United States: Counting sheep

New figures show that America’s pews are continuing to empty

After the last conclave, both Catholic and secular media were abuzz over the so-called “Francis Effect”. The new Pontiff’s simple lifestyle and gentle manner were said to help lapsed Catholics “reconnect” with the Church. Pope Francis was cast as a reformer who would finally purge the priesthood of child abusers. The hype grew when he began making off-the-cuff remarks that hinted at the liberalisation of Church doctrine. (“Who am I to judge?” he said of gay people.)

As it turns out, however, lapsed Catholics have not been flocking back to the Church. According to a new Gallup poll, Mass attendance in the United States continues to fall under this pontificate – and it’s doing so at one of the fastest rates since Gallup began conducting this survey in 1955. In that year 75 per cent of Catholics said they went to Mass every Sunday.

That number began to fall even before Vatican II, and had plummeted to 54 per cent by 1975. The decline continued but slowed down under John Paul II: during his pontificate, Mass-going fell by an average of four points per decade but appeared to stabilise at 46 per cent towards the end of his reign. This figure remained essentially unchanged under Benedict XVI.

But the latest figures show that the number of Catholics who reported going to Mass every week between 2014 and 2017 has fallen to an average of 39 per cent, compared to 45 per cent between 2005 and 2008. That six-point fall contrasts sharply with Protestant church attendance, which has risen slightly from 43 to 45 per cent since the 1980s.

Proponents of the “Francis Effect” theory may argue that the drop-off in Mass-going might have been sharper had the 2013 conclave elected a more conventional pontiff; there is no way of knowing. But, clearly, there has been absolutely no renaissance in the practice of the faith in America under this Pope. So, what has gone wrong?

Francis is well liked by most American Catholics. Back in March, the Pew Research Centre found that 84 per cent of US Catholics approved of his papacy. Yet 24 per cent also feel he is too naïve, and 55 per cent of Catholics who vote Republican believe the Holy Father is too liberal. Given that so many practising (as opposed to nominal) Catholics have switched to the GOP in recent years, that last finding may be significant.

Meanwhile, many of the strongest supporters of the Pope’s reforms (real or imagined) tend to be found outside the Church. So, if the US bishops allow themselves to be perceived as hostile to “reactionary” Catholics, then they may end up alienating many practising Catholics.

The University of Villanova theologian Massimo Faggioli believes that US Catholicism has become increasingly divided since the rehabilitation of the traditional Latin Mass in 2007. He talks of a “biritual” Church, even though the vast majority of American Catholics attend vernacular Masses.

The new Gallup figures offer no evidence to suggest that this division (if it exists) has had an effect on church attendance. Why should it? The reign of Francis has been dominated by arguments over theology, not liturgy. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that the controversies over the four cardinals’ dubia would keep conservative Catholics away from Mass. We might speculate that Francis’s relaxed attitude to rules in general encourages some Catholics to ignore the specific rule about weekly Mass – but this is very much just speculation. We could also speculate that other factors – secularisation, the loss of trust in institutions – have more impact than the identity of the Pope.

All we can say for sure is that alarmingly fewer Catholics are going to Mass than a decade ago. And that is embarrassing for commentators who predicted that the current Pope’s popularity would lead to a revival of American Catholicism.