The Catholic Church is In Trouble in Places Where it Used to Dominate
States like Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are Losing Catholics by the Thousands
Sometimes I think about where I will choose to worship after my time in the pulpit is done. I’ve preached nearly every Sunday of my adult life. I took a call as a pastor of a little church my first year in graduate school in 2005 and have had been the preaching pastor of a church ever since. My rough estimate is that I’ve preached 900 sermons in my life.
I am looking forward to not doing that at some point in the near future. But I still want to be part of congregational worship. The data tells me that I need to keep that as part of my life. So, where will I go? I might end up sitting with my wife at Mass on most weekends. She comes from an Irish Catholic family. Both my boys were baptized and confirmed in the Church. I like being there for a bunch of reasons. I won’t ever convert (for a bunch of a reasons), but I have lots of warm feelings about Catholicism.
But, the Catholic Church, like most of organized religion in the United States is in trouble. I don’t think that the problem is as acute among Catholics as it is among other groups like mainline Protestants, but that doesn’t mean that the “check engine” light is not flashing on the dashboard right now for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The pews are emptying and the share of Catholics is beginning to show its first signs of real decline in the survey data.
When the General Social Survey started in the early 1970s, about 26% of American adults were Catholic. They stayed at that level for the next two decades before slow dipping down to 25% by the mid-1990s. Again, they plateaued there for a while, until the decline started again around the late 2000s. From 2010 to 2021, the Catholic share dropped from 25% to just about 21% in the GSS. Easily the lowest level reported in the survey.
For what it’s worth, the Cooperative Election Study pegs it even lower. They’ve never reported the numbers that appear in the GSS. The high water mark in the CES was 21.5% in 2008. From that point forward the slope of the decline is about the same as the GSS. Now, 17.5% of Americans are Catholic according to this survey. It’s probably fair to say that Catholics are in the high teens or very low twenties, right now, in terms of percentage.
But I wanted to focus this post more on geospatial analysis than anything else. Obviously the Catholic Church is seeing a different pattern of decline in a region like the Northeast compared to the Southwest. That’s driven by all kinds of factors, especially immigration (which is a topic I will return to at the end of this post.) So, I compared state level numbers of Catholics in the Cooperative Election Study in 2008 vs 2022.
Lots of light blue across this map, right? That denotes a decline between 0% and 5%. That’s the case in most states across the middle part of the country, but also parts of the South and even through the West Coast and Northeast, as well. For instance, California Catholics are down two percent and so are those in Missouri and Maryland.
There are bigger losses in the Plains. Colorado is down about 5.5%, Kansas is a bit higher at just above 6% and New Mexico is nearly 10% less Catholic in 2022 compared to 2008. There are two states that are in double digits. Montana is down 12%, but that’s probably due to a small sample size issue there. So, grain of salt on that result. Massachusetts is down 11% and Connecticut is down 16%, those used to be Catholic strongholds. I will revisit that in more detail further down this post.
However, one of the biggest through lines in American Catholicism is the rapid decline in Mass attendance. I wrote about that in detail in this post:
The biggest takeaway from that post is this: Catholic Mass attendance has dropped from over 50% in the early 1970s to just about 25% in the most recent data. That’s obviously bad when it comes to having volunteers to run church programs and donors to financially support them. In what states has the drop in attendance been the most acute?
I was really surprised to see how modest the changes are here between 2008 and 2022 at the state level. In many states the changes are not substantively significant. That’s the case in states all over the Northeast, really and even into the West Coast. Up or down just two or three percentage points. There have been notable drops in attendance among Catholics across the middle of the country, though. You can see it in Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio.
The South offers a very mixed result. Attendance is down big time in Tennessee and North Carolina. But it’s flat in places like South Carolina and Georgia and has risen in Mississippi. It’s hard to make some sweeping generalizations from this data, honestly. I think it’s fair to say that you can’t make broad claims about these trends at the state level.
But let’s get even more granular now by using data from the Religion Census which tracks religious membership at the county level. I mapped the share of counties who were Catholic in 2010 versus 2020.
You can easily see from this graph where Catholic strength can be found. Strong pockets in the Northeast and Southwest. But also lots of Catholics are located in the upper Midwest and down at the southern part of Florida. It’s amazing to me how the South has so few Catholics (outside of Southern Louisiana and the aforementioned Florida).
When looking at shifts in these maps, there are some areas that immediately jump out to me. The upper Midwest has seen some big declines. Especially in places like Wisconsin and Minnesota. Lots of counties going from deep red to lighter red. That’s also the case in the Northeast, too. The number of deep red counties is noticeably smaller in the 2020 map.
In terms of growth, it’s hard to find a lot of hopeful signs in these two maps. Certainly Florida is a bright spot - lots more deep red counties there. Maybe some signs of growth across a few pockets in the Plains, too.
The map below will help pull that into sharper focus, though. I subtracted the share of the county that was Catholic in 2010 from the share that was Catholic in 2020.
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