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.


After Life

Social scientists often focus on the share of people who believe in God as a barometer for religiosity. Yet, for salvation religions, a belief in the afterlife is also centrally important. What may be surprising to some is that significantly sized segments of Christians—including Catholics—believe in God but not in heaven and even fewer in hell. For someone who does not believe in an afterlife what does it matter if they only go to Mass on Christmas and Easter? How does sin matter at all? What is a saint?

The table below shows results from the Pew Research Center’s most recent Religious Landscape Survey (2014). Among those self-identifying as Catholic, 97% say they believe in God but only 85% believe in heaven and 63% in hell. Similar “gaps” in belief are evident among Protestants, Mormons, Orthodox Christians, and Muslim Americans. Surprisingly, even nearly half of agnostics say they believe in God (46%) yet only 14% believe in heaven and 9% in hell.

Oddly, if one looks at polling data from a historical perspective and among the total population belief in the afterlife, both heaven and hell, steadily increased from the 1950s to the 2000s. In only the last few years has belief in both begun to dip again. Still, more Americans believe in an afterlife now than they did decades ago (…another empirical reflection of the 1950s being no “golden age” for religion).

There is one caveat to the data presented above. Even fewer Americans believe in heaven and hell if you try to describe those two places. For example, estimates of belief fall a bit when Pew describes hell as a place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.” Perhaps some feel hell isn’t this bad?

The Catholic Church, like Pew’s question writers, is pretty clear in its description of hell. According to the Catechism, “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’”

By contrast, the Church teaches that, “The perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity—this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels, and all the blessed—is called ‘heaven.’” Further the Church describes, “This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise.” And then of course there is purgatory. This is described by the Church as a place for those who “die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified.”

There is one survey from 2010 that I could locate and study that combined the three possibilities of heaven, purgatory, or hell into one response. As shown below, nearly three in four Catholic adults agreed that these destinations are most likely where people go after dying (73%). Evangelical Christians were more likely to agree (91%) and those with no religious affiliation (aggregating “Nones,” agnostics, and atheists) were least likely to do so (27%).

One of the few things Americans agree on, regardless of religious affiliation, is that we don’t “become ghosts” after we die. This is also somewhat odd as Gallup surveys indicate about 40% of American adults believe in ghosts! Maybe this is state of being only reserved for a few unlucky souls?

A CBS News survey from 2014 asked American adults who believed in heaven and hell (77% of their respondents), “At the end of your life, where do you think you are most likely to wind up—in heaven or in hell or neither one?” Eighty-two percent believe they are going to heaven and only 2% believe they are going to hell (16% said “neither” or they didn’t know). In 2012, a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll asked respondents, “Assuming they both exist, which do you think is more important for the human race—Heaven, to reward the good, or Hell, to punish the evil?” Eighty percent said we need heaven more than hell. Ten percent chose hell, 4% said we need both equally and 5% didn’t know.

Perhaps the best indicator of the future of belief in heaven and hell among U.S. Catholics is to look at what young Catholic parents believe today. After all their beliefs are likely to be passed on to their children. CARA recently surveyed self-identified Catholics, ages 25 to 45, who are currently parents to minor children. As shown below, about two-thirds believe in heaven and hell without doubt (65%). About one in ten believes in heaven without doubt but has doubts about or does not believe in hell (11%). Nearly a quarter have doubts about or do not believe in both heaven and hell (23%).

Although belief in heaven and hell now exceeds levels of belief of the more distant past, there is still this puzzling gap between American’s belief in God and their belief about what happens after life. We have examined before how this is correlated with frequency of Mass attendance and confession among Catholics. The lack of belief in an afterlife among some Catholics may represent a “soft” form of secularization—a segment that may be more likely to leave the faith in the future. A majority of Americans who do not believe in an afterlife have no religious affiliation (54%).

One final piece of data. The General Social Survey has been asking a more generic afterlife question since the early 1970s. Rather than asking about heaven or hell or trying to describe these, it simply inquires, “Do you believe there is a life after death?” Here we can see something interesting. Among all religiously affiliated American adults who are not Catholic, belief in life after death is increasing slightly over time. Yet, among Catholics, the trend line has been sloping downward since 2010. Religiously unaffiliated adults are also losing belief in an afterlife.

Seventeenth century mathematician Blaise Pascal put the afterlife at the center of his “wager” and argument for belief in God. With eternal paradise or punishment on the line it makes sense to live a good life now given the inevitability of death. A rational person would have to be absolutely sure hell was not an option to do otherwise. If he were alive today I think Pascal would be puzzled by the number of American Christians who believe in God but not an afterlife. He’d also likely wonder a bit about the atheists and agnostics who believe in heaven. But then again, being dead he has already seen the payoff to his wager.

Image courtesy of peppergrasss.


Missing Father Curry

On Saturday the world lost an exceptional baker, performer, professor, and priest in Fr. Richard Curry, S.J. I had come to know him as a fellow faculty member in Catholic Studies at Georgetown. His class on “Theater and the Catholic Imagination” was incredibly popular with students (...who were not typically drama or theater students but instead were a cross-section of undergraduates). This video shows some of them performing in 2010:

My family came to know him through what he baked. Fr. Curry created the Dog Tag Bakery in 2014. As a parent of kids with severe nut allergies it was such a blessing for us to find a bakery that is nut free. It is also a place where veterans and their spouses are employed and trained in business. The bakery provides fellowships that result in a Certificate in Business Administration from Georgetown. When I teach my course on the history and politics of food I require students to bake his recipe for “Brother’s Bread” from The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking to experience making something from scratch. It is always a highlight when they all bring in their version of the bread and share it in class.

Fr. Curry was the founder and artistic director of the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped. You may have seen him act on television when he played Dr. Jonah Sorenson on Monk. He also developed the Writers’ Program for Wounded Warriors, which provides workshops where veterans tell their stories through monologues. It provides an opportunity for the development of writing skills, artistic expression, and therapy.

Just last week at a Catholic Studies Christmas dinner we called Fr. Curry and each of the faculty wished him well as he received treatment and we all looked forward to his return. I let him know my kids had become huge fans of his chocolate cake. He told me I had to keep going to the bakery whenever they wanted it! And I will.

It is such an understatement to say Fr. Curry will be missed. If you are ever in Georgetown do yourself a favor and stop by the bakery. He will be there, not only in spirit but in the recipes. On a larger scale, the impact he had on the students who were lucky enough to get a spot in his classes will also continue to live on...


Catholic School Is Going Into Orbit

A Virginia Catholic primary school (grades K-8) is going into orbit soon. Faith and science are striving to reach space from the hands and minds of Catholic school kids (with the help of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Cargo Spacecraft carrying four tons of supplies). Students at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington designed, programmed, customized, and tested a four inch by four inch cube satellite (CubeSat) that is set to be released from the International Space Station (ISS). Launches on December 3rd and 4th were delayed by weather. A launch is expected before the end of Sunday.

The idea for the project, the STMSat-1 Mission, came when America’s last operational manned spacecraft (for now) flew over the region’s skies on its way to the Smithsonian. Kids from the school formed the outline of a shuttle in the school parking lot as the Space Shuttle Discovery came to its new home in April 2012. The kids wanted the Discovery and the plane carrying it to see them. They began to think on a bigger scale and wondered about putting something in space that could not only look down but also up and out to the stars.

The satellite cost about $50,000 and was paid for with fundraising and assistance from NASA. It includes an Earth observation camera and an asteroid observation camera. Unlike all other NASA satellites it also comes with a golden crucifix that was blessed by Pope Francis and a plate with the etched names of all the students and those who supported the project.

Each grade has had its own responsibilities. For example, the first graders are operating the ground station, the third grade is operating the asteroid detection camera, and the seventh grade worked on the satellite’s 3D compass payload. Outside of science classes, space has become integrated into other aspects of the school’s curriculum. “The art teacher has the students drawing planets, the music teacher has them making up space songs, the gym teacher has the children inventing space dances, and their religious instructor has the kids writing prayers for the satellite” (NASA).

So often we hear about religious schools being criticized in secular media for integrating too much faith into the curriculum. Here we have a Catholic school widely integrating science. This may come as a surprise to many but it shouldn’t. Pope Leo XIII famously noted that “no real disagreement can exist between the theologian and the scientist, provided each keeps within his own limits.” The Church never opposed Darwin’s work on natural selection and in 1950 Pope Pius XII positively resolved that evolution is worthy of investigation for the source of the human body (...but not the soul...and of course Catholics can still favor the literal Genesis account). Generations of students have learned about evolution in biology and science classes in Catholic schools. In the 1920s and 1930s, Catholic priest and astronomer Georges Lemaître was instrumental in describing the creation of the universe with the Big Bang and the expansion that followed. Since 1936, many Nobel laureates (including Max Planck, Otto Hahn, and Niels Bohr) have served the Church in the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences. Current members include Stephen Hawking, Werner Arber, and Francis Collins.

Yet this recent rich scientific history and legacy has never reached the consciousness of many. A 2014 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, found that 36% of U.S. adult Catholics believe that science sometimes conflicts with their religious beliefs. By comparison, 34% of Protestants responded as such as did 16% of those without a religious affiliation. Even as most Catholics do not see conflicts between science and religion it is still distressing that more than a third of Catholics assume that there is. Equally troubling is the scientific knowledge U.S. Catholic adults express in surveys. The table below shows responses to 11 scientific knowledge questions in the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS). On average, only about seven in ten adult Catholics correctly answered these questions. More often than not being “outscored” by Protestants, those of other non-Christian religious affiliations, and those without a religious affiliation.

I just finished teaching a class on secularization at Georgetown. One of the themes explored in the class was the growing number of young Americans who leave the faith they were raised in to adopt science as their new “faith.” Among those leaving Catholicism, many believe science is incompatible with the religion in which they were raised.

I think the Church should continue to emphasize, perhaps as Pope Francis has with Laudato si', that the Church and science are by no means “at war.” I often think of science and theology as being on two parallel tracks seeking truth in different ways and searching for answers to different (but ultimately related) questions. Each may have to periodically correct course (i.e., the Church with Galileo or modern physics accepting “a day without a yesterday” as proposed by Lemaître). Perhaps somewhere in the distant future those two tracks will meet. After all as Pope Leo XIII noted “no real disagreement can exist.” Science also needs religion or some other ethical system. In the end it is just a tool or a process. It can tell you how to build a nuclear weapon but it can say nothing about how, if ever, this should be used.

I hope Catholic schools not only continue to be great places to teach the Catholic faith but also strive to be world class centers for science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) like St. Thomas More Cathedral School. Not only would this likely improve Catholics’ knowledge about science but also do much to counter New Atheism’s attempt to “claim” science as their own—as something apart from religion. Perhaps some of those Catholics leaving their faith for “science” would realize there have been little if any incompatibilities between the two for hundreds of years.

Congratulations to the students and faculty of St. Thomas More Cathedral School and everyone at NASA that helped them. We hope all goes well. Godspeed, STMSat-1.

Update (12/6/15): The launch was successful (...on the feast day of Saint Nicholas)!


Where Will Your Final Resting Place Be?

Yesterday was All Souls’ Day. You may have thought about and prayed for lost loved ones. You may have even thought about your own eventual death. What will happen to you? Will you have a vigil service? A funeral liturgy? Rite of Committal? You may fully intend to have a traditional Catholic funeral and burial. But will it happen? Well it really isn’t up to you.

When I am reporting on or making presentations about Catholic sacramental and practice data, one of the most common concerns I hear from priests is not related to baptisms or marriages. It is funerals. I hear a similar story over and over. An elderly member of the parish has passed and their kids decide to forgo the Catholic funeral and burial against the deceased parent’s wishes. They don’t feel comfortable at a funeral Mass. They think everything about the funeral and burial is too costly. They don’t see the point and their parent has passed. “They’ll never know” …and then mom gets cremated and takes her place on the mantle at home. At least at Christmas time the Elf on a Shelf is nearby.

Statistically speaking, if you go by the Church’s numbers, death is becoming less common among Catholics in the United States. If the trends in funerals and deaths recorded in Catholic parishes from the 21st century continue, no deaths of Catholics will be recorded after 2087. That doesn’t mean the Church will have found the fountain of youth in the Diocese of Orlando. Catholics still die at the same rate as non-Catholics, they just aren’t getting a Catholic funeral and burial in a Catholic cemetery like they used to.

According to the Center for Disease Control’s Vital Statistics reports, in 2013, there were 2,596,993 deaths in the United States. If one applies the very stable adult Catholic affiliation percentage to that total (assuming Catholics are no less or more likely to die then the overall population), we would expect there to have been approximately 610,293 Catholic deaths in that year. In 2013, U.S. Catholic pastors reported 402,963 deaths in The Official Catholic Directory. Thus, we can assume about 66% of Catholics who died in that year were likely to have received a Catholic wake, liturgy, and/or burial in a Catholic cemetery (i.e., Rite of Committal).

What happened to the other third of Catholics who passed away? Some are on the mantle. Others have their ashes scattered at a favorite beach or golf course. Maybe some are among those rumored to have their ashes scattered on the Haunted House ride at Disneyland?

The decline in funerals is not limited to the Catholic Church. The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) reports that the number of funeral homes in the United States has declined by 10% since 2004 (-2,137 sites). Some of this decline may be related to the economy. The median cost of an adult funeral and burial has increased by 29% since 2004 to a total of $8,508. The median costs for cremation is less, $6,078. More Americans are choosing cremation over burial and this trend is expected to continue and become more frequent.

According to the NFDA, in 2005, 61% of deceased in the U.S. were buried and 32% were cremated. By 2030, the NFDA expects those numbers to flip in the other direction with more than 7 in 10 deceased being cremated.

I searched the polling archives for questions about burial and cremation to see if I could isolate Catholic preferences. Oddly, pollsters appear to shy away from asking respondents what they want to happen to their body when they die. There is one CBS/Vanity Fair national poll from 2012 which asks, “If you had the chance to peek in on your own funeral, what would you be most curious about? How many people show up, if there are any surprise visitors, how you look in the casket, or what people say about you?” Catholics, like most others, said they would want to hear what people say about them (53%) followed by wanting to see how many people show up (24%). Only 2% would want to see themselves in the casket.

According to Church law, “The Church earnestly recommends the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed, it does not however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (Canon 1176). If Catholics choose cremation, they are required to have their ashes buried or have an urn placed in a crypt, niche, or other approved above-ground option at the cemetery. You can’t have your ashes blasted into space or made into jewelry. Mom or dad probably didn’t want that anyway.  

Mantle photo courtesy of Aime Fedora.


Contrasting Portraits?

The Pew Research Center recently released results of a new survey of 1,016 self-identified Catholic adults in the United States. Polls with Catholic samples of this size are not all that common. The survey includes some questions that provide an opportunity to evaluate changes in the Catholic population related to sacraments and marriage. These questions are somewhat parallel to questions used by CARA in surveys conducted in 2007 and 2008. Comparing and contrasting these surveys, two conducted when Pope Benedict XVI was leading the Church and one now with Pope Francis at the helm also offers another possible search for the ever elusive “Francis effects.”

At the same time there is some caution in making these comparisons. First, the question wording does not always match exactly which can make surveys, already blurry portraits of reality a bit more fuzzy. Then there are the methods. Pew surveys by telephone with an interviewer. CARA surveys using Knowledge Networks (now GfK Custom Research) where respondents take interviews on screens (computers, smart phones, tablets, televisions) without a human interviewer. The presence of an interviewer can sometimes lead to social desirability bias where people try to look like the best citizen and say they go to church more often, give to charity, and vote. Pew notes these limitations in their data on page 40 of their report. As you will see this really only appears to affect one question. It is also the case that all the summaries here exclude “don’t know” responses (based on the toplines at the end of the report) and include only on those respondents who self-identified their religion as Catholic at the time of the survey (totals may add to 99 or 101 due to rounding error).

If one literally compared the Mass attendance results of the two surveys it would appear to provide the strongest confirmation yet for a “Francis Effect.” Weekly Mass attendance is up 16 percentage points?! Sorry, no. As Pew notes in footnote 6 of their report, their estimate is likely inflated due to the telephone interview. Sometimes CARA “corrects” telephone survey estimates of Mass attendance by reducing the weekly attenders by 12 percentage points. This correction factor is based on substantial, consistent research at CARA using both telephone and self-administered surveys.

If that is the case, Pew’s weekly estimate might best reflect a weekly attendance rate of about 27%. This is indeed higher than 23% in 2008 (both estimates relatively consistent with other methods of Mass attendance measurement, such as time diaries and head count studies). Yet here again, the blurriness of survey data needs to be addressed. All surveys have margins of sampling error. Once this is considered here we cannot definitively say that Mass attendance is any different now than in 2008. This fits the trend measured in CARA’s national polls since 2000.

Turning to what happens at Mass, only 58% of Mass attending Catholics said they “always” took Communion at Mass in 2008. Pew estimates that even fewer, 46% receive Communion “every time” when they attend Mass in 2015. Does this represent a real decline? Again, a bit hard to know. Pew asked their question to all Catholics who attend Mass at least occasionally. I have restricted the analysis of the CARA data to the most comparable group—those attending at least a few times a year. My hunch is that the Pew respondents include some Catholics who go “occasionally” but that this may be less than once a year. There is certainly no Francis Effect with this question and any possible social desirability bias would be expected to inflate the Pew data rather than make it smaller. It is likely that Catholic Mass attendance has been steady, but slightly fewer are presenting themselves to receive Communion now that in 2008.

Perhaps people are receiving Communion at Mass less often because they feel the need to go to confession first? It is the case that Catholics rarely went to confession in 2008 and apparently still don’t in 2015. Again, margin of error means there is little difference between 3% and 8% saying they go at least once a month.

Yet, 37% of adult Catholics who attend Mass at least occasionally went to confession at least once a year in 2008. Forty-six percent reporting doing so in 2015. That difference is beyond margins of sampling error. There are two ways of looking at this. Either Catholics are sinning more or they sin at the same rate as they used to and are now more likely to go to confession at least once a year. This could be an effect of the greater effort by U.S. dioceses—especially during Lent—to let Catholics know through media ads the “lights are on.” Or perhaps it is the pastoral approach of Pope Francis that encourages some to think that going to confession will not be the judgmental encounter they imagine. One final possibility is again that Pew’s subgroup of “occasional” Mass attenders is different from CARA’s who attend Mass at least once a year.

How important one’s potential last confession is also an important marker of faith. When one is ill they can ask a priest to anoint them. If they are gravely ill they are also offered confession and Communion as “Viaticum (food for the journey) given at the end of life.”

As priests will often tell you, even Catholics (and their families) who have been away from the Church for quite some time will still urgently seek out this sacrament when they are close to death. In 2008, CARA found that 90% of Catholic adults said receiving this sacrament was important to them (at least “a little” to “very”). Pew, with a dichotomous response set, found that 85% of Catholics in 2015 say this is important to them. Again, with margin of error there is no discernible difference here.

No sacrament has been in greater decline than marriage. Looking at the Church’s annual sacrament totals it is clear that fewer marriages are celebrated in the Church in the United States over time. How does this trend represent itself in polling data? The results in the table below are for adult Catholics who were married when surveyed. There is no statistically significant difference between the results in 2007 and 2015. About two-thirds of married Catholics have wed in the Church. An additional one in 20 do not marry in the Church but have their marriage later blessed or convalidated by the Church. About a quarter or more do not marry in the Church nor seek convalidation.

Sometimes marriage ends in divorce. One of the most misunderstood realities is that divorce is not a sin. For example, the Church does not compel Catholics to stay with an abusive spouse and you’ve certainly committed no sin if your spouse leaves you! However, if you marry or partner after divorce (regardless of the circumstances) without seeking and receiving an annulment then the Church would see you as living in a state of sin for as long as those circumstances remain. You would be expected not to present yourself for receiving Communion. Both CARA and Pew asked Catholics who had ever divorced if they had sought an annulment. In 2007, 15% said yes, they had sought this. Pew’s 2015 survey estimates that 26% of Catholics who have ever divorced have sought an annulment at some point.

We do know that the number of annulment cases opened in the United States has been in a long-term decline. An increasing share of ever divorced Catholics reporting an annulment would be puzzling. However, again notice a slight difference in question wording. CARA’s survey asks if the respondent has or is seeking an annulment. The Pew poll asks if the respondent or their spouse has sought an annulment. This is a broader universe and may explain why Pew finds a larger share—even as annulment cases have declined. It is also the case that Catholics are less likely to divorce than others in the United States, which makes the population of “ever divorced” Catholics a smaller share of respondents than one might expect. Margins of error for this sub-group are quite high and even without the question wording difference, there may not be any shift at all between 2007 and 2015.

The more things change, the more they stay the same…

Note: In a previous post we noted some concerns about Pew’s telephone polls coming up with estimates for the size of the U.S. Catholic population that were slightly lower, on average, than other major surveys. It happens here again with the 2015 Pew survey (i.e., 20% of U.S. adults). Our hunch in the past has been that there could be a problem with their sampling and/or response among Hispanic or Latino respondents in Pew surveys. Out of 1,016 interviews with Catholics in the current poll, only 277 were completed with a respondent that self-identified their race or ethnicity as Hispanic. Overall, the Pew survey includes interviews with 621 Hispanic respondents (out of a total of 5,122 interviews). The Pew survey includes too few interviews with Hispanic or Latinos in general and the Catholic affiliation percentage among this group is also lower than what other major surveys would typically estimate. This is not a huge problem when one considers the blurriness of survey research, as is done here. But when so many others assume surveys are accurate to a tenth of a percentage point (when they should not!) it is important to note how estimates can vary. David Gibson does an excellent job pointing this out by reviewing all the Pope Francis approval estimates.


When the Pope Visits

How different is the Catholic Church in the United States that Pope Francis will visit in September from the Church his predecessors visited? Pope Paul VI was first to visit the United States in 1965. Pope John Paul II visited seven times between 1979 and 1999, however, two of these trips were short stopovers in Alaska in 1981 and 1984. Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2008. The figures below provide some detail about what the Catholic Church and the Catholic population were like during papal visits (where data are available).

The Church reports annual statistics in The Official Catholic Directory. The most recent release is the 2015 OCD which includes totals for 2014. The tables below show data for the year they represent (i.e., not the publication year as reported on our frequently requested stats page) and include only the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands (i.e., excluding other U.S. territories totaled in the OCD).

The clergy and vowed religious “workforce” of the Church in the United States is 57% smaller than it was in 1965 with about 144,000 fewer in ministry (note that some counted below are retired). Most of these losses have come among religious sisters and nuns. There are also about 21,000 fewer priests (diocesan and religious) now than in 1965 while the workforce has also experienced the addition of more than 18,000 permanent deacons.

Numbers for Lay Ecclesial Ministers (LEMs) are not tracked year to year by the Church. In 1990, there were approximately 21,500 of these individuals who were “adequately formed and prepared lay persons, authorized by the hierarchy to serve publicly in leadership for a particular area of ministry, in close mutual collaboration with clergy.” In 2015, there were an estimated 39,500 LEMs in parish ministry in the United States. Married Catholics, as LEMs or as permanent deacons, are more present now in parish ministry than they were in decades past.

The number of parishes in the United States now is very similar to what it was in 1965. In 1988, the number of parishes peaked nationally at 19,705. Since then the Church has closed or consolidated parishes (as well as open new parishes) for a net decline of 2,368 parishes (-12%).

Where are parishes closing? More often in the Midwest and Northeast than elsewhere. Bishops must balance the number of available priests with the needs of the Catholic population (see our previous post). They do this while also evaluating the changing demographics of their diocese. As shown in the figure below, the share of the Catholic population residing in the Northeast and Midwest has been in decline since the 1970s. The Catholic population is now more evenly divided among these four regions. In the coming decades, if current trends continue, it will become more and more a “southern” Church.

As these population shifts have occurred, the Catholic Church’s U.S. parishes, many built to serve urban immigrants of the distant past, are increasingly misaligned with the 21st century Catholic population. The brick and mortar of the Church is slow to “move.” The Midwest has 37 percent of parishes and just 22 percent of the self-identified Catholic population. By comparison, the West has only 15 percent of parishes and 26 percent of the Catholic population. The Church is closing parishes where they are not viable but is behind a bit in its building of new parishes where they are needed most.

If the next papal visit were to best meet the new demography of the Church in the United States it would happen in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston in Texas, which has added more parish-affiliated Catholics in the last decade than any other U.S. Arch/diocese. There are fewer parish-affiliated Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia now than in 2005 (about 33,300 fewer or a decline of -2.3%). The Arch/dioceses losing Catholic population in the largest numbers in the last decade include Brooklyn (-275,600), Detroit (-237,000), Pittsburgh (-167,900), and Chicago (-157,000). The fastest growing are Galveston-Houston (+667,600), Atlanta (+633,000), Fresno (+619,000), and Phoenix (+589,900).

Overall, the self-identified Catholic population has grown steadily in the United States. Some of this is related to immigration. According to the General Social Survey (GSS), just 13% of Catholics were foreign-born in 1977. This share had climbed to 28% by 2014. Yet, immigration has also been a relatively constant long-term factor in Catholic population changes. For example, the Harris 1967 Survey of Catholics reported that 32% of Catholic adults at that time had all four of their grandparents born in the United States. In 2014, the GSS indicated this figure was 29% (by comparison this is 64% among non-Catholic adults in the same year). One big difference between then and now is the source of immigration. In 1984, 26% of adult Catholics said they were of Irish ancestry and 17% of Italian ancestry. These figures have fallen to 17% and 12% respectively in 2014, and now more Catholics say they are of Mexican ancestry than any other specific nationality (23%).   

The size of Catholic families has also declined. According to the GSS, 47% of Catholics of the World War II Generation (born 1901 to 1924) had five or more siblings. Among Baby Boomers (born 1943 to 1960) 31% had these many brothers and sisters. Only 19% of Catholic Millennials (born 1982 or later) have five or more siblings. We can see shifts in births in the Church’s baptism numbers.

Birthrates were significantly higher when Pope Paul VI visited in 1965 and it is no surprise that there were more entries into the faith in that year than other papal visit years. Last year, about 870,000 new Catholics entered the Church in the United States. There were 160,376 fewer infant and child baptisms in 2014 than in 2008 when Pope Benedict XVI visited.

Of course not everyone who joins the Catholic Church remains Catholic throughout their life. We don’t have comparable survey data for 1967 but the GSS gives a view of how baptized Catholics have lived out their faith (the GSS was not fielded in 1979, 1995, or 1999. However, in each case a survey was conducted the year before and after. We’ve averaged these results to come up with estimates for those visit years).

The figure below, shows how the adult population of those raised Catholic, who self-identify as Catholic, who attend Mass at least once a month, and who are former Catholics has changed during visit years since 1979. All of the trends except Mass attendance are increasing (…weekly attendance, not shown below, has declined from 41% of adult Catholics in 1977 to 24% in 2014. In absolute numbers, given population growth, this means there were an estimated 16.8 million weekly attenders in 1979 and 15.1 in 2014). Perhaps the most disconcerting trend is the increasing numbers of former Catholics who were raised in the faith but who have since left. This population is now nearly as numerous as adult Catholics who attend Mass at least once a month.

The precipitating reason for Pope Francis’ visit is to attend the World Meeting of Families, but no sacrament is in a steeper decline in the U.S. than marriage. In 1965, there were 355,182 marriages celebrated in the Catholic Church. By comparison, in 2014, only 148,134 were celebrated in the U.S. This represents a decline of 58%. Catholics are more often choosing civil ceremonies at country clubs, the beach, or other sites. The practice of marriage as a sacrament is becoming less common. Yet, something else has changed as well. In 1965, about seven in ten adult Catholics were married and only about one in five had never married. In 2014, just more than half are married and more than a quarter have never married. The percentage of those who are divorced has increased from 4% to 12%. Marriage, in general, is becoming more rare.

Among U.S. Catholic parents with minor children, 79% are married. Thirteen percent are unmarried and living with a partner. Eight percent are either divorced, separated or widowed.

CARA survey research indicates that only about 15% of divorced Catholics in the U.S. seek an annulment. As the number of marriages have declined so too has the number of annulments sought. About eight in ten of the U.S. Catholics who introduce an annulment case receive a decree of nullity (some do not and others do not complete the process).

The Catholic Church in the United States that Pope Francis visits in September is quite different from the one his predecessors visited. There are new challenges and opportunities here. The number of new diocesan priestly ordinations has increased slightly since Pope Francis was elected (515 in 2014). There has also been an increase in adults entering the faith in the past couple of years (109,891 in 2014). Yet many young Catholics drift away from the faith to become unaffiliated and marriage in the Church is in steady decline. The Church is institutionally underdeveloped where the Catholic population is growing most rapidly and it is overbuilt in areas of decline. 


When Parishes Outnumber Priests

The Official Catholic Directory 2015 indicates that the shortfall between the number of active diocesan priests and the number of parishes in the United States remains entrenched despite 515 new ordinations in 2014 (...up from 494 in 2013). Nationally (including the Diocese of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and all Eastern Rite arch/eparchies in the U.S.), there are 16,462 active diocesan priests and 17,324 parishes. Thus, there are currently 862 more parishes than active diocesan priests. You would have to go back more than a decade, to 2004, to find a year in which the total number of these clergy was larger than the number of parishes.

Of course not every parish needs an active diocesan priest (...It is also the case that not all priests are called to parish ministry). Religious priests serve as pastors and significant numbers of international priests have come to the United States to minister in parishes in recent decades. Priests from other U.S. dioceses (externs) and retired priests often help out as well. When no priest is available, bishops can utilize Canon 517.2 and entrust the pastoral care of a parish to a permanent deacon, religious sister or brother, or other lay person. These parish life coordinators (PLCs) minister, manage, and arrange for priests to come to the parish for Masses and sacraments.

Which dioceses have the most parishes relative to their number of active diocesan priests? Nine of the top ten are in the Midwest. For example, the Diocese of Green Bay reports 64 active diocesan priests and 157 parishes. In all, 81 parishes here are without a resident pastor. Forty-five of the diocese’s parishes have a non-resident pastor and in 36 parishes pastoral care has been entrusted to a deacon or lay person. Nineteen of these parishes are entrusted to deacons, ten to religious sisters, and seven to other lay persons.

Why would Midwestern dioceses be more likely to have fewer active diocesan priests than parishes? This region of the country used to be a population center for American Catholicism. However as many industrial parts of this region began to transform into the “rust belt” many moved to where the jobs were in the “sun belt.” In other words, the Catholics moved and the parishes remained. They still serve a sizable Catholic population but it is one that is aging. Many young adults raised in the region leave for the coasts or the South. Over time, smaller populations will lead to fewer ordinations. 

Geography is important in other ways as well. In rural America it can be difficult to use multi-parish ministry where a pastor or other ministers work in multiple parishes. In urban areas, a priest may find it possible to be a resident pastor in one parish and a non-resident pastor in another (…or more). When you are dealing with parishes separated by vast fields of corn or soybeans things become a bit more difficult. Closing a parish may also be undesirable if it still serves a community who may not easily travel to the next nearest parish. In some dioceses, bishops use PLCs to keep parishes open and in others they are less likely to do so.

Nationally, there are 369 parishes entrusted to PLCs under Canon 517.2 (note there are statistical discrepancies in the OCD regarding parish administration. See the note at the bottom of this post. This total represents CARA’s corrections to these data). The number of parishes entrusted to deacons or a lay person peaked at 566 in 2004. This came fifteen years after the number of parishes overall peaked in the U.S. at 19,705 in 1989. Since that time the Church in the United States has reduced its total number of parishes by 2,381 nationally (a decline of 12%). 

Which dioceses have many more active diocesan priests than parishes? Half are in the Northeast and the rest are scattered about. The Archdiocese of Chicago has 579 active diocesan priests and 353 parishes. Yet even here, 26 parishes are without a resident pastor.

In the United States, there are more priests retiring or passing away each year than there are new ordinations. The decline in active diocesan priests is expected to continue for some time as are net losses of parishes each year. These two trends are not unrelated.

Currently there are 3,448 U.S. parishes without a resident pastor. Most, 89%, are administered by non-resident pastors. Four percent of parishes without a resident pastor are entrusted to a deacon, 3% to lay men or women, and 2% to a religious sister. Less than 1% each are entrusted to multiple individuals on a pastoral team or religious brothers. At any time a few parishes are vacant—a total of eight parishes when the data used here were collected.

In previous research for the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project, CARA identified that the most important factor in determining how a diocese balances the equation of active diocesan priests and parishes is the bishop’s preferences. When necessary, some entrust parishes to deacons, vowed religious, or other lay persons; others rely on non-resident priest pastors; and some find closing parishes to be the only option.

The dioceses of Green Bay (WI), Superior (WI), and Albany (NY) have more than ten parishes where pastoral care is entrusted to deacons. The Diocese of Green Bay also has ten parishes entrusted to religious sisters. Albany, Indianapolis (IN), and Toledo (OH) each have seven parishes entrusted to women religious. Fairbanks (AK) has 15 parishes entrusted to lay men and women. Albany has nine parishes entrusted to lay people and Green Bay and Jackson (MS) have seven parishes each entrusted as such. In other dioceses like La Crosse (WI), Richmond (VA), and Winona (MN) there are numerous parishes without resident pastors but no Canon 517.2 parishes.

Note: The parish administration data for a number of dioceses do not “balance” in The Official Catholic Directory. This analysis has used all available information to provide accurate counts. For example, The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has 125 parishes. Ninety-seven of these parishes has a resident pastor. Additionally, 17 have a non-resident pastor. This totals 114 parishes meaning 11 other parishes must be entrusted to others under Canon 517.2. However, the Archdiocese reports that 20 parishes are entrusted to deacons, vowed religious, or other lay persons. Among these, nine parishes are reportedly entrusted to religious brothers. Yet, the diocese reports only one professional minister who is a religious brother and none of the parish listings indicate a religious brother is entrusted with a parish. CARA has made corrections to the OCD data in this post to be as accurate as possible.


[ _______ ], Hear Our Prayer...

"Who are you praying to?"
"God. Duh..."

At CARA we've asked a lot of questions about prayer over the years. But we never thought to ask more specifically about just who people are actually talking to. Now we know a bit more. CARA recently conducted a national poll of Catholic parents, ages 25 to 45, to explore the 21st Century Catholic family. This survey, completed in September and October 2014, includes interviews with 1,014 self-identified Catholic parents resulting in a sampling margin of error of ±3.1 percentage points. The research was made possible by Holy Cross Family Ministries.

Among the results on prayer, we learned this is a multilingual conversation with 40% of parents praying in Spanish and 59% in English. One percent pray in some other language (e.g., Polish, Portuguese). Seventy-one percent of parents agree “somewhat” or “strongly” that prayer is essential to their faith (80% among weekly Mass attenders) and most parents are regularly talking to God. Thirty-six percent of parents pray at least once a day. Another 23% pray less than daily but at least once a week. One in five pray less than weekly but at least once a month (20%). Twelve percent pray a few times a year. Only 9% say they rarely or never pray.

When asked why they may not pray regularly from time to time, parents were most likely to say the following explains their lack of prayer: busy schedule or lack of time (51% “somewhat’ or “very much”), having missed Mass (39%), or that prayer just did not cross their mind (39%).

When praying, a majority of parents say they “always” or “most of the time” are praying to God the Father (74%) or Jesus Christ (59%). Fewer indicate praying this often to the Holy Spirit (45%), Mary (44%), or the Holy Trinity (33%). Some pray to or ask the intercession of a guardian angel (31%), a deceased family member or friend (26%), a specific saint (22%), or saints on their feast days (16%), “always” or “most of the time” when they pray.

We also asked about when parents pray. In descending order, parents are most likely to “always” pray: during times of crisis (42%), when feeling anxious or depressed (34%), when feeling blessed (31%), before bed (26%), during Lent (18%), during Advent (18%), when they wake (13%), before meals (13%), and at family gatherings (10%).

That last result is remarkable as the data indicate there is no shortage of families gathering or dining together. More than half of parents say they eat together as a family every night (51%) and more than a third do so a few times a week (35%). Also, outside of these meals, 62% of parents say they gather for family time at least once a week (e.g., movie night, game night, discussions, prayer).

Although many aren't praying together as family they are often praying for their family. The most common reason for prayer among parents is for the wellbeing of their family. Eighty-three percent do this “most of the time” or “always” when they pray. A majority of parents say they are “always” or “most of the time” saying a specific Catholic prayer (57%) or simply talking to God when they pray (58%). Fewer than half pray this frequently for their own wellbeing (45%) or for world issues (41%). Nearly a third say that they reflect on something while praying (32%). About one in five meditate (22%) or discern something (20%). Fifteen percent “always” or “most of the time” participate in religious devotions while praying.

Parents are most likely to typically use the following while praying: the Bible (41%), Catholic prayer book(s) (39%), and other Catholic publications including prayers (33%). Most often they are using these resources in print rather than in electronic formats. Twenty-two percent of parents have at some point been involved in a Catholic small group that meets regularly for prayer, Bible study, or faith sharing. Twenty percent have participated in Eucharistic Adoration.

Sixteen percent of parents indicate that they have invited non-family members to their home to pray with their family at some point. Among those who have done so these instances most often are related to general household celebrations (58%), Advent or Christmas (47%), or a time when someone in the home or community was ill or passed away (43%).

Only 16% of parents pray the rosary at least once a month (7% at least once a week). Weekly Mass attenders are most likely to pray the rosary at least once a year (68%). Among those who do pray the rosary, half say they typically do so with their family (18% of all Catholic parents) and half do not (18% of all Catholic parents). Sixty-four percent of parents do not pray the rosary. Among these respondents the most common reasons cited for not doing so were having no desire or need to pray it (39%), never learning or forgetting how to say it (24%), and time issues (17%).

Most parents, 76%, say they more often pray by themselves than with family members. Seven percent say they more often pray with family members than alone and 17% pray alone and with family about equally. Parents who pray more alone most often say that they choose to do so because this is what they prefer (24%) or because of timing and scheduling conflicts that prevent them from praying with others (21%). In the words of respondents below are examples of some of the reasons cited for more often praying alone than with family:
  • Because I like to do it alone. It makes me feel like I can be more open and honest and closer to God.
  • My prayers seem like intimate conversations.
  • Done at night, most of them already sleep.
  • Kids weren’t baptized.
  • Husband is atheist.
  • As a child my family only prayed at holiday meals, which is when we do as a family.
  • Kids are too little
Three additional sets of results that will be released soon. Stay tuned...
Image courtesy of Lawrence OP.


Nine Million New Catholic Reverts in 2013?

Since 2000, the Catholic Church around the world has added about 15 million new Catholics each year. In 2013 it added 25 million, according to recently released Vatican statistics. This is interesting as it coincides with the year Pope Francis began leading the Church.

CARA recently released a report on global trends in the Church since 1980. After that report was released we got our 2013 copy (i.e., most recent) of the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae (ASE). This book represents the Vatican’s awareness of the state of the Church on December 31, 2013. The table below updates key data from our recent global report. In the same year as the big jump in Catholics, the Church increased its number of parishes, priests (diocesan and religious), permanent deacons, secondary students in Catholic schools, and adults entering the faith.

At the same time, losses continued among religious brothers and sisters and numbers for many sacraments dropped below levels of the prior year. Some of these changes are related to changing patterns of fertility. Fewer children born to Catholic parents means fewer infant baptisms. Others require more explanation. Why the decline in enrollments in Catholic higher education? How to explain another year with fewer marriages in the Church?

There are some questions CARA does not have easy answers for. But the jump in the Catholic population can be well understood. It speaks to the very reason a place like CARA exists…

Because the totals are for the world population a jump in Catholics beyond new entries to the faith can only occur with former Catholics coming back. Immigration isn’t a factor on a global scale. In most years since 2000, the number of baptisms (adults and children combined) have been greater than the net growth of the Catholic population. Some people leave the faith every year. Others leave earthly existence (i.e., die).

CARA has always known that there are reverts in the population and in the pews. Former Catholics regularly become Catholic again at some point in their life and make up about one in ten Catholics in the United States according to CARA’s national surveys of self-identified Catholics and surveys of Catholics in in the pews at U.S. parishes. But did 9.2 million former Catholics rejoin the faith globally in the 12 months of 2013? Perhaps. After all this would really only represent 0.7% of the global Catholic population of 1.25 billion.

The ASE comes with the following caution, “the data have been obtained by an indirect survey, by sending a questionnaire to the chancery offices of ecclesiastical jurisdictions throughout the world, to be filled out with the results of surveys or calculations made by those offices. It must be remembered that a worldwide survey of this kind is bound to be influenced to some extent by the often considerable differences in the circumstances of the ecclesiastical jurisdictions in various countries. … [Data] must be considered as overall figures that are a little short of the reality and are therefore merely indicators of the phenomenon dealt with.”

Is the 9.2 million figure related to a typo? Not in a classical sense of a “fat finger” hitting the wrong keys and then being missed by editors. There truly are “considerable” differences in how dioceses and national conferences estimate the number of Catholics residing in their borders. It’s much easier to know the number of priests or number of baptisms in a given year. But how does the Church know how many Catholics reside where?

With polling widespread and many national censuses asking a religious affiliation question, good social science data is often available...but not always used. In some cases dioceses and national conferences appear to rely on rules of thumb. After closely examining the data for each country it is evident that one of these is Mexico—the second largest Catholic country in the world.

Starting with the 2006 ASE, respondents for the Church in Mexico began to assume that the total population of the country was growing by about 0.8% a year and that Catholics made up 92% of that population. These same assumptions were used year after year through the 2012 ASE. At that time, the ASE was reporting a total population in Mexico of 110,292,000 and a Catholic population of 101,350,000. Perhaps someone then pointed out to the respondent for Mexico that the total population for Mexico in 2012 had actually grown to more than 118 million people (annual population growth averaged 1.4% since 2006 rather than the assumed 0.8%).

The total size of Mexico’s population was corrected for the 2013 ASE but the assumption that 92% of this population is Catholic remained in place. Thus, in a single year the Catholic population of Mexico increased by nearly 7.5 million although only about 1.8 million new entries to the faith occurred in the country during that same year. This single “adjustment” results in much of the one year leap in the newly Catholic population that cannot be accounted for by new entries into the faith around the world. Other survey and census estimates indicate that the Catholic percentage of Mexico’s population is closer to about 85% rather than 92%.

The most populous Catholic country, Brazil, may also have contributed to the jump in the new Catholic population. Here, only 1.5 million new entries to the Church were registered in 2013 but the estimate for growth in the Catholic population in that country is nearly 3.8 million. It is possible that World Youth Day could have drawn some former Catholics back in Brazil. There were more than 3 million people on the beach for the final Mass. However, it may also be related to another rule of thumb. Church respondents in Brazil consistently assume that about 84% of the population is Catholic. However, this figure is likely 75% or even lower.

Overall, the higher than expected population totals for Mexico and Brazil are counter-weighted somewhat globally by the Church not reporting estimates for the size of the Catholic population in China. In 2010, Pew estimated this to be about 9 million. Many European and North American countries also underestimate the sizes of their Catholic population and more commonly report parish-affiliated totals, thus leaving out numerous self-identified Catholics who do not regularly attend Mass. On balance, the global total for Catholics reported in the ASE is likely quite accurate. However, the anomalies at the local and regional levels leave the Church with a slightly distorted view of where the world’s Catholics are. In 2013, the number of new Catholics added globally likely falls short of 25 million and is probably closer to the 15 million added in previous years (...including some unknown number of reverts).

So it is unlikely that many millions of reverts returned to the Church in 2013 but the increase in adult baptisms (a much more reliably measured figure) is still notable. The 2013 total, nearly 2.8 million, is the second highest since 2000 and is an exceptional year for the Church among non-Catholic adults deciding to join the faith (soon to be released data for the U.S. will also confirm this trend more locally). Perhaps Pope Francis attracted more non-Catholics to the Church than former Catholics in the first year of his papacy? Although many would have started their RCIA program well before his election so perhaps not...

Most of what is reported in the ASE is easily tallied. Dioceses and national conferences can know the exact numbers of childhood sacraments, ordinations, and annulment cases introduced. The one fuzzy number is always Catholic population. It is clear that many in the Church have turned to more reliable social scientific methods for estimating this. Hopefully, rules of thumb will be used even less often when reporting the 2014 population data.


Climates of Belief

Pope Francis is scheduled to release an encyclical on the environment Thursday. Earlier today, some new survey data from Pew provides the most recent insight into what Catholics think nationally about climate change (and Pope Francis). We can also use survey data to understand how the encyclical might impact local communities. Where will the work of pastors perhaps be easier than in other places in America?

Yale researchers have aggregated surveys with sufficient sample sizes to allow for localized analysis to the county level. The table below shows the counties where the most American adults believe warming is happening and that human activities are mostly the cause of this change. The last column of the table shows the size of the Catholic adherent population (i.e., those who are active and parish-affiliated) as a percentage of the total population in each county from the 2010 U.S. Religion Census. One county stands out—Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which includes Boston (shown on the right in the image above). Just below New York City in terms of belief in climate change, it is the most Catholic of the climate change believing counties with Catholic adherents making up 46% of the population.

Where might there likely be more resistance to the encyclical? The table below shows the dozen counties with the lowest levels of belief in climate change. Once again one county (…that is “parish”) stands out—Point Coupee, Louisiana (shown in the left in the image above). Similar to Suffolk County just under half the population are Catholic adherents. Here though, a minority of the population believes warming is occurring and just more than a third believe human activity is primarily causing warming.

The figure below shows these data for all counties in the United States for Catholic adherents and for the percentage believing human activity is causing warming. There is a weak association between the two. As the Catholic adherent percentage increases so too does belief in human-caused warming.

This is easier to see in the second figure showing average belief by five different Catholic adherent population levels—from less than 5% to 30% or more. Belief subtly slopes up across the figure left (lower numbers of Catholic adherents) to right (higher levels of Catholic adherents).

After the encyclical is released I can imagine there will be a variety of reactions from the media, the Catholic public, politicians, and scientists. As a political scientist who studies the Church I have a special interest in each of these sub-groups of the population. Climate predictions may be outside of my field but I can imagine the following questions will come up...

How can Pope Francis speak about matters of science?
From time to time popes are called upon to comment on current and in this case predicted future events. However, when doing so they always run the risk of critics countering that they are not qualified to speak on these matters. When Pope Francis speaks critically about some aspect of capitalism I can always count on hearing “He’s not an economist.” Similarly I’ve heard several people say that Pope Francis should stay out of matters of science. For example, in January, conservative radio host Michael Savage said on air, “Suddenly the pope, who has no background in science, is saying that global warming is the biggest threat to mankind.” Mr. Savage seemed to be unaware that Pope Francis actually has a science background. One could argue he is just as qualified as the seemingly omnipresent Bill Nye “The Science Guy” to comment on this issue. While Nye has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering (…a bow tie, legacy of being a children’s show host), Pope Francis has a technical degree in chemistry and spent time working in laboratories before entering the seminary (...not a graduate degree though as has been reported). On a more macro level, the Church is typically viewed as an enemy of science and as recently pointed out by the Associated Press this is a rather uninformed point of view. Regardless, I am sure references to Galileo will be common on Thursday. 

Is climate science “settled?”
As a scientist it makes me cringe whenever I hear this phrase (most often uttered by politicians rather than scientists). In reality science is never settled. Newton was right about gravity... and wrong. We didn't understand this until Einstein introduced general relativity. More wrinkles in physics have been added by quantum mechanics. String theory may contribute more nuance. If you asked scientists in the mid-1700s if Newton was correct and his work was “settled science” they would have agreed with you. Yet they knew so little. That is why science is not done by simply taking polls of scientists. All that matters is observations, data, and evidence. It is a beautiful system that always self-corrects in the long-term. If someone can’t replicate your work you will eventually be disregarded. There is no need to brand people as a “denier” for questioning current climate science models. No need to reinvent the inquisition! If someone is saying something that doesn’t fit the evidence simply prove them wrong. Ad hominem attacks are by their very nature unscientific.

The biggest challenge with climate change is complexity. We know what greenhouse gasses do in the laboratory. But the real world has many more variables than we can incorporate in the lab and some of these variables are rather unpredictable. Rather than being settled science I would consider the current state of climate research to be “normal science.” As Thomas Kuhn explained in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like” (p. 5). This is a period that emphasizes group think and agreement between scientists. It is a defensive phase (e.g., branding others “deniers”). Normal science is sometimes changed, advanced really, by scientific revolutions. Periods where new discoveries can no longer be ignored and existing theories and models either fall away or survive incorporated into a new understanding of reality. Our current understanding of climate change, and all the predictions derived from it, may end up being absolutely correct. But any scientist knows that we cannot be absolutely sure of this. Therefore the term “settled” is more of a political notion than a scientific conclusion.

Is the world getting warmer or has warming paused?
Yes. Both. There have been periods where the world has warmed more quickly and in closer connection to changing levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Where one sees carbon dioxide increase and the temperature increase together, expected linear warming can be observed. However, other periods have shown expanding carbon dioxide levels without corresponding increasing temperatures. Again this speaks to the complexity of climate with other non-human factors being important as well such as solar activity, volcanic activity, oceanic absorption, etc.

However, even in a “pause” it is still the case that it is warmer now than in the recent past and this sustained reality continues to impact the environment. Most climate scientists are concerned that the current pause will soon break and we will again see periods of linear warming or even worse a big leap in temperatures in a chain reaction event (i.e., methane releases in the Arctic). The fact remains that one can predict the global mean temperature pretty well by just knowing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (r-square of .895). And if that current correlation continues to be true into the future the global mean temperature would be expected to increase above 60 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. Perhaps even more if there is a chain reaction event or more dire predictions from models come true. Yet, skeptics also can show that some of the more dire predictions from the late 1990s failed to appear by 2015 as was expected.

Will the encyclical move the Church in a different direction?
I haven't read it yet. But I do know that the Church has already supported protecting the environment for many years. For example, in 2007, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) called for “careful stewardship of the earth and its natural resources” and noted that “care for the earth and for the environment is a moral issue. ... Our Conference offers a distinctive call to seriously address global climate change, focusing on the virtue of prudence, pursuit of the common good, and the impact on the poor, particularly on vulnerable workers and the poorest nations.” The media may portray the encyclical as a change in direction but it will likely be understood within the Church as part of a longstanding commitment to protect the earth and environment. There is no shortage of statements from recent popes on this issue. The biggest impact of the encyclical may be in its elevating the Church’s existing concerns on environmental matters to a higher level. This will likely be well received in Suffolk County, Massachusetts and perhaps less so in Pointe Coupee, Louisiana.

Images courtesy of Ron Kikuchi and Jeff Gunn.


Fewer Marriages, Fewer Annulments... and a Demographic Twist

In the previous post, CARA released a new report on global trends in the Catholic Church since 1980. These data reveal that there were 1.4 million fewer marriages celebrated in the Church around the world in 2012 than in 1980 (2.7 million compared to 4.1 million or a decline of 34%). This occurred after the Catholic population had grown globally by 57%. Some might not also realize that fewer marriages have also resulted in fewer annulments. In 1980, there were 85,606 new annulment cases introduced and 84% of these were from the countries of the Americas. More specifically, nearly 80% of the world's annulment cases introduced that year came from the United States.

Overall, the number of annulments introduced annually has fallen by 43% since 1980 and in 2012 the total number of cases introduced was down to 49,912 of which 24,010 came from the United States (49% of the world total). Generally, the number of annulment cases from the Americas and Oceania are down while the numbers from Europe, Asia, and Africa are up.

There have been some changes to the annulment process since 1980. Now an initial annulment finding (first instance) is reviewed (second instance) before it can become confirmed. To keep the data as comparable as possible the table below compares annulments in 1980 to decrees of nullity for the first instance in 2012. The focus in this table is on cases where a decision has been made whereas the figure above focuses on new cases introduced (many cases cross over from one year to the next). In 1980, 89,065 annulment cases were closed and 68,787 annulments were granted. Thus, annulments made up 77% of all cases closed. That does not mean that in 23% of cases the Church found no grounds for annulment. In many cases the parties quit the process at some point without the Church ever making a determination (e.g., they may reconcile or no longer have interest in an annulment).

In 2012, 49,417 cases were closed (...moving on to the second instance) and the Church ruled in favor of nullity in 40,811 of these cases (83%). There is some regional variations in the likelihood of receiving an annulment. Only 61% of closed cases in Africa resulted in annulment compared to 86% of cases in the Americas. However, this is not because tribunals in Africa were more likely than those in the Americas to rule contrary to nullity. It is more a reflection of more people seeking annulments in Africa than in the Americas not completing the annulment process.

As shown in the figure below, when the number of marriages in the Church decline so do the number of annulment cases.

How can sacramental practice become less common even as the Catholic population continues to grow? One could easily jump to conclusions and consider this to be solely a reflection of "secularization" or a growing preoccupation with the digital world. Yet there is a bit of demography behind these changes as well.

The world's population is aging and you only get baptized or have your first communion once. People are living longer, healthier lives. It is this extension of life that is leading to population growth (...not births as it is so often assumed). Since 1995, now, and through 2050 we have and can continue to expect there to be about 125 million to 134 million births per year worldwide. At the same time, according to the Census Bureau's International Data Base, in 1995 average life expectancy at birth globally was 63. Today it is 69 and in 2050 it is expected to be 76.

When one looks at sacraments celebrated per 1,000 Catholics in a country or a region almost all the trend lines are declining since 1980. This result is driven by people, on average, living longer lives and having fewer children. Fertility rates are falling almost everywhere (Germany is now matching Japan for record low fertility). As the UN's most recent report on the World Population Situation concludes, "patterns of declining fertility and mortality over the past two decades have led to significant shifts in the age structure of the world’s population. ...While rising life expectancy is a success story, population ageing presents a number of challenges to families, communities and societies with respect to issues such as economic growth, economic security in old age, the organization of health care systems and the strength of familial support systems" (pg. 24). You can see the life expectancy and fertility trends, by country, move together below in World Bank data (press play):

If a population has fewer children it will also have fewer baptisms and then fewer marriages, etc. The cycle feeds on itself generation to generation. Few notice any changes in the short term because all this occurs as life expectancy gains boost overall population numbers. Sacramental numbers will inevitably wane given these demographic shifts. Annulment cases will also likely continue to fall regardless of any changes that might be made to the process. 


Global Catholicism

This post includes the first section of a CARA report that presents a global overview of trends in the Catholic Church (download the full report with regional analyses including trends for the workforce of the Church, sacraments, education, lay ministries, and welfare institutions). Although the world is rapidly evolving in a digital age, it is still the case that Catholicism, more often than not, takes place in brick and mortar. The sacramental focus of Catholicism—especially the regular reception of the Eucharist—means that much of the faith “happens” among Catholics in parishes with priests. One cannot go to confession online or be married at the beach. Arguably, the three most important indicators of “vitality” for the Catholic Church are the number of Catholics, the number of parishes, and the number of priests.

Catholic Population
Overall, the global Catholic population has grown by 57 percent since 1980. However, this growth differs by region, with Europe’s Catholic population growing by just 6 percent while the number of Catholics in Africa grew by 238 percent. Differences between these two regions are largely attributable to differences in fertility rates over time.

In 1980, the European total fertility rate (TFR or average births per woman over her lifetime) was 2.16. This is just above the replacement rate of 2.1 where two parents re replacing themselves in the population accounting for infant and maternal mortality.  By 2012, the European TFR had dropped well below replacement rates to 1.72. In many countries, such as Germany and Italy, the number of deaths in a given year are greater than the number of births. Many European countries only grow their populations through immigration—often from non-Catholic countries.


By comparison, in Sub-Saharan Africa the TFR in 1980 was 6.76. Here too, as nearly everywhere else in recent decades, fertility rates have declined. The most recent estimate in 2012 for Sub-Saharan Africa was a TFR of 5.15—still well above replacement. Thus, strong growth in the number of Catholics in Africa relative to in Europe is more a phenomenon of differential fertility than immigration or evangelization.

Latin America and the Caribbean have historically also had higher levels of fertility than Europe and North America, leading to strong growth in the number of Catholics in this region. In 1980 the TFR for Latin America and the Caribbean was 4.2. By 2012, this had declined to 2.18—where Europe was in 1980. Population growth in Latin America and the Caribbean will also soon stall as its TFR will likely fall below the replacement rate in the coming decades.

Over the last 50 years the proportion of the global population who are Catholic has remained remarkably steady at about 17.5 percent. Most demographers anticipate a global population exceeding 10 billion by 2100, up from 7.3 billion now. The “engine” of population growth is no longer increasing numbers of children—it is extending life expectancies. The U.S. Census Bureau expects the global senior population (ages 65 and older) to increase from about 617,097,000 now to 1,565,844,000 in 2050. That is growth of 154 percent in just 35 years. The annual number of births worldwide is actually expected to decline during this period by 2 percent, numbering just over 130,000,000 each year. In 2000, the world reached an important milestone: “peak childhood.” From then to now and into the future we can expect there to be about 1.9 billion children (under age 15) around the world at any time.

Some demographers do not expect that the global population will ever reach 10 billion. As Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division, has indicated, “The demographic patterns observed throughout Europe, East Asia and numerous other places during the past half century as well as the continuing decline in birth rates in other nations strongly points to one conclusion: The downward global trend in fertility may likely converge to below-replacement levels during this century. The implications of such a change in the assumptions regarding future fertility, affecting as it will consumption of food and energy, would be far reaching for climate change, biodiversity, the environment, water supplies and international migration. Most notably, the world population could peak sooner and begin declining well below the 10 billion currently projected for the close of the 21st century.”

If current trends continue, we can expect the global Catholic population to increase by about 372 million from 2015 to 2050. This would represent 29 percent growth during this period and result in the 2050 Catholic population numbering 1.64 billion.

Since 1980, the Church has had a net gain of more than 15,200 parishes representing 7 percent growth. However, with the population growing by 57 percent during this period there has been a lag in constructing the brick and mortar of the Church. In 1980 there were 3,759 Catholics per parish in the world. This figure now stands at 5,541 Catholics per parish.

Underlying the aggregate numbers, there are significant changes within regions. In Asia and Africa, where the fastest growth in the Catholic population has occurred, the number of parishes had doubled since 1980. In the Americas, the number of parishes has increased by 25 percent and in Oceania they have ticked up by 5 percent. In Europe, the number of parishes has declined by 12 percent with a net loss of 16,669 parishes since 1980.

The Church is currently undergoing a dramatic realignment due largely to these differential growth patterns. The parishes that served the Church for hundreds and hundreds of years are no longer closely aligned with the world’s Catholic population and certainly not its most frequently Mass attending populations. However, there is no giant crane that can pick up a parish from Europe and relocate it to Africa. The process of realignment is slow given the autonomy of the Church’s diocesan and parish structures. Bishops and pastors do not always have the most current information globally on the changes in their population. Nor does closing parishes in one diocese present a “savings” to another diocese so that a new parish can be built. The Church does not function like a multinational corporation.

To maintain the current ratio for Catholics per parish in 2050, the Church will need to increase its total number of global parishes by about 75,000 to approximately 300,000.

One of the limitations on the construction of a new parish is the availability of priests to pastor these new communities. Globally, the Church had only 713 more priests, diocesan and religious combined, in 2012 than it did in 1980. The most serious decline was in Europe, which had a net loss of 56,830 priests during this period, representing a 23 percent decline in this population (Note: a previous version of the study incorrectly tallied the number of priests in Europe in 2012 at 165,229 when this was actually 186,489 as noted correctly below).

Where the Catholic population is growing, so are the numbers of priests. The number of priests more than doubled in Africa (adding 22,787 priest for a 131 percent increase) and Asia (adding 32,906 priests for a 121 percent increase) between 1980 and 2012.  A growing phenomenon within the Church is the use of African and Asian priests in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere where there are too few native priests to staff parishes. Globally, the ratio of Catholics per priest worsened, as the number of Catholics per priest increased from 1,895 in 1980 to 2,965 in 2012.

Given the prevailing trends for population, parishes, and priests, the Church is likely to continue to realign in the coming decades. In 2012, Europe was home to less than one in four Catholics (23 percent). Yet this region still has 55 percent of all Catholic parishes and 45 percent of all Catholic priests. It is likely that Europe faces a future of fewer priests and more parish closures while growth in priests and parishes is likely to continue in Asia and Africa.

Other Major Findings
Some of the additional major findings from the report include:
  • The Catholic population of Europe in 2050 is expected to be about 5 percent smaller than it is today, due to sub-replacement rate fertility and immigration adding few Catholics to the overall population. Even with fewer Catholics and relatively low levels of weekly Mass attendance, the Church in Europe will struggle in the future to provide access to Masses and sacraments in its many parishes given its rapidly declining population of priests. This will likely negatively impact levels of sacramental practice that have already been ebbing in recent years.
  • Diocesan bishops, priests, and deacons are increasing in number in the Americas as the number of religious priests, brothers, and sisters decline. The Catholic population of this region is expected to grow from 598.8 million now to 690.1 million in 2040. This region is in need of many new parishes, with the ratio of Catholics per parish currently exceeding 10,000. Sacramental practice in the Americas has been waning and some of this may be related to issues of access to nearby parishes with available priests.
  • In Africa, high fertility rates and expanding life expectancies will dramatically increase the number of Catholics from 198.6 million now to 460.4 million in 2040. Although the number of priests, religious sisters, and parishes are expanding quickly here, these will undoubtedly lag behind population growth. More parishes are needed as weekly Mass attendance levels among African Catholics averages 70 percent. The numbers of baptisms and first communions in Africa are rising annually but numbers of confirmations and marriages have recently leveled off.
  • In Asia, the Catholic population is expected to grow from 134.6 million now to 192.6 million in 2040. Here, a slight majority of Catholics, on average, report attending Mass every week and there is no evidence of decline in Mass attendance rates in recent years. There is strong growth in Asia in the numbers of religious priests, brothers, and sisters, as well as diocesan priests. New parishes are also increasing in number. Unlike most other regions, the Church in Asia has experienced growing numbers of marriages in the Church. In 1980 there were about 381,700 marriages celebrated in Asian parishes. In 2012, 626,380 marriages were celebrated here.
  • Trends in the Church in Oceania tend to fall between those of Europe and the Americas. Relative stability is expected here in the coming decades.

CARA transcribed Vatican data from the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae for 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010, and the most recent year available, 2012. Additionally, CARA referenced statistics in the Vatican’s Annuario Pontifico when necessary. Where possible, CARA also provides projections for data into the future using statistical forecasting and the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Data Base. CARA also references data from publicly available surveys including: The World Values Survey, The Comparative Study of Electoral Systems, The International Social Survey Programme, the regional “barometer series” (e.g., Eurobarometer, Latinobarómetro), as well as recent research from the Pew Research Center on Global Christianity. In addition to managing surveys in the Americas for the first wave of the World Values Survey in the 1980s, CARA has previously explored global trends in the Catholic Church with Global Catholicism: Portrait of a World Church (2002). Global data are also always available on our Frequently Requested Church Statistics page.

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