Jun 13, 2014
Forty years ago, as the falloff in Sunday Mass attendance by American Catholics was becoming too obvious to ignore, Catholic voices began to be raised here and there saying it didn’t really matter. “You aren’t a good Catholic just because you go to church,” these people seemed to enjoy telling us. “What counts is what you do outside church.”
Two responses, which too seldom were offered at the time, were relevant to that. One was that evidence was lacking to show that most Catholics who skipped Mass had found other ways of expressing their presumed religious fervor. The other reply, arguably more to the point, was that the Second Vatican Council had only lately stressed the centrality of Sunday Eucharist in Catholic life, and staying away from Mass was hardly consistent with that.
And now, four decades later? A new study underlines the evident reality that the slippage in church attendance persists. It also offers the cold comfort of situating the decline in Mass attendance in the context of a decline in churchgoing by American Christians generally. The notable exceptions, it seems, are white evangelical Protestants, for whom the weekly attendance rate is around 60 percent. Hats off to them! For the rest, including Catholics, the numbers range from depressing to dismal.
The study, by a group called the Public Religion Research Institute, also compares what people say about their church attendance in live telephone interviews with what they say when they are answering questions in the impersonal medium of an online questionnaire. In brief, they are more likely to admit to not going to church in the latter situation than when actually speaking to somebody else.