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Is the Church in Decline Because It Won’t Get with the Times?
A common refrain is that the Catholic Church is in decline because it won’t modernize and adopt liberal values that are increasingly popular among Americans. Gallup surveys show that support has never been higher for issues like same-sex marriage, abortion under any circumstances, birth control, and pre-marital sex. People, so the reasoning goes, still want a faith but won’t tolerate one that is steeped in a “repressive” sexual ethic, perceived homophobic bigotry, and a patriarchal male-only leadership, so they go elsewhere. Similarly, prominent Catholics like Fr. James Martin send out tweets like the one pictured above, fueling the impression that if only the Church would get with the times, Catholics would stop leaving.
Yes, people are indeed leaving the Church; and yes, many of them have adopted more liberal values over issues such as female ordination, clerical celibacy, and same-sex Church marriages; and many of them probably would even identify these issues as a cause for their leaving the Church if they were surveyed about it.
However, the problem with that narrative is that it has a variety of empirical and logical corollaries that don’t appear to be borne out in the data.
First, if otherwise religious people are leaving over a principled moral stance on social issues, one would expect them to migrate over to more liberal religions. Is this what’s happening?
In today’s rich and vibrant religious marketplace there are religious institutions ready and eager to meet the spiritual needs of liberal religionists. If you live in a city, you have surely seen an “All Are Welcome” rainbow flag-clad sign outside a church—one example of the many ways some Christian churches are trying to attract people who hold liberal values. To test the opening paragraph’s refrain we took the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey—one of the largest surveys about religion in the past ten years—and looked at where people go when they leave Catholicism.
The survey shows that most people raised Catholic stay Catholic. In the midst of so many gloom-and-doom statistics, it is perhaps encouraging that 59% of cradle Catholics still identify as Catholic. But, as we’ve discussed before with a different dataset, that doesn’t mean that they are going to Mass (see “The Great Departure” for more details). Nor does it mean they believe the Church’s teachings (Pew paints a dismal picture). Of the 41% that leave Catholicism, almost half become unaffiliated, joining the ranks of the “nones” who don’t identify with any religion. It is perhaps tempting to assume that since nones don’t believe in any particular religion, they don’t believe in anything, but this isn’t true. In this data only 14% of raised-Catholic nones are atheists and 18% are agnostics. In other words, the remaining 68% have varying beliefs about God, a higher power, or what Stephen Bullivant calls “something-ism”: “the belief that there’s a Something out there.”This is perhaps most visibly manifested among the 20% of the raised-Catholic nones in the data who pray daily. (Although this is significantly smaller than the 39% of raised-Catholic nones who never pray, even this latter stat means that the majority of nones at least occasionally pray.)
The next most common destination for fallen away Catholics is Evangelical Protestantism which, while differing dramatically from Catholicism theologically, is not known for its progressive social stances. Notably, only a fraction (about 13%) of people raised Catholic who leave Catholicism decide to switch to the more liberal Mainline Protestant denominations, and only a subset of those are considered fully LGBT-affirming.
Therefore, it does not appear that otherwise religious people are switching en masse to more liberal alternatives as might be expected if the desire for a religion reflecting modern values was the driving force behind the exodus from Catholicism. Rather, the numbers suggest that currently the secularization of society is far more detrimental to the Church’s retention of Catholics than any contested teaching. Certainly, the Church can and should do more to demonstrate that all of her teachings—including those related to sexuality—are directed toward human flourishing. But the data indicate that some of what the Church most needs now is to help fallen-away or falling-away Catholics understand why religion matters and the relevance of Christ and His Church for their lives.
Second, are people less likely to leave the religion they were raised in if it’s liberal?
How are the more liberal Protestant groups doing with retaining their adherents compared to Catholicism? Again, if the Church is in decline because she won’t modernize her teachings, then denominations that are more liberal should have better retention rates. We split out the different faiths in which people were raised and then looked at the proportion who still identify with that group. We found that while it is undeniable that many are leaving Catholicism, compared to most other religions, Catholicism is actually doing a relatively good job at retaining its members—especially compared to more liberal denominations such as Anglicans and the United Church of Christ.
This chart suggests that the more conservative a faith is, the more likely it is to retain its adherents, with the more conservative Catholics, Latter-day Saints, and Baptists retaining a greater share than the more liberal Mainline Protestant denominations. (While the highest-retention faith is Judaism, as this is both an ethnicity as well as a religion, it is unique compared to other faiths).
As a brief aside, it is worth pointing out the 48% of those who were raised without religion but later “left” the world of nones to identify with a faith. (More than half who left became Protestant and about 9% became Catholic.) For all the warranted concern about the rising tide of nones, the unaffiliated do a worse job of retaining their “adherents” than many conservative faiths. This is cause for optimism, especially considering that many Millennials and Gen Zers, who identify as nones at noticeably higher rates than earlier generations, will likely raise their children as nones.
Finally, when people do leave the more liberal Churches where do they go? When we look at the 55% of those raised in more liberal Mainline Protestant groups who have left Mainline Protestantism, we find that nearly half become unaffiliated. This is similar to the pattern we saw among cradle Catholics who left and is unsurprising in our increasingly secular culture. But in an unexpected twist, a sizeable number (over 40%) of those brought up as Mainline Protestants who left switch over to the more conservative faiths. This finding of people switching from more progressive, sometimes woman ordaining and LGBT-affirming faiths to more traditional ones flies in the face of the conventional narrative, but it does appear to be borne out by the data.
Third, are politically liberal Catholics less likely to attend Mass?
If the declines in Catholic activity can be attributed largely to social issues, we might expect Democrat Catholics to decline in their religious activities more than Catholic Republicans. We did not test this ourselves, but political scientist Ryan Burge recently came out with a piece showing that the partisan gap in Mass attendance, while there, is not as large as one might think. As his graph below shows, attendance has plummeted regardless of political affiliation.
In future data-based posts we will look more closely at these patterns, including a deeper dive into the German church and other examples where the faith has been liberalized. There are typically many reasons why a faith is in decline, but these numbers suggest that liberalization in an attempt to retain adherents is wrongheaded, as there is no evidence that a more liberal outlook actually leads to fewer people leaving or more Catholics converting. Additionally, the evidence that the more conservative religions are better at retention further suggests that liberalization is not a solution. The Church must always remain true to the teachings of Jesus Christ first and foremost because she is steward of the truth, not its arbiter. Retention isn’t the ultimate goal, but even the numbers make it clear that what the Church doesn’t need now is to betray her Bridegroom and liberalize her teachings.
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Jayd Henricks is the president of Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal. He served at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for eleven years and holds a STL in systematic theology from the Dominican House of Studies.
Statistical analysis for this article was provided by Stephen Cranney, a data scientist in the Washington, DC area and a non-resident Fellow at Baylor's Institute for the Studies of Religion who has published over 20 peer-reviewed studies. His research has been reported on by The Guardian, Deseret News, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Christianity Today.
More formally, we subset just those individuals who indicated that they were Catholic when they were children and looked at what they currently identified as. Only groups that were greater than 1% of the total were included. Provided weights were used to assure representativeness.
Stephen Bullivant, Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022), p67.