Perhaps I’m overstating it in the title, but new research from the States shows that the Catholic Church there is much better at retaining old members than it is recruiting new ones. Or more precisely, it is not losing members any faster than any other mainstream Christian body; the problem is that it is not gaining them very effectively. As John Allen says: “To put all that into crass capitalistic terms, in America’s highly competitive religious marketplace, the real Catholic problem isn’t customer service but new sales.”
Here is his analysis of the 2008 “Religious Landscape Survey” from the Pew Forum. You can read his interview with the people at the Pew Forum here.
Try as we might to remind ourselves that the Catholic church isn’t Microsoft and that quantitative measures of success or failure don’t always correspond to the logic of the Gospel, most of us take that lesson to heart only selectively. Some Catholics can’t resist touting the huge crowds at World Youth Day as an endorsement of their version of orthodoxy; others cite polling majorities in favor of reform on birth control and other issues as proof of the sensus fidelium.
The most powerful recent instance of that temptation has been Catholic reaction to the 2008 “Religious Landscape Survey” from the Pew Forum, which documented a remarkable fluidity in religious affiliation in America — almost half of American adults have either switched religions or dropped their ties to religion altogether.
For Catholicism, the banner headline was that there are now 22 million ex-Catholics in America, by far the greatest net loss for any religious body. One in three Americans raised Catholic have left the church. Were it not for immigration, Catholicism in America would be contracting dramatically: for every one member the church adds, it loses four. On the other hand, the study also found that the Catholic church has a higher retention rate than other major Christian denominations, and that 2.6 percent of the adult population is composed of converts to Catholicism, representing a pool of nearly six million new Catholics.
Naturally, critics of various aspects of Catholic life, such as the sexual abuse crisis or what some see as an overly conservative ideological drift, see the defections as proof of malaise. (A prominent American theologian recently claimed the Pew data reveal a “mass exodus” from the church, which he linked to a preoccupation by some bishops with the culture wars.) Equally predictably, Catholics content with the status quo play up the good news.
Given the disparities in interpretation, I turned to the director of the Pew Forum, Luis Lugo, to try to understand what the data really have to say. I spoke to Lugo by phone Thursday morning, and we were joined by Pew senior researcher Greg Smith.
Here’s the bottom line: In comparison with other religious groups in America, the Catholic church’s struggles aren’t really with pastoral care, but missionary muscle. Overall, Catholicism serves existing members fairly well, as measured by the share that chooses to stick around; what it doesn’t do nearly as well is to evangelize. The data do not reflect widespread dissatisfaction in the pews, at least to any greater extent than other religious bodies face. Instead, they reveal a problem with getting people into the pews in the first place.
To put all that into crass capitalistic terms, in America’s highly competitive religious marketplace, the real Catholic problem isn’t customer service but new sales.
Even if one were to focus just on defections, it’s not clear which ideological camp in today’s church could claim vindication. While many former Catholics object to church teachings on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, one in ten Protestant Evangelicals in America today is also an ex-Catholic, many of whom deserted Catholicism because it wasn’t conservative enough. Finally, there’s a clear plug for youth ministry implied in the Pew data: Roughly two-thirds of those who abandon Catholicism do so before they’re 23, which means the make-or-break period is adolescence and early adulthood.