Catholicism might not be in quite as dire shape as it seems.The plunge in Catholic adherence might be the most surprising thing in the Pew data, since for a long time overall Catholic numbers have been kept up by immigration even as white Catholics have drifted away. But some surprises are just polling outliers: For a contrary take, read Mark Gray, who blogs for Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, often the best source for Catholic data, and who has been critical of portraits of looming Catholic collapse in the past. Gray notes that when you compare this survey to others like it (the GSS, Gallup, etc.) the Pew numbers for Catholic identification are way down at the bottom of the scatterplot. Maybe this means that Pew really has honed the perfect poll questions and captured exactly the right sample. But it’s just as likely that the average rather than the outlier is closer to the truth, in which case Catholic numbers look more stable, hovering around 23 percent of the US population, close to where they’ve been for a very long time. Pew’s stark graphic showing Catholicism losing six cradle Catholics for every non-Catholic who converts, compared to far better ratios for evangelicalism and even the Mainline, also may overstate the Roman’s church’s problems, since it doesn’t capture all the denominational churn within Protestantism (a Presbyterian becoming a Baptist or vice versa). If you compare Catholicism to specific Protestant churches rather than broader umbrella categories, the Catholic retention rate looks a lot better; at worst in the middle of the pack, and more likely well above average. The fact that so many cradle Catholics are leaping to Protestant denominations is a sign, clearly, of Catholicism’s post-1960s convergence with Protestant norms and habits (visible in mass attendance and many other indicators as well), and that convergence as a general phenomenon is not good news for the faith. But neither is it quite the demographic crisis that a quick look at Pew’s comparisons might suggest.
Read the rest. Interesting stuff.