Greg Erlandson

Would it surprise you to know that most Catholic parishioners are quite happy with their parishes?

A whopping 92 percent rate their satisfaction with their parish as good or excellent.

Would it also surprise you to know that Mass attendance is down by 50 percent from the 1960s?

These are but two of the good news/bad news findings from recent studies of parishes and parish life by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Published in a new book called “Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century,” CARA reports other positive data points.

Catholics are generally satisfied with the worship and faith formation that is available to them. And 87 percent of those who go to Mass regularly at their parish strongly agree that they are proud to be Catholic.


The bad news? Only 24 percent of adult Catholics attend Mass weekly. Perhaps that’s not an unexpected statistic when 6 of 10 Catholics nationally say one can be a good Catholic while not attending Mass regularly.

As the church teeters on the cusp of still more dramatic changes over the next decade, CARA’s book paints a statistical overview of our 21st-century church, comparing and contrasting with the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life from the 1980s.

The picture that emerges is one of light and shadows. Good news: Greater lay involvement both in paid and volunteer positions. Bad news: The growing impact of the decline in active priests, as the baby boomers age out and fewer recently ordained are available to take their place. In the past 50 years, the number of permanent deacons rose from zero to 18,000. The priesthood has not kept up. Very soon, we will see the implications of this decline in most dioceses.

The impact of this drop in the number of active priests and women religious will be accelerated in regions of the country where the church is growing rapidly (the South and West), while the Northeast and the Midwest will face aging and eroding populations, leading to more parish closures and consolidations.

The high rates of satisfaction combined with the lower rates of weekly attendance? The authors suggest it may be that those in the pews today “want to be there, not because they feel morally obliged to attend.” One wonders if American Catholics are slowly becoming more Western European in outlook, where Mass attendance for many years has been low, even while a much larger number still identify as Catholic.

While comparing current statistics with where we’ve been, the book’s authors try to sketch out key trends moving forward.


Finances will continue to be a challenge. Dioceses and parishes face high infrastructure costs while at the same time the greater involvement of professional laity as business managers, administrators, educators and others necessitates reasonable salaries and benefits. Catholics are the stingiest of all Christians when it comes to financial contributions, which adds to this pressure.

Of great concern is how to connect with millennials and the next generation. For decades, the church has worried about reaching out to the young. The growth of the “nones,” those who profess no institutional religious connection, has heightened this concern.

For now, many in the church are looking to social media — digital messaging, videos and more — to reach this audience. All of this comes at a cost. Money is an issue. So is technology.

Yet community and identity remain critically important. Do we know who we are, and do we live our faith in a way that attracts others?

The CARA book tells us a lot about who we are reaching. Maybe the greater need is for a study of who we are not.


Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at