Is There a “Francis Effect” in the United States?

Is There a “Francis Effect” in the United States? April 12, 2018

A new poll by Gallup reveals that it is not only the pope’s native Latin America that has not experienced a “Francis effect” but also the U.S., home to the world’s fourth largest Catholic population. During the first couple years of his controversial papacy there were many anecdotal reports of his charisma and popularity leading to greater mass attendance in parishes across the globe, especially in the Americas. However the new Gallup survey shows that if there is any Francis effect at all it’s a negative one. Weekly church attendance among American Catholics has dropped 6 points during a three-year span of Francis’s papacy. Between 2014 and 2017 39% of Catholics reported weekly church attendance while from 2005 to 2008 45% did.

Lest conservative critics of Francis’s pioneering papacy use the Gallup survey as new ammunition against him, declining church attendance among American Catholics is a long-term trend that has developed over the past six decades. In 1955 approximately three-quarters of parishioners reported weekly church attendance. Unfortunately the Gallup poll does not include data on different ethnic and racial groups within American Catholicism, but it does contain intriguing statistics on church attendance by age groups.

The biggest takeaway is that among the five different age groups none contains a majority, more than 50%, that attend church on a weekly basis. While older American Catholics still are the most regular churchgoers, a slight majority, 51%, of those age sixty and over do not attend church on a weekly basis. Even more worrying for the Church is the continuing decline of weekly church attendance among the youngest cohort, age 21 to 29. Since the mid-1950s church attendance among Catholics in their twenties has plummeted from 73% to 25% with also a slight drop during the papacy of Francis.

For a church that has avoided the type of precipitous decline experienced by mainline American Protestantism, such as Presbyterians and Methodists, the falling attendance rates among twenty-something Catholics does not bode well for the future. The one bright spot among the five age groups are parishioners in their thirties who as a group actually increased their attendance at weekly services over the past decade from 40% between 2005 and 2008 to 43% from 2014 to 2017.

Beyond church attendance, Catholicism in the U.S. is in better shape than both mainline American Protestantism and the Church in Latin America, which has continued to lose members under Pope Francis’s watch. From 1955 to the present, the percentage of Americans identifying as Catholic has dropped only 2 points, from 24% to 22%. However, the relative stability of the Church compared to its competitors isn’t due to more effective strategies of pastoral outreach and retention but rather rather the rapid growth of the Latinx population, 55% of whom are Catholic.

Latinx currently constitute 34% of Church membership in the U.S., a figure that will only increase in the near future. But like their African-American and Euro-American peers, Millennial Latinx are in significant numbers opting out of organized religion. While 35% of all American Millennials are religious nones, 31% of Latinx are religiously unaffiliated. For the Church in the U.S. to remain relevant and avoid the type of decline taking place in Latin America and Europe, it will need to develop strategies that go beyond relying on papal charisma and popularity.

 


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  • anna lisa

    Two thoughts:

    1. Millennials don’t believe that God will send them to Hell for missing mass on Sunday. (Like I did when I was their age.)

    2. My home parish might well be the most liberal in the country. Just say “Marin County” and people roll their eyes. Last Easter, our HUGE church was packed. Standing room only. I’ve never seen our sparsely populated church so *packed* with people, young and old. It was a beautiful sight. My husband and I just stared at each other in disbelief. Our pastor coughed a bit and said, “We’re so glad you’re here…AND we’re here *every* other Sunday too!” People love Jesus–but they don’t respond so well to threats about how they’re supposed to show it. –Weekly mass attendance isn’t a barometer of the Catholic soul anymore.

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