dictates day to day operations nor does he have any direct administrative role. Yet he is, importantly, the pastoral leader of all Catholic entities in the Archdiocese.

What The Economist doesn’t appear to get is that the institutions of the Church are incredibly decentralized—operating as individual entities under the pastoral umbrella of the Church. The pope is not a CEO sitting in the Vatican with a big map saying “build a parish here, a hospital here, and close that school over there.” Yet this is what The Economist wants the Church to be (maybe they’ve watched The Da Vinci Code a few too many times?). Throughout The Economist’s story there is an underlying tone or belief by the reporter that the Church has this information but is withholding it—“the Church does not release such figures.”  The reporter fails to understand that the Church does not have these figures (e.g., aggregated annual spending by all entities of the Church, all donations to Church entities) because it has no apparatus to collect them.

The little data collection that does go on in the Church broadly (e.g., the Vatican's Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae or Annuario Pontificio) is related to what the Church does—it’s about ministry (i.e., numbers of baptisms, marriages, ordinations). I understand the natural skepticism and cynicism of The Economist but I can also attest that if you want to get rich, working for the Church would be a lousy idea. The $10 per week, on average, given by parishioner families is just enough to keep the lights on in most U.S. parishes. The most common reason for a Catholic school to close is their inability to generate enough revenue to keep the school operating. Nearly half of all individuals providing ministry or service in a U.S. parish are volunteers. Among those who are paid, the median annual wages or salaries amount to $31,000. The pastor is typically among the lowest paid members of the staff (…although he does receive free housing). By canon law, each parish (and diocese) is required to have a finance council that oversees the dollars and cents of its operations—most often composed of parishioners with financial experience. How many Walmarts have a community council including customers helping to make decisions for the local store? 

I was sure The Economist doesn’t have a copy of the Code of Canon Law when I read the that the Church has “17,958 parishes run by 39,466 priests and 16,921 married deacons.” Not all priests and deacons are in parish ministry. Not all deacons are married. No deacons technically “run” a Catholic parish. Ultimately, all parishes are administered or supervised by priests. Most people helping a parish operate are neither priests nor deacons. In a small number of parishes, under Canon 517.2, the pastoral care of the parish may be entrusted to a deacon—more often to a lay person—but these parishes remain under the supervision of a non-resident priest. The vast majority of deacons (married or not) are not serving in this capacity. In fact, the ministry of deacons, who are not paid, is oriented toward service, not administration.

Parishes may be the heart of the Church, but as The Economist also found, much of the economic activity of the Church occurs in hospitals (they estimate 57% of all spending is health related. The other largest component of spending is said to be within colleges and universities at 28%). Here again, as with universities, these are institutions that are for the most part operating independently under the pastoral umbrella of the Church. There is no bishop sitting in these hospitals going over patient bills or setting the costs for procedures. This is not what bishops do. 

If the aim of this article was to encourage the Church to be more like Walmart I personally remain unconvinced. I don’t know any person or institution that is not without its sins and The Economist’s story correctly notes many of the Church’s recent failings. But I would also counter that there are many corporations who really, really need to find a way to adopt some of the charitable focus of most non-profits (religious or secular) more than the Church needs to adopt corporate accounting practices on a unified global scale. I know the Church does a lot more good in the world than Walmart or General Electric (the latter being a for-profit that is magically “tax exempt”). Would it be able to do this better with more financial oversight? I agree it would. But I’m not sure the effort that it would take to create an annual summary of the Church’s finances for every parish, school, hospital, and charity around the world would be the best use of its time (...costs would exceed benefits). I also think that such a device would not prevent, reduce, or deter any illegal or abusive activity, just as it fails to do so in the corporate world.

Update (8/19): Ive examined the math a bit more in The Economist piece and discovered a significant problem. The story overestimates annual Catholic Church offertory by $4.6 billion or 50% because they assume Mass-attending individuals give an average of $10 per week (for data see pg. 43) rather than households. Also, The Economists claim that Catholic parish giving has declined in the last decade is incorrect. As shown in the figure below, the average amount given per week, per parish household increased from 2000 to 2010 (peaking in 2005; declines are likely more related to the effects of the recession than anything else). Because the Catholic population has grown and the average amount given per household has increased the total offertory in 2010 is actually 23% larger than it was in 2000 (even after adjusting for inflation).

I've also had some emails from people responding to this blog. One individual who works in the Church said, “Trust me the church is run by lay incompetents and they desperately need to adopt modern management practices.” As I note in the post, I believe some changes would be good. I’m just not sure the Church needs to refashion itself into a multinational corporation. Another individual who expressed a lot of anger with the Church regarding the sexual abuse of minors by clergy said, “You fail to make any connection between the Church’s lack of transparency and cover-ups and failings, and its multifaceted structure and operation that you emphasize so much.” I would agree with the John Jay criminal justice researchers who cited organizational factors (see pg. 4) as causes of the abuse crisis. The Church has taken some steps to alter its structure in the last decade and these reforms are evaluated annually on a national level and these data are released to the public for review. Still much remains to be done to heal the wounds caused by abuse, if this is even possible. The post does not focus on the issue of abuse because the errors of the The Economist story are in failing to report accurately on how the Church operates financially.

Update (8/27): I had posted material on the blog that goes into the background of the reporter I spoke with (The Economist does not give bylines) and highlighted some of the content in the article that I believe is strongly related to the point of view of the corporate consulting world that the author comes from. There is a trail of this editorial material—often in the form of bizarre “advice”—in his articles about the Church that one does not often see in news or investigative journalism. I removed this from the blog because I think the post above makes the more important points about his errors and I don’t think the author or his work is in need of more attention (...even if it is negative).  

Above photos courtesy of rosebennet and seanbirm at Flickr Creative Commons.

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