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.


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.


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.


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, LatinobarĂ³metro), 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.


Data Check: Catholic Population Changes and New Ordinations

Two recent news stories caught our eye at CARA. The first reports on “declining membership” in the Catholic Church and the second on an “increase in ordinations” in the United States:

Even though the membership of the Catholic Church in the U.S. has been declining in the past two decades, the billow of Hispanic immigrants to the U.S. has sustained the church and helped keep parishes across the country open.” -Albuquerque Journal

Almost 600 Catholic men will be ordained priests for the U.S. in 2015, an increase of more than 100 from last year.” -The Washington Times

Both of these stories contain some factual elements and they also both manage to be quite flawed reflections of reality...

1. Has “the membership of the Catholic Church” in the United States “been declining” in recent decades?
No it certainly has not. Membership represents the total population of persons who are Catholic (baptized and self-identifying as Catholic) and there has not been any decline in the membership of the Catholic Church in the United States since reliable data became available after World War II.

Has immigration added to Catholic numbers in the United States? Yes; as it always has. Not only does immigration increase the number of Catholics, it increases the numbers of many groups in the U.S. today and is a significant and growing force behind the country’s overall population growth as fertility rates have fallen below replacement levels.

The figure below shows survey estimates from the General Social Survey (GSS) on the size of the adult Catholic population of the United States by place of birth. Fluctuations survey to survey are largely reflections of margin of error. However, the long-term trend line generally slopes up for both those born in the United States and those born elsewhere.

The share of adult Catholics who were born in the U.S. has declined in the last 15 years but this population (i.e., “membership”) has continued to grow in absolute numbers (more on this common misunderstanding involving percentages and population growth here)

Between 1944 and 1996, the Catholic Church in the United States baptized 54.8 million infants and children (representing adults in the U.S. today for which baptism data are available). The current size of the adult self-identified Catholic population in the U.S. is 61 million. In general, the Church’s baptism data are reflected in the memories of people who have been Catholic at some point in their life. As shown in the figure below, the baptisms celebrated in the Church between 1943 and 1960 represent 27% of all births in the U.S. during those years. Twenty-seven percent of Baby Boomers born during those years recall being raised Catholic in the GSS. Today, 19 percent of the adult Baby Boomer population born in the U.S. of self-identifies as Catholic (representing a 72% retention rate among those raised Catholic during this period). Baptisms in the Generation X years (1961-81) reflect 30% of births during this period. Twenty-seven percent of Gen-Xers born in the U.S. say they were raised Catholic. Seventeen percent of Gen-Xers today self-identify as Catholic (representing a 64% retention rate among those raised Catholic during this period).

What is a bit odd is that more adult Millennials born in the United States (1982 or later) recall being raised Catholic than the Church baptized during this period. Twenty-nine percent of native-born Millennials say they grew up Catholic but baptisms during this period represent only 25% of births. Currently, 19% of adult Millennials born in the U.S. say they self-identify as Catholic (representing a retention rate of 63%).

The blue bars on the figure above represent the share of the foreign-born population who were raised Catholic and who self-identify as Catholic. Adding the lightest green color bar and the lightest blue color bar provides the total estimate for adult Catholic affiliation for each generation (19.4% + 6.3% = 25.7% Catholic among adult Baby Boomers).

The pie chart below shows current and former Catholic populations by place of birth among all adults in the United States. What is often ignored in the discussion of Catholics who leave the faith is that immigration also is a source of these former Catholics. Twelve percent of adults are former Catholics and nearly one in five of this population (18%) were born outside the United States.

In 1980, 22.6% of U.S. adults were born in the U.S. and Catholic, representing 36 million individuals. In 2014, 18.4% of U.S. adults were born in the U.S. and Catholic, representing 44.3 million individuals. Again, the population share declined but the total membership of this group increased by more than 8 million or by 22%. This is a rather simple mathematical reality that should have been observed in the news story.

One other tidbit in the original news story was the notion that immigrants help “keep parishes across the country open.” Some Northeastern and Midwestern urban parishes have closed in recent years but this is more due to internal migration (to the suburbs and South and West; 1, 2, 3) as well as priest shortages rather than imaginary “declines” in the U.S. Catholic population. People move, buildings generally don’t. Closing parishes in areas with too few Catholics has made perfect sense. However, failing to open new ones where parishioners can’t find a parking spot will likely continue to be a problem for the Church in many other areas unless new construction picks up.

2. Will the Church experience a big jump in the number of priests ordained in 2015?
Maybe? The reporter in this story was referencing CARA data collected for the USCCB. Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Raleigh reacted to this research noting, “It is encouraging to see the slight increase in the number of ordinations this year in the United States.” Slight increase is an appropriate characterization. On the other hand, what appeared in The Washington Times and some other outlets lacked some important details and context.

As explained in CARA’s report: “To obtain the names and contact information for these ordinands, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) contacted all theologates and houses of formation in fall 2014 to request names and contact information for every seminarian who was scheduled to be ordained to the priesthood in 2015. CARA also requested names from the vocation director at all dioceses and archdioceses in the United States as well as the major superior of all U.S. based institutes of men religious.” This process led to “595 potential ordinands reported to CARA by theologates, houses of formation, arch/dioceses, and religious institutes.” CARA does this so it can then send a survey to the ordinands. When CARA conducted this study in the previous year, 477 potential ordinands were identified and reported to us. Thus, 118 more potential ordinands were identified in 2015 than in 2014 (i.e., a 25% increase).

Potential ordinands and eventual actual ordinands are two different numbers. The research process can be affected by responses to CARA’s request for information each year. This year CARA, was a bit more “relentless” in its follow-up than usual as these data were also to be used in a major new study examining family influences on nurturing vocations.

The figure below shows the trends in the number of potential ordinands identified by CARA in recent years along with the actual numbers of new ordinands as well as the net change in the number of diocesan priests each year with the addition of new priests and losses from deaths and men leaving the priesthood. Generally, the number of potential ordinands tracks with the number of priests ordained but there is some volatility year to year. It is possible that 2015 will end up like 2008 and be more off the mark than other years.

Between 2001 and 2013 the Church in the U.S. has ordained fewer than 500 priests in any given year. In 2014 it passed this mark and is likely to do so again in 2015 but we cannot be sure just how much above 500 this will end up being. That is good news. The bad news is in the red line ( we’ve noted before) Five hundred is still not enough to make up for the losses each year due for the most part to mortality. Only 8% of losses in 2012 were due to priest defections (59 of 740 diocesan priests lost). The Catholic Church needs about 700 to 800 ordinations of diocesan priests a year to stem the decline in the total number of these clergy. In 2012, the Church ordained 398 diocesan priests (along with 59 religious priests). If the Church ordains 595 diocesan and religious priests in 2015 that would indeed be a significant uptick but still insufficient in the broader context.

We can also see the potential numbers of new priests in the years ahead in seminary enrollments. The next two figures are from data in CARA’s Ministry Formation Directory. It documents the relatively steady numbers of those studying to become priests in U.S. seminaries. Currently there are 5,454 of these men and teens enrolled from high school seminaries to post-baccalaureate theologates.

The second figure, showing fourth year theologate enrollments, is more important for predicting how many priests might be ordained in the near future. These numbers have been quite steady in the last decade and retention has averaged 76% during this period (i.e., about three in four of those who enter as first-year students are enrolled in the fourth year). Currently there are 591 seminarians in their third year followed by 654 in their second year, and 661 in their first year (see page 16). Each of these class sizes will be smaller before they reach their fourth year. For example, the 561 seminarians in their fourth year in 2015 numbered 596 in their third year, 706 in the second year, and 768 in their first year.

Until we see the final numbers on those who are ordained it is safest to stick with Bishop Burbidge’s observation of a potential “slight increase.” A trend isn’t evident until you have a series of moving observations. It is possible 2014 and 2015 may be the beginning of a very positive trend for the Church but we won’t really know until we get a third observation in 2016. Even then the Church would still have a sizable deficit to overcome before it reaches a more ideal number of ordinations on the order of 700 to 800 per year to establish stability in the diocesan priest population in the United States.

In conclusion…. Reading these two news stories, people may have been left with the impression that the future will include fewer Catholics and more priests. Both of these notions are, for now, incorrect.

Data image courtesy of janneke staaks.


Catholicism in Space: Houston, do we have a problem?

Twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly (raised Catholic in an Irish-American family) are about to embark on an important scientific experiment on Friday. Scott Kelly will begin spending a year in space on the International Space Station (ISS) while his brother stays back here on earth as a control subject. NASA will be studying how extended time in space changes Scott relative to his brother Mark. Living for an extended time outside the gravity of earth and partially exposed to the radiation of space can impact one’s bones, heart, eyes, muscles, and who knows what else.

It’s probably important to start understanding and thinking more about living in space because frankly that is where the human future may be. At some point the Catholic Church will need to think about how people can “do” Catholicism in space. During the shuttle Endeavour mission STS-134 in March 2011, Mark Kelly was part of the crew on the ISS who spoke with Pope Benedict XVI. He told Kelly and the astronauts,

Space exploration is a fascinating scientific adventure. I know you have been studying your equipment to further scientific research and to study radiation coming from outer space. But I think it is also an adventure of the human spirit. A powerful stimulus to reflect on the origins and on the destiny of the universe and humanity.

Indeed the destiny of human beings is among the stars as our descendants will eventually need to get off this rock to survive (…if we don’t kill each other first). The sun is about to enter its mid-life crisis. At 4.6 billion years old it has more than a half-life to go. Well before then it is expected to get a bit brighter by about 10% in 1.1 billion years. That will begin to make life on earth as challenging as we have ever known it. By the end of its life cycle the sun will become a red giant and consume Mercury and Venus and most likely Earth as well. Before any of that happens, our galaxy, the Milky Way, will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in 3.7 billion years. It could be no big deal for earth or it might be catastrophic. Either way due to the increased output of the sun by that point life on earth will already be impossible. Perhaps the descendant of humans today will have already found somewhere else in “Milkdromeda” to call home? There are numerous other ways the planet or life on it could be doomed much, much earlier including asteroid or comet impacts, a gamma-ray burst, a wandering black hole, a super solar flare, pandemics, super volcanoes, a flip in the planet’s magnetic field… Anyone trying the “save life on earth” or the “planet” is ultimately doomed to fail.

Over the long-term, space is the place and Catholics, like most other Americans, are interested in that exploration. In general, people of faith are just as interested as those without any religion. That means religious institutions will have to figure out how their faith will be practiced in zero gravity, without directional east or west, and without sunrises and seasons. That may be easier for some than others.

So how does Catholicism work outside the walls of an earthly parish among the stars? Of course some have already practiced their faith in space. On Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian, took communion that he brought up to the moon (his crew brought a piece of the moon back for Pope Paul VI). Catholic astronauts Thomas Jones, Sidney Gutierrez, and Kevin Chilton celebrated a communion service on the space shuttle Endeavour with Eucharist they brought into space in a gold pyx in 1994. That will continue to work for short trips into space but what about a long journey or in a colony?

If a Catholic priest was on the ISS today could he say Mass? How would one keep the wine in a chalice in zero gravity? What about crumbs after breaking the Eucharistic bread? How does one purify the containers? There would be no candles. Which way is East? When is Sunday in space? When is Easter? Is it really kneeling in zero gravity? How could one confess sins without a priest on the crew?

The late Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., had presumably figured out the answer to some of these questions and was hoping to be the first priest to say a Mass among the heavens. He fell short of this dream but did get to fly at Mach 3.35 in an SR-71 Blackbird at the age of 62. It must have seemed like space flight. Someone else may have put some thought to the issues as well. The late Archbishop William D. Borders informed a surprised Pope Paul IV that he was the Bishop of the Moon. As the Bishop of Orlando at the time NASA astronauts were launching from Cape Canaveral to visit the moon he was the bishop of their home port. Thus, he was the de facto ordinary of the missionary lands they explored (six of the Apollo astronauts were Catholic). One could argue the Bishop of Orlando will continue to hold that position until perhaps China sends a crew to the Moon? That is when things get tricky. It is difficult to know as that country has multiple launch sites and sometimes multiple bishops!

There are many questions left to be answered for the practice of Catholicism in orbit or on the moon. Once you get to Mars, Europa, or go interstellar things will get even more problematic. There are not a lot of star systems with planets in our neighborhood of the galaxy. Travel to Epsilon Eridani, at 10.4 light years away, would require a multi-generational effort and a fast craft. There would be no quick returns from earth’s perspective (...after one accounts for time dilation from traveling at such extreme speeds). Of course we do not know if human reproduction is even possible in space yet. Assume that it is and we have a need for sacraments in space like marriage, baptisms, first communions, and funerals. 

I doubt there could ever be Space Cardinals (...even on Mars). There would be no way they could make it back for a conclave. The liturgical calendar would likely make little sense on any new planet. Days, months, and years could all be shorter or longer. A new planet may not be able to grow wheat and grapes. What then? On the positive side, I do think space travel might help solve one of the Catholic Church’s challenges. Think about this: Space Jesuits. That has a certain appeal. Perhaps recruitment will be less of an issue? After all more than 2,700 people have already applied for a one-way mission to Mars (...yes, I am aware of the award-winning 1996 novel, The Sparrow explores the idea of a “Space Jesuit”).

Science fiction novels and movies have rarely taken space, physics, or biology seriously. Perhaps because doing so would make for boring stories. Lightsabers are impossible. Traveling very near the speed of light would mean saying goodbye forever to anyone you ever knew. Interstellar (2014), which is released on DVD next week, is one of the first to take look at space travel with some realism (...although it does still include humans in wormholes, extra dimensions, etc). If you are a reader and have interest in the subject I strongly suggest Claude A. Piantadosi’s very non-fiction, Mankind Beyond Earth (2012). I used Piantadosi’s book in a class on the history and future of human exploration in the Fall. It got me thinking about how unprepared the Catholic Church is for the transition to space that began in the 1960s (...following the call of the first Catholic U.S. President).

A hundred years ago the idea that an average person could or would take many trips on planes in their life seeing different parts of the world seemed like a silly fantasy. Now it is quite common. I believe my grandchildren (and I don't actually have any yet) will be as regular tourists in near-earth space as we are to places around the world by plane. That is a future that deserves some thought now. It took 10,000 years of civilization to put humans on the moon. Imagine what we will accomplish in the next 10,000 years. In the long run, we should recognize that we are perhaps the greatest “weed” this planet has ever known. Our brains make us the ultimate survivors. Even if it is not a necessity, we will likely come to explore beyond our solar system. I hope the Catholic Church is a part of that journey.

Family in space photo (from Ray Bradbury’s The Gift a Christmas story in space) courtesy of James Vaughan.

Search This Blog

Blog Archive

© 2009-2024 CARA, Mark M. Gray. Background image courtesy of muohace_dc.