By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There may be more American Catholics than ever, but they’re doing fewer Catholic things.
Such is the paradox that Pope Francis will be facing when he touches down in the United States later this month.
The Catholic Church counts a historic high of about 70 million Americans in the United States and its territories, the fourth-largest Catholic population in the world, behind Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines. Independent surveys of adults give mixed results on whether the Catholic population is growing or stagnating, and many cradle Catholics do leave the faith, but immigration has continued to fuel a membership roughly a quarter of the U.S. population.
What is clear is that the whole cradle-to-grave tradition of U.S. Catholicism life-cycle events is in decline. Many of these numbers have been declining since the 1960s, but consider the following trends from between 2000 and 2015, according to church statistics:
Similar — and, in some case, worse — declines can be seen in neighboring dioceses such as Greensburg, Wheeling, Steubenville and the Archdiocese of Louisville. Francis’ visit to Philadelphia, New York and Washington encompasses a Northeast region that has experienced numerous closings of parishes and parochial schools.
And even though the Pittsburgh region lost population following the steel bust of the 1980s, the Catholic numbers declined at an even higher rate. Catholics were 45 percent of the 1980 population of the seven-county metropolitan area, which straddles parts of the dioceses of Pittsburgh and Greensburg, but only 33 percent in 2010, according to the Association of Statisticians of Major Religious Bodies.
Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said such numbers underscore that when Francis calls on the church to evangelize, its primary audience consists of Catholics themselves who may have only a limited understanding of the faith. He said a spiritual individualism or “me-and-God mentality” is prevalent today, making it harder for people to understand the importance of communal rites such as baptism and communion.
“We’re a church family,” he said. “It’s in the context of the sacraments that we celebrate as a community.
While typical Catholic family size is smaller than in the past — itself a reflection of a widespread defiance of church proscriptions against artificial birth control — that doesn’t entirely account for the decline in childhood church participation. A new Georgetown University survey found more than two-thirds of Catholic parents don’t enroll their kids in any sort of religious education, either during or after school.
One-third of Catholic parents, generally those less connected to their parishes, don’t think it’s very important for their children to have first communion or be confirmed.
Those are central rites of passage for Catholics.
“If you don’t celebrate your first communion or are confirmed, you are more likely to leave the faith,” said Mark Gray, director of Catholic polls for Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
To be sure, there are signs of vitality.
The Georgetown survey found most Catholic parents affirm basic Catholic teachings about Jesus and Mary, and about half attend Mass at least once a month.
They do pray a lot, but mostly by themselves, not with their families. And signature Catholic devotions are limited: Little more than a third pray the rosary, and a fifth have taken part in the adoration of the Eucharist.
The Catholic population is booming in places such as Los Angeles and Houston, with their large Hispanic influxes. The Diocese of Galveston-Houston, for example, has nearly doubled since 2000. Los Angeles had 70,000 baptisms last year.
“Every parish is packed with people every week,” said Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez. “As far as I can see, people are coming to the church.”
Even in the Sun Belt, though, the numbers of Catholics are increasing faster than their participation in sacraments or Catholic education.
Archbishop Gomez said churches need to work harder to accommodate the work schedules of Hispanics so that it’s easier, for example, to bring children to preparation classes for confirmation.
Mr. Gray also said there’s a mismatch between the North, where dioceses are shuttering their oversupplies of churches and schools, and the Sunbelt, where pastors often complain of cramped spaces and lack of parking.
Even the Diocese of Pittsburgh can appear to be a tale of two churches. Even as the aging, dwindling ranks of parishioners at St. John Vianney in Allentown face the likely closure of the last parish in the heart of the Hilltop neighborhoods, suburban parish St. Kilian in Mars is building a new home to accommodate its 11,000 parishioners.
And even as nearby Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, draws tens of thousands of enthusiastic teens to summer conferences that promote traditional devotions and dogma, the overall national statistics show a youth population far more indifferent to the faith.
A new Pew Research Center report said fewer than half of Catholics think it’s a sin to have gay sex, use artificial birth control, live with a partner outside of marriage or remarry after a divorce without an annulment. They’re evenly split on whether the church should recognize gay marriages.
Frequent Mass-goers are more loyal to church teachings on these topics, but not overwhelmingly so.
Majorities of U.S. Catholics support civil marriage for same-sex couples and legalized abortion, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Francis opposes both, although a sizable minority of people incorrectly thinks he supports gay marriage because of his conciliatory words and gestures toward gays and lesbians, and he is not identified with these issues as strongly as his predecessors, Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II.
Majorities of Catholics agree with Francis on issues on which he has spoken loudly and often, including immigrant rights, responding to climate change (the subject of a new encyclical by Francis) and the government’s need to address the rich-poor gap.
As for the much-discussed “Francis Effect,” or anecdotes of people returning to the church at the inspiration of the charismatic new pope, the results are mixed.
Nearly twice as many Catholics say their view of the church has improved rather than declined over the past two years, and a majority of both current and former Catholics think Francis will attract Catholics back to the church, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
But thinking Francis will attract people isn’t the same as him actually doing so. In the two years since he became pope, church statistics are trending the same as they have over recent decades: with membership up but sacramental participation and school enrollment down.
Francis remains highly popular among Americans and particularly Catholics, but he faces the same challenge as John Paul II, whose stratospheric popularity in his prime did not translate into agreement on central teachings, outside of a core of admirers who include many in church leadership. The risk for Francis, as with his predecessor, is of being more admired than adhered to.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
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