Religion and Social Trends

Catholic Church Attendance Drops This Year in Midst of Scandal

Protestants now more likely than Catholics to attend church on weekly basis

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Catholics are attending church less often this year compared with the previous two years, and are also slightly less likely to say that religion is very important in their lives. By way of comparison, self-reported church attendance and importance of religion among Protestants has been much more stable. Catholics continue to say that the Church hierarchy has done a bad job handling the sex abuse crisis, providing suggestive evidence that the observed decline in religiosity among Catholics is a direct result of the sex abuse issue. Additionally, four out of 10 Catholics now say that they are contributing less money to the Catholic Church because of the scandal.

Key Findings

The Gallup Poll relies on two separate questions to track church attendance. The first asks Americans if they have attended church within the last seven days, and the second asks respondents to indicate how often they attend church in general.

This graph displays the results of the self-reported "last seven days" question among Catholics and Protestants across six surveys conducted over the last three years.

Attend Church in the Past Seven Days?
Percent Saying "Yes"

The trend in the two lines is clear. While there has been a slight increase in affirmative responses to this question among Protestants, the percentage of Catholics reporting church attendance in the last week has declined, particularly when this December's survey results are compared with the data from 2000.

The same pattern of results is found when we look at the percentage of each religious group that reports attending church every week.

How Often Attend Church?
Percent Saying "At Least Once a Week"

The percentage of Protestants attending church weekly has been fairly constant across this time period. Among Catholics, on the other hand, there has been a steady year-by-year decline. The average percentage of Catholics who report attending church every week over the past year, 31%, is 13 points below the average of 44% who reported attending church every week in 2000.

Catholics have also become slightly less likely to say that religion is "very important" in their daily lives over the past three years, a trend that is particularly evident when Catholic responses are compared with Protestant responses. The gap between the percentages of Catholics and Protestants saying that religion is very important was 13 points in March 2000. It is 21 points today.

Importance of Religion
Percent Saying "Very" Important

The decline in church attendance among Catholics is part of a long-term phenomenon that precedes the current scandals afflicting the Church. Gallup data from the 1950s and 1960s show that about three-quarters of Catholics reported attending church within the last seven days, compared with just half or fewer of Protestants at that time. Catholic attendance continued to fall through the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, but remained higher than Protestants' attendance. The more recent data show that Catholics' church attendance was also higher than Protestants' in 2000 and to some degree in 2001. It has only been in the last year than Catholics' attendance has fallen below that of Protestants'.

Discussion

These downward trends in church attendance and the self-reported importance of religion among Catholics are coincident with the extraordinary attention given this past year to the sex abuse scandals involving Catholic priests. This correlation does not provide proof that the scandals caused the declines. However, the fact that there have been no concomitant declines among Protestants over the same time period suggests that this is a uniquely Catholic phenomenon that reflects the impact of the high-visibility crisis.

There is also abundant evidence from other survey data collected over the past year that Catholics are deeply aware of and sharply disturbed by the sex abuse scandal within the Church:

  • Almost three out of four Catholics reported in a Dec. 9-10 poll that the Catholic Church had done a bad job of handling the problem of sexual abuse committed by priests. That number is roughly in line with Catholic sentiments across three surveys conducted earlier this year.
  • Seven out of 10 Catholics agreed in the same December survey that Cardinal Bernard Law should be removed as head of the archdiocese in Boston -- just a few days before Cardinal Law's resignation was accepted by the Pope.
  • Four out of 10 Catholics say that they are less likely to contribute money to the Church due to the issue of "sexual abuse of young people by priests." That's up 10 points from March.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,009 adults, 18 years and older, conducted Dec. 9-10, 2002. For results based on the subsample of 270 Catholics, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 7 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

 

Importance of Religion

Very important

Fairly important

Not very important

N=

2002

%

%

%

Catholics

51

37

11

510

Protestants

69

23

8

1,057

Non-Catholics

62

23

14

1,507

2000-2001

Catholics

56

33

11

1,060

Protestants

65

27

7

2,271

Non-Catholics

59

27

14

3,017

Catholics

2002 Dec 9-10

49

40

10

264

2002 Mar 18-20

54

34

12

246

2001 Dec 14-16

61

26

13

268

2001 Feb 19-21

51

39

10

250

2000 Aug 24-27

56

35

9

272

2000 Mar 17-19

55

34

12

269

1993 Aug 3-5

52

37

11

748

Protestants

2002 Dec 9-10

70

22

8

532

2002 Mar 18-20

68

23

8

525

2001 Dec 14-16

66

27

7

558

2001 Feb 19-21

64

29

7

566

2000 Aug 24-27

63

29

8

577

2000 Mar 17-19

68

24

7

570

1993 Aug 3-5

-

-

-

-



 

ATTEND CHURCH IN PAST 7 DAYS

Yes

No

N=

2002

%

%

%

Catholics

44

56

510

Protestants

48

52

1,057

Non-Catholics

43

57

1,507

2000-2001

Catholics

49

51

1,060

Protestants

44

56

2,271

Non-Catholics

40

60

3,017

Catholics

2002 Dec 9-10

41

59

264

2002 Mar 18-20

47

53

246

2001 Dec 14-16

46

54

268

2001 Feb 19-21

46

54

250

2000 Aug 24-27

51

49

272

2000 Mar 17-19

53

47

269

1993 Aug 3-5

49

51

748

Protestants

2002 Dec 9-10

47

53

532

2002 Mar 18-20

48

52

525

2001 Dec 14-16

44

56

558

2001 Feb 19-21

46

54

566

2000 Aug 24-27

46

54

577

2000 Mar 17-19

43

58

570

1993 Aug 3-5

-

-

-



 

HOW OFTEN DO YOU ATTEND CHURCH?

Once a week

Almost every week

About once a month

Seldom

Never

N=

%

%

%

%

%

%

2002

Catholics

30

12

20

30

6

510

Protestants

36

16

15

27

6

1,057

Non-Catholics

33

13

14

28

11

1,507

2000-2001

Catholics

41

9

18

27

6

1,060

Protestants

35

14

15

29

7

2,271

Non-Catholics

31

12

13

29

14

3,017

Catholics

2002 Dec 9-10

28

13

23

29

5

264

2002 Mar 18-20

34

12

17

31

6

246

2001 Dec 14-16

39

11

18

25

6

268

2001 Feb 19-21

37

10

18

29

6

250

2000 Aug 24-27

44

8

21

21

6

272

2000 Mar 17-19

44

7

13

32

4

269

1993 Aug 3-5

-

-

-

-

-

748

Protestants

2002 Dec 9-10

34

16

18

29

3

532

2002 Mar 18-20

38

14

12

26

9

525

2001 Dec 14-16

35

12

15

29

8

558

2001 Feb 19-21

32

15

15

30

7

566

2000 Aug 24-27

36

15

15

27

7

577

2000 Mar 17-19

35

14

14

29

7

570

1993 Aug 3-5

-

-

-

-

-

-



Overall, do you think the Catholic Church has done a good job or a bad job in dealing with the problem of sexual abuse committed by its priests?

BASED ON --270-- CATHOLICS

 

Good job

Bad job

No opinion

%

%

%

2002 Dec 9-10

18

74

8

2002 May 28-29

20

75

5

2002 Apr 29-May 1

24

70

6

2002 Mar

20

72

8

1993 Aug 3-5

35

53

12



Does the issue of sexual abuse of young people by priests make you less likely to contribute money to the Church, or not?

BASED ON --270-- CATHOLICS

 

Yes,
less likely

No, not
less likely

MORE LIKELY (vol.)

No
opinion

2002 Dec 9-10

40%

55

0

5

2002 Mar 22-24 ^

30%

70

*

*

^

WORDING: Does the issue of sexual abuse of young people by priests make you less likely to -- [ITEMS ROTATED: Go to Mass; Contribute money to the Church; Follow the Church's teachings on matters of faith and morals], or not?



Do you think the Pope should -- or should not -- remove Cardinal Bernard Law as head of the archdiocese in Boston?

BASED ON --270-- CATHOLICS

 

Yes, should

No, should not

No opinion

2002 Dec 9-10

70%

13

17

2002 Apr 29-May 1

68%

15

17



* -- Less than 0.5%

Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/7453/Catholic-Church-Attendance-Drops-Year-Midst-Scandal.aspx Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A +1 202.715.3030