Catholics Trail Protestants in Church Attendance

by George H. Gallup Jr.
Chairman, The George H. Gallup International Institute

After dipping to an all-time low in the wake of the recent sex abuse scandals afflicting the Catholic Church, weekly church attendance among Catholics appears to be on the rebound. However, historical Gallup Poll data show that Protestants have now clearly overtaken Catholics in church attendance, for the first time in Gallup polling history.

Between March 2002, when the news of the scandals broke, and February 2003, weekly church attendance among Catholics fell nine percentage points to 35%, the lowest measurement since Gallup began asking the question in 1955. By November 2003*, however, the figure had climbed 10 percentage points to 45%. Protestants' levels of church attendance, meanwhile, remained fairly stable during this same period.

While it is up from earlier this year, that 45% figure among Catholics is 29 percentage points lower than the 74% recorded when this question was first asked in 1955. Comparatively, Protestants' church attendance is actually slightly higher in November 2003 (48%) than it was in 1955 (42%).

Although religious convictions and beliefs tend to change little over the years, religious behavior reflects the tenor of the times to some degree, as a brief review of the last half-century reveals.

The 1950s

Expanding business and industry, accompanied by tremendous growth in the cities and suburbs, defined the 1950s. The post-World War II decade was also full of religious vitality, with rapid growth in church membership, especially in the booming new suburbs. Weekly church attendance was at 74% among Catholics and 42% among Protestants.

The 1960s

In the 1960s, Americans experienced major change and upheaval: rapid technological advances, the full emergence of the civil rights movement, urban riots, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy, war protests, the beginnings of the women's liberation movement, and strong anti-establishment feelings.

That anti-establishment sentiment may have carried over to organized religion, as weekly church attendance started to slide among both Protestants and Catholics. By 1969, church attendance was down 11 points from 1955 among Catholics, and 5 points among Protestants.

The Second Vatican Council, which began in 1962, ushered in an age of reform in the Roman Catholic Church. But despite the reforms offered in Vatican II, Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical on birth control reaffirmed the church's strict stance on the issue. Many Catholics, particularly young adults, may have felt that they could not oppose the pope's encyclical and remain good Catholics, and therefore began to attend mass less frequently.

The 1970s

The activism of the 1960s gave way to disillusionment and cynicism in the 1970s. Americans were growing more pessimistic about the economy, the prospects for peace in the world, social institutions, and their own futures. Catholic attendance at Mass continued to slip during this decade -- from 60% in 1970 to 52% in 1979 -- but Protestants' weekly attendance showed little statistical change.

The 1980s

The public mood of discouragement, apparent during most of the 1970s, gave way to a far more upbeat frame of mind in the 1980s. Economic optimism increased during this period, and while concern over many problems confronting society -- such as crime, unemployment, and the nuclear threat -- remained, Americans were far less apprehensive about the immediate future than they had been in the previous decade. Catholic church attendance seemed to change very little during this decade, hovering between 51% and 53%.

The 1990s

Catholic church attendance has experienced some rises and dips during the 1990s and the first few years of the 21st century, but nowhere near the decline that occurred between the 1950s and the 1980s. In March 2002, Protestants reported attending church more frequently on average than Catholics for the first time in nearly a half-century of Gallup Poll data collection. Protestants' levels of church attendance have remained higher than that of Catholics since then.

Bottom Line

Protestants pulled into a clear lead over Catholics in weekly church attendance after the sex scandals that rocked the Catholic Church in early 2002 -- but the decline in Catholic church attendance began long before the scandals. The latest November figure shows a decided rebound in attendance at Mass, but Catholics still trail Protestants by a small margin.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 10-12, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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