The decline of Catholicism in America

The recent Pew Research Center report on America’s religious landscape painted a bleak picture for Christianity in the United States, and an even more desperate image for the Catholic share of the U.S. population, which dropped from 23.9 to just 20.8 percent between 2007 and 2014.

But the real decline of Catholicism in America becomes more clear when we look back at several decades of statistics – especially those that probe more deeply beyond self-identification of faith surveys.

Although the parish-connected Catholic population grew from 46.3 million in 1965 up to 66.6 million (an ominous number for Christian membership) in 2014, the number of priests declined from about 59,000 to 38,000 over this span. Religious sisters numbered nearly 180,000 in the mid-1960s.  Today, there are less than 50,000 of them.

Approximately the same number of parishes (18,000) exist today as in 1965, but the number without a resident priest pastor increased from 549 to 3,500.  Almost one fifth of all parishes lack a resident priest.  Similarly, the percentage of diocesan priests active in ministry dropped from 94 percent to 68 percent, and the number of active diocesan priests per parish declined from 2 to 1.

The number of primary school children in parish religious education peaked in 1970 at nearly 4.2 million.  As of 2014, it was below 2.7 million and falling fast – down almost a million over the past decade alone.  The secondary school population in parish religious education underwent an even more precipitous decline, from 1.4 million in 1965 to 630,000 today.

A reduction in the Catholic elementary school student body of 70 percent has taken place during the last half-century.

Infant baptisms numbered 1.3 million per year in 1965.  In 2014, there were only 713,000.  Annual adult baptisms declined more than threefold.  Marriages are down almost 60 percent.

And yet, the global trend is not so depressing for Catholicism – and certainly does not mirror the U.S. trends.  The number of worldwide Catholic priests has been essentially constant since 1970, and the percentage of parishes without a resident priest pastor has also remained largely unchanged.

The number of students in Catholic elementary and secondary schools around the world has increased dramatically over the past 45 years – by 60 and 145 percent, respectively.  Global infant baptisms have declined slightly in recent years but remain about where they were in the early 1970s.

The reductions in the active American Catholic population come against an ever-increasing U.S. total population, making the per capita declines even more steep than the numbers above would suggest.  If current trends continue, the percentage of Americans who are Catholic will decline to the world average (17-18 percent, which has been constant since 1970) by 2020.

Scandals played a large role in this American fall, but so has the Catholic Church’s increasing tilt toward a type of progressive activism that is out of touch with the religious right in the U.S., as well as pushing out or rejecting more conservative members of the tradition, all the while embracing the radical left and its anti-Christian agenda.