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Is there a “Francis Effect”? Let’s look at the numbers.

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 03/26/15

The research blog at CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) at Georgetown offers some intriguing new statistics. Among other things, the declining number Catholics over the last few decades seems to have stopped, and the Catholic retention rate appears to be holding steady:

To date there has been a lot of talk but little real research possible on the “Francis Effect” (our previous thoughts). Social scientists now have their first glimpse at the potential effects in the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS). This is the primary survey used by sociologists. It is based on face to face interviews with a national random sample of adults. It began in 1972 and in the last two decades one survey has been completed every two years. Each GSS typically has interviews with about 500 Catholics. In 2014, 606 were surveyed (margin of sampling error of ±4.0 percentage points). This post pulls out some of the trends and major new findings for Catholics in 2014.

Are the U.S. Catholics of 2014 any different from 2012 and previous years in the GSS? First I present the most boring and surprising (to some) result? Catholics still make up a quarter of the adult population. To the chagrin of many reporters at secular newspapers the Catholic population will not decline like it is supposed to.

Protestants and other Christians are not faring as well and for the first time in the GSS make up less than half of the population. A near mirror image of this decline is the continued rise of the Nones, who have no religious affiliation (although many still believe in God and have religious or spiritual aspects in their life). Catholics still outnumber Nones but this may no longer be the case, if current trends continue, when the 2016 GSS is released.

Of course a stable affiliation percentage among a growing total population means that the Catholic population is also growing in absolute numbers. Yet, there is no increase in the affiliation percentage that one might expect given the rhetoric of a possible Francis Effect. There is certainly no evidence of any negative impact either. Then again no pope since the end of World War II has had any observable impact on the Catholic affiliation percentage which has remained absolutely steady in the mid-20% range.

Another closely watched figure is the Catholic retention rate. This is the percentage of those raised Catholic who remain Catholic as an adult. In the early 1970s this was in the mid-80% range. It has been steadily declining since to a low of 65% in 2012. In a bit of a surprise this has not dipped again as the trend would predict. The 2014 retention rate registered 66%. Given recent history even holding steady is an interesting result.

Are Catholics going to Mass more often? Are they praying more frequently? Overall, Mass attendance in 2014 (as well as in 2012 and 2010) is less frequent than in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s. It’s very similar to what it was in the 2000s. About a quarter say they attend once a week or more often (24%) and more than one in five go less than weekly, but at least once a month (22%). In total, 46% percent of Catholics are at Mass at least monthly.

“Christmas and Easter” Catholics make up 28% of the population by attending Mass a few times a year. One in ten are rarely at Mass (9%) and 17% never go to Mass. Thus, about a quarter of Catholics (26%) are almost completely disconnected from parish life. In the 1970s this group amounted to 13% of Catholics while 63% were at Mass at least monthly .

Read the rest.

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