Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What does the survey tell us; trying to make some sense of the data

According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life report, Faith in Flux: Change in Religious Affiliation in the U.S., currently 44% of all adults in the U.S. do not belong to their childhood faith, the faith in which they raised, that amounts to roughly 95 million people, according to 2007 estimates from the CIA World Factbook. 9%, or some eight and a half million of these adults were raised Catholic, but no longer affiliate with the Catholic Church. 4% of U.S. adults who were raised Catholic and are now unaffiliated, with the other 5% now self-identifying as Protestants. It is also interesting to note that 9% of adults who practice the faith in which they were raised, at some point changed faiths, either being unaffiliated or affiliating with another group, before returning to their childhood faith. According to the survey, only 3% of those raised Protestant become Catholic. In fact, more people who were raised Protestant, 4%, affiliate with non-Christian religions than with Catholicism.

Unsurprisingly, Mass attendance seems to be the biggest predictor as to whether someone remains Catholic, especially during teenage years. 69% of Catholics who were born and raised in the church and are still Catholic attended Mass at least weekly during their teen years, compared to 60% of those who were raised Catholic and who now self-identify as Protestants, and 44% of those who are now unaffiliated. Even as a child, 86% of those who remain Catholic attended Mass at least weekly versus 79% of those who are now Protestant and 74% of those who are unaffiliated. This is a bigger predictor than either participation in children and youth religious education programs or attendance at Catholic schools, with 25% of those who remain Catholic having attended Catholic schools, compared with 16% who changed to being Protestant, and 20% of those who are unaffiliated.

Among the common reasons given by formerly Catholic respondents for leaving their childhood faith and now being unaffiliated, 71% said that they “just drifted away from religion,” followed by 65% ceasing to believe in the church’s teachings. They could give more than one reason leaving Catholicism. These are the only two general reasons identified by more than half of the previously Catholic and currently unaffiliated respondents. In their own words, 54% of the unaffiliated respondents who were raised Catholic cited religious and moral beliefs as their reason for leaving, the only reason to garner more than half among this group of respondents.

For those who were raised Catholic and now identify themselves as Protestants, 54% of those who now identify themselves as Evangelicals and 53% of those who are mainline, denominational Protestants said they just drifted away from religion. Presumably, when they came back, they affiliated differently for any number of reasons. 62% of Evangelicals and only 20% of mainline Protestants said that they stopped believing in the church’s teachings.

Getting more specific, 56% of the now unaffiliated, compared with 20% of self-identifying Evangelicals, and 31% of those who now consider themselves mainline Protestants, report their unhappiness with the church’s teachings on abortion and/or homosexuality as reasons no longer affiliating with the church. 48% of the currently religiously unaffiliated, 12% of former Catholics who are now Evangelicals and 26% of former Catholics who now affiliate with mainline Protestant denominations cite the church’s teaching on birth control as a reason for leaving. Divorce and remarriage also factor in with 33% of the now unaffiliated, 23% of Evangelicals and 31% of formerly Catholic mainline Protestants, saying it is a reason that they left.

Of the 48% of those adults who have left the Catholic faith, having been raised Catholic, who cited the church’s teaching on birth control as a reason they left the Catholic Church, 23% of those who now identify as mainline Protestants, 9% of those who are self-identifying Evangelicals, and 46% of the currently unaffiliated say that the Catholic Church is “[t]oo strict and conservative.”

It also bears noting that 36% of those who change religious affiliation from the faith of their childhood change twice, and 26% change three or more times, leaving 38%, thus constituting a plurality, who only change once.

A few tentative and preliminary observations:

I am one of the 44% of adults in the United States who no longer belongs to the faith in which I was raised, having changed only once. I became Catholic at the age of 24 in 1990. I consciously quit affiliating with the LDS at 22. By way of comparing a rough outline of my own experience with that of others who have changed religious allegiance, for whatever that might be worth, I am among the 79% of people who left their childhood faith before turning 24. However, I am slightly over the age at which 71% of those who change affiliation join their current faith, which is also prior their twenty-fourth birthday, though I did begin RCIA when I was twenty-three. These numbers are overwhelming. Only 21% of adults who change religious affiliation do so after age twenty-four! This gets back to religious practice and the late teen/early adult years. These are vital years. It is a time of transition for people from being children to adults. Hence, it is not a time merely for faith formation, but for faith transformation! St. Paul wrote: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor. 13:11).

Helping people in their mid-to-late teens and early twenties see that maturity in faith, as in all aspects of life, is vital. To aid them in discerning that faith in Christ, which of necessity is mediated to us by the church, conceived of as the whole communio sanctorum, of which they are a part, can withstand rigorous intellectual and existential scrutiny, is our pastoral challenge. This means assisting people in getting over much silliness, like believing that the mystery of the triune God, formulated as one God in three divine persons, somehow consists of believing that at the heart of Christian faith is a gross arithmetical error, namely that 3=1, which reason tells us differ by exactly two. It also means helping people get beyond the temptation, as Fr. Carrón put it, to reproach the Lord because, even though we are Christians, bad and unexpected things happen to us. Such things happen to everybody, just as it rains on the just and unjust in equal measure. We must also do a better job of engaging young people in the area of morality, especially in the always delicate area of sexuality. This is no small challenge, there are no easy answers here, especially given that against which we are forced to contend, but you do not meet a challenge by shrinking away from it. As with success in all education, the role of parents, who are the primary catechists of their own children, a task that cannot be delegated, is crucial.

Liturgy features centrally in all of this, it was not just a theological, but an anthropological assertion by the fathers of Vatican II that the euchartistic liturgy is the source and summit of our faith. However, we must strive for good liturgy, which is not liturgy that tries too hard to be relevant. Substantial preaching is also a must. People are not stupid, especially those adults who attend Mass each week and are serious about following Christ. In no two aspects of church life do we need to put away childish things than in liturgy, which includes preaching, and catechesis. On the whole, there needs to be far more adult formation on offer.

We must assist people in forming a faith that is not only an understanding of but a relationship with God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, a house built on a rock, strong enough to withstand the storms of life. Belonging to a community in order to help each other out is also vital; you know, that whole God and neighbor dynamic? In fact, 10% of the formerly Catholic and currently unaffiliated cite not enough feeling of community as a reason for leaving. An identical 10% of those who were raised Catholic, but who as adults belong to Protestant congregations also gave not enough feeling of community as reason for leaving the Catholic Church. That computes to roughly 850,000 leaving because they do find the community that they seek, either giving up the search altogether, or seeking it elsewhere.


  1. Thank you for your personal assessment/take on this article.

    You write in a later post, '...after posting my gouge on the Pew Forum's latest research...' Was it a gouge? If so I missed the critical aspect. Maybe I'm being facetious, I don't know. Statistics only tell us so much, right? And I'm new to your blog and unfamiliar with your style of writing. I've always thought of numbers and percentages as having very limited potential; expecting too much from an article/research like that would be like hoping my cat might bark. But then I could be wrong; it wouldn't be the first time. Anyway, I'm a 'book'-lady, so I usually seek for answers in stories, preferably individual human lives.

    However, my primary reason for writing was to thank you for your post. Reading it inspired me. You make many excellent points; I wish you could have been one of my daughter's Confirmation catechists.

    Our book club is reading Pope Benedict's The Spirit of the Liturgy and I was reminded of the important connection between physical presence at liturgy and maintaining one's faith. I'm a so-called 'cradle Catholic' who went through a turning away period in my life. I fall into the category of those people who attended weekly Mass throughout my teenage years, often without thinking it served much purpose. Now, I wonder... Perhaps I was being 'fed' all along simply by being there, without my even realizing it. Yes, liturgy is vital, so is discernment and, 'rigorous intellectual and existential scrutiny', 'substantial preaching' and engaging catechesis which begins early and continues throughout life.

    As G. K. Chesterton said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

    God bless you!

  2. First of all, welcome to my blog. Second, I appreciate your articulate comment. A gouge is one's take, or assessment on a given matter, or, in this case certain facts.

    I agree with you write that "I've always thought of numbers and percentages as having very limited potential". Indeed, what they offer is limited. What limited potential there is I am interested in discerning. In the end, what truly matters is that individual human beings encounter Christ. Ideally, they encounter Christ by encountering Christians, that is, people who live the new life given to them in baptism and sustained by the Eucharist. As far as this particular survey, I believe there are some good take aways for parishes to assist them in becoming truly eucharistic communities. As with most things, even Scripture, data needs interpretation to be meaningful.

    Spirit of the Liturgy is a gem, a truly great book. You are also correct when you insist that, while liturgy is central, it cannot be the only thing. After all, the only empirical proof of Christ's real presence in the Eucharist is the life of the one who receives it in order to mediate His presence in the world.

    God bless you, too, especially on this Monday!


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