Wednesday, 17 October 2012 14:09
WASHINGTON (CNS) — A Pew study on the increase in the number of religiously unaffiliated people and a sharp decline in the number of those who consider themselves Protestant may show no drop in numbers of Catholics, but analysts say it’s still a cautionary tale for the church.
The “Nones’ On The Rise” study released Oct. 9 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life needs to be taken by the church as guidance to focus more on the basic teachings of Jesus, said several people who work in shaping leaders in Catholic ministry.
The study found that in four years, the percentage of Americans describing themselves as unaffiliated with any religion grew from just more than 15 percent to just less than 20 percent. It found that a third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation, compared to 21 percent of the next older age bracket, 30-49, 15 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds and 9 percent of those over age 65.
Most of those who said they are “nothing in particular” or otherwise unaffiliated with a faith (including atheists and agnostics), apparently previously identified as white Protestants, whose numbers were down to 48 percent nationwide from 53 percent in 2007. Black and “other minority” Protestant churches showed no decline in the same period.
The number of self-identified Catholics has remained relatively constant, changing from 23 percent in 2007 to 22 percent in 2012.
Mark M. Gray, director of Catholic polls and a research associate at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA, said that while most of Pew’s data fits with what CARA has found, he disagrees with one oft-repeated explanation for the unchanged percentage of Catholics in the country.
Pew senior researcher Greg Smith said the percentage of Catholics is likely unchanged because immigrants are balancing out those who leave the church. But Gray said the math for that assumption doesn’t add up.
The rate of immigration has leveled off, he said. So as the overall population rises, if the number of Catholics was dependent upon immigration, the percentage of Catholics in the country would be showing more of a decline. Instead, Gray said “reverts,” or Catholics who return to the church after a time away, account for some of the steady numbers. He also thinks that Catholics who don’t practice the faith regularly may be more reluctant than Protestants to identify themselves as unaffiliated.
CARA’s studies show “there are a lot of nonpracticing Catholics who still identify as Catholics,” he said.
Gray said Pew’s numbers for people under 30 who are unaffiliated with any faith is a sign for concern, however.
The study said just 18 percent of Catholics are between the ages of 18 and 29, while 35 percent of the country’s religiously unaffiliated are in that age bracket.
Younger Catholics are living in a society that’s more integrated across faith lines, Gray noted, adding social pressures to a natural tendency of young adults to distance themselves from their parents’ religion.
Two professors who work in the area of Catholic evangelization see in the study clear signs for what the church needs to do.
“We have to view this as a call and an opportunity,” said Julie Burkey, coordinator of the Center for Workplace Spirituality and adjunct professor of pastoral theology at Seton Hall University and Immaculate Conception School of Theology in South Orange, N.J.
She noted that this month, bishops and other leaders from around the world are attending a synod on evangelization, called by Pope Benedict XVI to address this very issue, among others.
“Pope Benedict says we’ve not done a good job” of making the Gospel of Jesus the first thing people hear, she said.