The data on the 'had it' Catholics

Interfaith Voices this coming week will feature my interview with David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame, co-author of a new and widely-acclaimed study of religion in America called American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.

The book is based on two very large surveys done in 2006 and 2007. Each had a sample size in excess of 3,000 -- very large by social science standards.

The book is full of surprising revelations, but the data on Catholics is among the most startling. The authors report that more than 60 percent (!) of Americans raised as Catholics are no longer practicing the faith. About one third have left the church entirely and another third remain only nominally Catholic.

You might expect that such a decline would be visible in the overall percentage of Catholics in the population (generally around 23-25 percent). But it is masked by the fact that those leaving are largely Anglo-Catholics and they are rapidly being replaced by Latino Catholics.

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When I asked David Campbell to explain this downward trend among Anglo-Catholics, he pointed out that the departures did not “spike” at one give time, suggesting that this decline is not due overwhelmingly to the sex abuse crisis -- although that crisis is surely part of the picture. Rather, he pointed to church teachings with which the laity have long disagreed. Birth control, anyone? Married clergy or women priests maybe? And the list goes on.

Campbell also suggested that Catholic clergy these days might not be as “entrepreneurial” as their Protestant counterparts. Translated, that means that they are not inaugurating new and attractive parish programs that will bring people to the church.

These percentages are, in a word, whopping! I wonder: have the bishops even noticed?

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