Monday, August 25, 2014


Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic

Sunday Morning: Deconstructing Catholic Mass attendance in the 1950s and now

Social science is not just about surveys, trend data, or focus groups. Some of my favorite types of research involve content and historical analysis. The study of art, for example, can provide some amazing insight that is not visible on a spreadsheet. Norman Rockwell’s “Sunday Morning,” as shown below (click to enlarge), has always caught my eye as an interesting piece because it brings to life some of the survey results we have been seeing for many years and it did it on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post all the way back in May of 1959 (for more see: “Sunday Morning Slackers” from the Post).
Sunday Morning; Norman Rockwell; Published: May 16, 1959; © 1959 SEPS.

Rockwell illustrated this piece five years after appearing in the national print ad shown below, which reads, “Light their life with faith. Bring them to worship this week.” This advertisement was sponsored by Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish lay people in an effort to encourage weekly religious service attendance—especially among parents with their children. This should be the first sign of something amiss with our recollections of this time…

They needed a national ad campaign to get people to take their children to church? Wait this is the 1950s right? Didn’teveryone go to church in the 1950s?

According to his biographer (Norman Rockwell: A Life, by Laura Claridge, Random House, New York, 2001), Rockwell lived a life much more like his cover illustration than the text of the ad campaign. He was said to rarely make it to church on Sunday during his first marriage (to a Catholic woman he later divorced) or during his second marriage (to a woman of his own Episcopalian affiliation). Rockwell did have his children baptized from the second marriage but was not a regular at church services otherwise.

In itself this may come as a shock to those who view Rockwell as the visual soul of conservative, small town, religious America. As “Sunday Morning” indicates Rockwell was not shy about pointing out the realities of American religious life even in the 1950s. Take special notice of the father’s unusual morning-bed hair-style and the color of his robe. When one realizes from his biographer that Rockwell may have spent many similar Sundays in his pajamas it is more difficult to typecast the illustrator into some of his other more famous and pious illustrations regarding religion.

It is likely that the family in the illustration is Protestant. Thus, it is not the case that Rockwell was making any comment about Catholicism in this work. But the fact that it made it on to the cover of America’s magazine of record at the time indicates that it resonated with the culture of this period. This issue of the Post was published at a time when weekly Catholic Mass attendance was peaking, as measured in Gallup telephone surveys (74% in 1958 and 72% in 1959). In 2008, Gallup surveys estimated Catholic Mass attendance in any given week had fallen to 42%. Don’t giggle. I know you don’t believe that 42% of Catholics nationally attend Mass in any given week and you’re right. But why do we believe 74% did in 1958?

I am sure there will be some reading this who says, “I remember, I was there.” But what we did see in the 1950s is not important. It is what we did not see… the people who were not in the pews. You can only get an attendance percentage by dividing the Mass attendance count (numerator) by the number of self-identified Catholics in the parish boundaries that could have attended (denominator). All of this is unlikely to be found in your memories! (Note: even Robert Putnam who notorious for highlighting the declining trend lines from the 1950s says the following in American Grace: “research on the accuracy of reporting church attendance… suggests that we should take these self-reports with a grain of salt,” pg. 571).

A piece of art is one thing. Perhaps more can be said by taking a second look at a researcher who was in many Catholic parishes studying Mass attendance in the 1950s. Joseph H. Fichter, S.J., (granduncle to current CARA research associateFr. Stephen Fichter) famously studied parish life by going door to door and taking censuses, making Mass attendance head counts, observing parish life, and documenting everything possible both qualitatively and quantitatively.

In his 1954 study, Social Relations in the Urban Parish (University of Chicago Press), Fichter estimates Mass attendance levels based on the number of individuals registered with the parish. But he also provides the counts for what he calls “dormant Catholics” from his census within parish boundaries. These are people who self-identify their religion as Catholic but who do not attend Mass. Thirty-eight percent of the Catholics within the parish boundaries he studied in this book were dormant. Thus, at the outset we know that typical weekly attendance by the measure of this study could have been no more than 62%. But what about among the “active” Catholics? About 79% of the non-dormant Catholics attended Mass on a typical weekend. So overall, the total percentage of self-identifying Catholics attending Mass in this study was estimated to be about 49%.

This is almost exactly what we get in the early 1950s if we “correct” the Gallup trend numbers down for “over-reports”in each year by about 12 percentage points (Why 12 percentage points? See “The Nuances of Accurately Measuring Mass Attendance” and more recent research cited below). The figure below shows this correction for the entire Gallup series.

Attendance over-reports occur as people being interviewed over the phone respond to their interviewer with answers about their behavior that they believe to fit socially desirable expectations. So typically the respondent has just told the interviewer their religion and then they are asked how often they attend services. Many respond in a way that they believe is socially acceptable—even if it does not fit their actual pattern of attendance.

We have some early evidence of this in the Americans’ Use of Time Study, 1965-1966. Here, 57% of Americans when asked directly about their church attendance reported that they had attended in the last week. However, only 39% of these respondents actually indicated attending religious services when recording their time use hour by hour in diaries (i.e., an indirect measurement). For more on this see Philip Brenner’s excellent recent article “Identity Importance and the Overreporting of Religious Service Attendance” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (March, 2011; pgs 103-115). Brenner not only estimates this phenomenon in the United States but in Europe as well, where this issue is less of a problem. These estimates are in “Exceptional Behavior or Exceptional Identity?” in Public Opinion Quarterly(Spring, 2011; pgs. 19-41). For example, in Italy (2003) time diaries estimate church attendance to be 25% weekly but surveys measure this at 30%. In Spain (2003) attendance is estimated at 16% in time diaries compared to 19% in surveys. In Ireland (2005) these numbers respectively are 42% (time diary) and 46% (survey-based). Here, Brenner also shows that from 1975 through 2008 the average annual over-report in U.S. religious attendance is very stable and much higher than in Europe, at an average of 13.4 percentage points.

In another of Father Fichter's 1950s studies, Southern Parish: The Dynamics of a City Church (Volume I, University of Chicago Press, 1951), he showed that there was also considerable variation in Mass attendance week to week (see figure below). This again is quite similar to some indirect measurements made now. Just as today, Lent brought more Catholics to Mass than during other periods of the year.

Joseph H. Fichter; Southern Parish: The Dynamics of a City Church; Volume I, University of Chicago Press, 1951, pg. 151.

Father Fichter’s observations also indicate that some of the Mass attendance of the 1950s was not as “active” as we might remember it. Here is a passage that likely still resonates with your observations of parish life today:

“A measure of the parishioners’ devotion to the Mass and of their fulfillment of this obligation is seen in the numbers who arrive late and who leave early. By actual count it was noted that, at all Sunday Masses, 8.37 per cent of the congregation arrived after Mass had started and that 6.35 per cent left before it was completed. … Although we have no accurate count, we have noticed that many of these persons are duplicated in both categories. In other words, those who come late also tend to leave early. … The younger males constitute the majority of those who omit part of the Mass, while older females make up the majority who arrive in church well in advance of Mass” (1951, pg. 138).

“By actual count, 35.08 per cent of the congregation read the missal all during Mass, while another 22.08 per cent read some sort of prayer-book while following the priest’s reading of the Gospel. … The remaining persons simply stare off into space, although several men in the last pews sometimes read a copy of 
Our Sunday Visitor during Mass” (1951, pg. 138).

Over a year of Masses, on average, attenders were much more often female (about 7 in 10 or more) than male—a composition that can only result from some men, perhaps like the man in the Rockwell illustration above, staying home.

Today, CARA’s national surveys use a methodology that minimizes social desirability pressure on respondents to get the most accurate measurements of Mass attendance possible. Many cite our weekly Mass attendance figure in the low 20 percent range. Some also then cite Gallup’s figure from the 1950s and attempt to argue that Mass attendance has fallen from nearly 80% to just above 20%. This is misleading and inaccurate. First, as shown above, the Gallup numbers for the 1950s are inflated by over-reports just as they are in the 1970s or now. Second, CARA and most other survey-based estimates of Mass attendance measure general frequencies of attendance such as “every week” or “at least once a month.” Gallup’s church attendance question measures whether a respondent has attended in the last 7 days. Depending on the week in which this question is asked, one will get very different results. Thus, the best use of the Gallup data is in taking the average for the year in response to this question.

Currently, CARA surveys indicate that 23% of self-identified adult Catholics attend Mass every week. Yet, in any givenaverage week, 31% of Catholics are attending (almost identical the “adjusted” 30% estimate from the Gallup trend). Note there is considerable local variation in Mass attendance levels with higher levels in the Midwest and lower in coastal urban areas). During Lent and Advent, Mass attendance increases into the mid-40 percent-range and on Christmas and Easter, an estimated 68% of Catholics attend.

Thus, if one is seeking to make a comparison of Mass attendance in the 1950s to now, the drop is not 80% to 20%. Instead it is from a peak of 62% in 1958 to about 31% now. This is still a remarkable decline. It means that the Mass attendance you see at Christmas and Easter is a lot like the attendance you might have seen in a typical week in the late-1950s. Yet, even then, as now, there is a significant number of Catholics like the father in Rockwell’s “Sunday Morning” who choose to do something else.

The slope of the Gallup declining trend is accurate. It’s the levels that are off. If you are going to use the Gallup data from the 1950s and make comparisons to CARA data in the 2000s and beyond you’ll need to adjust the Gallup trend (and our collective memory of the 1950s) down to reach reality. And this is of course is not just an artistic endeavor. As I have argued here I believe it to be statistically valid.


JusadBellum said...

It's no coincidence that as overall attendance rates decline, so does overall collection incomes.

It's also no coincidence that as income declines, priests and bishops will turn to lay professional fundraisers to make up the difference via the various tricks of the trade.

But this is all reactionary and a stop gap (important to be sure, but still a stop gap).

The 'solution' is to arrest the decline and then begin expanding again. And it looks like the lay professionals are leading here too in all the various and sundry 'stewardship' ministries, the apologetics, door to door ministries, the radical charismatic communities, the homeschoolers having 5+ children, etc.

We have to see the data, see the processes behind the data, but not take it for granted that trends will continue forever. Like any layperson in business will tell you, first you stop the bleeding and then you push back with better product and service to regain the market.

It's attitude as much as theology. The gimmicks are just various allied means to the end goal of reintroducing people to Jesus and a heavenly trajectory of life.

The 'solution' is an "all of the above" approach. But practically it means a core group of utterly convicted, utterly convinced lay apostles helping our clergy turn things around.

Anonymous said...

As a sometime statistician, this articles brings straight to my mind the old saw: "Lies, damn lies, and statistics."

Ephemeral arguments about elusive percentages are not not needed to draw the obvious conclusion if the raw number of Catholics has increased (along with the general population), while at the same time the raw number of Mass attenders has decreased.

George said...

"Thus, if one is seeking to make a comparison of Mass attendance in the 1950s to now, the drop is not 80% to 20%. Instead it is from a peak of 62% in 1958 to a to about 31% now. This is still a remarkable decline."
Numerically there are more Catholics now than then (or those who identify as such), so even with a decline in percentage one should expect to see more numbers-wise in the pews(one would think). Then there is also the large drop in religious vocations over the same time period. It would be good to go back and look at the 1920's 30's and 40's and compare those periods to now. It would also be a good thing to gather data on the depth or extent of faith of those attending (the praxis). As much as this can be determined. Numbers in and of themselves do not tell the whole story. Fulton Sheen had a prime time show on a major network in the 1950's. That alone tells you that things were a lot different then.

Jdj said...

Yes, Henry, I think you've got it--the question, of course, is why. That is the crux of past (for years now) and ongoing sparring between Fr. MacDonald and Pater Kavanaugh. And yes, Bellum, how to arrest the decline if good priests cannot agree on the cause, let alone the solution. Their bishops in authority are caught up with their own daily agendas and are oblivious to the overriding problems. No one is in charge. They fiddle while Rome burns...

Jdj said...

BTW, thanks Fr. For this post--I got glued to my soapbox and forgot to thank you for the very interesting info. Sorry!

rcg said...

If the old Mass was so boring and out of touch, why did people stop showing up when it was fixed and improved? Sort of like New Coke, Mustang II, and blended whiskey.

Pater Ignotus said...

It's Bellah, not Bella.

This report is heavy on data and light - very light - on causes.

"Habits of the Heart" speaks to the causes.

There's really no comparing this article and Bellah's work.

JusadBellum said...

There are a couple of factors in the decline:

1) Birth control and the decline in the number of children per family
2) Divorce and resulting decline in mass attendance of remarried spouses (who took their kids with them into practical schism).

3) The upheavals and jettisoning of lay popular piety in the 1970s - all those little sodalities, groups for men and women to socialize and grow in their faith were stripped away in favor of 'social justice' felt banners and a professionalization of things...

4) Leaving the Catholic ghetto both physically and psychologically - moving into suburbs, breaking up natural support systems, cousins, uncles, etc. so there was less and less positive peer pressure to attend Catholic-centric events and maintain a Catholic identity (which is essentially all about relationships).

Catholics sought to melt into general society and stop being 'different' as though difference is bad! We surrendered to the general society as though society was superior and being Catholic was childish, as indeed many so-called "brilliant" "expert" theologians seemed to imply with respect to the Church being 'behind the times' (which means what, exactly?) The times of whom? The cool secularists who can't fight their way out of the wet paper bag of world, flesh and devil?

What exactly caused our leadership to be brow beaten intellectually into presuming that being Catholic in doctrine and morals was something to be embarrassed by or something to hide or water down so as to be made 'relevant'?

In any event, in today's situation we must refuse to consider ourselves second class citizens or our faith second rate compared to secular society. You name it and Catholicism is simply superior to anything going on - and we need to start acting like it.

People are hungry and dying for lack of Jesus and only we have the grace of Jesus' presence and we're embarrassed to do Eucharistic processions? People are traumatized and alienated and feel abandoned by God and loved ones and we feel embarrassed for Marian devotion when it's precisely the love of a mother that the world is desperate for?

People are addicted and feel helpless in their addiction, they are beset by bad news, depression, dystopian futures and run in quiet horror of devils...and we are embarrassed by the power of exorcism, healing, and evangelization as though this is somehow childish?

Our ancestors were beset on all sides by a proud and confident Protestant WASP culture and country and they pushed back and built the cathedrals, the schools, the hospitals, the convents etc. despite almost all being lower middle class. It was an attitude of confidence, pride in the faith, in the martyrs, in the saints and a burning desire to show the world what we had that led to the 'golden era' of the 1960's high water mark.

But what happened? We lost steam and suddenly got confused and worried that perhaps we were all wrong and the world was right.

Well "the world" is wrong and we're right. So let's act like it.

JusadBellum said...

some MORE relevant data:

This article is VERY interesting in that it takes pains to say that while over all numbers of nuns are declining at a sharp rate, it's not at all clear whether there's "anything we can do about it".

The author makes a note that about the same number of women have joined the LCWR as the CMSWR... BUT somehow forgot that the LCWR makes up 80% of all nuns. So in reality, (as an earlier CARA report in 2009 made clear), if 20% of a population has as many new recruits as the other 80% and the average age is younger.... it's entirely clear what we can do to 'turn things around'!

Where are all these young women coming from? It seems from generally pro-life backgrounds. in 2044 the Church hierarchy and religious will be fewer, will probably face open persecution, but they're going to be rock solid (please God.) which is a good thing as we'll need their prayers and witness as we face the gallows ourselves.