Lenten Scrutinies – and some stats

This coming Sunday, the Third Sunday of Lent, marks the first of three scrutinies, the prayers for the elect who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil.

And here is an interesting chart giving the numbers of adult baptisms and receptions into full communion in the U.S. Catholic Church for the past ten years. Anyone have any idea why adult baptisms are on the decline, especially in the last five years?


  1. As a clarifying question: into which category would you place those who receive a conditional baptism? “Adult Baptism” or “Received into Full Communion”?

    1. I think a conditional baptism would almost always be counted as a baptism. Usually conditional means it cannot be ascertained now whether there was a valid baptism in the past. While it may not be conscious, most people faced with that situation will categorize it as a baptism because no baptismal record can be found, so they want one created.

      1. I appreciate the clarification. For virtually the whole year, the plan was to put my wife through on the reception with Confirmation track, but then there was just enough doubt on the validity of her baptism. Fortunately, she was happy to have the conditional baptism. Your explanation regarding record goes a long way to clarify.

  2. A few ideas on the decline in adult baptisms:
    1) Means of communication are changing (nobody reads newspapers anymore, but we still advertise RCIA through this means).
    2) Demographics: Gen Xers generally distrustful of authority. Millenials possibly fearing a loss of choices or some sort of personal freedom. Also, failing to reach out to these demographics where they actually are.
    3) Individual Catholics not inviting those with whom they are close. That includes those to whom they are married or are about to marry (though marriage remains a major cause for joining the Church).

    I’m sure others can think of other ideas.

  3. Jonathan – that is a very good question. Is there a very real possibility that those who head the RCIA Teams in the various parishes are now better educated and have a more complete understanding of those who have been baptized through Churches where we, the Catholic Church, accept that Baptism?

    And as one who has been present at the Rites of Election here in the San Antonio Archdiocese for the past 20 years or so, I can categorically state that the numbers are there. Very possibly, we would have 2 reasons: the number of military here in the San Antonio area, and the influx from Mexico where record-keeping is pretty bad, so Baptisms might actually be more of a formality….

  4. To help facilitate thinking about the statistics.

    The average number of receptions into full communion was 83,032. Five percent more than this is 87,468. The years 2001, 2002, and 2007 and 2008 all had numbers that were 5% or more higher than average. Ninety five percent of 83,032 is 79,137. The years 2004, 2006 and 2010 had numbers that were less than 95% of the average. Although there is considerable variation, it is unlikely that there is much of any long term trend in the number of receptions into full communion for the entire period 2000-2010.

    The average number of baptisms for the whole period was 68,739. The numbers for 2001 through 2006 are all five percent above the average; the numbers from 2007 through 2010 are all five percent below the average. So there seems to be a long term decline in baptisms.

    The average number of baptisms for 2001 through 2006 was 79,763. Only 2005 was less than 95% of that figure; no year was 5% more than the average. In other words, prior to 2007, it seems that baptisms were as at least as stable, perhaps even more stable, than receptions into full communion. The long term decline in baptisms took place after 2006.

    The idea that former baptisms are now being processed as receptions into communion seems an unlikely explanation given the data pattern since there was no real increase in receptions. One would have to assume that receptions actually would have declined if they had not been offset by some procedural changes. Somewhat unlikely especially given the high amount of variation in receptions over time.

    1. I didn’t mean to suggest the last point. I wonder which category conditional baptisms fall into even now. In my (admittedly limited) experience, their number is pretty small anyway (though my wife was conditionally baptized).

  5. How can a Church hope to attract new followers, when our Pope and Bishops seem content to show so many to the door? “My way or the highway”. Which Gospel is that from?

  6. In a way I feel a little heartened Full Communions haven’t dropped. Dominus Iesus and all the chatter about churches and ecclesial communities can be off-putting, according to some RCIA directors I know who have been interviewing people over the past five to ten years.

    More to the point 😉 are there any EF apologists out there blaming liturgical reform for the drop in Mass attendance who want to pin the blame for fewer baptisms on Pope Benedict?

  7. I am always so amazed and grateful for the number of inquirers who come each year. The number of baptisms does fluctuate from year to year, but usually not by very much. It seems to me that the key is the kind of community to which they are attracted. Everyone I speak with always emphasizes the kind of welcome they received. They talk of feeling “at home” here.
    I live in the Bible belt where it is often hard to find folks who weren’t baptized once upon a time. Every once in a while, for lack of records, I will baptize someone conditionally.
    That so many people wish to become part of the Catholic Church given the awful publicity generated by the outrageous behavior of some bishops and priests is a wondrous thing, don’t you think?

  8. Could it be that there was an initial period during which people who did not know about RCIA got initiated, and the numbers were then artificially high because the church baptized many people who would have looked for baptism earlier if they had been aware of the possibility? After an initial period, the numbers would naturally go down to some long-term average.

    1. Claire, if that were the case, the rise would be following the 1988 publication of the US edition and the falling off would certainly have been much sooner. In fact there was such a “bubble” which has long since evened out. This decline is something new after a period of sustained growth.

      1. Rita: “This decline is something new after a period of sustained growth.”

        Others have pointed that out about the periods before and after 1970. Why is this different?

  9. I would think Dominus Jesus far less of a disincentive to conversion than the kind of relativism being espoused by some leaders of some recent RCIA gatherings I attended as sponsor.

  10. I think there are many reasons for the decline; one may be the sexual abuse scandal. Another, do we adequately invite people to come and see? Are we, the baptized, living witnesses to what it means to be baptized?

    Also, the manner in which the process is carried out in parishes can be an issue. In the parish where I direct the Catechumenate, we have had a steady number of baptisms over twenty years. We now have an on-going process in place; people are welcomed to enter the Inquiry at any time during the year; we celebrate The Acceptance into the Catechumenate several times during the year, and we make a clear distinction between baptized and unbaptized, celebrating The Welcoming into Full Communion several times during the year. we try to stay away from the Combined Rites.

    This may be of interest as well. I had an experience this year where a gentleman came to us from a good distance after he called several parishes in his diocese. It was July and no parish would even speak to him until September. This is a scandal!

    1. My parish in a small town generally baptized or received six to ten adults every Easter. We were a very welcoming parish – which is why I made it my home when I moved here 25 years ago.

      My parish was closed in favor of the older, smaller parish in town, rather notorious for being a closed community. Guess what happened to the number of baptisms.

    2. Donna, thank you for sharing your experience of the year-round catechumenate. It is always great to hear a success story. We are striving to help all our parishes move toward a year-round process.

  11. Is there also a possibility that it could be somehow connected to immigration numbers in some way? I know, for instance, that in my former Diocese more than HALF of the total catechumens each year were in one particular parish – the parish that served the Hmong community. If anything were to happen to the number of Hmong immigrating into that Diocese, it would severely affect the numbers of adults baptized.

    Just a thought…

  12. It would also be interesting to see those numbers broken down by region of the country. I’ve been working with RCIA for most of the past 20 years (with the exception of about 4 years in this last decade), and here in the southeast (NC), the numbers -seem- fairly steady.

  13. Father, you ask why adult Baptisms have declined so much – in the past 5 years approaching statistical significance (+0.14, +0.65, -0.60, -1.48, -1.94 standard deviations) based on the 10 years of data you give.

    Why? Let’s not be coy here.

    Scandal. Note that the real decline didn’t start until several years after the sex abuse scandals became public knowledge. It is the continued revelations, the continued abuse, the continued hypocrisy that have driven people away. “Fool me once…” rules.

    Lack of identity. What sets Catholicism apart (in a positive way)?

    Money. A friend accompanied me to Mass a while back and said… “Two collections, the poor box, a buck for an electric candle, Holy Land wood carvings for sale in the courtyard and pancake breakfast in the hall. Where do you find the time for Jesus?”

    Lack of sincerity. We laugh about the C&E Catholics. Do we talk to them? We cancel Mass that interferes with the Super Bowl. We honor God by wearing team jerseys/ beer tees to the “Holy Sacrifice” of the Mass; we used to wear suits.

    Lack of Consistency. What does the Church stand for? Ask 10 priests, get 10 answers. Oppose abortion? Which politicians have been excommunicated lately? Against “plan B”? Why didn’t Connecticut bishops close their hospitals? Is there an occupied Hell? Which Catholic Church is your parish a member of?

    Broader ethnicity. More Americans from diverse cultures is diluting the generic Christian base from which many Catholics originate.

    Reduction in general Religious following. In many countries the whole idea of religion is waning. A recent study listed 9 Euro countries headed for Religious extinction. America is not immune.

    Dissent within the Church. including dissent over the upcoming translation. When even Catholic priests and bishops argue that we should ignore the Pope, do we not do ourselves and our Church irreparable damage?

    And did I mention the scourge of the abuse scandal?

    1. You might like to add the media do not treat the Catholic
      Church with the kid gloves they once did. In fact, negative
      reports are more likely to be high on their priority list. News organizations are always keeping their ears to the
      ground. Are they receiving calls from viewers/listeners to report more on the sexual abuse crisis and the alienation of the laity from the hierarchy?

      EWTN running it’s “Isn’t it time to return to the Church?”
      ads, may serve to alert some of the laity to tune into negative news reports. Reports, they might not have been aware of, or didn’t pay much attention too previously. I suspect these are mostly elderly Catholics.

  14. When I worked in parish ministry, there were quite a few adults who had thought about joining the Church, but did not want to go through the process and have it be so public. Of course, I reminded them that they were joining a Church and that those people were to be brothers and sisters in Christ, and so a public initiation was not only fitting but almost unavoidable. There is pastoral judgement to be made there, but it was very frustrating to get such a reaction from those who claimed to be interested in the faith. Many of them were spouses of Catholics. I think Gen X-ers and millenials feel that the Church invades their privacy. It’s a pity that these rites are viewed in this way.

    1. I’m glad someone brought this up since it’s something I’ve noticed too. I’ve met people who, even if they did become interested in the Church, would be totally put off by having to go through some of the ceremonies and having to be in front of everyone. A lot of people don’t like to be the center of attention, even when it’s in the context of loved ones and family. It really has nothing to do with not wanting to be part of a community. Some people feel physically ill when faced with the prospect of being in front of a large group of people.

    2. Clarey;

      I’m glad you brought this up. Just the other day I spoke with a young man who was interested in “becoming Catholic”. I’ve seen him at Mass for several weeks in a row…. sitting up front and he seemed quite taken by the whole experience. He may have come in as a result of the flood of TV ads for the “Welcome Home” campaign. Whatever the reason, he was quite excited about joining the Church until he found out that it involved being part of a “group” of people and a variety of rather public rituals. I think he felt that this was really a personal act and was a bit turned off by the group aspect.

      I don’t think this is THE reason for a drop off in baptisms, but it might be worth considering whether the current RCIA methodology is well suited to all situations.

      It’s what makes the change form “We believe” to “I believe” as controversial as it is…. there are very different views out there about the “community” aspect of our faith.

  15. Very interesting stats. In the UK, the trend seems to be different. The past few years have seen the numbers of both catechumens and candidates for reception into full communion at the Rite of Election rising significantly. And the ratio has changed too. Formerly there would typically be three times as many candidates as catechumens. Now it could be only twice as many in some dioceses. In my experience, there are comparatively few candidates who come into the category of baptized-Catholic-but-never-confirmed-or-received-Eucharist.

    These UK stats do not include candidates for the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, whom we had at the Rite of Election for the first time this year (slightly bizarre, seeing that this is an RCIA rite, but that’s what Rome wanted). In my diocese that added another 45% to the numbers of candidates seeking full communion, but other dioceses report only a handful of Ordinariate candidates.

    1. With the Anglican Ordinariate being launched and a Lutheran version may not be too far off either, do these converts
      feel satisfied with the present RCIA and it’s one size fits all
      structure? Or, am I mistaken in thinking the RCIA is a one size fits all introduction to Catholicism? If I’m not, shouldn’t there be a more advanced form of it tailored by those providing the instruction? Something more suitable which meets the needs of these often sophisticated and extremely well informed converts?

      Who, frankly, find the RCIA curriculum too rudimentary and bordering on approaching a child’s catechism class. I have in mind here some Lutheran and Anglican clergy who have expressed their dissatisfaction with the RCIA on other websites.

      1. “one size fits all” should never be the description of the RCIA. Forming community is one aspect of the catechesis, but each individual should be greeted as an individual and an attempt made to meet each one’s needs.

        For example, the baptized are distinguished from the unbaptized, and the catechized from the uncatechized. These distinctions are explicit in the rite. (though the rite provides little acknowledgement of the well catechized yet unbaptized!) In the rite, the baptized are to be received at the Easter Vigil, but those from other Christian communities generally should not be received then.

        Clergy from other denominations rarely need much catechesis imo. They might want an extended inquiry period, but once they have made the decision to join, they are probably ready to move on to some spiritual preparation like we provide to the Elect during Lent. They can be received almost anytime (not Lent or Advent?) and a public ceremony probably should be avoided to avoid the triumphalism that might accompany it.

        That is my understanding of how the rite is supposed to work. It is very different for different people. Does it work that way in practice? Maybe not. But “one size fits all” is certainly not the ordinary way for the RCIA to work.

  16. Not being familiar with many candidates for baptism, I would presume many if not most of these people were not very involved with religion in their past and knew it mainly from a distance, especially through the media.

    Could it be that what we ceased to have after 2006 is the very visible figure of JPII, who along with Mother Teresa for many years, were bigger than life figures whom the media associated with much good being done around the world. Both were also heroic figures who put their lives on the line for the Gospel. Even if you were not interested in religion or even disagree with some of their beliefs, it was hard not to admire them. That very positive media background may have been very helpful to people if they then had some positive personal experience in their lives that might have led them to consider baptism.

    As these bigger than life figures have receded into the background, the sexual abuse scandal has occupied the media. Even though B16 has had positive visits to countries, and has accentuated the positive in his encyclicals, he has just not attracted the positive media attention that JPII regularly did, and has had considerable negative media. There are probably not many people around the country uninvolved with religion who are going to be attracted by the fact that we have a first rate theologian as Pope, or an Archbishop in NY who likes food and beer.

    Do the statistics for baptisms before 2000 support a JPII effect? While I would suspect that few people directly converted because of JPII, perhaps some RCIA ministers might have picked up positives in conversations.

    1. Many of the “unbaptized” have often had a very active practice of their faith prior to entering the Church. Oftentimes, they have been baptized in another church whose baptism is considered invalid (or whose validity is questioned).

      Even so, your noting of the loss of positive media attention possibly depressing the number of those receiving adult baptism is certainly a very good point.

  17. I think Brigid had the most likely explanation: My parish was closed

    The numerous closings in the last ten years, and the diminishing ranks of priests have had an effect. I would like to see a regional breakdown; Are there fewer baptisms in the NE and Midwest, while they remain stable elsewhere? But we already know from the Pew study that the overall number of Catholics would be declining if it were not for the influx of Hispanics into this country, so we can probably assume more shrinkage among established communities. If there are fewer places to join, less service offered, fewer people will join.

    1. But parish closings should result in declining numbers of receptions into full communion as well as declining baptisms, but the receptions into full communion have not declined.

  18. I think John Kelleher “hit the nail on the head.” I write that as a new convert (aprx 2yo), too. It wasn’t any of that, however, that kept me away. It was my spiritual journey to Rome, as it were. FYI, my patrons are Athanasius, and John Henry Newman. I am convinced that the Church has something for everyone. I enjoy apologetics, for example. Others may enjoy fellowships and outreaches, while yet others’ hearts may be touched by other aspects of our traditions and teachings. I am glad to be home. My own journey was fraught with some difficulties, to be certain. However, with patience and grace, I persevered. I was obedient. From my perspective, rebellion is in the heart of all humanity. The “do your own thing” and “make your own church” – yes, you too can be a pastor – is capitalizing upon the wayward hearts by preaching “feel good” messages, when a proper understanding of our own relief from sin was accomplished by Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. It’s difficult to share the richness of the Church with someone whose mind is like concrete – thoroughly mixed, and permanently set.

  19. I am wondering if marriage issues have something to do with it. In my 10 years at this parish we have seen quite a number of people who would have entered the process if not for some situation with their current or previous marriage of their spouse. These are heartbreaking stories. I have one women who thought her husband had an annulment only to find out he didn’t and wasn’t willing to go through one (he was Catholic and previously married in the Church). This lovely woman still comes to Mass every week and volunteers in the parish and would love to be Catholic. Others just don’t want to be bothered going through an annulment, thinking that they are being unfairly denied entrance to the Church based on something they didn’t even know was a problem. When we meet with other RCIA coordinators, they cite marriage issues as the number one problem they face, after pastors who don’t think the rites are necessary or tend to skimp on them, or just send everyone to the Rite of Election.

  20. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I’m amazed that the number of catechumens hasn’t dropped off completely! It’s clearly proof of grace to me that people keep coming into a church so beset by scandal and ineptitude. Church is lived at the level of the parish and family, and people see people living attractive gospel lives, and the power of that outweighs all the bad news and horror they see further up the hierarchical food chain. So, half full to me. Or rather, 80% full.

  21. I wonder if the RCIA process itself has discouraged conversions. The process itself can be a burden on candidates & sponsors.

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