The Catholic Thing
Data Mining and Stock Grading Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 24 October 2011

The website of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life offers a goldmine of much interesting data, although some of it may give you the intellectual equivalent of black lung disease. 

For instance, Pew’s survey of Catholic attendance at Mass found the following percentages:

Never                                    6
Seldom                                  13
A few times a year                 20
Once or twice a month           19
Once a week                          33
More than once a week           9

Looking at these figures, you wouldn’t be wrong in concluding that, among America’s nearly 80-million Catholics, only a smidgen more than 40 percent is actually, well, Catholic, in the sense that they recognize the obligation to attend weekly Mass.

Do the rest not know that every Sunday is a Holy Day of Obligation? Fifty-eight percent clearly don’t or don’t care – and, if you don’t care, how it is you are Catholic? But I’ll bet the proportion of Catholics unaware of the Sunday obligation is actually much higher; that many of those who say they attend weekly are ignoring vacation days or business-travel days – or “lazy” days – when they skip Sunday Mass. I missed Mass this year on one vacation Sunday, and when I confessed it on Monday the priest gave me the most elaborate penance I’ve ever received.

Not that mere attendance guarantees the believer is properly in communion with the faith. At my church, where Sunday attendance is high at five of the seven Masses (the Vigil, 8:00, 9:30, 10:45 and noon), about 100 percent receive Communion. But as I’ve often observed, I’m pretty sure that fewer than 10 percent have been to confession in many moons. So although they meet the obligation, they’re not necessarily accepting of the burden.

          Data mining can be a messy business

There’s a Pew chart that shows “Religious Composition of the U.S.” and displays the legacy of Christian disunity after the Reformation. Most of the chart is taken up by designations of Protestantism. There are three main headings: Evangelical Protestant Churches (26 percent of the U.S. population), Mainline Protestant Churches (18 percent), and Historically Black Churches (7 percent). But under those categories are more than 100 different denominations. The single “Catholic” line, with no sub-categories, seems almost insignificant . . . except that we are 24 percent of the U.S. population – by far the largest single “denomination,” as I suppose sociologists would term the One True Church. By other ways of measuring, we’re equal in size to the next fifteen denominations combined.

If you add up all evangelical and mainline Baptist groups, they equal about 13 percent of the U.S. population. But the data also show them shrinking, while Catholics are growing and will soon be double the number of Baptists.

Buddhists, Muslims, and Orthodox churches have more-or-less equal numbers of members (0.6 - 0.7 percent), and Jews constitute 1.7 percent. A friend of mine, a Jew, married an Asian woman shortly after she came to America – he’s a native New Yorker, and she’s from a Buddhist family in Burma, although educated in Catholic schools there. After she’d been in New York a while, her husband asked her to estimate the Jewish population of America. She guessed 50 percent. “You need to get off the Island of Manhattan,” he said.

Speaking of faith by locale, the most religious state – as determined by questions about the importance of faith in your life – is Mississippi, and tied for last are Vermont and New Hampshire. Sad to say, except for Nebraska, states with the highest Catholic populations tend to rank among the lowest on the “very religious” scale.

But it’s when you dig down into core measurements of Catholic belief that you get covered in soot. I’m not referring to what the Church actually teaches, but what American Catholics tell pollsters they believe. Here’s a truly depressing datum: among weekly communicants, 26 percent believe abortion should be “legal in most cases.” True, 67 percent of weekly Mass attendees do not favor legalized murder of innocent children. But they are the most observant Catholics.

Among remaining “Catholics,” 65 percent are pro-choice. The figures for all Catholics come out 45/45. I suppose it’s the result of an educational system based upon the notion that it’s okay whatever you choose to believe, as long as you’re sincere! One bright spot: support for abortion has actually been declining, albeit slightly, among all grades of Catholics (and also among all religious groups.)

Maybe we need formal grading of Catholics from the USCCB, just as the FDA classifies beef: step-down ratings from Prime-plus, through Choice and Select, to Standard-minus. 

         Do we need a USCCB grading system for Catholics?

What about same-sex marriage? Among all Catholics: 46 percent favor, 42 percent oppose, an exact flip from just a few years ago. Despite pro-life gains, support for same-sex marriage seems inexorably on the rise – pretty much among all Catholics, although more so among whites than Hispanics. These are Catholics in need of catechetical marinating. Better that than they should continue to stew in their own juices.

To borrow Occupy Wall Street rhetoric, I intend to proclaim: “I’m the 9 percent!” – meaning I’m among the marbled more-than-once-a-weekers at Mass, which is good. But if saints are Prime-plus, I need a bit more time on the feedlot, by which I mean at prayer and by visiting my local purveyor of malted-barley beverages. That should fatten me up.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, a senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. One of his books, The Compleat Gentleman, was published in a revised edition in 2009.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.  

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (15)Add Comment
written by Trish, October 24, 2011
A grading system would be horrible unwise. One of the fastest ways to pride, and ergo to perdition, would be to know where you stand in relation to everyone, like, "Gee, I'm an A+ Catholic! Those other 'Catholics' are only C-." That would be quite the slippery slope! You never know what's going on in someone's heart. Even if one is in that 9%, he could only be going through the motions so as to look holy. And surely there are folks in the once-a-week crowd who would really like to get to Mass every day but live in an area where there are multiple parishes to a pastor and daily Mass just isn't available.

I'd rather be in the position of the publican (even if I actually was an A+ and happened to be awful only in my own estimation) than have the vainglory of the Pharisee.
written by mdepie, October 24, 2011
This state of affairs is easily explained by the observation that the USCCB is not reliably Catholic! Keep in mind that the USCCB controlled Catholic Campaign for Human Development was ( and in some cases may still be ) funding organizations that support abortion on demand and gay marriage. Until we and those bishops who still remain serious about Catholicism take this catastrophe seriously the problems will worsen. Supposedly we believe abortion is an unspeakable crime as per Vatican II, and "murder" as per Blessed John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, so we have the USCCB indirectly funding organizations that support legalized murder. Where is the outrage Catholic Blogosphere? EWTN seems ok with this? Imagine if we were talking about funding some racist organization? Surely someone would be fired, The CCHD would have very visible reorganization etc... I see none of this. The problem starts at the top. Not all the Bishops are with the program, The ones who are need to stand up, the faithful will follow. Those of us in the pews need to start making the case for why this is a must.
written by Ben Horvath, October 24, 2011
How many people are challenged to live life in the Faith against the false promises of the world vs how many are 'subject to judgement' in that the voices of the official church they hear give them passing grades and a free ticket to heaven without any effort to change their lives?

Maybe 'not judging lest ye be judged' includes judging someone innocent as well as judging someone guilty?
written by Manfred, October 24, 2011
What do you think the percentages would be if the Pew study only focused on those Catholics who were in traditional chapels, parishes? The future of the Church lies with "small, convinced communities." Pope Benedict XVI
written by Zen, October 24, 2011
What I would like to see are the percentages comparing cradle Catholics to converts. That should give us pause!
written by Rex, October 24, 2011
Some faithful Catholics are in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. A few years ago I had the privilege of taking communion to such a group and praying the rosary with them. Some of them were taken to mass once a month by family members. I don't know if there are enough folks like that to skew the percentages. The local priests were too busy to say mass at all these places. Pray for more priests.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., October 24, 2011
Trish, I know that you mean well, but what you wrote is exactly the kind of thing that is said by relativists who say that the scarment of Penance is not necessary and that the Church must modernize and conform its teachings to contemporary secualr values. Such people also claim that the only thing that matters is recognzing that Jesus was a socilalst and that if there does happen to be a Heaven, only those who support the confiscation of wealth get there. No, I'm not remotely suggesting that you are modernist, relativist, or evena secret or virtual Marxist, as are many who judge those who judge. It is not playing hte Pharisee to want protect one's loved ones from the heresy and indifference that leads people to ignore Sacraments. After all, who cares about a silly communal meal, which is what the modernizers have made of the Holy Sacrafice of the Mass.
written by KC, October 24, 2011
Trisch, good call out. I know of all too many people who go to church every Sunday and confession, and somehow think that by going to church a lot, they are "religious" when in fact they don't have a clue about faith and the Holy Spirit. They are what's called cultural Catholics. The ones who are the worst role models are the ones that do really shameful things and then go to confession and think they are white as snow afterwards, then do the same thing again the next week,and go to confession's a joke and an abuse of what confession is supposed to be.

And contrary to to Mr. Coleman's response to Trisch, there's NOTHING "relativist" about what Trish said. She spoke the truth, the Biblical truth, and he is putting what she said into false light, just like what a serpent would do.
written by Mike, October 24, 2011
I doubt very much that 9 percent of Catholics attend mass during the week in addition to Sunday. Almost 1 out of 10? No way. We have 10,000 people in my parish and there are about 30-40 at any one daily mass during the week. There should be about 900 people there every day if that poll is correct. Way off.
written by Chris in Maryland, October 24, 2011
Well, the picture is lousy...the glass is not even half full.

The Church seems kind of low on "Pharisees," but has plenty of "Sadducees" if you know what I mean. Perhaps, in fact, this distribution has actually been the norm over the centuries.

The article mentions the problem of education. Catholicism is a smart religion, but, as Father Barron of "Word-on-Fire" notes, much of the Church's own "education" infrastructure teaches "dumbed-down Catholicism." My high school in Long Island, NY for instance...considered one of the top boys' Catholic high schools in NY, like the "top school" in Chicago recently noted by Fr. Barron, had a very weak Catholicism course, compared to the higher quality of the secular course material (Barron calls it "coloring book").

The Church needs to take itself more seriously, and that includes very openly assessing its schools, colleges and seminaries. Since Fr. Barron rightly notes that The Church is not meeting the bar of excellence in educating Catholics about Catholic theology, philosophy and culture, the quality of Catholic parishes, schools and colleges is thus measured by the Pew study, at very least as a lagging indicator of the abysmal quality of our education effort in the 1970's and 1980's.
written by Chris in Maryland, October 25, 2011
PS - While I admit that Catholic education about Catholicism is weak, is it really so weak that most Catholics are ignorant of the Commandment to keep holy the Sabbath?

No, these "Catholics" not attending Mass just don't care...too inconvenient for the convenience culture...period.

On the other hand, with the kind of "gnostic catechesis" going on in dioceses like El Paso right now (see Michael Voris), it's amazing that the 33% keep going to Mass on Sunday.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., October 25, 2011
Dear KC, I did NOT say tat Trish was a relativist. I simply stated the relativists use the condemnation of judgement-making as a way to cover their undermining of the faith. Personally I have no information about the private lives of others, so I'm sure how you know about people committing the same sins repeately after going to Confession. We are all, however, know of poeple who public defy or lie about what the Chruch teaches. When huge numbers of Catholics do not know--keet alone believe--what the Chruch teaches, should know that we are in trouble. So when a priest says public to raucus applause that the Last Supper was not the Frist Mass and the Christ did not ordain anyone, we do not have the right to remain silent.
written by Rex, October 25, 2011
The 9 percent attending at least one week day seems right in my parish. Especially during school when the kids march over on some days. I go most Wenesday evenings and I used to be surprised at all the people there, but now I expect it.
written by Graham Combs, October 25, 2011
At mass Fr. Espinoza asked the congregation how many thought he was "all set" as a Catholic -- that there was no doubt he was going to heaven. A few raised their hands. Smiling he said, "hey, I'm a nice guy, I go to confesson once a month." The congregation laughed and a few more hands shot up. His point was that "no one is all set." We're all struggling toward that end. Yet what stayed in my mind was the number of times he went to confession. I immediately recalled a scene from the film WILL PENNY when the pioneer woman new from the east asked Penny how many times he bathed, "Once a month?" she suggested. "Once a month!" the old cowboy cried out -- stunned at such an expectation. I felt the same way about Father. Once a month! I barely go once a year. Yet I do attend mass every week and also special occasions or holy days of obligation -- All Souls Day or Vespers for St. Therese on October 1st. I also try to attend mass at least once during the week (since becoming unemployed). Yet it is the infrequency of confession that bothers me more. For a convert there are Catholic practices that are particulary hard. So I try not to be judgmental. (Yet I'm guilty of that too!) I'm afraid statistics and pouring over them don't help much.
written by Brad Miner, October 25, 2011
@ Graham Combs: You write, "I'm afraid statistics and pouring over them don't help much." Perhaps. But the data are food for thought. Considering the Pew statistics, we (laypeople and our priests and bishops) may reconsider what the Church needs now: what should be proclaimed in homilies; what we teach our children; how we catechize adult converts.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author