Mass attendance down, but Catholics remain loyal to their faith

October 25, 2011

WASHINGTON - Although Mass attendance continues to decline among American Catholics, loyalty to Catholic identification remains strong, according to the results of a new survey commissioned by National Catholic Reporter newspaper.

Mass attendance by “pre-Vatican II” Catholics, born in 1940 or before, slipped to 54 percent, down 10 percentage points from the high recorded in the 1999 survey, but it still topped all age groups. The rate for “Vatican II” Catholics, those born 1941-60, is 31 percent; for “post-Vatican II” Catholics born 1961-78, 29 percent; and for “millennial” Catholics born since 1979, 23 percent.

Older Catholics cited “I’m just not a religious person” as the reason they don’t go to Mass more often, while younger Catholics cited family responsibilities as their principal reason.

Still, healthy majorities in all age groups agreed with the statements, “I cannot imagine being anything but a Catholic” and “being a Catholic is a very important part of who I am.” But no majority in any age group agreed with the statement, “Church is among the most important influences on my life.”

“One reason why Catholics continue to remain loyal to Catholicism while skeptical of some of its teachings and practices is that there are many aspects of Catholicism that they find meaningful,” said Michelle Dillon, who chairs the sociology department at the University of New Hampshire, in an essay accompanying the survey findings.

Catholics, she added, can “disagree with or make moral judgments that contravene church teaching and yet also respect the church’s moral stance. Thus, for example, although six in 10 Catholics ... think that a person can be a good Catholic without helping the poor and without agreeing with church teaching on abortion, very large majorities nonetheless also say that it is meaningful for them that the church shows active concern for the poor (88 percent), and that it is willing to stand up for the right to life of the unborn (72 percent).”

Sixty percent of survey respondents said one can be a good Catholic without adhering to church teaching on birth control. On the matter of helping the parish, the figure was 56 percent; on having a valid marriage, 48 percent; on weekly Mass attendance; 48 percent; on divorce and remarriage, 46 percent; on helping the poor, 39 percent; and on abortion, 31 percent.

A majority in each age group said they believe that “at the consecration the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ.” Majorities also agreed that the following things were very important to them as Catholics - the sacraments, belief in Jesus’ resurrection, helping the poor and the church’s teaching on Mary - although in smaller percentages than in 2005. These were called by William V. D’Antonio, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America and one of the survey authors, “four core elements of the faith.”

But no majority in any age group said they considered “teaching authority as claimed by the Vatican” to be “very important.” This, D’Antonio said, “is held by the Vatican (as very important) but is not seen in that way by the laity.” Teaching authority ranked behind prayer, opposition to abortion, devotions, and opposition to same-sex marriage - none of which garnered majority support in the survey - but ahead of opposition to the death penalty and of a celibate male clergy.

Larger percentages of Hispanic Catholics than their non-Hispanic counterparts cited Jesus’ resurrection, helping the poor, Mary, the sacraments, Vatican authority and a celibate male clergy as being very important to them as Catholics.

On political issues, strong majorities in each age group agreed with the U.S. bishops’ support for immigration reform. Vatican II Catholics were the only age group in which a majority did not agree with the bishops’ opposition to last year’s health care reform bill. And, while only a majority of pre-Vatican II Catholics backed the bishops’ opposition to same-sex marriage, the other groups’ support was at either 49 or 50 percent.

While a plurality of all but the oldest Catholics call themselves independents, majorities in all age groups said they lean Democratic.

The less committed Catholics said they were, the more likely they were to embrace other spiritual practices as reincarnation, yoga and “spiritual energy.” But even 21 percent of self-described committed Catholics said they had embraced yoga. While 47 percent of respondents said they were “spiritual and religious,” 29 percent called themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

The survey, conducted online by Knowledge Networks for NCR, involved 1,442 Catholics, including an oversampling of Hispanics and young people under age 32. The results were adjusted to account for the oversampling. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.