Catholic Trends–Summer ’13


Parish life is changing.  American parishes are moving towards a more collaborative, competent, and mission-focused pastoral leadership, strengthened in their service to ministries at all levels.

CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) surveyed 800 parishes, which resulted in the following:

• 58% of parishioners surveyed in-pew rate their overall                                    satisfaction with the parish as excellent.

• Parishioners were most likely to evaluate the following as                         ‘excellent’:  (1) celebration of the sacraments (70%), (2)             hospitality and a sense of being welcomed (62%), and (3)             promoting important Church teachings and causes (62%).

• 60% of parishioners say the following very much attracts them             to their parish: (1) it’s open, welcoming spirit (67%), (2) quality             of the liturgy (63%), (3) the quality of the preaching (63%), and             (4) sense of belonging (62%).

• A majority (55%) say that they’d feel comfortable talking to             their pastor, but only 18% strongly agree that they have an impact             on decision-making.

• Half of parishioners “strongly agree” that they are encouraged to             participate in parish ministry.

• Majorities of parishioners “strongly agree” that they are             comfortable with the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of their             parish.

• 75%  of those in the pews say they’ve been active Catholics since             their birth.

• Parish-shopping: more than a third of parishioners (35%) say             they pass by a parish closer to their home to attend Mass in the             parish where they were surveyed.


American Catholics in Transition  by William V.D’ Antonio, Michele Dillon, and Mary L. Gautier (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 2013) show how positions have shifted among generations of  American Catholics.  While there is unanimity on such beliefs as Jesus’ Resurrection, Mary as the Mother of God, and the sacraments, there are major differences about the importance of other aspects of Catholicism which some see as less central to Catholic identity, such as private devotions, opposition to same-sex marriage, the teaching authority of the Magisterium,  and opposition to the death penalty.  Another major finding relates to the declining commitment to the Church of women, especially younger Catholic women.

• The Persistence of Catholic identity.  How American Catholics construe what it means to be a Catholic is resilient.  For most, being Catholic is motivated largely by participation in the sacramental and communal life of the Church and the spiritual and communal nourishment this provides.

Church Authority.  Younger generations of Catholics increasingly see individual conscience rather than the Magisterium (Pope and College of Bishops) as the final arbiter of what is morally permissible when it comes to decisions regarding contraception, choice on abortion, same-sex marriage, and non-marital sexual activity, and divorced Catholics remarrying without an annulment.

Women’s Declining Commitment to the Church.  Women are changing their relationship with the Church.  Today, women live in a society where the institutional barriers to their full participation in all domains of life  other than Church are eroding.  This is coupled with women’s everyday experiences of Church prohibitions regarding contraception, marriage and divorce, Catholic women, especially younger cohorts, are less willing than in the past to live with the tension posed by loyalty to the Church while simultaneously being excluded from full participation in all aspects.  This is a major development.  And given women’s anchoring role in motivating family religious participation, the ramifications of an ongoing decline do not portend well for the vitality of the Church in North America.

The Growing Presence of Hispanic Catholics.  In 1987, Hispanics accounted for 10% of American Catholics; today they compose more than a third.  This demographic change has important consequences for American Catholicism: it is changing its face and its geography and mediating its culture and practices.  Hispanic Catholics as a whole are more devout and more deferential to the Church hierarchy’s authority.

new Infrastructural and Mission Challenges.  The combination of geographic transition,  a rapidly aging and declining priest population, and financial pressures brought about by the sluggish economy and clergy sexual abuse settlements culminated in a reconfiguration of parishes.  In the Northeast and upper Midwest parishes and schools are being shuttered, whereas in the South and Southwest, churches that can accommodate 1,500 for a single liturgy and offering multiple Masses in Spanish as well as other languages are becoming the norm.

The dwindling of the Pre-Vatican II Generation.  Catholics over 71 account for only 10% of the Catholic population, down from a third 25 years ago.  The impact of this change can be seen in the general decline in weekly Mass attendance among Catholics.  The Pre-Vatican II group is the only one in which more than half (54%) attend weekly Mass.  For other Catholics less than weekly attendance is more normal.

Moving Forward.  The survey suggests that Catholic disaffection is fueled by indifference toward the Church,  which is particularly evident in the attitudes of young non-Hispanic women.  They are the least connected to and appreciative of, various aspects of the Catholic tradition, and the most skeptical of the hierarchy’s teaching authority and its teachings on sexual issues.

Losses and Gains.  As Pope Benedict (2007) affirmed: “The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change the Catholic doctrine on the Church, rather it developed, deepened, and more fully explained it.”  The history of the Catholic Church is a history that exemplifies doctrinally reflexive change and underscores the centrality of change to its own self-maintenance as a living tradition.  These surveys contained in American Catholics in Transition, spanning 25 years of American Catholic attitudes on the broad range of dimensions of Catholic life, and the patterns evident in the data, speak to both the resilience and the dynamism of Catholicism.


Catholic High Schools Average 554 Students; Tuition $9,600.  CARA recently completed an annual report called Dollars & Sense, 2012-13, which contained the following major findings regarding American Catholic high schools.

• 70% are co-educational.

• Schools are almost evenly divided regionally.

• Schools reported an average student enrollment of 554, with 41                            full-time faculty and four full-time administrators.

• 70% estimated that more than 90% of the students remain in                                their school through graduation.

• The majority of schools (55%) operate under a                                                     President/Principal model than a principal only model (35%).

• 75% have a lay leader who is not a member of a religious                                          congregation.

• 30% have no religious or clergy working full-time at the school.

•  Nearly all schools (88%) have an official salary schedule for                           determining teacher salaries, based on levels of education and             years of experience.  Almost 90% report that merit is not a                                        factor in establishing teacher’s compensation.

• Schools an average tuition charge of approximately $9,600 for                         grades 9-12 for the 2012-13 academic year.  Most schools have             increased their tuition from 2011-12 by an average of more than             $360 or 4%.  Average tuition charges are lowest in the Midwest             and highest in the West.

• Regarding sources of income, an average of 80% comes from             tuition.

• On average salaries make up more than half of operating             expenses for these schools.  Schools pay an average of more than             $3.4 million in salaries to lay professional staff.


Praying the Liturgy of the Hours.  When clergy are ordained, they make a promise to say Divine Office, the official prayer of the Church.  While not all clergy honor their duty, most do.

According to a Mary Gautier, a spokesperson for CARA, the last study done in 2005 found that 62 percent of diocesan priests and 59 percent of religious priests say they pray the Divine Office daily.

Along this line, CARA surveyed a national random sample of US priests in 2009 (for the book Same Call, Different Men: The Evolution of the Priesthood since Vatican II) and found that 43 percent agree at least somewhat with the statement “I am too busy to pray as much as I would like.”  Fewer than one in ten agree strongly with that statement, however.






Will the Real Pope Francis ”Come on Down?”

We’ve been moved by the early Franciscan moves of our Holy Father from the choice of his pontifical name to decidedly Franciscan gestures.  Think of when he paid his own bill at the residence where the cardinals stayed for the conclave or the washing of the feet of prisoners, including a Muslim, at a juvenile detention facility or the inaugural Mass in which he called for care of Creation.

His early homilies and Wednesday audience have put great emphasis of the clergy getting close to the people—“A priest should smell like their sheep!”—and taking the side of the poor with our responsibility for those who occupy the margins.

Some have interpreted this shift in style and emphasis as a signal of an impending change in Church teaching.  Just as a change in a presidential administration (say, from George Bush to Barack Obama) leads to new policy agendas (cf. Obamacare), so, too, the reasoning goes that the election of this pope will lead to the relaxation of priestly celibacy, the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, condoning same-sex marriage, allowing the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood, and salvaging relations with the Musim world.

What the above represents is a transparent case of wish fulfillment.  A Talmudic aphorism puts this syndrome thusly: “We don’t see the world as it is, but as we are.”  What many are doing with Pope Francis is to see what they want to see.  And what they are expecting is a pope that supports their personal, political, and cultural prejudices.  Once the “Francis honeymoon” is over, many will wake up to the fact that Pope Francis is Catholic, who can’t overturn definitive teaching or jettison Church teaching on the Sacrament of Marriage or sexual morality in favor of current political and cultural trends.  Anybody who has a modicum of Church history knows that the Church does not function in this  way.

Nonetheless, there are some Catholics–who have difficulty with religious authority in general and Petrine ministry in particular—are desperately hoping for a relaxation of Church norms.  Fr. James Martin, the cultural critic at America magazine and the author of a number of outstanding books (e.g., The Jesuit Guide and  My Life with the Saints) voiced the hope that “since the pope’s first homily focused specifically on ‘tenderness,’ we may see that his application of church rules will be a little more tender” (AP, March 21, 2013).  Who can argue against that? Who wouldn’t want a touchy-feely pontiff?  That’s certainly what the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is hoping for.   By way of reminder, after a three year investigation of the LCWR, the Vatican report cited a number of egregious theological and doctrinal errors and placed it under a more hands-on supervision of the Vatican.

Still reeling from the “Vatican crackdown,” LCWR leader Sr. Nancy Sylvester told the AP that she is encouraged by Francis emphasis on the poor.  “I’m really trying to be hopeful,” she said, “that he would be much more sympathetic to women religious.”  In other words, Sr. Sylvester wants the Pope to be a buddy and leave her sisters alone.

Notice the hopeful if illogical connection between “emphasis on the poor” and relaxation of Church norms.  Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George has aptly pointed out in interviews following the election that “it’s one thing to be for the poor” and “it’s another thing to be for the poor in a way that compromises the teaching of the Church.”  John Paul II was no compromiser.  Benedict XVI was no compromiser.  According to Cardinal George, though Francis may differ in style and emphasis from his predecessors, he will be no different in substance.

This isn’t wishful thinking as Bergoglio has a track record as a Jesuit priest and Archbishop of Buenos Aires, in which he supported the Vatican crackdown of Marxist influenced liberation theology.  It’s also worth noting, that Cardinal Bergoglio was an outspoken critic of Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchener when she imposed same-sex marriage.  “This is not simply a political struggle, but an attempt to destroy God’s plan,” he wrote boldly in 2010.  “It is not just a bill but a move of the Father of Lies, who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God” (cf. a letter Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio sent to the Carmelite nuns of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires on June 22, 2010 on this topic).

So, let’s get real for a moment.  It would require a willful suspension of disbelief in order to entertain the idea that Pope Francis would make a 180-degree change in supporting political initiatives favoring gay marriage or adoption by same sex-couples.

Aside from style, Francis gives every indication of carrying on the essential spiritual vision of JP II and Benedict XVI.  The new Pope strongly backed an important theme of the Ratzinger pontificate warning against the “tyranny of relativism,” which our emeritus Pope defined as letting oneself “be tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine.”  In a speech delivered to the Vatican diplomatic corps, Pope Francis clearly backed is predecessor’s message: “There is a Christian truth, and  that truth is obscured by relativism, leaving confusion, darkness, and death.  There cannot be true peace, Pope Francis said, “if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.”  Sound a lot like John Paul II/Benedict XVI, doesn’t it?

Marc Cardinal Ouellet of Quebec, who was on the short-list of many papal prognostications, agrees that Francis will follow Benedict’s essential spiritual vision.  In an interview with the Globe and Mail (March 16, 2013), he said he does not expect “liberal decisions”  from Pope Francis.  “I think he will follow the doctrinal path that was indicated by Benedict.”

Though Francis will not be a reformer of Church doctrine, practice, or discipline, the Holy Father may go down in history for a being a Church reformer of a different kind: namely, Vatican governance.  One of the immediate concerns for Pope Francis is the reform of the Roman curia, and expectation the cardinals made clear in the pre-conclave  comments.  Given the fact that Bergoglio always kept a distance from the curia, it’s likely that the cardinals have a great deal of confidence that this Jesuit pope is the man to reform Church governance root and branch.  So, while there may be a tidal wave of change to the curia which should be in service to the hierarchy (and not the other way around), don’t look for doctrinal shifts.

Deacon Jim McFadden

Fair Oaks, CA