If the number of Catholic faithful has increased in absolute value as shown by the last survey published by the Fides agency (see DICI n ° 390, November 2019), the analysis of local situations remains alarming for Christianity, especially in Western countries.
In the United States
The latest survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. published this fall, reveals that Christians of all faiths have dropped from 78% of the population in 2007 to 65% in 2019. At the same time, those who declare themselves to be atheists, agnostics, or without religion went from 16% to 26%. Christians who reported attending mass or some other service at least once a month dropped from 54% to 45%. While those who reported having done so only a few times in a year or never, except for weddings and funerals, increased from 45% to 54%.
This fall in religious practice equally affects men as well as women, whites as well as blacks and Hispanics, and those with a degree as well as those with little education.
It is especially the age and the political tendencies that show a big difference. Those born in the 80s and early 90s as well as those who vote for the Democratic Party are the American demographic that has experienced the biggest drop in the practice of religion.
Among American citizens of Hispanic origin, Catholics were in the majority ten years ago, with 57%. Today, they are less than half, or 47%.
The region where the decrease of American Catholics is most pronounced is in the northeast where they have gone from 36% to 27% of the population over the past 10 years.
According to a study published by the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research of the Republic of Argentina (Conicet), the number of Catholics in Pope Francis’ home country fell by 13% between 2008 and 2019. The study carried out on a representative sample of 2,421 people specifies that 62.9% of the 45 million Argentines consider themselves Catholic. They represented 76.5% of the population in 2008.
The people who indicated not having a religion currently constitute 18.9% of the population, as opposed to 11.3% in 2008. The Conicet study emphasizes that the number of faithful in Evangelical Churches has risen from 9% to 15.3 % in 11 years.
The study finds that “the hopes aroused by the election of Pope Francis in March 2013 have not been fulfilled.” 82% of those polled confirmed that the election had “had no impact on their religiosity,” and only 8% said it had “reinforced their religious beliefs.” According to the authors of the study, the figure of Pope Francis is “not a unifying factor,” but rather one of division in his own country. If more than a quarter of those polled (27.4%) consider that the Holy Father is a “world authority” in “denouncing situations of injustice on the planet,” a similar number (27%) of his compatriots thinks that the sovereign pontiff is “too involved in politics” and that “it disrupted his spiritual responsibilities.”
The Conicet study also illustrates a great generational rupture. Thus, among residents aged 65 and over, the proportion of Catholics remains quite high (81.5%). But it drops to 52.5% among people aged 18 to 29, and mediates at 57.4% among people between 30 and 44 years old. The “without religion” category has thus increased by 25% among young people aged 19 to 29.
Research also reveals regional disparities. There is a greater presence of those who identify as being “without religion” in the region of Buenos Aires, the capital, where the share of Catholics is one of the lowest in the country (56.8%). For the authors of the study, this decline is explained by the “secularization effect” which affects the capital in particular.
Catholics are also on the decline in Italy, as shown by the latest IPSOS survey published in November 2019. The number of practicing Catholics—those who attend religious services at least once a week—has dropped from 21% to 14% of the population in 10 years.
In contrast, the number of those who define themselves as non-believers has almost doubled, from 14% to 27% of Italians, with higher peaks among young people—46% of 18 to 24 year-olds and 39% of 25 to 34 years old—and this among the most active and educated strata, especially in the north of the country.
In the European elections in spring 2019, the most restrictive political movement on the issue of immigration, the Northern League, was the party most supported by practicing Catholics, both the regulars with 32.7%, and the occasional with 38.4%, as opposed to 18.9% among non-believers.
“Even if the Church and the Pope have explicitly and vigorously expressed themselves in favor of a policy of open reception...” of the migrants, “the feeling that prevails even among the most assiduous Catholics is to support more restrictive policies,” said the survey.
In Switzerland, the Swiss Institute of Pastoral Sociology (SPI) published, on November 26, 2019, the results of ecclesial statistics for 2018. It notes a significant increase in the number of those leaving the Church: 25,366 in 2018, i.e., 25% more than the 20,014 recorded in 2017.
The investigation also reveals behavioral changes on the part of Church members. Since the 1990s, there has been a drop in the number of Catholic marriages. In the past five years, it has declined 20%. In 2018, only 3,200 unions were celebrated in the Church. Since 2013, the number of baptisms in self-defined Catholic families has decreased in Switzerland by 11%. The diocese of Basel (62% of Catholic families) and the diocese of Sion (65%) fall within this estimate, unlike the dioceses of Lausanne, Geneva, and Fribourg where the decrease phenomenon is even more widespread, since only one child in two, born into a family of Catholic origin, was baptized in 2018.
However, the number of those entering the Catholic Church increased in 2018, reports the Swiss Institute of Pastoral Sociology. However, it does not specify whether it this due to the number of baptisms or the reintegration of members into the Church.
“Leaving churches is a fundamental phenomenon throughout the western region,” said Jörg Stolz, professor of sociology of religions at the University of Lausanne. “At one time, it was thought that the United States was the exception, but the latest data confirms that the situation is the same as in Europe or Australia.”
The academic notes that the typical profile of the person who comes out of the Church is “a young person, with an urban lifestyle, who does not feel a particular link with religion”: a category of the population that tends to grow in western countries. “These people usually decide to leave the institution following a trigger. It may be when they realize that they are paying church taxes, when they feel at odds with a moral point, or when a scandal breaks out.”
According to the sociologist, “the Churches are already doing a lot” to improve their “offerings,” to make themselves more attractive and closer to people. “But there are serious trends linked to secularization. We have already observed since the 19th century that each generation is a little less religious than the previous one. It is likely to continue.”
Jörg Stolz notes that this is essentially a problem of identification: people no longer feel linked to a religious community. “Ultimately, the disaffiliation is only a concretization of the already effective state of distancing from religion,” he concluded.—Such is the concrete consequence of the indifferentism and secularism of modern societies which have thrown God out of social and political life.