Cover story -- Survey of U.S. Catholics
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Issue Date:  September 30, 2005

Lay Catholics firmly committed to parish life


What have we learned about American Catholic laity and their relation to parish life today? Other research has found that Catholics today are much less likely than Catholics of a couple of generations ago to say that they attend Mass weekly. Their attendance at weekly Mass has been dropping steadily since its peak, reported by Gallup to be about 75 percent in the 1950s. Our poll found that just over a third, some 34 percent, report weekly attendance at Mass, although half say they attend Mass more than a couple of times a month and 64 percent report at least monthly attendance. Three in four say that you can still be a good Catholic without attending Mass every Sunday.

Nevertheless, more than two out of three Catholics (68 percent) are registered in a parish. Registered Catholics are more likely than nonregistered Catholics to be in the pews on Sunday -- 48 percent of them say they attend Mass weekly, compared to just 7 percent of nonregistered Catholics. They are more likely to be married -- 74 percent, compared to 63 percent of nonregistered Catholics, and to have had their marriage blessed in the church (82 percent of registered Catholics, compared to 51 percent of nonregistered Catholics). Finally, registered Catholics are much more likely (29 percent) than nonregistered Catholics (6 percent) to be high commitment Catholics on our scale of commitment to the church.

In summary, registered Catholics are more committed to the church, they attend Mass more regularly, they are more likely to be married, and they are more likely to have been married in the church. We expect that their attitudes about parish life are also different from those Catholics who are not registered in a parish.

Attitudes about parish life

Since the Second Vatican Council, lay Catholics have been taking an increasingly active role in parish life. Most parishes have only one priest assigned, but most have two or more lay ecclesial ministers on the payroll. Lay people regularly serve as director of religious education, pastoral associate, liturgy coordinator, youth minister, or in other roles formerly reserved for the parochial vicar. Some 17 percent of parishes have no resident pastor and increasingly the pastoral care of these parishes is being assigned to a lay person.

What are the general attitudes of laity relating to parish life? Overall, most Catholics seem relatively satisfied. More than nine in 10 agree that, on the whole, parish priests do a good job, and more than half strongly agree with that statement. However, more than half (53 percent) agree at least somewhat with the statement “Most priests don’t expect laity to be leaders, just followers,” and 64 percent agree at least somewhat that Catholic church leaders are out of touch with the laity. And although the average Catholic parish has about 900 registered families, only four in 10 lay Catholics agree that “Catholic parishes are too big and impersonal.”

How do registered and nonregistered parishioners compare on these attitudes about parish life? As we expected, registered parishioners express attitudes that are somewhat more supportive of parish life than do nonregistered parishioners for each of these items (see Table 8).

Attitudes about the priest shortage

We found that lay Catholics hold some pretty strong opinions about what measures they would be willing to accept as dioceses try to find ways to address the shortfall of priests available for parish ministry. As Table 9 shows, some solutions are more acceptable than others.

Catholic laity express a clear preference for having a priest to pastor the parish, even if that priest comes from a different country or must be shared with another parish. More than four in 10 would find it “very acceptable” if the diocese would bring in a priest from another country to lead the parish and nearly four in 10 would find sharing a priest with another parish “very acceptable.” However, 92 percent would find sharing a priest at least “somewhat” acceptable, compared to 89 percent who would find it at least “somewhat acceptable” to bring in a priest from another country and 88 percent who would find it at least “somewhat acceptable” to merge two or more nearby parishes into one.

Some of the other measures mentioned are seen as more drastic, but still preferable to closing the parish. Six in 10 would find having a Communion service instead of Mass some of the time at least “somewhat acceptable” and a little more than half (55 percent) would find having a lay parish administrator at least “somewhat acceptable.” Only one in 10 lay Catholics would find either of these measures “very acceptable,” however.

The final two measures to deal with a shortage of priests are clearly unacceptable to a majority of lay Catholics. Six in 10 say that reducing the number of Masses to fewer than once a week is “not at all acceptable.” Even more, seven in 10 lay Catholics say that closing the parish is “not at all acceptable.”

Participation in decisions about parish life

At a glance

When it comes to lay participation in decisions about parish life, 72 percent of lay Catholics feel they should have the right to participate in selecting the priests for their parish. Registered parishioners feel less strongly about this than nonregistered parishioners -- 68 percent of registered Catholics say they should have this right, compared to 80 percent of nonregistered Catholics. There is no difference in the opinion of registered and nonregistered Catholics about whether parishioners should have the right to participate in deciding about parish closings, however. Fully 83 percent of registered Catholics and 78 percent of nonregistered Catholics are in agreement on this one.


What does this mean for the church? Our data suggest that, despite a gradual decline in weekly Mass attendance, the connection to parish life remains strong among Catholic laity. More than two in three Catholics are registered in a parish and registered parishioners remain a corner- stone of support for parish life.

Lay Catholics in sizable numbers have been seeking formation and stepping into parish leadership roles that were formerly reserved for priests and religious sisters and brothers. This increasing visibility of lay Catholics in parish leadership is having a gradual impact on Catholics’ attitudes about the role of laity in parish life. While most Catholics agree that on the whole, parish priests do a good job, there is some indication that lay Catholics are becoming restless with the “pay, pray and obey” stereotype that prevailed before Vatican II.

Even as the priest shortage grows more acute in dioceses across the country and bishops struggle to find ways to allocate the dwindling numbers of priests available for sacramental ministry, lay Catholics are expressing some definite preferences as to how to cope with that reality. Bringing in priests from other countries, sharing priests between parishes, merging two or more nearby parishes into one, having occasional Communion services instead of Mass, and entrusting the parish to a lay person with a visiting priest for the sacraments are all options that a majority would find at least somewhat acceptable. Each involves some accommodation on the part of parishioners but in the end preserves parish life. One thing is very clear from the data -- closing the parish is the least acceptable option. Seven in 10 would find that not at all acceptable.

The following is a list of all of the tables and figures listed in our cover stories:
Table 1: Can you be a good Catholic without this?
Table 2: Attitudes on which Catholics highly committed to the church are distinctive
Table 3: Generational differences over time
Table 4: Demographic portrait of American Catholics, by political party
Table 5: Behavior and commitment of American Catholics, by party preference
Table 6: Attitudes about abortion and death penalty by generation
Table 7: Differences in attitudes about church teachings, by party preference
Table 8: Attitudes about parish life
Table 9: Would you be willing to accept in you parish ...
Table 10: Church as mediator by generation
Table 11: Acceptable parish accommodations to the priest shortage
Table 12: Possible responses to the priest shortage
Table 13: 'Cannot explain faith to others'
Table 14: Did you ever attend a Catholic school or college for any of your education?
Table 15: Catholic high school or college attendees have more education, income
Table 16: Catholic high school and attachment to the church
Table 17: Catholic high school and attitudes about parish life
Table 18: Appropriate role for parishioners with respect to parish finances
Figure 1: How important to you?
Figure 2: Attend Mass weekly or more
Figure 3: Changing behaviors and attitudes about attending Mass
Figure 4: Catholic laity should have the right to participate in deciding how parish income should be spent
Figure 5: Parishioners' role in parish finances should be ...

National Catholic Reporter, September 30, 2005

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