The people over at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) are sharp analysts. Mary Gray was especially helpful with his look at the recent Pew Survey, Faith in Flux: Changes in the Religious Affiliation in the U.S. and comparing it to the earlier survey. Here are Mark’s notes.
1) Pew continues to use the phrase “Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change” without also noting anything about proportion. One cannot single out Catholicism for comparison like this when the other groups one is comparing too are so much smaller. The retention rate comparison removes this distortion and we see Catholics are more likely to keep childhood believers in the faith as adults (68 percent; the only Christians who are more likely to stay with their faith are those raised Mormon).
2) Where the first study included very large sample sizes and margins of error that allowed one to discuss results with some precision, this new study is based on smaller numbers of respondents than one might see in a media poll where people evaluate the president or give their opinion on the economy. Page 41 of the report shows sample sizes, margins of error, and response rates. Because this survey is a follow-up to the first, the net response rate is only 11 percent. Margins of error for former Catholics range from 6.5 percent (now unaffiliated) and 7 percent (now Protestant). Thus, in discussing these results no one should take these percentages too literally (like trying to calculate a population figure for the number of Americans who were Catholic but are not any more because of teachings about birth control or that priests cannot marry). It’s not a bad study – just much less precise than the first. Instead of a rich portrait it is a slightly blurry picture of a moving object.
3) Pages 21 and 24 are the most important and interesting pages of the report. “Almost half of Catholics who are now unaffiliated left Catholicism before reaching age 18, as did one third who are now Protestant. Among both groups, an additional three-in-ten left the Catholic Church as young adults between the ages 18 and 23.” This confirms CARA’s response to the first poll (http://cara.georgetown.edu/rel022808.pdf). Those who have left did not leave in any recent mass exodus. These changes have occurred over decades and most who have left did so in their teens and early 20s. Most who left have “just gradually drifted away from the religion” (71 percent). More often than not its not about teachings, beliefs, or scandals. This is about youth coming of age and not feeling connected to their faith. This is a big issue and it is troubling. But the portrait many in the media portrayed after the release of the first study (I think the Washington Times said the Church was “bleeding members”) of angry people standing up from the pew and storming out of the church angrily about sex abuse or some teaching is a distortion of reality. The poster child of former Catholics is a disaffected teenager.
4) One set of teachings do seem to be important. A majority of unaffiliated former Catholics (56 percent) note unhappiness with teachings on “abortion/homosexuality.” This is an unfortunate combination of terms. Is one more important that the other? We also cannot know what they believe relative to these teachings.