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Special Report

Increasing indifference to church is concern


Our 1999 survey contains lots of good news for church leaders. For example, we find that American Catholics tend to value “core” aspects of the faith, such as the sacraments, the church’s role in helping the poor and belief that Mary is the Mother of God.

At the same time, however, our findings point to an area of real concern, namely the declining significance of the institutional church in the lives of American Catholics. Using the same questions at three points in time (1987, 1993 and 1999), we learn that the laity’s attachment to the church has waned in the last 12 years. Fewer Catholics report that the church is an important part of their lives. Fewer say they would never leave the church. Fewer attend Mass on a weekly basis. And, fewer accept the church’s concept of what it takes to be a “good Catholic” (see Table 6).

In one question, we asked lay people directly: “How important is the Catholic church to you personally?” In 1987, 49 percent of Catholics said the church is either the most important part of their lives or is among the most important parts. That number dipped to 43 percent in 1993 and rose a point to 44 percent in 1999.

We also asked the laity how likely it is that they would ever leave the church. We invited people to place themselves on a 1 to 7 scale, with one indicating “I would never leave the Catholic church” and 7 indicating “Yes, I might leave the Catholic church.” Combining the responses on points 1 and 2, we find that the number of Catholics saying they would never leave the church has declined steadily from 64 percent in 1987 to 57 percent in 1999.

Frequency of Mass attendance is another indicator of the importance people attach to the church. Once again, the trend is downward. In 1987, 44 percent of Catholics attended Mass at least once a week. By 1999, only 37 percent attended on a weekly basis.

Finally, we gave Catholics a list of attitudes and actions that the church uses to define a “good Catholic.” Among other things, the list included the church’s opposition to abortion and its prescription that Catholics attend Mass every week. The results clearly indicate that Catholics are less inclined today than they were in 1987 to define a good Catholic in terms that agree with church norms.

The number of Catholics saying one can be a good Catholic without going to Mass rose from 70 percent in 1987 to 76 percent in 1999. The number saying one can be a good Catholic without obeying the church’s teaching about birth control increased from 66 percent in 1987 to 71 percent in 1999. The number saying one can be a good Catholic without obeying the church’s teaching regarding divorce and remarriage climbed from 51 percent in 1987 to 64 percent in 1999. The number saying one can be a good Catholic without getting married in the church jumped from 51 percent in 1987 to 67 percent in 1999. The number saying one can be a good Catholic without donating time or money to help the poor increased from 44 percent to 56 percent.

Finally, the number saying one can be a good Catholic without obeying the church’s teaching on abortion also grew from 39 percent to 53 percent. Thus, by 1999 a majority of Catholics think it is possible to be a good Catholic without abiding by church teachings in all six of these areas.

These results do not indicate the demise of the Catholic church in this country. As Dean Hoge says elsewhere in this section, data in our 1999 survey show that Catholics still value the sacraments, the church’s role in social concerns and core doctrines such as Mary being the Mother of God. Also, as we see in Table 8, a majority of Catholics plan to stay in the church, even while they disagree with some of its teachings. Finally, none of the data I have presented here indicate a precipitous decline in the importance of the church. It would be wrong to conclude that the church doesn’t mean anything to Catholics any more.

However, our data suggest that lay people are less attached to the church today than they were when we began our surveys in 1987. It’s not that they are increasingly angry at the church. Rather, as more and more Catholics make up their own minds about what it means to be Catholic, they seem increasingly indifferent to the institutional church. This indifference is evident in areas of church life that lay people consider peripheral, such as church norms relating to ordination. But, more troubling perhaps is the fact that it also appears in some areas that lay people see as central to their faith, such as the sacraments. One indication of this is the declining levels of Mass attendance. Another is our data (presented elsewhere in this section) documenting an increase in interfaith marriages and marriages that bypass the church. Altogether, these findings indicate that American Catholics are not organizing their lives around the church as much as they did even 12 years ago.

Why is this an area of concern? The reason is that the more indifferent Catholics are to the church, the less likely they are to embrace Catholic faith and morals. In The Search for Common Ground, colleagues and I found that Catholics who are least committed to the church are least likely to embrace Catholic beliefs and practices. In their recent Commonweal article, Dinges, Hoge, Johnson and Gonzales found that young Catholics who attend Mass less than once a week are least likely to view core church teachings as important parts of their own religion. Elsewhere in this section, D’Antonio also shows that Catholics without parishes are less loyal and faithful than registered parishioners. As indifference increases, it becomes increasingly difficult to pass the Catholic heritage on to future generations.

What do these findings mean for church leaders? For leaders who feel the church and its traditional teachings should be preserved, these findings represent a challenge to find new and more effective ways of interpreting the importance of the church. Unless such means are found, indifference toward the church is likely to increase. For leaders who feel that the church and its current practices need to change, the challenge is to effect changes that will increase, not decrease, the importance of the church for future generations. Unless such changes are found, it is reasonable to assume that the significance of the church will continue to decline among lay people.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999