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Rising and falling numbers in the U. S. Catholic Church

Rising and falling numbers in the U. S. Catholic Church

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Roman Catholic Church, dives deeply into information recently released in the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae (ASE) and The Official Catholic Directory (OCD).

Blogger Mark Gray says his bedside manner compels him to start with the good news:

Ordinations to the priesthood and seminarians preparing for this vocation are up. Ordinations have increased by 12% since 2000 and the number of seminarians enrolled has increased by 5%. ….

The parish-affiliated Catholic population has grown by 11% and the self-identified Catholic population has grown by 7% since 2000. Overall, the self-identified Catholic population has added 5 million. A significant portion of this growth has come from foreign-born Catholic adults which have increased by 4.4 million. CARA’s survey-based estimates of Mass attendance show a slight uptick from 22% attending weekly to 24%. With a growing Catholic population that means nationally the Church has seen the number of Catholics who go to church every week increase by more than 2.6 million since 2000 (+17%).

Now, the not-so-good news:

The Catholic Church in the U.S. has experienced a net loss of 1,753 parishes since 2000 (-9%). Most of these losses have occurred in the Northeast and Midwest …. Although ordinations are up these remain insufficient to maintain the population of priests due to retirements and deaths. Overall, the number of priests in the U.S. has fallen by 7,424 since 2000 (-16%). The number of parishes without a resident priest pastor has increased by 653 to 3,496 (+23%). The ratio of active diocesan priests to parishes has decreased from 1.2 to a precarious 1.0. Although more parishes are without a resident priest pastor the Church has decreased the number of parishes where pastoral care is entrusted to a deacon or lay person (Canon 517.2) from 447 in 2000 to 388 now (-13%). Essentially, in many dioceses, parishes are being closed rather than having these entrusted to a deacon or lay person.


Baptisms of infants and minors have decreased by 22%. However, it is important to note some of this decline is in part related to fewer children being born. ….

Adult conversions are also in decline with fewer adult baptisms (-51%) and receptions into full communion (-31%). Some of this is related to fewer Catholics marrying. The primary reason most adults convert to Catholicism is because they marry a Catholic. There were 2.3 million marriages in the United States in 2000 compared to 2.1 million in 2011. Not only are Americans less likely to marry now than in 2000, Catholics are less likely to marry in the Catholic Church. The number of marriages in the Church has declined by 41% since 2000 (from 261,626 to 154,450). Even the number of Catholic funerals is down 15% (…should I have noted that in the good news section?).

Since 2000, survey-based estimates of former Catholics—those raised in the faith who no longer self-identify as Catholic—have increased by 14.1 million. This is equivalent to more than 900,000 per year and this would be slightly larger than the number the Church added in baptisms and receptions into full communion in 2012 (817,757).

The Episcopal Church is also accustomed to receiving distressing numerical news about its membership. We present these numbers in part to demonstrate that church decline is part of a larger nationwide trend, and to make it absolutely clear, if it wasn’t already, that explanations of membership trends that blame decline on hot-button culture war issues are superficial and frequently misleading.


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Susan Snook

Jim, I agree that culture wars don’t explain our decline, though of course the departure of a number of conservatives has certainly affected our numbers. But I think the issue is bigger than that, and it is shared by most mainline denominations and obviously Roman Catholics as well – we’ve forgotten how to do evangelism (which is proclaiming good news), we’ve failed to connect with younger generations, we’ve grown complacent with the Christendom model of church (i.e., everyone goes to church, so we just need to make our brand of church more attractive than the brand down the street). These days we need to be convincing people why following Jesus makes a difference in their lives, and why they should do that in a Christian community. It’s worth convincing people of this, because committed Christian disciples are the ones who can take action and make a loving difference in this world. We’re not the only denomination to suffer this failure, as you rightly point out, but that doesn’t give us a free pass. I appreciate you sharing these thoughts, because the decreasing church involvement in America should be a wakeup call for all denominations, including ours.

John Thomas

This article shows additional trends within “Mainline Protestantism” and, while the article does not mention it, Conservative-Evangelical churches are starting to see declining trends as well. I’ve heard everything from it’s a “Dark Night of the Soul” for the church, to Campbell’s argument that it is in part a loss of uninvolved members (in 1970s terminology), who are analogous to “Spiritual But Not Religious” types in ours (who no longer fell social pressure to attend church.)

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