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 Will Your Final Resting Place Be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mantle photo courtesy of Aime Fedora.


Contrasting Portraits?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When the Pope Visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© 2009-2015 CARA, Mark M. Gray. Background image courtesy of muohace_dc.