Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mainline Protestant and Catholic Losses in Membership Compared

On Monday I cross-posted on Mirror of Justice and Religiousleftlaw about those who have left the Catholic Church. Several of the comments at Mirror of Justice wondered or made assertions about the relationship between Catholic losses and mainline Protestant losses. A general perception is that mainline Protestants have lost members in greater percentages than Catholics. I think that perception is correct, but the relationship is somewhat complicated as Putnam and Campbell detail in American Grace.

Fewer than half of Anglo Catholics and mainline Protestants raised as children in those traditions remain observant members of their faith and the differences in percentages between Anglo Catholics and mainline Protestants are not significant. Conversions to Catholicism or mainline Protestantism are not significant enough to make a dent in these losses. (The average age of Catholic converts is 65. Putnam and Campbell speculate that these converts were primarily the product of non-Catholics marrying Catholics years ago).

Catholics have partially offset their losses with birth rates that are higher than mainline Protestants. (Some sociologists maintain that the main cause of mainline Protestant decline is low birth rates – I once heard Robert Wuthnow give a presentation at the American Academy of Religion in which he attributed 90% of the loss to low birth rates. Putnam and Campbell do not think low birth rates explain as much of the loss as do other socilogists).

But Catholics have mainly offset losses by Latino immigration.  Without that immigration, American Catholic membership would be in very substantial decline. Indeed, Putnam and Campbell maintain the transformation of the American Catholic Church “from a largely white ethnic church to a largely Latino organization is inexorable.”

If one looks at the American Catholic as a whole, as opposed to focusing on Anglo Catholics, I am sure that the percentage loss in membership turns out to be greater among mainline Protestants than among American Catholics, but I do not yet know what the percentage difference is.

I have yet to discuss the different reasons why Catholics and mainline Protestants leave their faith traditions. More on that later.

cross-posted at religiousleftlaw


| Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Mainline Protestant and Catholic Losses in Membership Compared :


                                                        Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

In my former denomination the decline has been over 50,000 a year since the late 1960's. They had a merger that helped, but now are around 2.5 million. It is actually less, but if they report they broke the 2 million mark, going down, it would be to much. So they just leave it where it is. The median age is about 60. There are virtually no converts, except a few liberals. They have gay clergy, but homosexuals don't flock to join. They implement every liberal idea and yet continue to decline.

Catholicism had 160,000 adult converts, the data is 3 years old. Certainly we have more then that who lapse. But why do they lapse? Because we don't allow for abortion or gay marriage? No. They could become Anglican and have that, but they usually don't.

I think the reasons can be found in Stark's The Rise of Christianity. Faiths that demand sacrifice and commitment grow. Those that are lax decline. Why get up on Sunday morning when everyone goes to heaven anyway? Just be nice. This is why orthodox Catholicism does grow. It is robust and demanding. Those that respond do so with fervor. This attracts others. Pope Benedict realizes this and John Allen has written about it. The Pope sees Catholics in Europe becoming a "creative minority." The decline in overall numbers is not good, although many do retain some identity as Catholics. However, core Catholics can have a disproportionate influence because of their high standard of commitment.

So the answer is not to emulate the sideline mainline denominations and become more lax. By raising the bar we actually will grow in the long run. Those Hispanics can be helpful, so long as we don't lose them to the Evangelicals (who by the way are growing). The NCR touts "less" Catholic as an answer, but in fact that is the path to extinction. Just look at the NCR's declining circulation.

Posted by: Fr. J | Oct 21, 2010 1:24:40 PM

When you or the study say Anglo Catholics, are you referring to Catholics who are white? Or Catholics who speak English? Just clarifying.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Oct 21, 2010 1:34:50 PM

My German and Irish parishioners would not want to be described as "Anglo" lol.

Posted by: Fr. J | Oct 21, 2010 2:23:27 PM

Latinos would be classified in the study as Latinos and not Anglos
whether or not they speak English. The Irish and Germans would be
classified as Anglos whether or not they spoke English. I believe
African American Catholics were classified as Anglo for purposes of
reporting on the data, but I am not 100% sure. The point of the authors
is to show a significant difference between Latino Catholics and other

Posted by: Steve Shiffrin | Oct 21, 2010 3:16:23 PM

OK that is what I was wondering--thanks!

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Oct 21, 2010 3:34:47 PM