Is the church in the United States in decline?

Categories: Guest Views

Optimists and pessimists can draw different conclusions on the direction the church in America is heading

Jan. 3, 2014, edition
By Doug Scott

Few would argue that these are turbulent times for the church in our country.

Liberal pundits and special interest groups increasingly portray the church as old-fashioned in its views on female ordination and homosexuality.

dougscottThe gap seems to be growing between the church and American society on social issues like contraception and divorce, to name just a few.

And sadly, 11 years after the Boston Globe broke the first stories of clergy sexual abuse allegations, the scandal is still making news.

There are plenty of reasons for believers to feel alienated. So, is the church in the United States losing members? And if so, is the dissension over social and moral issues causing this decline?

Historically the church in America has enjoyed steady growth. Around the year 1800, just over 1 percent of the population was Catholic. That doubled to 2.5 percent by 1820 and rose to nearly 19 percent by 1920. By 1960, those who identified as Catholic rose to over 22 percent, and that number has stabilized at somewhere between 22 and 25 percent ever since.

Has all the turmoil of recent decades sent the ranks of believers into a tailspin? It depends how you look at the numbers.

Digging into the data

Survey data from Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, revised 2011, shows that those who have left the domestic church outnumber those who have joined by a margin of nearly four to one.

Today, one in 10 Americans are former Catholics. If thought of as a separate denomination, “former Catholics” would be the second largest in the country, surpassed only by the Catholic Church itself.

Still, according to Pew, the percentage of U.S. Catholics in 2010 was holding steady at around 24 percent of the total U.S. population — approximately 75 million out of a population of over 308 million.

How is this possible?

In a word: immigration.

The influx especially of Hispanic immigrants is adding millions of faithful to the American church.

Pew notes that over half of all migrants to the U.S. are Catholic. In 2010, more than 22 million of the approximately 75 million U.S. Catholics were born outside the country.

The study, Planning for the Future of the California Church: a Demographic Study (2006), points to U.S. Census Bureau projections that the U.S. population will increase 100 million by 2025. Of this increase, the study estimates 44 million will come from immigration, with a projected 60 percent of the Hispanic immigrants in this group expected to be in the church.

This certainly is good news for the church in the U.S. But strip out the increase from immigration and you are left with a member base in attrition.

Behind the numbers

Are people leaving the church primarily over disagreements on moral and social issues?

Not really.

Approximately half of all Catholics who have fallen away from the church claim no new religious affiliation. Most of the other half joined a Protestant church.

For those who left and joined a Protestant church, three out of four indicated their “spiritual needs were not being met,” adding “they found a religion they like more” and they were “unhappy with teachings about the Bible.”

Among the unaffiliated, half did note displeasure with church teachings on abortion, homosexuality and birth control.

But nearly three out of four unaffiliated indicated they just “gradually drifted away” from the church (for more details, refer to the chart Reasons for Leaving Catholicism on page four of Leaving Catholicism, Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project).

Immigration, even if reformed, will continue to have a positive impact on the church in the U.S.

At the same time, many American Catholics seem either spiritually starved, or “drifting” away from organized religion and toward broader acceptance of issues traditionally challenging for the church.

Optimists and pessimists can draw different conclusions on the direction the church in America is heading; there’s something in the data for both.

Doug Scott is a member of St. Louis Bertrand Parish in Foreston.