John Allen on the Pew Forum Results

This is from Mr. Allen’s NCRCafe column. We cannot agree with the “free market” assessment of religions matters, except to grant that it is a factor in the American scene. Neither can we share the journalist’s seeming lack of serious concern at this status quo. (If no salvation outside the Church were taken seriously in Catholic quarters, these results would be met with a stronger reaction.) That disagreement aside, Allen’s observations are worth reading.

Doesn’t the recent Pew Forum survey on religion in America contain troubling findings for the Catholic church?

In some ways, yes. The results show that roughly one-tenth of the adult population in the United States is made up of former Catholics. Slightly more than 31 percent of Americans say they were raised Catholic, while just over 24 percent say they’re Catholic today. Without the impact of Hispanic immigration, the Catholic share of the American population would be in decline. All this suggests that that the Catholic church has some work to do in terms of evangelization and retention.

On the other hand, Catholicism retains roughly 70 percent of its membership, according to the Pew findings, meaning that its rate of loss is not among the highest for American denominations. (That dubious distinction belongs to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.) Moreover, the high rate of Hispanic immigration means that over time Catholicism is likely to gain, rather than lose, “market share” in the United States.

More basically, the Pew Forum results confirm what anyone who pays attention to religion in America already knew: that the United States remains an intensely religious society, with even a significant percentage of the religiously unaffiliated professing some form of “believing without belonging.” In other words, we are a highly competitive religious marketplace. That means that no religious institution in this culture can go to sleep — if you fail to provide satisfying pastoral care to your people, someone else will do it for you. Fundamentally, however, competition is as healthy in religion as in any other zone of life. It keeps religious institutions honest, forces them to hustle, and elevates the overall level of religious activism in the culture. After all, some 44 percent of Americans wouldn’t have switched religious affiliation at some point in their lives if they weren’t looking for something.