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.