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Stop the doom and gloom: the statistics show that converts stay Catholic

Edgar Ortega, one of eight converts received into the Church during the Easter Vigil at St Clare of Assisi Mission church in Acworth, Georgia (CNS )

As someone who spends a lot of his time dealing with religious statistics, it seems to be my lot in life to be the bearer of bad news. I guess that’s why I don’t get invited to any of the razzamatazziest Catholic parties.

In my defence, if there is bad news, then it’s much better that the Church knows about it. For instance, the fact that – as I’ve reported previously – for every one British Catholic convert there are ten cradle Catholics who no longer even tick the “Catholic” box on surveys is, it seems to me, something eminently worth our being aware of.

That said, a recent Catholic Herald leader, commenting on statistics showing the growth of the Church worldwide, warned against unremitting “declinism” – that is, on focusing exclusively on the negatives. Duly chastened, it therefore gives me great pleasure to alert you to some very cheering research that I came across just yesterday.

For several years now, I have been hearing a “fact” stated with the utmost confidence: that a large proportion of adults entering the Church through the RCIA end up lapsing within the space of a year or two. I have even heard some depressingly precise figures quoted – 50 per cent, 75 per cent, even 90 per cent – along with authoritative, albeit non-specific, appeals to “a study from the United States”.

You have probably heard something similar yourself. Perhaps it flashed through your mind recently, briefly souring the joyful moment as you clapped those white-clad, beaming-faced “world’s newest Catholics” at your parish’s Easter Vigil.

Well, let me tell something. This week I was in Washington DC, among other things visiting the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). This is Georgetown University’s crack team of social scientists, who have been providing empirically rigorous yet pastorally useful answers to all manner of Catholic questions for over 50 years. (They have also partly inspired the creation of at least one other research centre, likewise based at a leading Catholic University in a major capital city.)

To be perfectly blunt, if there really is a “study from the United States” on the perseverence (or not) of adult converts, the good folks at CARA would not only know about it, but there’s a very good chance it would be theirs in the first place. Here’s the thing, though. No such study, showing a significant and imminent falling away of RCIA-ers, exists. What CARA do, however, is a raft of evidence suggesting precisely the opposite. All this is clearly set out in two blog posts, one from February of this year and the other from 2014, both of which I urge you to read.

The most recent, though modestly described as “a quick back of the envelope reality check”, is in fact a clever use of some very robust data sources. This estimates that something like 84 per cent of all American former RCIA-ers still regard themselves as Catholic. Given that, according to my own analysis of similar sorts of data, only 64 per cent of US cradle Catholics still identify as Catholic, that’s not bad going at all.

Meanwhile, the earlier study demonstrates, very strongly, that Catholic converts tend to be much more practising, more involved, more financially generous, and better informed than their co-religionists. It also offers plausible reasons as to why recent converts might seem to disappear: the fact that they’re no longer in your parish, doesn’t mean that they’re not in anyone’s.

Okay, so this is all evidence from the USA. Maybe things are different in Britain (not that that detail deterred the doomsayers before). Also, all CARA’s estimates here were arrived at indirectly (ie, they weren’t based on, say, following actual cohorts through and beyond RCIA process). Both issues would, however, be straightforward to rectify.

If it helps, I’ve just run a pilot study of converts in my own house (that’s “snowball sampling; n = 2” for the sociologists among you). I’m happy to report that early indications are very promising. (In all seriousness, for any evangelistically minded dioceses out there, it really wouldn’t be that hard to do properly – plus you’d gain a huge amount of useful information about how and why people come to convert in the first place.)

So, for the time being at least, I’ll rest smugly as – for once – the anti-declinist bearer of good news. We’ve good reasons for thinking that those beaming-faced “baby Catholics” (and yes, please do keep calling them that: they love it really) will be with us for many years to come.

And if that’s not a good enough excuse for one of those razzamatazzy parties, I don’t know what is.