home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted January 16, 2005

Research center says Mass attendance
steady in recent years

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate said Mass attendance by self-identifying U.S. Catholics "remained fairly unchanged" between 2000 and 2004 despite the clergy sexual abuse crisis that intervened.

In a report released Jan. 10, the Georgetown University-based independent Catholic research agency said there is a long-term decline in Mass attendance by Catholics, but that trend "is best explained by generational change and not any large segment of the Catholic population changing their patterns of Mass attendance."

CARA said it has conducted 10 national polls between September 2000 and September 2004 in which people who identified themselves as Catholic were asked a variety of questions, including, "Aside from weddings and funerals, about how often do you attend Mass?"

In September 2000, 33 percent of the respondents said they attend Mass "at least once a week." In September 2004, 31 percent gave that response. In the intervening polls, five produced responses in the 32-34 percent range and three produced responses of 35 percent or higher.

Two of the highest responses -- 39 percent saying they attended at least weekly in February 2002 and 35 percent in May of that year -- came as the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the church was making almost daily headlines in the nation's newspapers.

When the responses of those who attend Mass less than weekly are factored in, the average proportion of Catholics attending Mass on any given weekend rises from the average 31-34 percent range of weekly participants to about 40 percent, CARA said.

The number of Catholics CARA polled in each survey ranged from a low of 498 in May 2002 to a high of 2,083 in February 2002, but most of the polls reached about 1,000 Catholics, giving a statistical margin of error of about 3 percent.

CARA researcher Mark M. Gray said, "There is not evidence that the Mass attendance of younger or older Catholics changed after allegations of clergy sexual abuse entered the news. However, stark generational differences in Mass attendance are evident."

In the September 2004 poll, CARA found that among Catholics born before 1943 -- labeled "pre-Vatican II" because they came of age before the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s -- 52 percent said they attended Mass at least weekly and 21 percent said they did so once or a few times each month.

Among the "Vatican II" generation -- born between 1943 and 1960 and coming of age in the years of the council and its immediate aftermath -- self-reported weekly Mass attendance dropped to 38 percent, with another 28 percent saying they attended once or a few times each month.

CARA has broken the adult postconciliar generations into two groups, those who were ages 31-43 at the time of the September 2004 poll and those who were 18-30 at that time. Among those ages 31-43, only 22 percent said they attended Mass at least weekly, and 39 percent said they attended once or a few times a month. Figures were slightly lower -- 21 percent weekly and 35 percent monthly or more -- among those 18-30 years of age.

"Pre-Vatican II generation Catholics grew up in an era where deliberately failing to attend Sunday Mass or other day of obligation, without good reason, was quite clearly communicated as a mortal sin," Gray said. "For the Vatican II and post-Vatican II generations this has not been emphasized to the same degree."

Citing Gallup polls over many years, CARA said Mass attendance in a given week apparently peaked at 74 percent in 1957-58, gradually declining to about 41 percent in 1997, then spiking briefly to a new peak of 52 percent in 2000 before falling back to 40 percent in 2003.

Gallup routinely asks people whether they attended church or synagogue within the past seven days -- a phrasing that would give a higher number than CARA's question about attendance at least weekly, since positive responses to the Gallup question would include a portion of those who attend one or more times a month and a smaller portion of those who attend less often.