Bad news from Boston – UPDATED 8-16

This is disturbing – a very sharp decline in Catholic marriages in Massachusetts in recent years. One wonders how widespread such disaffilliation from organized religion is. Sigh.

UPDATE 8-16: Fr. Austin Flemming – well-known liturgical author and leader, refers us to his blog post, “Our absent brothers and sisters…” Here are more hard data on Boston archdiocese.

Declines from 2000 to 2009, Boston archdiocese:
General population: 4%
Catholic population: 17%
Mass attendance: 24%
Child baptisms: 46%
First communions: 24%
Marriages: 54%
Priests: 20%


  1. Making it all the easier to get those marriages annulled if and as desired for lack of form….

    I have noticed fewer church weddings generally in the past several years.

    Also, I suspect there are fewer funerals than there might otherwise be (that is, with the demographic curve, they are heading up, just not as much as you’d expect).

    Of my good friends, there were many who stopped active practice of Catholicism due to The Scandal. A very close friend was scandalized by the failure of lighting to hit Boston’s chancery in 2002 – and he was deeply in earnest. Unrealistic? Misunderstanding the nature of sin? Sure. But he was also very much the product of a local Catholic culture of authority (dating back to Cdl O’Connell) that made such an expectation possible. And it’s not something that can be argued over, only experienced.

  2. If I live out my life in Connecticut, I haved to admit to having no idea what the church will be where my funeral will be. I’m in my late 30’s. Three parishes pool their confirmation candidates every year, and maybe there are a couple dozen confirmands. Meanwhile there are about 2 baptisms every Sunday in just our parish. Parishes will be merging or closing, and not just because of the priest shortage. Was up in the Fall River diocese a couple weeks ago at a church that already served merged parishes, and there couldn’t have been more than 60 in the congregation at the main Sunday morning mass.

    John Allen’s book on the future church quotes a scholar as saying, “In Britain, institutional religion now has a half-life of one generation, to borrow the terminology of radioactive decay.” Two religious parents have only a 47 percent chance of raising a religious child.

  3. Fr. Rob-a good recommendation.

    I wonder when the decline in Sunday Mass attendance, Church marriages, baptisms, funerals, etc…. will be interpreted as evidence of the non-reception of the post-conciliar renewal.

    I have no illusions that the proponents of that renewal will apply the theology of reception to the post V2 reforms.

  4. The speed of this decline is what impresses me. Fifteen years ago weddings provided a significant source of my income as an organist, today I don’t even calculate weddings in personal financial planning. Though there are multiple reasons for the shift, as a Boston area resident the abuse scandal surely has to be the primary cause.

  5. Declines from 2000 to 2009, Boston archdiocese:
    General population: 4%
    Catholic population: 17%
    Mass attendance: 24%
    Child baptisms: 46%
    First communions: 24%
    Marriages: 54%
    Priests: 20%

    Truly frightening statistics, as much by their speed as by the figures themselves. 1/5 reduction in priests? Yes, I know it’s roughly keeping step with the decline in Mass attendance, but that’s still a huge loss in 9 years. So are the other figures.

    May I say, once again, that this seems to me to be symptomatic of the gulf between the Church Institutional and the Church Pastoral. It’s the institution that’s suffering. We have to get out to where the people are.

    The Cleveland thread is just another aspect of this. When bishops start to say “How can we keep the flame of faith alive here?”, rather than “How can we keep spending money on these people?”, then things will change.

    The Boston situation is the same. If Law had not gone for instutitional denial, and ultimately been rewarded for this (which is still an ongoing scandal, a sore in the side of the Church, and surely a factor in the diminution of allegiance), then we would not be reading these figures today.

    1. In recent years there has been a tendency to downplay the significance of the sexual abuse scandal by pointing at soft, attitudinal data about the Church and bishops which has often indicated a rebound from 2002.

      When one looks at hard data about behavior such as this, it looks like the scandal had enduring effects that will likely continue for some time.

      In life we usually don’t continue to be emotional after events happen, but we adjust our lives to the new situation. Since we like to look upon our selves as being in control of things, we might find a lot of reasons for our changed behavior.

      The studies which have tried to link changes in behavior to the sexual abuse scandal have been disappointing, e.g. the following quote from a Boston Globe article on one of the recent Pew reports of declining Catholic affiliation

      “But the new study suggests that the sexual abuse crisis played at most a minor role in the decision of Catholics to leave — only two percent of former Catholics who are now unaffiliated volunteered the abuse scandal as the main reason they are no longer Catholic; when prompted by an interviewer, 27 percent said concern about the abuse scandal was a factor in their departure.”

      Again when we leave marriages and jobs, we usually find a host of reasons for doing so beyond the spouse or boss who disappointed us. In many cases we have a lot of motivation for denying their importance in our lives.

  6. What happens when we look at the time from 1990-2000?
    The overal population held basically steady
    The Catholic population increased (!) by 8% (Boston reached its high water mark in 2003)
    The number of priests decreased by 20%

    I agree with Mr. Inwood that there has to be a more proactive approach led by the bishops. I would suggest door-to-door like the Mormons.

    1. Well, that approach would be wasted while Cdl Law is serving as archpriest of Sta Maria Maggiore….

      1. Would it really? You think if you’re evangelizing the unchurched their first question is going to be about who’s the Archpriest of this or that roman basillica?

      2. We’re talking about evangelizing those who have left the active practice of the Catholic faith in Boston, a great many of whom left due to The Scandal and Cld Law’s role in it. His current posting in Rome is not far from the tip of many of their tongues. It is mentioned with great and seething regularity in these parts.

  7. a great many of whom left due to The Scandal and Cld Law’s role in it.

    I’m betting that as a proportion of non-practicing Catholics in Boston, this is a tiny fraction. Can you provide some evidence?

    1. What’s the reason for your suspicion? There’s evidence in the dramatic decline in identification as Catholic in the intervening years, by a variety of metrics. You can look them up yourself, as I am not the Google Research Service..

      Those of us who live here have the stats validated in the daily experience of our lives; so many of us are among a dwindling portion of our families, cirlces aof friends and colleagues who maintain the active practice of our faith.

      Put it this way, I don’t think Cdl Sean would take your side of the bet.

  8. Many of the same people who blame a decline on regular religious practice on the abuse crisis refuse to accept that an even more abrupt & devastating decline followed the introduction of the vernacular liturgy in 1970. They will sidestep the correlation with appeals to ambiguous other cultural factors of the period but they refuse to do so in this case.

    It is too ironic.

    1. John,

      There’s nothing “ambiguous” about the cultural factors in the years around the council. In the West there was the baby boom, student unrest, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the women’s movement, the advent of electronic mass media. etc. In the developing world, where many of these cultural factors were not in play, the Church has experienced an explosion of membership unprecedented in her history. Why is it that people who want to blame liturgical changes for the decline of the Church in the West won’t consider giving those changes credit for the Church’s growth in the southern hemisphere?

      It’s too ironic.

  9. “I think some object to causality except if it serves their own purposes.”

    And I think some Catholics haven’t quite mastered the distinction between causality and proximity. My Marilyn Monroe theory is just as valid, given her death is closer to the start of the decline of the diocesan clergy numbers than MR1.

    Sociologists have found that Humanae Vitae inspired a greater exodus than liturgy. But you’re sure not going to see an official reform2 movement on contraception.

    That said, I’m not disinclined to blame the postconciliar generation, especially in the eastern sees that took a very lukewarm approach to Vatican II. JPII may have appointed some horrific bishops, but he did get evangelization right.

  10. “Sociologists have found that Humanae Vitae inspired a greater exodus than liturgy.”

    Maybe some do but others don’t agree. If we consider this claim we should wonder why the dramatic downturn in regular Catholic practice waited for the abrupt change in the Sunday experience and why the advent of the vernacular didn’t keep them in the pews? Don’t forget that HV brought no change from what we taught during our long consistent period of growth after 1930 making it difficult to accept that HV would dramatically impact Sunday practice in any abrupt way.

    Unlike your Marilyn Monroe theory Todd, we do have Ken Jones’ study which provides statistical evidence for the pastoral failure of the post V II period. His “Index” (2003), refutes other explanations by showing the consistent & uninterrupted growth in our Church in every area from the 1930s while our teaching on contraception remained consistent with HV. Jones shows a marked decline in Church attendance among Catholics from the 1960s to the present while attendance remained virtually level, with a slight increase, for Protestants.

    “…the eastern sees that took a very lukewarm approach to Vatican II.”

    When considering SC’s # 36 we’d have to say that nearly the entire US Church took a lukewarm approach to Vat. II.

    1. JF, I don’t think so. I read Ken Jones’s study and it’s worthless. It’s one big ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ from beginning to end. There’s no serious discussion of causality, and the one brief reference to one study of Protestant numbers (yes, only one) is hardly convincing. He’s a collector of statistics, but he’s not a scholar.

    2. John,

      There was an amelioration in confessional practice on the part of many priests for several years before the issuance of HV. These priests were often termed “pastoral” and women who were using contraception would flock to them (my mother and other women of my mother’s generation from different places have confirmed this phenomenon as eyewitnesses – my mother was non-contracepting and was very aware of what was going on (the fact that husbands apparently did not take this responsibility with the same level of gravity is another discussion which I will omit here)). This development was based on the expectation that there would be a change in teaching from Casti Connubi.

      In secular sociological terms, it was a “revolution of rising expectations” and when it did not play out as expected, it had shattering effects. That’s not to say Paul VI should not have issued HV, but it is to say that there were consequences in light of the realities on the ground, as it were.

      As for the issue of correlation and causality in Boston, there’s sufficient personal testimony on a widespread basis for folks who’ve lived through this to see that connection validated. This was much less the case with the shift to the vernacular, which was not one of the more contentious shifts in the wake of Vatican II (the ending of the old Friday abstinence regime had more of an effect because it highlighted the prior practice as arbitrary and unnecessary in the eyes of many, but again that’s another discussion).

  11. In the academic world in order to assert one’s authority or superiority, is a professor saying, “He’s a collector of statistics, but he’s not a scholar,” similar to a priest saying the same to assert his authority by saying, “he’s just a lay person, but he’s not a priest?”
    Seems to me to be two forms of the same “clericalism” much maligned on these pages and rightfully so! 🙂

    1. Nope. You totally misread it. I didn’t say he lacks academic degree or title. It’s not about him. It’s about the quality of his work – and the work is low quality. Thus, your analogy to clergy/lay (which is about people and their status of position) is entirely irrelevant.

      1. You wrote that he was not a “scholar.” I don’t know his academic credentials or what he is. Perhaps you should have written that his article wasn’t scholarly? That would cut him to the bone if in fact he is a scholar, kind of like telling a priest he’s not priestly! 🙂

      2. But from my last comment you now know that I meant that his book isn’t scholarly. It’s about the work, not the person, as I already said.

  12. JF – did you ever factor in that catholics welcomed VII and were inspired by its concepts, direction, and mission. Unfortunately, in very practical family matters (birth control), many US catholics (if not others) thought that VII had set up principles that would be lived out in papal decisions. Paul VI did follow VII principles; set up a committe that overwhelming permitted birth control following a set criteria. Most historians agree that Paul VI was pressured by a small, conservative, fearful curia group in issuing HV. This was demoralizing and inconsistent for many catholics who had lived through the previous 7 years of council and decisions. That is when you do start to see an exodus or, at least, the beginnings of passivity, etc.

  13. Since this is about Boston, it is important to assess the local causes and not get caught up in a hypothetical ideological universal cause, which as FCB points out fails to explain the growth of Catholicism in the Third World in contrast to its difficulties in the First.

    There is specific sociological evidence that dioceses in the USA where Catholics are a large percentage of the total population are less vibrant, e.g. produce fewer priests, deacons, religious, lay ministers, etc per Catholic than dioceses where Catholics are a smaller % of the total population. This is in accord with larger sociological theory and data that indicates that well established churches with little competition become less vibrant and hence vulnerable.

    A priest from the Midwest who spent his sabbatical in Massachusetts during the 1970’s told me that he was shocked that the Catholic Church in the East was “dead.” This is in accord with Todd’s observation of the lackluster implementation of Vatican II in the East, as well as with the problems of dioceses which have a large % of Catholic population.

    And then the sexual abuse scandal.

    When Catholicism becomes successful, and bishops (or in the past monasteries) become rich, members of the elite, the “world” of money, status and spiritual pride enters into Church management, the preaching of the gospel and catechesis (or formation) diminish, the faithful (or monks) become lukewarm and reform becomes necessary.

    1. The triumphalist prelatial and chancery-oriented culture of Boston that was established by Cdl O’Connell has indeed been very much at the heart of the problem here.

  14. This may or may not apply to Boston, but a very recent survey found:

    “More than half of American Catholics say the Vatican is out of touch with their lives, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll, which found discontent, particularly over the church’s and Pope Benedict XVI’s perceived inaction over clergy sex-abuse revelations. But the same poll shows that, by a wide margin, Catholics say the abuse crisis has not caused them to view their church in a more negative light. These Catholics still attend Mass every week and remain loyal to their parishes and priests. They find comfort in the church’s message, expressed in different ways.”

  15. The survey is found here:;contentBody.

    “Only” 9% have questioned leaving the Church because of the abuse scandal. Great – it’s only 1 in 11. “Only” 11% are less likely to be involved in Church activities because of the scandal – hey, ‘only’ 1 in 9. “Only” 10% are less likely to go to Mass. “Only” 14% have decreased contributions because of the scandal – again, this is ‘only’ 1 in 7. “Only” 11% are less likely to let their children be involved in Church activities. And “only” 54% per cent think Pope Benedict is out of touch with Catholics.

    If anyone thinks this is good news, we’ve got a mission problem.

    Finally, FWIW, “only” 59% of Catholics favor women’s ordination, and “only” 67% percent favor a married priesthood.


    1. “only” 59% of Catholics favor women’s ordination”

      What happens when we rephrase the question to ask them whether they favor simulated sacraments?

  16. In my city we estimate only about 30% attend Mass on any regular basis. 70% do not which I think is the national average. Yes it is abysmal and the reasons for it multi-faceted. Without invoking the dirty word, “causality” perhaps some of the issues pertain also to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism from another post.

  17. Fr.

    The Post hoc fallacy occurs only when the leap to the causal conclusion is done “hastily” or without evidence. Having read Jones’ work you know it is a presentation of clear, unbiased, and undeniable raw data with some important analysis of that data that allows the reader to draw his own conclusions. He does not draw them for the reader.

    The liturgy impacts everything in the Christian’s religious life. Importantly, the devastation in the religious orders occurred quickly and among the very Catholics most invested in active liturgical participation even before the council and where liturgical renewal was both anticipated and implemented most speedily. Nowhere was the liturgy lived more actively than among religious whose daily lives were marked by its rhythms and that is precisely where the free-fall occurred initially. I don’t think too many religious sisters or teaching brothers were directly impacted by HV but the changes in the liturgy were highly signficant.

    1. JF – There are conclusions drawn in the book and they are without evidence – except “post hoc” evidence. We’ve already had this discussion on Pray Tell but you still want to believe Jones, so I have nothing more to add.

  18. If we were talking about any other decade than the 60’s, but when you throw a bunch of things together in a big stew pot: the Cold War and its military outbursts, a booming western economy, television, the suburbs, automobiles, simmering student unrest, assassinations of much loved public figures, the countercultures of music, fashion, and the arts, the Civil Rights movement, Women’s Lib, the fading of American ethnic parishes–we might well ask what wouldn’t drive people away from the Church. The list might well be shorter.

    If Vatican II had been both more bold and more pastoral in its implementation, the Church might have been spared a bloodier hemorrhage. But oh wait: we had that in the US compared to other places.

    If the best the reform2 crowd can come up with is a milquetoast complaint about continuity, all I can say is it betrays a lack of understanding of the Christian basics about conversion, metanoia, and the transformative power of the Gospel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *