Data Mining and Stock Grading

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 the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.