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.


Back to the Past (2019)?

In 2000, Gallup measured the percentage of the U.S. adult population self-identifying as Catholic at 25%. In 2022 (the most recent figure currently available), this share measured 23%. If you are skeptical of Gallup, the General Social Survey (GSS) in 2022 also measured the adult Catholic population at 23%. The overall U.S. population has grown since 2000 so self-identified Catholics have as well (by 8.5%), even with a smaller overall percentage share.

It would be a bit unfair to compare 2000 to 2022 without acknowledging 2020. The Catholic Church in the United States is still getting back to pre-pandemic levels when it comes to parish life. There are two key barometers of parish life that this post will focus on: Mass attendance and infant baptisms. 

CARA estimates weekly levels of Mass attendance using its series of CARA Catholic Polls (CCP) linked to search volume estimates for Mass-related terms on Google Trends. There is a margin of error using these methods, as there are with surveys, but they can generally show relative differences over time. The "normal" pre-pandemic estimates are shown below to the left, for 2019. More than four years ago, news of a potential pandemic spread after the New Year in 2020 and in March the pandemic was declared and stay at home orders varied around the country. After Ash Wednesday 2020, Mass attendance plummeted (many shifted to watching online or television). In 2024, Ash Wednesday attendance was higher than it was for that day in 2020 (54% compared to 52%). 


Prior to the pandemic, Christmas always had the highest levels of Mass attendance. It has not returned to normal. Our hypothesis is that this is still the time of year when frequent warnings of increasing cases of disease are noted and some people may still shy away from large indoor gatherings at this time. Yet, the overall slope of increasing Mass attendance is evident since late 2020 and we will be watching Easter this year (note: Easter in 2023 had slightly higher attendance than in 2019).

In 2007, The Official Catholic Directory (OCD) made a change to how it asked dioceses for baptism data by separating out the previous definition of infant or adult baptisms to an expansion of: infant, minor, and adult baptisms. Infant baptisms are those received by minors under the age of 1. The 2007 OCD includes the baptismal data for the preceding year, 2006. Each OCD reports the previous year's sacramental totals. The most recent volume is for 2023 and includes 2022 data. The figure below shows how infant baptisms have changed since 2006.

First, it is important to note that the biggest component in the decline in baptisms are declining fertility rates. Catholics and non-Catholics in the United States are having fewer children. In 2010, there were approximately 130 babies born per 10,000 residents of the United States. This fell to 109 per 10,000 in 2020 and increased in the most recent data for 2021 to 110 per 10,000.

In 2010, when there were 130 babies born per 10,000 residents in the U.S., there were 112 infant baptisms per 10,000 Catholics. Thus, perhaps about 10% of Catholic infants born that year were not baptized before their first birthday (numbers of Catholic minor baptisms, for those ages 1 to 17, have been increasing over the years since the OCD began asking for new reporting categories). In 2020, there were just 56 infant baptisms per 10,000 Catholics while the country experienced a birth rate of 109 babies born per 10,000 people. Presumably, many Catholic infants were not baptized in 2020 and one can understand how this could have occurred as in some states it might not have been possible or families may have been concerned about gatherings and put these sacraments off to a future year. We don't have a complete estimate for the babies born per 10,000 residents for 2022 yet. However, the graph above shows that the number of infant baptisms rose in 2021 and 2022. In 2022, there were approximately 72 infant baptisms per 10,000 Catholics. 

Making comparisons between dioceses is difficult as one must disentangle differences in birthrates. Some states are much more likely to be home to young families than others. This often has to do with economic differences as well as the affordability of raising a family (and even perhaps the weather). In 2006, there were 133 infant baptisms per 10,000 Catholics. There were 22 dioceses with infant baptisms per 10,000 Catholics that exceeded the 2006 rate in 2022. A majority of these dioceses are in the South (55%) followed by the Midwest (36%), and the West (9%).

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