Anyone who likes statistics has to like CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, and their blog 1964. But, much as I like CARA, two of their recent posts strike me as wrong-headed.

Changes in Number of Parishes… and Congressional Seats?”, December 21, says:

“At CARA we are often called by reporters working on stories about parish closures. Almost always the reporter is looking for a quote or statistic that can confirm their assumption that the closure of a parish is a new sign of an imploding Catholic Church (it’s a common narrative!).

“We typically have to caution the reporter on jumping to conclusions based on a single anecdote and then ask a few questions ourselves. Is this parish in an urban area? Is it located in the Northeast or Midwest? Is there a priest shortage in the diocese? All these factors are more likely to be the root of the closure rather than the generalized impending doom in many reporters’ heads.”

CARA’s commentary would have us believe that it’s mostly a matter of population shifts, not church decline. They offer this chart to show that Catholic parish closings and openings track population shifts as reflected in the U.S. census and number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives:statechange2

Only problem is, the total number of Catholic parishes lost in 10 years is 1,169, and the total number gained is 148. The number of U.S. Catholic parishes lost in just a decade is 1,021. Sure looks like institutional decline to me.

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Their post “Pies, damned pies, and statistics: Is the Catholic population growing?” of November 25 similarly fails to debunk statistics of Catholic decline:

“So here is that necessary dose of reality…  Since the end of World War II, on average, 25% of the U.S. adult population has self-identified in national surveys as Catholic (±2 to 3 percentage points).”

The Catholic proportion of the U.S. population is not growing, it is remaining constant at about 25%. According to CARA, this doesn’t mean that the U.S. Catholic Church isn’t growing. The U.S. population is growing, and the Catholic Church, in order to retain its 25% share, likewise has to grow – and it is. CARA writes:

What if you were coming over to my house for Thanksgiving this year and as in the past I always give you a slice of pumpkin pie that is equal to 25% of the total pie dish. But in years past I always used 8 inch pans to cook the pie and this year I am using 12 inch pans. You are still only getting exactly 25%. Will you be eating more this year? Of course! The pan is 50% bigger.”

A better image might be this: I’m greatly hurt if I don’t get to eat as much Thanksgiving pie as my siblings. Fearing and expecting that my mother will increase everyone’s portion except mine, I plant a friend in the yard to sneak pie to me through the dining room window in order to end up with the same amount of pie as my brothers and sisters. Yes, I got more total pie to eat than last year – but I needed an outside source to get there.

The friend supplying pie in this story is immigration, which CARA entirely ignores. Without immigrants, the U.S. Catholic Church wouldn’t retain its 25% share of the general population. The Catholic Church isn’t retaining and attracting enough members to do that on its own. Sure looks like institutional decline to me.

My aim is not to rejoice at how badly the U.S. Catholic Church is doing, much less score ideological points by blaming someone. My aim is to face up to the truth, no matter what it is, without pretending or minimizing.

We Catholics and Christians have lots of challenges ahead of us in an increasingly secularized environment. Surely we’re better off knowing, as best we can, the contours of those challenges.

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