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.


Where Is Mass Attendance Highest and Lowest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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