Since the Pew Forum's "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" appeared in 2008, Catholics have debated the right way to interpret the data. There are now 22 million ex-Catholics in America, but the Catholic church also holds on to 68 percent of its members, one of the highest retention rates among Christian denominations.
Does that mean American Catholicism is suffering a "mass exodus," as theologian Richard Gaillardetz recently suggested, or is the church actually doing fairly well in a fluid religious marketplace?
In a recent NCR interview, the director of the Pew Forum, Luis Lugo, and senior researcher Greg Smith discussed the results.
The bottom line: In comparison with other religious groups in America, the Catholic church's struggles aren't really with pastoral care, but missionary muscle. What's unique about Catholicism isn't that it loses people, but that It doesn't recruit new members as well as other religious groups.
NCR: What reactions do you get when you discuss these findings with Catholics?
Lugo: From headlines, people may have the impression that the Catholic church is just bleeding members, but that's out of context. Everybody's losing members in this country, some even more than Catholics. It's on the recruitment side that Catholics are not doing as well. Protestants are losing lots of members too, but for every four Americans who are no longer Protestant, there are three who are Protestant today who were not raised that way. Catholics are not replenishing their ranks through conversion in the same way.
Is it accurate to talk about a "mass exodus" from Catholicism?
Lugo: In the context of American religion as a whole, it's not really accurate. Look at the fastest-growing religious group in America, the unaffiliated. Even there, half of all people who were raised without an affiliation have since joined a religion. Or take the group that everybody considers to be the most dynamic, the Jehovah's Witnesses. Two-thirds of those raised as Jehovah's Witnesses say they're no longer members, which is double the losses of the Catholic church in percentage terms.
Smith: If all you looked at is retention, you would probably say that Catholics are doing just as well as other groups, and even better, than many of them. But one of the points of the report is that to understand the dynamics of American religion, you have to see retention and recruitment together. Four people leave Catholicism for every one who joins, and there's no other religious group where you see a similar ratio. Baptists, for example, also have more people leaving than joining, but their ratio of 2-1 is twice of what we see …