A Note on CARA’s Interpretation of Data

The NCR has a report on the important work done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate: “CARA sociologists take guesswork out of understanding the Catholic world.” CARA is an independent, nonprofit research center housed at Georgetown University. Thank heavens forward-looking churchmen like Cardinal Cushing supported the founding of CARA back in 1964.

Data is great, but interpreting it can be tricky. Mark Gray has questioned the gloomy interpretations often given about the declines in organized religion in the U.S., for example in the 2008 Pew Forum report on religious affiliation. That studied seemed to show that the Catholic Church has more people leaving it than any other US denomination. The NCR reports:

It’s easy to make Gray roll his eyes and sigh in a here-we-go-again expression. Just mention the 2008 report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life titled “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.” The bottom line in that report was unremittingly gloomy — one in 10 U.S. adults is a former Catholic, meaning, at the time, that about 22.8 million people fit the category.

The popular way to characterize the number (and we did it here at NCR) was to say that if former Catholics were a denomination, it would be the second-largest in the country behind Catholics (nearly 70 million at the time and heading toward 80 million today) and well ahead of the next denomination, Southern Baptists (16.2 million).

All of that is correct to a certain extent. It’s what’s missing, Gray argues, that skews the picture. What he points out as a corrective is that the percentage of those raised Catholic who eventually leave the faith — 32 percent — is actually a far lower percentage than that of mainline Protestant denominations.

For instance, take the percentage of those who have been raised in and then left other denominations: Presbyterians, 59 percent; Anglican/Episcopal church, 56 percent; Methodists, 54 percent; Lutherans, 42 percent; and Baptists, 39 percent. The actual Catholic number (not the percentage) stands out, he said, because the Catholic church is so much larger than the rest.

Gray’s rosier interpretation – Catholics are losing 32% of their members but so many other U.S. denominations are losing anywhere from 39% to 59% – rests upon a certain ecclesiological assumption. That assumption is that all the various U.S. denominations – Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, etc., – are just various flavors of Christianity on equal footing. We could call this “denominationalism.”

For denominationalism, it makes no difference whether a Bible-believing Southern Baptist joins up at an evangelical-style Methodist church down the street or goes through the RCIA to become a Roman Catholic – either way, the Baptists have lost one sheep.

For denominationalism there are individual denominations, but not the larger category “Protestant.” That the hypothetical Southern Baptist above thinks of herself above all as a “Protestant” and didn’t think she was converting when she found an amenable Methodist church is not considered. That the parents of another Southern Baptist might be horrified that their son left Bible-believing Christianity to become a Roman Catholic (a papist!), against their hopes that he would find a good, Bible-believing church such as the Methodists (or I suppose they’d settle for the Lutherans but the Episcopalians would be iffy) is not considered.

It is interesting and totally legitimate to compare the defections of each individual denomination – Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, and all the rest. But it would also be interesting to take account of the larger categories “Protestant,” “Catholic,” “Orthodox.” One might also attempt to distinguish between “mainline” and “evangelical,” or perhaps distinguish between “liturgical-sacramental” (Orthodox, Catholic, Episcopalian, many Lutherans) and “low church-free church.” I grant that the lines are blurry. Getting this sort of data would be challenging, but it would be highly interesting.

My point is not that we Catholics are The Church but Protestants are sects and denominations that shouldn’t be called churches. I’m certainly not pushing the anti-ecumenical slogan of some triumphalistic Catholics that “We’re not a denomination, we’re the Church.” My point is that many real-live Protestants do think of themselves as Protestants, and do make distinctions between “Catholic” and “Protestant” that matter to them.

So we can’t just compare Catholic defections to the defections of the Presbyterians or Baptists and leave it at that. We should also look at how many Protestants remain active Protestants (in any Protestant denomination) and compare that to how many Catholics remain active Catholics. Then, not every loss of a Presbyterian or Baptist would be counted as a defection from the Presbyterians or the Baptists; many of these would be counted as retentions for the Protestants. Then, the Catholic retention rate might not hold up as well as compared to Protestants as a group.

It would be interesting to compare retention/defection rates across several  categories – Catholic compared to Protestant, but also liturgical compared to low church, liberal compared to conservative, and so forth. But for that to happen, we need more people like Cardinal Cushing to keep promoting more good work from CARA so that we data geeks can get a little closer to understanding what’s really going on.




  1. I think your general observation is spot-on, Father – lots of denominational switching is not considered “conversion” by the individuals involved, just a lateral move from one perfectly valid form of Christianity to another. But I would suggest that you are closer to the significant data with your further suggestions of tracking mainline/evangelical and liberal/conservative numbers than with the Catholic/Protestant divide. In our own RCIA, those who come from mainline denominations tend to approach joining the Catholic Church much like the Baptist-to-Methodist switch you envision – without much (if any) awareness of how the two communities’ doctrinal commitments compare and contrast, they just know that they want a new Sunday home, unity in the family, or something else far more contingent upon qualities of the local community than the larger denomination of which it is a part. This has not been the case, however, with the actual Southern Baptist I’ve accompanied into the Catholic Church or others who come from communities that stress doctrinal identity; there the switch to Catholicism is indeed momentous, but then again it would be just as radical to switch to many other Protestant denominations.

  2. The Roman rite doesn’t think that those joining us from Protestant denominations are “converting” either. The term “convert” is reserved for the un-baptized, non-believers-in Christ who join the Roman Catholic communion.

  3. That data can be found in the latest Pew report. 27% of those raised Protestant switch Protestant denominations and 3% become Catholic. Meanwhile 16% of those raised Catholic become Protestant. Immigration is masking a catastrophic collapse in the Catholic Church in America, unrivaled by any other faith group.

    Among Protestants, the non-denominational and Pentecostals are doing well. The Mainline are doing worse across the board. I.e., Anglican and Presbyterian. Not surprisingly, Anglicans are the most likely to become Catholic, followed by Lutherans and Methodists.


    1. @John Mann:

      Thanks much for this info. So 3% of all Protestants become Catholic, and 16% of those raised Catholic become Protestant? And how many of those raised Protestant remain Protestant, and how does this compare with the proportion of those raised Catholic remaining Catholic?

      I’d look it up but I’m on a tour bus with the National Catholic Youth Choir right now and the WiFi connection is very slow.


  4. 59% of those raised Catholic remain Catholic, 16% become Protestant, 4% another religion, and 20% none.
    47% of those raised Protestant remain in their denomination, 27% switch Protestant denominations, 3% become Catholic, 4% another religion, and 19% none.

    I’m adding numbers here so there may be rounding errors.

    1. @John Mann:

      So 59% of Catholics stay Catholic, and 74% of Protestants stay Protestant.

      16% if Catholics become Protestant, but 3% of Protestants become Catholic.

      Thanks for this info.


  5. Can we really say that “We’re not a denomination, we’re the Church” is an “anti-ecumenical slogan of triumphalist Catholics” when Vatican II reserves the term “Church” for Catholics and the Eastern Churches which have preserved the apostolic succession and the Eucharist as Catholics understand it, and “ecclesial communities” for post-Reformation Christian communities?

    1. @Jay Edward:
      Well you raise a good point, and I suppose I overstated my position. But still, I appreciate what Cardinal Kasper said when he was on our campus some years ago (I’m paraphrasing from memory) – “of course we call them churches, this is the way we speak, this is only common sense.”

      I think that, in a technical sense, one can use these terms the way you cite from Vatican II. But I think in another sense, we call everyone who believes in Jesus “church.” I know that isn’t the full definition from Vatican II, but it’s not totally false either. I personally hope that the whole momentum set in motion by Vatican II will lead us to a broadened understanding eventually. I grant that Vatican II said what you cited, but to push that with too strong an attitude can come across triumphalistic.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:

        It seems to me that we “call everyone who believes in Jesus”, or at least is baptised, part of the Church precisely because “We’re not a denomination, we’re the Church” (or at least where the Church of God subsists).

        That is our separated brethren belong to the Church because of their baptism, and thus in a way to the Roman Catholic Church, in which the Church subsists.

        It further seems to me than any “broadened understanding” which dismissed this truth would indeed potentially represent a flawed “denominationalism” and/or anti-ecumenical rejection of Vatican II.

        Cardinal Kasper’s remarks, as you have reported them, on the other hand seems only to refer to common usage. I mean, I refer to the Church of England, not because I think it is a Church in the sense used by Vatican II or Dominus Iesus, but because that it what it calls itself and is accepted in common usage.

      2. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:

        It’s always a careful balancing act between truth and charity. You’re right that in everyday parlance, not many use the term “ecclesial community” and that by virtue of a common baptism, an imperfect communion exists, and hopefully with God’s help we will overcome our sad divisions. That they may be one!

    2. @Jay Edward:

      Vatican II said, in the decree on Ecumenism, “In the great upheaval which began in the West toward the end of the Middle Ages, and in later times too, Churches and ecclesial Communities came to be separated from the Apostolic See of Rome.”

      It is only in the late 1990s that this was interpreted to mean that all of the communities that separated at this time were “ecclesial Communities” and none were Churches. I don’t object to that opinion, but it does not come from Vatican II. They left open the possibility that some that separated at that time are indeed Churches. How different this would be if V2 had referred to “The Churches of the Anglican Communion” instead of just to “the Anglican Communion.”

      Todd– the Pew forum does distinguish among several types of Protestants and even singles out Southern Baptists as not accepting the kind of free movement among Protestants that prevails in the mainline communities.

  6. I really hate to disagree with anything here, because I largely agree with the analysis. However, with respect to Protestants seeing the denominations as Protestant, I can tell you that’s not my experience.

    My wife was a Southern Baptist. She “converted” and ask for and received conditional Baptism (as she did not think they used the correct form when she was 12).

    I can tell you her family would never view Methodists as remotely similar, nor Church of God, nor some of the evangelical mega-churches. In point of fact, her immediate family has a brother who is a Baptist Minister, a sister who is in Church of God, her Parents who are Bible Baptist. They see none of their denominations as particularly “protestant” – and they believe eachother were fundamentally different religions.

    In fact, when I mentioned to my wife that it must be a change moving from “protestant to Catholic”, she said “Oh no, I was never protestant, just Southern Baptist. The protestant evangelicals, Lutherans and Episcopalians didn’t want to have anything to do with us.”

    I am willing to bet that this may be a regional take on things and know it isn’t true everywhere, but we need to be careful in saying how people view themselves religiously. The description above certainly did not fit the situation in my family or their respective Churches.

  7. Most non-Catholic people I encounter have received the one baptism referred to in the profession of faith, but like so many of their baptized Catholic counterparts most of them have not yet experienced the conversion–metanoia–that sets them on the path to discipleship. Leading all participants in the process that leads to the initiation of adults should be all about facilitating the bond of friendship that makes possible a decision to follow the way of Christ. I’m not at all sure that the data about church switching tells us much about who’s moving closer to or further away from the good news of Jesus Christ. For what it’s worth, I regard myself as both a cradle Catholic and a convert.

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