“I like the idea of attending church, but only attend on occasion…”

A new survey suggests that Catholic guilt still exists. That’s good news, right?

For the record, the quote in the headline is fabricated. But, then, this story is about fabrication. Kate Tracy, writing for Christianity Today, remarks upon a recent Public Religion Research Institue (PRRI) study that reveal a notable difference in responses made in telephone surveys compared to online surveys to the question: How often to you attend church?

The PRRI site states: “The research shows that every subgroup of Americans inflates their levels of religious participation, with young adults, Catholics and white mainline Protestants particularly likely to inflate the frequency of their attendance at religious services.” Some of the details include:

  • On the telephone survey, 36 percent of Americans report attending religious services weekly or more, compared to 31 percent on the online survey.
  • Compared to 30 percent of telephone respondents, 43 percent of online survey respondents say they attend religious services seldom or never.
  • Catholics are less than half as likely to report seldom or never attending religious services when responding on the telephone versus online (15 percent vs. 33 percent).
  • Nine percent of white evangelical Protestants report they seldom or never attend religious services when speaking with an interviewer by phone, compared to 17 percent who report the same in a self-administered online survey.
  • The study also found significant differences between younger and older Americans, as well as among different regions of the country, in the degree to which they inflate religious participation.

15% of Catholics polled by phone said they “seldom or never” attend weekly services, but that number jumped to 33% in the online survey, an increase of +18, equalling the largest in the study. The full study notes that Catholics apparently have a problem keeping track of exactly how often they make it to Mass:

Previous research exploring the gap between self-reported rates of religious participation and the anecdotal experiences of many denominations found that conventional public opinion surveys consistently overestimate attendance rates (Chaves and Cavendish 1994; Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves 1993; Marcum 1999).

By comparing aggregate head counts of Protestants in a particular Ohio county and Catholics in 18 dioceses, for example, Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves (1993) concluded that attendance rates can be inflated in public surveys by as much as 50%. Examining a larger sample of Catholic dioceses, Chaves and Cavendish (1994) similarly concluded that Catholic Church attendance based on individual counts was lower than self-reported attendance in surveys. Using data from the Presbyterian Church (USA), Marcum (1999) found that roughly twice as many Presbyterians report attending a religious service as can actually be found in church on a given Sunday.

This is also reflected in responses about the salience, or importance, of the Faith:

There are more modest differences among Catholics, indicating that they are more likely toexaggerate church attendance than they are the personal salience of religion. When answering a telephone survey, Catholics are somewhat more likely to say religion is the most important thing in their life than when answering an online survey (22% vs. 14%). A majority of Catholics across interview modes report that religion is one among many important things (60% online survey; 59% telephone survey).

This points to something that I first noted back in college, when I—then a fire-breathing Fundamentalist—convinced my college roomate, a Catholic, to become a “Christian” and leave behind the Church: Catholics will identify as “Catholics” for a lifetime, even if they stop going to Mass, renounce the Church, burn pictures of the Pope, etc. But if you are a Southern Baptist and don’t show up for church for three Sundays in a row, you may well have become a heathen and a hell-bound sinner (unless you believe in eternal security, but that’s another matter).

Tracy writes: “Why are Americans who don’t believe in God embarrassed to admit they don’t go to church very often? The study’s conclusion: Americans still think society expects them to be religious, and the social pressure is strong enough to affect even those who don’t believe.” No doubt that is correct. And Catholics are famous for “guilt” (despite often going months without hearing a homily about guilt or sin). But I suspect those guilty ties will continue to erode in many cases, although many Catholics do come back to more consistent Mass attendance after marriage and having children. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.