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In new portrait of Catholic parishes, changing demographics but continued strength

(RNS) Much of the books findings deal with the decadeslong migration of Catholics from their traditional strongholds in the Northeast and Rust Belt to the South and Southwest.

The authors of a new study, “Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century.” From left to right: Jonathon L. Wiggins of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Mary L. Gautier of CARA, Charles E. Zech of Villanova University, Mark M. Gray of CARA and the Rev. Thomas P. Gaunt of CARA.  Photo courtesy of CARA

(RNS) Catholic researchers have published a detailed new study of U.S. parishes in hopes of strengthening an increasingly complex church that is short on cash.

Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century

Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century

Based on reams of data from national polls and surveys of Catholics, their new book, “Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century,” investigates, among other trends, the church’s changing demographics, the continued decline in the number of priests and the rise in lay ecclesial ministers.

The Rev. Thomas P. Gaunt, director of the Washington-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and a co-author of the book, sums up its findings: “It’s the geography, stupid.”

Much of the book’s findings deal with the decadeslong migration of Catholics from their traditional strongholds in the Northeast and Rust Belt to the South and Southwest, and the growing proportion of Hispanic American Catholics.

Adding to this regional shift is the influx of Catholic immigrants to the U.S., not just from Latin America, but from Asia and Africa.

A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 20 percent of U.S. adults are Catholic.

Gaunt said he hopes the book, recently published by Oxford University Press, helps American Catholics see the church as it exists today, with all its strengths and challenges.

“Here’s the reality that’s in front of us, and all too often the temptation is that we have some other myth in our head of what parishes are,” Gaunt said. He points to Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, which has seen its Catholic population dwindle in recent decades.

Diocesan Priests and Lay Ecclesial Ministers in the United States, 1990-2014. Graphic courtesy of “Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century”

Diocesan Priests and Lay Ecclesial Ministers in the United States, 1990-2014. Graphic courtesy of “Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century”

It is simply reality that there are fewer Catholics to serve there, and that many Catholic churches in Texas face overflowing parking lots every Sunday, he said,

Among the other trends the book’s authors describe:

  • A strong Catholic church. Gaunt said the statistics put the lie to the narrative of American Catholic churches in decline. “We just don’t have any evidence of this.” The authors call for “optimism” given the many who remain faithful part of Catholic communities. The Pew Research Center however, documents a decrease in the number of Catholics in the U.S. in both absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population.
  • More lay ministers. Lay people are taking on some of the traditional duties of priests, who are in short supply. “There are more deacons than there are active diocesan priests,” said Mary L. Gautier, a senior research associate at CARA and a co-author of the book.
  • Low levels of giving. Catholic parishioners give relatively little to their churches compared to other Christian congregants. The typical Catholic household, said co-author Charles E. Zech, an economics professor at Villanova University, gives about 1.2 percent of its income to its parish, as compared to about the 2.4 percent given by Protestant households.

This new study comes out about 30 years after the release of “The Emerging Parish,” a book based on the landmark “Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life,” which first grappled with some of the demographic trends that challenge U.S. Catholic parishes today.

Its authors “were talking about trying to get a handle on the tremendous change that had taken place since Vatican II,” said Gautier, referring to the 1988 book’s take on the Second Vatican Council, which in the 1960s shaped the modern Roman Catholic Church.

“This book shows that they hadn’t seen anything yet,” she said of the newly published volume.

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