Gallup Poll points to future demographic disaster. Wherein Fr. Z rants.

We are wobbling on the edge of a point where two demographic cliff faces converge.

First, there is in most dioceses a clamant, ongoing loss in the number of active priests.  This will get worse in the next few years.

Also, there is in most dioceses a clamant, ongoing loss in the number of practicing Catholics.  This will get worse in the next few years.

Look at the numbers for young people who profess any faith, much less the Catholic faith of their heritage.

I’m posting about a Gallup Poll, below, but I want to rant for a bit first.

Clamant problems, by definition, cry out for strong responses.

What we have been doing isn’t working.

I’ve used this image before.  If you discover that you have mis-buttoned your shirt, do you shrug and go out anyway or do you unbutton your shirt, match the right buttons and buttonholes and get it right?

If you go out with a properly buttoned shirt, people might not notice you at all.  If you go out with a mis-buttoned shirt, people will notice you and think that you are an idiot.

The one view is worse than the other.

Getting the shirt buttoned correctly is the minimum we have to do before we get out into the world.

I contend that celebration of our sacred liturgical worship at least correctly and without abuses is the mininum we have to do before getting out into the world.

No initiative of evangelization, new or other, will succeed unless and until we get our liturgical shirts together. Then we start to dress up for the job at hand, whatever uniform or garb is needed.

Using Paul’s analogy of armor for the pilgrim warrior of the Church Militant, we have to not merely put on the armor, we have to put it on correctly lest it be dangerous to ourselves.

Frankly, I think the way that our liturgical worship has been over the last few decades has made us all look like idiots to each wave of young people who have come along since the degradation began.   That and lack of catechesis resulted with other factors in an ongoing, self-sustaining spiral downward towards a point of no return.

And our pastors insist on doing the same damn things over and over, ignoring the single most important factor in our Catholic lives: worship.   There is a hierarchy to our loves and the activities that flow from them.  Atop the hierarchy is what we owe God, whom we must love above all creatures, by the virtue of religion: worship.  If we get our worship wrong, as individuals and as groups small and large, then everything else will be screwed up.

The result: erosion of Catholic identity.

And if we don’t know who we are, why should anyone pay attention to us except to crush out what we could be were we to get our act together again?

We must NOW….

  • purify celebrations of the Novus Ordo of their aberrations and bring them back into harmony with tradition and do what the Council asked regarding music, etc.
  • expand the use of the traditional form of Mass in many more places
  • bring formation of priests into continuity with our past while looking forward, which will include actually obeying Canon Law about Latin and Aquinas and attending to what is laid down in the Congregation for Educations document about Patristic studies, etc.
  • get down on our knees and do penance, openly, publicly, with bishops and priests even lying flat on their faces on the steps of their cathedrals begging God to forgive our collective stupidity and offenses against Christ’s Sacred Heart and Mary’s Immaculate Heart
  • etc.

This, from Gallup Polls:

Catholics’ Church Attendance Resumes Downward Slide

Fewer than four in 10 Catholics attend church in any given week
Catholic attendance is down six percentage points over the past decade
Protestant attendance steady, but fewer Americans now identify as Protestants

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Weekly church attendance has declined among U.S. Catholics in the past decade, while it has remained steady among Protestants.

From 2014 to 2017, an average of 39% of Catholics reported attending church in the past seven days. This is down from an average of 45% from 2005 to 2008 and represents a steep decline from 75% in 1955.

By contrast, the 45% of Protestants who reported attending church weekly from 2014 to 2017 is essentially unchanged from a decade ago and is largely consistent with the long-term trend.

As Gallup first reported in 2009, the steepest decline in church attendance among U.S. Catholics occurred between the 1950s and 1970s, when the percentage saying they had attended church in the past seven days fell by more than 20 percentage points. It then fell an average of four points per decade through the mid-1990s before stabilizing in the mid-2000s. Since then, the downward trend has resumed, with the percentage attending in the past week falling another six points in the past decade.

This analysis is based on multiple Gallup surveys conducted near the middle of each decade from the 1950s through the present. The data for each period provide sufficient sample sizes to examine church attendance among Protestants and Catholics, the two largest religious groups in the country, as well as the patterns by age within those groups. The sample sizes are not sufficient to allow for analysis of specific Protestant denominations or non-Christian religions.


All of this comes amid a broader trend of more Americans opting out of formal religion or being raised without it altogether. In 2016, Gallup found one in five Americans professing no religious identity, up from as little as 2% just over 60 years ago.


Meanwhile, the Fishwrap (aka National Schismatic Reporter) there’s a plan for what to do with all the empty churches that their own agenda is creating.

 I have never really understood why the creeds insist that Jesus’ bodily resurrected (“who rose on the third day”), [try 1 Cor 15:14] but I do understand how our buildings, if reimagined and adapted, could contribute to the people coming back to the buildings to experience God.

Minimally, adaptive reuse would welcome the kinds of people who don’t normally “darken the door.”

Examples abound.

At my [non-Catholic] church, Judson Memorial Church, in New York’s Greenwich Village, we have a morning dance for people who want to dance sober, called the “Morning Glories.” Other churches welcome opioid users to a worship service of a Sunday night. They call it “stigma-free” worship.

Still others create in their empty sanctuaries workstations that people can use at no or little cost. They remove the pews to make space for people to do yoga or sleep or work or all three.


This seems entirely in keeping with the rest of Fishwrap‘s non-Catholic identity.  Good job, Fishwrap!  Let that mask down once in a while!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Sawyer says:

    This looming demographic catastrophe has been foreseeable for at least several years. Few in the Church seems to be acting NOW to mitigate it nor prepare for it or prevent it. I’m talking about work at the parish level, like what you are advocating, Fr. Z.: making worship reverent, beautiful, sacred and meaningful; making catechesis substantial and interesting. That takes visionary leadership from pastors and the joint efforts of talented, faithful and devoted parishioners. Parishes are acting like everything’s going to be alright even if nothing is done differently. By the time enough people realize there’s a problem it may be too late because the bills and salaries won’t be able to be paid and the money that is necessary for good worship and catechesis will be even more difficult to raise because hardly anyone will be left in the pews to support parishes. I look at the average age of people in the pews at my above-average quality novus ordo parish and wonder who will be left in the pews in twenty years. I see soo little future-oriented vision in the Church to inform and direct what has to be done differently today.

  2. maternalView says:

    While I liked the buttoned-shirt analogy I have to point out that too many people wouldn’t care if they’d missed a button. The typical response would be it’s your problem if you don’t like how they buttoned their shirt. And so it is for everything today.

    That said I agree that we have get the worship right.

    But I know too many faithful Catholics who have been lured into believing that it doesn’t matter. They attend a somewhat traditional style shrine known for its adherence to the Church’s teachings one week and next week I see them going up to the altar at their parish to “help” with communion. Or they get communion in the hand and then stay to say the weekly rosary.

    I’m not suggesting everyone has to approach worship my way. What I am saying is these people too who are still professing a love for Jesus and do go to Mass are infected with the same postmodern thoughts–I can do what I want because I have good intentions. They have just as much trouble with obedience as the person who doesn’t go to Mass at all.

    In some of the parishes around me, kneelers have been placed for those who wish to kneel for communion. And it’s been presented as an option with a tone of “you don’t have to do it”. In fact, the point has been made that you have many,equally valid options–kneeling, standing, in hand or on tongue. Poor priests who have to figure out what each person is going for. As if receiving Communion wasn’t special. When things are special there’s usually an expected way-one way- of doing it. But nooo, we have a salad bar of choices so no one has to be fearful that Vatican II has been taken away!

  3. As Sawyer said above, this has been coming for some time. There are some things that will mitigate it — as people do get older, and more settled, some of them will find their way back to the practice of the Faith. Nevertheless, the overall trend is impossible to deny.

    Without taking anything away from what our genial host has said, I think the following are essential:

    – Confession. I am convinced there can be no spiritual renewal without it. More hours of confession, more preaching about it, and — dare I say — priests themselves must be more frequent in receiving it. (To be clear, I am not accusing my brethren of sinfulness. Laity may not appreciate that it isn’t always easy for priests to get to confession. We are busy, and more than that, we know our brethren are busy. I wanted to go to confession during Holy Week, but I didn’t have the heart, and I barely had time. I resolve to go tomorrow.)

    – Clear, straightforward teaching and preaching. Not all priests are going to be homiletic craftsmen. Perhaps most won’t be. (I don’t really know; I rarely hear other priests’ homilies.) But we can, at least, be clear. People are starving for this, and this is something younger and less attached Catholics, and non-Catholics, find attractive.

    For some time in seminary homiletics courses, some rather precious approaches to preaching were cultivated. The preacher was encouraged to “marinate” in the Word, and to work entirely in that; but then he was also discouraged from being too doctrinal or catechetical. That, we were told, belonged elsewhere (i.e., in “adult faith formation” activities only poorly attended). To be fair, what was emphasized was kerygma — that is, exhorting people to conversion and to put faith in Christ. But in my judgment, all this requires two scarce commodities: a priest having LOTS of time to prepare his homily, and a priest who has the requisite gifts for reflecting, composing and delivering.

    If the bishop sent out a directive next week, saying that he wants topics one through ten dealt with in the next ten weeks, that’d be fine with me. Homiletic theologians would snatch their heads bald with grief, but people would begin to know their Faith better.

    – The priest must be holy. By that I mean, he must be sure to pray (it’s harder than you might think), he must be sure to go to confession regularly, and be truly converted in his own life, he must be mindful to ongoing spiritual growth (rather than maintenance), and he must be prepared to embrace mortification of some sort — i.e., we have to avoid letting ourselves get too comfortable.

    – The pastor must have some sort of plan — i.e., for his parish. It might be very simple, but it isn’t acceptable, in this environment, to show up and just maintain.

    – The priest must have priestly fellowship. To quote Dumbledore, the time is coming when we must choose between what is easy, and what is right. Except that time has long ago come. Every pressure will be exerted on priests to leave things alone, and it can be very difficult knowing what move to make next, when those moves are going to upset the apple cart. We need to fortify each other, and also assist each other in prudential judgments.

  4. tho says:

    The advent of the Novus Ordo Mass, along with the liberalization of many Traditional practices has created a crater of disbelief. I have heard lapsed Catholics say, that they didn’t leave the church, the church left them. The desire of our hierarchy, to make us believe as protestants, is at the center of our problems.
    There is no quick fix, as it would take a generation of observing the Traditional Mass to reinstall the reverence that we once had. Bishop Bruskewitz had it right, and his memory should be precious to us all.

  5. DD says:

    It will take decades, I’m afraid, to recover from the sex abuse scandal, which still has ongoing revelations (the sorry state in Guam, for instance). My daughter is hard put to find anyone left to be godparents for her new baby.

  6. JesusFreak84 says:

    There’s one other thing Catholics aren’t doing that’ll also continue to contribute to this: we’re just not having babies. No Catholic babies today = no way for there to be Catholic butts in pews 20 years from now.

  7. Amateur Scholastic says:

    Regarding the article — how many heresies can be packed into one sentence? “God and the Holy Spirit realized they needed the human, Jesus, to be real.”

    Which implies that:-
    – the Second Person was created;
    – God lacked knowledge at one point
    – God changed His mind (and changed at all);
    – the Second Person and ‘the human’ are identical (therefore the Second Person is not divine) — although perhaps a charitable reading would remove the commas around Our Lord’s Name;
    – God was imaginary until the incarnation;
    – The Spirit does not proceed from the Son (since He pre-existed Him) — a clear stance on the filoque controversy, at least;
    – The Holy Spirit is not God (‘God and the Holy Spirit’);
    – God created out of necessity.

    Can anyone spot any more heresies?

    Let’s all pray for the author of this article.

  8. Kathleen10 says:

    It seems so obvious to us, but it’s not obvious at all to some.
    Imagine thinking it wonderful a good use for a church would be for people to dance, or do yoga, or whatever. I mean, what commonality can we have with people who think like that, why would we ever be able to be under the same umbrella with such weird and crazy notions. We simply don’t believe the same things anymore, and they are critical and fundamental things. This is the reality, God, church, faith, half of the church thinks these are one thing, and half another. How can that possibly be reconciled? Only God can do that. We have too many oddballs who don’t seem to have ever liked what Catholicism offers.

  9. jaykay says:

    JesusFreak84: rem acu tetigisti. When I saw the post-heading, before I opened it and read it, I thought it was referring to general demographic decline, in the Western world at least – most certainly Europe. Yes, the two are linked. In my country, Ireland, we’re still producing “Catholic babies” in that they’re baptised at least but in too many cases it’s a vestigial allegiance, in reality mostly a social occasion. The same horrible dictu, with First Communion – perhaps even more so in that the kids (girls especially) get a chance to dress up, or their parents get the chance to show off how much they can afford to do so. O.k., that may seem a little cynical but in too many cases it’s sadly true.

    And it’s also sadly true that we’re barely above population-replacement level. Most of Europe is below it and we seem to be headed towards that Gadarene rush. As you say: “No Catholic babies today = no way for there to be Catholic butts in pews 20 years from now.”

  10. Athelstane says:

    I have never really understood why the creeds insist that Jesus’ bodily resurrected

    Seriously, Donna. Why do you even bother? Why?

  11. JonPatrick says:

    The problem with “better catechesis” is that the kids can be packed off to the greatest most orthodox CCD classes but if when they get home their parents are indifferent and don’t practice the faith then it is all to naught. It is the parents that are the principal catechizers.

    I am somewhat pessimistic that the Church will ever turn things around in the short term. I think what will happen is that the “Church of Nice” (to borrow a Michael Voris phrase) will continue to shrink but the traditional side of the Church will grow – after all they are the only ones having babies. Eventually the demographics will shift. Similarly in the priesthood the fact that more vocations proportionately come out of the traditional parishes will eventually change it also and some of those priests will become bishops and cardinals. It will be a small church, maybe we will only be the size of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it will be a dedicated one that will start all over to evangelize the world as the original 11 disciples did way back when. I will not live to see this but maybe my children will live to see the beginnings of it.

  12. Spade says:

    “Fewer than four in 10 Catholics attend church in any given week
    Catholic attendance is down six percentage points over the past decade
    Protestant attendance steady, but fewer Americans now identify as Protestants”

    Part of this is because when Protestants bail on their church they stop identifying as Protestants. But fallen away Catholics seem to think Catholicism is some kind of ethnicity that they inherited. You don’t get people saying, “Well, I’m Baptist but I don’t believe Jesus was God, I don’t think he rose from the dead, and Sola Scriptura is garbage.”

    But you get that with Catholics. I’m sure our church attendance stats would be better if you removed the people who aren’t actually Catholic from the numbers.

  13. Sonshine135 says:

    It might be a bit helpful if when I went to funerals, the Priest wouldn’t canonize the deceased with the homily. You begin to realize that a lot of Priests either don’t know or don’t believe what the church teaches. That is a major problem. I think it very foreseeable that we will one day again worship in small, cloistered communities- maybe even in hiding.

  14. The Masked Chicken says:

    I really need to see the raw data and how the questions were phrased before I agree with a simplistic analysis of this plot. From 1975-2008 the plot breaks up into two groups: group 1 = 21-29 year olds, 30-39, 60+ and group 2 = 40-49 year olds and 50-59. Look and see how the 2 inner and 3 outer plots track with each other. There, also, seem to be missing a data point in 1975 for the 60+ group.

    Some of the data is easy to interpret. The rise in group 1 in 1983-1986 was, probably, the JP II Effect. The fall, after 2000, might be the Abuse Crisis. Overall, the effect is downward in all groups, however. The 20-29 olds are falling off a cliff, but, interestingly, the 30-39 are rising (maybe, the Francis Effect).

    How to fix this? The problem breaks up into a consideration of different sub-populations. Before Vatican II, there were two main reasons that people went to Sunday Mass: duty (fear of mortal sin) and devotion (love of God). Vatican II was mis-implemented so as to remove the first reason and the people remaining are, largely, from the second reason. The rise of pop psychology and advertising have contributed to a culture of narcissism and the corresponding idea that guilt is a bad word. A friend of mine told me a story about a married man who visited a psychiatrist to try to deal of issues of guilt he was having because he was having an affair! In the United States, in particular, one, also, has to look at the spiritual deadening of the young because of secular education, birth control, and abortion. I am afraid that as long as the law supports these things, no progress will be made in turning things around. Many people, today, take man-made positive law to be the highest moral duty they have and likewise, the highest moral permission. They have lost a view of either the Natural or Divine Law or, more specifically, the idea of any sort of transcendent law. The slide into scientism, also, hasn’t helped. In many ways, non-church goers have become perfect little materialists with a vague fear (but only a vague one) that death will prove them wrong.

    In other words, Marx couldn’t have hoped for more.

    Make no mistake, the rot is not setting in from the bottom. This has been orchestrated from the top, by people in positions of authority and respect. Until the word, sin, is no longer a dirty word, this will not get fixed. Even with a transcendent liturgy, how are people who no longer have a sense of the sacred even going to perceive it? Already, in some other countries, churches are being raided during services.

    If you want to know how to fix this, you must study the enemy. You must look at how the notion of sin was removed from the lexicon. I suggest a good place to start would be Karl Menninger’s classic work, Whatever Became of Sin? You will, always, have the devoted in Church, but some people must be trained in duty before they become useful members of the Corps of the Church Militant. Would that we had boot camps and drill sargeants for the Church Militant. Protestants, with their Wednesday night Bible studies, sort of, do have this and they are falling at a slower rate (of course, where are they going to fall to, since many of their services are plain and lacking uniqueness, unlike the Catholic Mass).

    The Chicken

  15. Gregg the Obscure says:

    The decline has been many decades in the making and of many causes. Reversing the decline will be the work of many current and future saints, some of whom will not be recognized as such in this world and some of whom are regularly involved in discussions here.

    There are signs of hope in various places. My own diocese (Denver) has so many seminarians that it’s been necessary to add residential space at the seminary and the young priests I’ve met are solid. I know of three parishes in my neighborhood – including my own – that have significantly increased regularly scheduled opportunities for Confession in recent years.

  16. cpt-tom says:

    What madness, well that is what doing the same thing over and over again for 50 years, that doesn’t work–no is FREAKING KYPTONITE to the faith, and pretending it is “The new spring time” should be called. I live in the recovering wasteland of a diocese that is FINALLY turning around after 40 years of darkness and 4 years of an orthodox bishop. All the things that Fathers Z and Fox say are true…and thankfully beginning to flourish in my wounded diocese. The diocese is still wounded, and it still is short of priests, but, the ship is turning.

    Consider this bit of good news: Considering where we were 5 years ago, this is nothing short of God’s miraculous power and lots of hard work by his faithful people.

    St John Fisher pray for us!

  17. Imrahil says:

    Dear Spade,

    But fallen away Catholics seem to think Catholicism is some kind of ethnicity that they inherited.

    Which is in all probability the force of cohesion which the Mystical body still has even with respect to the sickest member.

    Dear Chicken, why Marx, other than that he happened to be an atheist (and a certain buzzword)? That being said, this is a minor point; interesting comment.

  18. Gregg says: My own diocese (Denver) has so many seminarians

    It is interesting to note which dioceses have lost of priestly vocations per capita and which do not.

  19. Thorfinn says:

    FrZ says: “It is interesting to note which dioceses have lots of priestly vocations per capita and which do not.”

    That is a crucial statistic, along with the trend over time, which should be maintained and prominently published on the USCCB website – perhaps an appropriate role for a bishops’ conference. I wonder why it is not? What about a ratio of scheduled hours of confession per registered parishioner for every parish and diocese?

    JonPatrick mentions that parents as principle catechizers are key to “better catechesis”. True, but I also submit that the Mass teaches children, and those of any age, as much as anything else. But what is it teaching? Is the church beautiful be it ever so humble — or not? Is the liturgy oriented toward right worship of God and effectively re-present Christ’s sacrifice — or not? Either way, it’s teaching, and people are learning.

  20. hwriggles4 says:

    Concerning the numbers, what some dioceses and parishes need to do is spend time reviewing their rosters. Some Catholics are still on the books at more than one parish and are counted twice. Frankly, some parishes only know who is registered by the envelopes that are mailed for the offering.

    By the same token, some Catholics don’t register anywhere, even those who regularly attend Mass. For example, I lived in Fort Worth for nearly two years before I registered at a parish (even though I was attending Mass weekly and being part of a young adult group). A good priest and at least one permanent deacon encouraged our group to register at one parish, that way the diocese counted you, even if you weren’t active at a particular parish.

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  22. philosophicallyfrank says:

    I’ll be 80 years old in Sept.; so, I’ve been around for a while. What I fail to understand is how can Popes, Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops decade after decade totally ignore a general Council, Vatican II. The Council Fathers document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was quite clear as to what changes they wanted to be implemented. And yet five decades later, no one including the Popes (Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Emeritus Benedict XVI nor Francis) has made any effort to make the requested changes. How can a legitimate general council be so totally ignored by even saints (St. John Paul and shortly Paul VI)?

  23. The Masked Chicken says:

    Dear Imrahil,

    I used Marx in my original comment to refer to the deliberate fostering of atheism by the secular influences in society, which is a part of Marxism, but it is also true that lacking a Divine revelation of truth, be it via a Natural or Divine Law, the notion of justice becomes a shouting match, a real conflict, not just of economic classes, as Marx proposed, but of truth classes. In the current Postmodernistic society, where everyone defines their own truth, it is no wonder that many people consider the Catholic Church to be one view of truth among many. Secular forces, through such things as Critical theory, have created the conditions necessary for truth to become nothing more than an exercise of power, rather than a realization of the way things really are. One may call this Cultural Marxism, but I think the term may have been badly chosen because there will always be different economic classes – Christ, himself, said so – so there will always be economic class tensions, but there cannot be different classes of truth that disagree with each other or do not function as a unified whole. Postmodernism, philosophically, is like polytheism and the gods of the Greeks, for instance, were known to be petty and cruel, just like many people pushing relativism are, today.

    The Chicken

  24. The Masked Chicken says:

    As for competing truths, yes, truths can appear to be competing, but if they really are truths, then there will always a hierarchy that will allow for a reasonable ordering. In other words, the truth cannot be divided against itself, because God is truth. That is why Postmodernism is like polytheism.

    The Chicken

  25. DavidR says:

    Well, actually, I believe everything IS going according to plan.
    Remember what John N. Mitchell told the press in 1969: “Watch what we do, not what we say.”

  26. Grant M says:

    39% of Catholics went to Mass in the last eight days and 45% of Protestants attend church weekly? Wow, in some Western countries that would count as a major revival. (I know, it’s the direction and steepness of the trend that counts, not just the number.)

    The analogy with the shirt buttons reminds me of a column I read by humourist Nury Vittachi. A colleague of his arrived at work with her shirt buttons done up askew. When Nury drew her attention to the fact, she snarled: “It’s fashion. Look it up.” Nury continues: “I looked it up. It wasn’t fashion”.

  27. HeatherPA says:

    There are no easy answers here.
    One thing that I find interesting is that while there is a lot of evidence that people are shifting to pro life and away from pro choice, most are still pro contraception, and that includes Catholics.
    While there may be more speaking out against abortion, there is little to no speaking regarding contraception. Most people do not know the Church teaching on contraception, or just know “it’s against it” and a muddled bunch of untruths as to why.
    The attacks on Humanae Vitae are very worrisome, and it’s appalling that most of the people I have encountered that say “it need ‘revised’” have never even read it or only have seen excerpts or edited bits.
    It doesn’t help when there are promulgated quotes, real or not, of the Pope saying that Catholics shouldn’t breed like rabbits and appears to be discouraging large families.
    The prejudice against large families even inside parishes is real, unless one is at a EF parish, which isn’t the majority of parishes.

    Until this is addressed at the parish level and priests speak honestly about contraception, there will be demographic declines, certainly of Catholics, and in general.
    People get hostile about family size for some reason, it is one of the last acceptable prejudices even in our church. I say this as a mother of 7 living children and 11 children in all. The comments I have been subjected to are unbelievable.

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