Catholic church attendance in the United States fell by six percent between the pontificates of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, the sharpest drop in decades, a new Gallup poll has revealed.
An average of 39 percent of U.S. Catholics attended church weekly during the heart of the Francis papacy, from 2014 to 2017, Gallup found in a survey released April 9, which represents a significant drop from the 45 percent of Catholics who attended weekly Mass from 2005 to 2008, in the early years of the Benedict pontificate.
Weekly Mass attendance among American Catholics had stabilized in the mid-2000s at around 45 percent, after falling sharply during the period comprising the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and its aftermath, which many Catholics experienced as a time of confusion and upheaval.
The downward trend has resumed during the Francis years, falling more abruptly than it had since the 1970s.
Gallup’s methodology has been to conduct surveys on church attendance near the middle of each decade from the 1950s through the present, so it does not provide a strict year-to-year accounting. Nonetheless, their choice of the period 2005-2008 happened to coincide with the first four years of the Benedict papacy, while the period of 2014-2017 does nearly the same for the pontificate of Francis, who was elected in 2013.
The most recent survey provides useful data regarding the demographics of churchgoers as well, by breaking down attendance by age groups. American Catholics between the ages of 50 and 59 saw the sharpest decline in Mass attendance between the pontificates of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, falling from 46 to 31 percent, or a drop of 15 percent.
Among those aged 30 to 39, on the contrary, weekly Mass attendance has actually gone up by three percentage points, from 40 to 43 percent on average. This is, however, the only age group that experienced a rise in church attendance between the period of 2005-2008 and the period of 2014-2017.
For the first time since such studies have been conducted, a majority of Catholics in no generational group attends weekly Mass, Gallup found.
As a useful point of comparison, the average number of U.S. Protestants who reported attending church weekly during the period 2015 to 2017 remained fundamentally unchanged from the average attendance during the period 2005-2008, which suggests that specific confessional issues rather than broader societal changes are behind the recent drop in Catholic Mass attendance.
While it would be unfair to attribute the entire decline to the “Francis effect,” it is unlikely that the pontiff’s continual deemphasizing of the importance of obedience to church rules such as regular Mass attendance and adherence to Catholic doctrine has not had an appreciable effect on Catholic practice. The Francis pontificate correlates to the sharpest drop in U.S. Mass attendance in recent decades.
According to a study released last month by the Pew Research Center, “signs of growing discontent” with the Argentinean pontiff are emerging among American Catholics at the five-year mark in the Francis papacy.
While the general view of most U.S. Catholics toward Pope Francis is positive, the unmistakable trend is toward greater disapproval of Francis, Pew revealed, with increasing numbers saying they view the pope unfavorably because he is “too liberal and naïve.”
The percentage of Catholics who say they disapprove of the pope has more than doubled in the last four years, from 4 percent in 2014 to 9 percent in 2018.
The number of American Catholics who believe that Pope Francis represents a “major change for the worse” after his predecessors Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II has more than doubled from 2015 to 2018, from just 3 percent in 2015 to 7 percent at present.
The share of U.S. Catholics who consider the pontiff “too liberal” has risen sharply from 19 percent in 2015 to 34 percent in 2018, while the number who consider him to be “naïve” has risen from 15 percent to 24 percent in the same period.
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