National News

Polls Can’t Reveal If Catholics Will Ultimately Leave Church

By Carol Zimmermann

Woman prays after receiving ashes at St. James Cathedral-Basilica, Downtown Brooklyn, on Ash Wednesday.(Photo Ed Wilkinson)

WASHINGTON (CNS) – The headlines from a March 13 Gallup Poll about the growing number of U.S. Catholics who have thought about leaving the Church because of the clergy abuse crisis did not faze one researcher of Catholic data.

Considering vs. Leaving

“There is a substantial difference between considering leaving and leaving. It is also the case among those who do leave, some come back,” said Mark Gray, director of Catholic polls and a senior research associate at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA.

The Gallup Poll revealed that 37 percent of U.S. Catholics, up from 22 percent in 2002, said the abuse scandal in the church has led them to question whether they would remain Catholic.

The poll’s results are based on interviews with 581 U.S. Catholics from Jan. 21 to 27 and Feb. 12 to 28. Gallup conducted a similar poll in 2002 after The Boston Globe reports on clergy abuse gained widespread attention.

Forty-six percent of Catholics who seldom or never attend Mass say they have questioned whether they would remain in the faith, while 37 percent of monthly Massgoers say they have considered this and 22 percent of weekly Massgoers have thought about this.

The same pattern existed in 2002, but this year more practicing and nonpracticing Catholics said they were likely to question their place in the church. Seventeen years ago, only one in eight weekly Massgoers asked this question compared to 24 percent of semi-regular Massgoers and 29 percent of those who seldom attend Mass.

The report indicates, although this seemed to get lost in some of the coverage of it, that the responses to the poll don’t reveal if “Catholics who are questioning their church membership will actually decide to leave the church. Many Catholics may consider leaving the church but ultimately decide not to do so, or they may have no intention of leaving” but are responding to the question out of frustration with how the church has responded to this crisis.

A tweet posted by CARA March 13 suggested that Gallup track the number of U.S. adults who identify as Catholics by the end of 2019, noting: “In the past, most who considered leaving didn’t and among those who did, some returned.” It said if the number of U.S. Catholics falls below 21 percent that would be “outside the post-1948 norm.”

In 2000, the percentage of Catholics in the U.S. was 23 percent and last year it was 22 percent.

Gray, who takes the long view, said that “religious identity and affiliation is much more nuanced over the course of a lifetime than many assume.”

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