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Americans are Switching Faiths

February 25, 2008

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, the Roman Catholic Church has lost more members than any other faith tradition in the United States. Some highlights:

  • The Roman Catholic Church has lost more members than any faith tradition because of affiliation swapping, the survey found. While nearly one in three Americans were raised Catholic, fewer than one in four say they’re Catholic today. That means roughly 10 percent of all Americans are ex-Catholics.
  • The share of the population that identifies as Catholic, however, has remained fairly stable in recent decades thanks to an influx of immigrant Catholics, mostly from Latin America. Nearly half of all Catholics under 30 are Hispanic, the survey found.
  • On the Protestant side, changes in affiliation are swelling the ranks of nondenominational churches, while Baptist and Methodist traditions are showing net losses.
  • The religious demographic benefiting the most from this religious churn is those who claim no religious affiliation. People moving into that category outnumber those moving out of it by a three-to-one margin.
  • The majority of the unaffiliated — 12 percent of the overall population — describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” and about half of those say faith is at least somewhat important to them. Atheists or agnostics account for 4 percent of the total population.
  • More than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another religion or no religion at all, the survey found. Factoring in moves from one stream or denomination of Protestantism to another, the number rises to 44 percent.

Parenthetically, I was not able to see the time period covered by the survey.

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32 Comments
  1. February 25, 2008 10:04 pm

    The centerpiece of a Catholic University used to be Thomistic philosophy. At Gonzaga U, Saint Louis U., Georgetown U. and Catholic U. where I attended, ALL undergraduates were required to take 18 hours of Thomistic philosophy. In addition, 12 hours of Catholic theology — NOT religion — were required.

    This is just one illustration of how the rational underpinnings of Catholicism have been ravaged over the last quarter century. It often occurs to me that the substitute for sound logical analysis has become the Catechism. People use the Catechism in ways it was not intended, i.e., apart from philosophical analysis and prudential thinking. How many times does one hear something like: “This is what it says, so do it — or perish.” Either/or. Such disposition is troubling.

  2. arewak permalink
    February 25, 2008 10:07 pm

    Reading half the crap on here from “patriotic” catholics, I would seek a new religion too.

  3. Policraticus permalink
    February 25, 2008 10:11 pm

    The centerpiece of a Catholic University used to be Thomistic philosophy. At Gonzaga U, Saint Louis U., Georgetown U. and Catholic U. where I attended, ALL undergraduates were required to take 18 hours of Thomistic philosophy. In addition, 12 hours of Catholic theology — NOT religion — were required.

    Interesting connection…the forgetfulness of Thomas Aquinas at many Catholic universities might indeed have played a role in this mess.

  4. Jimmy Mac permalink
    February 25, 2008 10:32 pm

    And for the vast numbers of Catholics who don’t attend Catholic or other universities?

    Quo vadis? Could it be simple distrust of and disgust with the ongoing obsession with the organization desiring to protect the status quo at any cost? Pastors are few and far between anymore; toadying synchophants who love to play dressup and get ahead by kissing toosh and parroting the party line are more prevalent.

  5. adamv permalink
    February 25, 2008 11:14 pm

    I wonder how this relates to which, if any, nationality people consider themselves.

  6. Eddie permalink
    February 25, 2008 11:45 pm

    There are probably too many factors here to be numbered. The abandonment of Aquinas in my view is certainly part of the problem. A recent review of the book “Twentieth Century Theologians: From Chenu to Ratzinger” in First Things makes a similar point, arguing that the contributions of many of the twentieth century theologians cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of scholasticism. The review, of couse focuses primarily on weaknesses in theology, and I have not yet read the book. However, if the theologians are not well grounded, then the seminarians, priests, and lay people they educate are even less likely to have a solid foundation.

    http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=5482&var_recherche=Aquinas+and+balthasar

  7. Donald R. McClarey permalink
    February 25, 2008 11:58 pm

    Too many people have simply not been taught Catholicism. Too many catechism classes are feel good jokes and too many parents could care less if the Faith is passed on to the next generation. Tack on banal uninspiring liturgies and I am honestly surprised that we do not lose more souls,

  8. TeutonicTim permalink
    February 26, 2008 12:17 am

    “Too many people have simply not been taught Catholicism. Too many catechism classes are feel good jokes and too many parents could care less if the Faith is passed on to the next generation. Tack on banal uninspiring liturgies and I am honestly surprised that we do not lose more souls”

    I’m with Donald. Too much emphasis on “feel good” “communities” and not enough on God, nor the Catholic Church.

  9. February 26, 2008 12:26 am

    Eddie,

    Thanks for the reference to the review of Fergus Kerr’s new study. I read it through quickly and found his arguments very interesting. There is definitely the lack of a “spinal column” (if I could put it that way) in Catholic thought today. Many will read Balthasar, e.g., and not comprehend what he is trying to do. If one doesn’t have an appreciation of Being what does an appreciation of Beauty mean? Hard to say. Both are necessary and implicated in one another.

  10. Policraticus permalink
    February 26, 2008 12:55 am

    And for the vast numbers of Catholics who don’t attend Catholic or other universities?

    True, there seems to be no simple answer. However, the poor theological formation in universities would suggest collateral damage in the domain of parish catechesis.

  11. radicalcatholicmom permalink
    February 26, 2008 1:19 am

    I have to agree that basic catechism within the Catholic school system and at the parish level is appalling. How can we blame people for what they do not know?

  12. Hedgehog permalink
    February 26, 2008 1:29 am

    Maybe people are just starting to think for themselves?

  13. February 26, 2008 2:34 am

    What do you think will be the consequences of this in the long run?

  14. February 26, 2008 2:49 am

    Hedgehog,

    The diversity of thought on this blog should give you some indication that we can be Catholic and think for ourselves.

  15. Morning's Minion permalink*
    February 26, 2008 3:07 am

    Mark this one for the records: I tend to agree with Donald and Tim!

  16. Eddie permalink
    February 26, 2008 3:15 am

    Contra the article, I thought these two facts (taken together) were actually rather hopeful:

    1) “More than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another religion or no religion at all, the survey found.”
    2) “While nearly one in three Americans were raised Catholic, fewer than one in four say they’re Catholic today. That means roughly 10 percent of all Americans are ex-Catholics. ”

    In other words, while roughly 25% of Americans have left their childhood faith, only about 10% of Catholics have. That is still regrettable, but it means Catholicism is actually retaining members fairly well given the religious climate.

    Catholics make up the largest group, and so in numerical terms they will probably always have the most people leaving. I don’t think the article adequately addresses that point. I’m not saying there aren’t serious problems with the Church in America, just that despite them the Church may largely still be preaching the Gospel more effectively than we realize.

  17. Mark D. permalink*
    February 26, 2008 3:56 am

    Gerald,

    I am not of your generation, but frequently read of the dead scholasticisms that passed themselves off as Thomism in the middle part of the 20th century. Even as a student of Gilsonian and Maritainian Thomism as an undergraduate at the University Toronto, Saint Michael’s College, my professors there told the ossified and dogmatic propostionalism that often sold itself as Thomistic philosophy. Maybe the good old days were not as good as they are old…

    Is it thus no surprise that a couple of generations of Catholic intellectuals turned insted to the history of philosophy, phenomenology, critical theory, existentialism, French structuralism and post-structuralism, philosophical hermeneutics, deconstructionism et al?

    And even with the most salvagible (sic?) and worthy Thomism (of Gilson, Maritain et al.) is there not in it the inability to deal with the philosophical discovery of thoroughly histroricized reason, a la Hegel? Even as strong and reputable a ‘neo-Thomist’ as A. MacIntyre seems to admit this Thomistic shortcoming.

  18. Michael permalink
    February 26, 2008 4:55 am

    Eddie, your math is wrong. If 33 per cent of Americans were raised Catholic, and less than 25 per cent are now Catholic, that’s about a 25 per cent loss.

  19. Eddie permalink
    February 26, 2008 5:01 am

    “Eddie, your math is wrong. If 33 per cent of Americans were raised Catholic, and less than 25 per cent are now Catholic, that’s about a 25 per cent loss.”

    Thanks for the obvious point I missed…lol. Well, at any rate RC’s aren’t doing any worse than other faiths…

  20. February 26, 2008 5:09 am

    Mark D.,

    You raise a good caution against the wholesale transmittal of neo-Thomism, including the work of Gilson, Maritain, Bourke, Klubertanz, and others. It was natural for students to turn to some of the newer thinkers such as phenomenology and so forth. But what has been missing beginning in the middle 1960s is what I’ve called a “central nervous system,” i.e., a logical and ontological basis for critical evaluation. I think it is here that Thomism can provide a continuing contribution. Since its eclipse, philosophy has become fragmented with no synthesis in sight.

    Eddie above referenced an interesting article from First Things that makes much the same point regarding theology.

    I might add that JPII was a Thomist. Yet, he had a great interest in Husserl, Scheler, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and so on. I find his attempts to merge the underlying logic of St. Thomas and these other thinkers to be quite remarkable. While employing phenomenological descriptions he was guided by an underlying Thomistic logic in Love and Responsibility and his studies of the person. Maritain made a similar effort with the person (existence) and, in fact, went on to embed the notion of the person (as opposed to the individual) in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. John Crosby’s carries this exploration into the nature of the person even further. And so on.

    I agree. Thomism as expressed by Gilson and Maritain is not the end of the road. A metaphysics of being is not all there is. Balthasar, who was rooted in Thomism, saw a need to explore beauty — to go beyond being.

    So, however ossified Thomism may be, it still can provide a “central nervous system” to hold things together in synthesis. But even as it does this, it is not necessary to use the same terminology used by St Thomas. There can be a creative use of language and insights while still retaining the underlying logic.

    Hope this makes some kind of sense.

  21. Mike J. permalink
    February 26, 2008 5:26 am

    I wasn’t surprised by the statistics in the story. If my upbringing was any indication (Joliet diocese near Chicago, 80s-90s i.e. gen x), and it seems to be from many people I’ve spoken to, then this is the reaping of the poor catechesis and formation (not to mention total disregard for discipline and open dissent) that has been sown for years following the second Vatican council. Not that the council is at fault, far from it, I think it’s just that no one quite knew what to do after the council. The common question being: do we still believe that? While the problems of academy are likely linked and part of this whole situation, I’d suggest that these things start sooner than university level training.

    -Mike

  22. Eddie permalink
    February 26, 2008 5:44 am

    I agree with Mike J. on every point; I’m gen x also, and received poor to very poor catechesis in Catholic schools, even though the priests in the diocese were quite faithful. I understand things have changed for the better at many of these schools in recent years; nevertheless my personal experiences and almost all of the anecdotal evidence I’ve encountered suggests that very little of the Fath was communicated to people of my generation.

    As a side note, my original error was even worse, if it’s true that roughly 1 in 10 Americans are ex-catholics, 10/33 would put the Church above the national average of 25% in terms of people changing faiths.

  23. Mark D. permalink*
    February 26, 2008 5:50 am

    Gerald,

    I agree totally. The metaphysical thinking of De esse et essentia, for example, is simply unsurpassed in the history of philosophy, as is the Thomistic notion of the analogy of being. These truths and their understanding are central to the Western intellectual endeavor.

  24. February 26, 2008 8:19 am

    Nice discussion, Mark D and Mr Campbell. Do you not think that the total eclipse of Karl Rahner, who contributed exquisitely to the retrieval and aggiornamento of Thomist wisdom is part of the picture? Personally I think Scripture rather than Metaphysics is the spinal column of theology, so I like Barth rather more than Rahner. But Thomist metaphysics lives on and flourishes when brought into mutual critical engagement with Kant/Hegel, Heidegger et al., and with Analytical Philosophy (where there is a very strong intellectual engagement with Thomist themes, but often in a way that is rather estranged from the broad scriptural perspectives of church theology.)

  25. February 26, 2008 4:09 pm

    Spirit of Vatican II,

    I can’t really speak to your question about the eclipse of Rahner. I recall my theologian friends thought highly of him. But what has happened since the seventies has escaped me, probably because I moved away from teaching.

    As to Barth, have you read Balthasar’s treatment of him in The “Theology of Karl Barth.” Here is a case where the Thomistic analogy of being and the Barthian analogy of faith are set in critical relationship. This, of course, goes to the question of the viability of the intellect and the person’s access to truth. I found this discussion on analogy helpful as a way to grasp what is going on in the world today, particularly as regards critical political issues. For instance, part of the failure to frame the culture wars correctly lies with the inability to appreciate the analogy of being and its role in practical reason. Thus we fail to make appropriate distinctions where necessary and end up demonizing individual behavior. Why? In large measure we do so because we have failed in the intellectual order and thus have no choice but to accept prejudice and sentiment as the primary foundation of moral judgment. Univocal thinking is too much with us. Indeed, our view of ethical behavior has been reduced to little more than an oily smear! There are no clear distinctions, but an abundance of judgment.

  26. Kurt permalink
    February 26, 2008 6:53 pm

    “Gerald L. Campbell Says:
    The centerpiece of a Catholic University used to be Thomistic philosophy. At Gonzaga U, Saint Louis U., Georgetown U. and Catholic U. where I attended, ALL undergraduates were required to take 18 hours of Thomistic philosophy. In addition, 12 hours of Catholic theology — NOT religion — were required.”

    As economic conservatives hold that if you make the social elite even more wealthy, prosperity ‘trickles down’ so is there a theory among conservative Catholics that if the social and economic elite are evangelized, faith and grace will ‘trickle down.’

    I think it is this theory that has caused some of the damage we now suffer. Less than 25% of Catholics have a college degree. While cases can be cited of heroic priests who minister to the less well off members of society, the lack of pastoral care of the poor, workers, immigrants and the socially marginalized is a disgrace.

    The great numbers of former Catholics are not persons who left in disgust or over some dramatic issue but socially unimportant people who were quietly ignored by the Church and her pastors and slipped away unnoticed due to inattention.

    Colleen Carroll, a conservative Catholic author recently wrote a book that she described as a study of young Catholic adults and what she termed as their return to tradition and conservative values. Every subject she considered was a college students or graduate, as if the non-college 75% of Catholic young adults do not exist. Imagine, 75% invisible!

  27. February 26, 2008 7:29 pm

    I think Kurt is onto something…

    I also think it is difficult to pin down reasons for church membership trends.
    Part of this could be that some people were not really that “Catholic” to
    begin with, but are now counted as “ex” Catholics. I remember on a call-in
    show a guy identified as an Irish Catholic, later saying he was an
    atheist. I suppose technically having been baptized as an infant, he may
    be Catholic, but I would think becoming an atheist amounts to being
    outside the church, an automatic excommunication due to apostasy. I suppose technically he is an ex-Catholic, but perhaps in the same way I am an “ex-Soccer player” since I played 5 soccer games for a junior league when I was in 5th grade.

    The ex-Catholics I know left for rather pragmatic, rather than academic/philosophical/theological reasons. They wanted a divorce, wanted to use birth control without guilt, disliked certain Catholic doctrines and morals, wanted to be ordained but were not able to do so in the Catholic Church, and thought their parishes were asking for too much money. Some just found the mega church down the road to be more exciting, the local Episcopal church more liberal theologically, or the evangelical church in town more genuine and less hypocritical. Granted, because of poor catechesis, many of these folks did not reject actual Catholic Teaching, but a caricature of it, but nonetheless, they left the Church because it wasn’t always easy or fun to remain Catholic, and because fewer cultural and social pressures exist to remain Catholic these days as in the past. I expect there will continue to be a lot more Catholics leave the fold, especially as there seems to no longer be a search for what is True and Good, but what is fun and easy.

  28. John permalink
    February 26, 2008 8:05 pm

    How has no one mentioned the sex-abuse scandal of the last decade? Nothing has shaken the faithful like a loss of faith in their pastoral leaders. While Thomistic philosophy would do a better job of educating Catholics, I’m shocked that no one is correlating the loss in revenue, changes in tithing practices, and general discomfort mainstream Catholics (those who don’t read a blog like this) feel towards their bishops.

  29. Stefan Eltgroth permalink
    February 26, 2008 9:34 pm

    As a former Episcopalian, recently recieved into the RC church in 2004, the Catholic retention problem is obvious. For most Catholics, their religion is something they inherit not choose. They have never been challenged with the necessity to make this their own faith, “Conservative” or ‘Liberal”. They have grown up in an institution which requires nothing, expects nothing, inspires nothing. They call themselves “Catholic” like an ethnic identity, like “Irish” or “Polish”. They see Catholics, espically their parents with the same values, opinions,and priorities as everyone else. It has no importance in their lives. Then they meet some Evangelical who is excited by their faith, knows and reads the Bible, and is taken to a church which is filled with people who are happy and excited to be there, and they are gone

  30. February 27, 2008 12:56 am

    Kurt,

    Your information reminds me of a conversation I had with a professor and fellow student at an Episcopal seminary, which I attended for a quarter for post-Master’s work. The seminarian said he wanted to work with “post-college age” people, in their mid-to-late 20s. The professor reminded him that not everybody goes to college, to which the seminarian replied, “oh, these days everybody does,” to which I replied, “no they don’t.” He literally could not believe that most people in our area (central and southern Ohio) didn’t have a college degree, probably because he rarely met, let alone knew, someone who wasn’t like him. It is hard to reach out to those whom you can’t even begin to identify with. And I say this as someone who (despite being raised in a middle-class area where very few went to college) has trouble reaching out to the non-college educated. I admit it.

    I agree with Kurt. Perhaps the reason for leaving is because of pastoral issues, not academic/philosophical ones (or likely a little bit of both, with some strong societal secularism mixed in).

  31. February 27, 2008 7:34 am

    Metaphysics, the analogy of being, etc. are very fancy items. Let us not put too much eggs, even intellectually, in that basket, which is stamped with the culture of the past and is ill-adapted to contemporary pluralism and linguistic-historical awareness.

    Meanwhile, what a church needs is a vibrant, participative community — and this is frustrated by the bad structure of the RCC. As Lamennais said, “Centralization means apoplexy at the center and paralysis in the periphery”. Our Church preaches subsidiarity to society but has failed to enact it itself. Episcopal collegiality, respect for the community of theologians, organization of the laity etc. etc. are all bypassed in the name of mass rallies or of jumped-up neoconservative movements like Opus Dei, Legionaries of Christ, Communio e liberazione.

    The American Church will go the same way as the Irish Church, the Canadian Church, the Dutch Church and the Basque Church, if the laity cannot organize themselves, in the manner promoted by Leonard Swidler in his call for an American Church Council.

    I will post a chilling article on the Irish Church.

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