Catholic World Report
facebook twitter RSS
The CWR Blog
People apparently think they should be in church, but struggle to actually make it to church
(CNS photo)

Forty years ago, as the falloff in Sunday Mass attendance by American Catholics was becoming too obvious to ignore, Catholic voices began to be raised here and there saying it didn’t really matter. “You aren’t a good Catholic just because you go to church,” these people seemed to enjoy telling us. “What counts is what you do outside church.”

Two responses, which too seldom were offered at the time, were relevant to that. One was that evidence was lacking to show that most Catholics who skipped Mass had found other ways of expressing their presumed religious fervor. The other reply, arguably more to the point, was that the Second Vatican Council had only lately stressed the centrality of Sunday Eucharist in Catholic life, and staying away from Mass was hardly consistent with that.

And now, four decades later? A new study underlines the evident reality that the slippage in church attendance persists. It also offers the cold comfort of situating the decline in Mass attendance in the context of a decline in churchgoing by American Christians generally. The notable exceptions, it seems, are white evangelical Protestants, for whom the weekly attendance rate is around 60%. Hats off to them! For the rest, including Catholics, the numbers range from depressing to dismal.

The study, by a group called the Public Religion Research Institute, also compares what people say about their church attendance in live telephone interviews with what they say when they are answering questions in the impersonal medium of an online questionnaire. In brief, they are more likely to admit to not going to church in the latter situation than when actually speaking to somebody else.

Although the media made much of this finding, this particular disparity has always been recognized and often been reported, at least in general terms. In the present instance, its significance as it applies to the Catholic respondents can be seen in the fact that while 41% claimed to go to Mass weekly or more often when talking to an interviewer, that fell to 37% when the question was answered online. The same pattern existed for other Mass attendance categories: “occasionally”—44% on the phone, 34% online; “seldom or never”—15% telephone, 33% online (up a whopping 18%).

Attendance was, as noted, considerably higher among white evangelical Protestants (and among black Protestants too) and substantially lower among white mainline Protestants. Not surprisingly, attendance at church was lowest among the religiously unaffiliated, with “seldom or never” the response of 73% in phone interviews and 91% online.

If there is any consolation to be found here, it may actually reside in people’s tendency to overstate their church attendance when they are talking to someone else. Reflecting, as it obviously does, the universal human craving to look good in others’ eyes, this suggests that some people feel a residual sense of embarrassment verging on guilt about not going to church as often as they know they should.

Here perhaps is an opening here for getting at least some of these people back to regular attendance. It’s a simple argument: If you want X, you have to do Y—for instance, if you want to be a fan of the local ball team, you have to watch them play once in a while or at least you need to read about them in the sports page. Just so, if you want to be a friend of God, the minimal requirement is dropping in at church and saying hello on Sunday. That’s what friends do.

 
About the Author
Russell Shaw
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide and the highly acclaimed American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.
 
Write a comment

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative and inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.

View all Comments

Catholic World Report