A recent Gallup poll revealed that during Pope Francis’ pontificate, which began in 2013, the Catholic Church in the United States experienced the largest decline in weekly attendance in decades.
The poll revealed that “between 2014 and 2017, 39% of (American) Catholics said that they had attended Mass in the last seven days”, a “lower level than the 45% of respondents from 2005 to 2008”, and a veritable “collapse from the 75% response in 1955”. Weekly participation in the Mass, by dropping six points since the close of Benedict XVI’s papacy, marks the largest decline since the 1970’s. It had stabilized in the mid-2000’s. In contrast, Gallup noted that Protestant attendance has remained constant for ten years.
In detail: the greatest drop in Mass attendance between the pontificates of Benedict XVI and Francis occurred among Catholics aged 50-59, from 46% to 31%--a 15% decrease. The only increase in weekly attendance was observed among Catholics aged 30-39, moving from 40% to 43%.
The population of young adults – aged 21 to 29 years old –had shown a slight increase in Mass attendance under Benedict XVI from 2005 to 2008, with 29%, which fell to 25% between 2014-2017. According to this survey, young adult Protestants were more likely to attend services weekly, with 36% as opposed to 25% for Catholics.
Comparing Protestants and Catholics
This drop in Mass attendance among Catholic young adults, along with the disparity between their rate of attendance and that of Protestant young adults, has been recorded just as Francis is preparing a Youth Synod for October 2018.
In a report published online at Breitbart, Thomas Williams considers that this drop in attendance at Catholic Mass, while Protestant attendance remains largely the same, is revealing. This “suggests that denomination-specific problems, rather than societal changes at large, are the cause of the recent drop in Catholic Mass attendance,” he writes, adding:
it is unlikely that the Pope’s continuous downplaying of the importance of obeying the requirements of the Church – such as regular Mass attendance and adherence to Catholic doctrine – did not have a significant effect on Catholic practice of the faith.
It is still objectively clear that “Francis’s papacy is correlated with the largest drop in Mass attendance in the United States in recent decades,” Williams says.
At the same time, a report from the Vatican Central Office of Statistics published last year showed that vocations to priesthood had continued to fall since 2012, with an acceleration since the beginning of Pope Francis’ pontificate. Thus the number of seminarians in the world declined from 118,251 (in 2013) to 116,843 (in 2015).
Is the Pope Worried?
At the end of last year, the Italian essayist Marcello Veneziani, author of Tramonti (“Sunsets”) published by Giubilei Regnani, posted on his blog a similar finding about the situation in Italy:
the Pope ought to be worried about something that is terrible for everyone, but lethal for a Supreme Pontiff: Italians self-identifying as Catholic declined to 60.1% today, whereas they were 79.2% in 2000. One fourth less in just a few years - an unprecedented rate of de-Christianization. Those who say that they have no religion grew in a short time to one in three. The ‘staunch practicing Catholics’ numbered 25.6%, half as many as in 2000.
And he commented:
This push, this acceleration of the past years – the empty churches, the beliefs and vocations that are being extinguished inexorably-, not only was all of this not stopped by the presence of a Pope so appreciated by both the media and the makers of public opinion, but was on the contrary aggravated by the fact that he is replacing a tradition that is millennia old –its rites, its liturgies, its vision of humanity –with a personalized revision that complies with the spirit of our time. Attuning to the times is not a virtue if those times are marching recklessly and desperately towards the negation of all sense of the sacred, of God and human limitations, and if they are wedded to an unprecedented practical and radical atheism.
In March of 2018, for the fifth anniversary of the current pontificate, the French daily Le Figaro commissioned the BVA Group to conduct a survey which found that “Pope Francis’ popularity is weakening among Catholics”, and among active practitioners more specifically:
five years after his election, 78% of the French had a positive opinion of the Holy Father, compared to 87% in 2015. A decline even more notable among practicing Catholics, who show a decrease of 12 points.
According to Erwan Lestrohan of the BVA Group, “The surprising thing is that this decrease affects the most Catholic populations. One could suppose that the Pope’s talk about migrants and homosexuality was a factor. But the importance of this erosion is clear: with a decrease of 12 percentage points among practicing Catholics, it is not due to chance. It is significant because it affects precisely the types of people who are the ‘experts’, and therefore knowledgeable about Pope Francis and the Catholic Church. The Pope is divisive within his own camp.”
He concluded: “for the moment, his action has not reversed the tendency towards decline in the measures of the health of Catholicism in France: vocations, practice, militancy, beliefs”. On the question of vocations, the journalist of religion Jean-Marie Guénois, offers additional evidence with these numbers: “in fact, while an average of 130 young men had entered the seminary in France each year during the eight years of Benedict XVI’s’ papacy, for the last five years there have been on average fewer than 100 annually choosing this path. And the trend is still downwards today.”
The latest edition of Nouvelles de Chrétienté (No. 170, March-April 2018) devotes a dossier to the tragic decline of religious practice, relying on studies by the historian Guillaume Cuchet, which he published in his recent work How Our World Ceased to be Christian: Anatomy of a Collapse (Seuil). This dossier examines the responsibility of Vatican II in this collapse, and presents the remedies that would be offered by “the experiment of Tradition” which Archbishop Lefebvre desired.