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State of the US Catholic Church at the Beginning of 2006

Father C. John McCloskey, III, STD

(Additional articles by Father McCloskey)


The Catholic Church in the United States is in a state of profound transition. A priest or layman transported through time from 1965 to 2005 would be astonished and most likely disconcerted by the dramatic changes that have taken place in the 40 years following the close of Vatican II. 

Evaluating American Influence

Of course, the hierarchical and sacramental nature of the Church remains unchanged. What, however, has clearly changed are the numbers and status of laity, religious, and clergy in the mystical Body of Christ. Related to this is the altered understanding of their roles in the Church.

I am writing this article in the aftermath of what the well-known convert Fr. Richard John Neuhaus referred to as “the long Lent” that the Church in America has undergone. This refers to the painful unraveling of the revelation and past cover-up of thousands of accusations of sexual abuse of young people (some well-founded, others not) by Catholic clergy. Although brutally disillusioning to many of the lay faithful, these accusations were brought against less than 2% of Catholic clergy during this time period, and some of the cases even pre-dated the post-Vatican II era.

As a result, hundreds of Catholic priests have been dismissed from the clerical state and the lay faithful have been scandalized. Nevertheless, contrary to dire predictions both within and without the Church, the scandal has not seemed to lessen sacramental participation or even financial contributions to the 195 dioceses that compose the Church in America. Indeed, as we will see, statistics suggest that the situation in many areas of the Church is bottoming out. In fact, the Church in America may well be on the cusp of a more vibrant era in which the faithful become firmly rooted in the authentic teachings of the Second Vatican Council, as mediated through the magisterium of Pope John Paul and his able successor and close collaborator, Pope Benedict.

If the Church in the US is entering into a decades-long march into the New Evangelization, the United States’ status as the only world power will lend tremendous importance to this development. Since Americans find themselves deeply divided on so many essentially moral issues — hence the well-known division between the so-called blue and red states in recent national elections — the health of the Church in America has implications for Catholics around the world.

The purpose of this article is not to compare and contrast North America with other continents; however, it is obvious that in many areas, the Church in the US compares very favorably with the imploding and apostatizing situation in Europe and the chaotic situation Latin America. Of course, Africa and Asia are another case, as they are in full evangelical bloom. Their growth rates have been off the charts during the last century, clearly presaging that the demographic center of the Church will move east and south in the centuries to come, thus fulfilling Christ’s command that the Gospel be preached to all the nations.

There are presently approximately 67 million Catholics in the US, representing 6 percent of the global Catholic population of 1.1 billion. Interestingly, the percentage of Catholics in the American population has remained rather steady in the last forty years, hovering around a quarter of the population. This is actually rather encouraging, given the gradual disintegration of traditional mainstream Protestantism and the growth in the number of those who practice no religion in any real sense. And the actual number of Catholics in the US may be many millions more, given the high level of illegal immigration of Hispanics from Latin America, the majority of whom are Mexican. The enculturation and evangelization of both the legal and illegal immigrants from Latin America will be crucial to the health of the Church in America, as this immigration trend may continue and Hispanics generally have recorded a considerably higher birthrate than “Anglo,” Black, or Asian-American Catholics. Happily, many seminaries are increasingly requiring or at least encouraging Spanish classes as a prerequisite for education, since increasingly the Catholic Church in America is bilingual.

The growth of the Church in the US, both in its origins and throughout its history until the 1930s, was as an immigrant Church. Yet no immigration by any ethnic group, not even the Irish, has been as rapid and overwhelming as the deluge from south of the border. Indeed, that continuing immigration has been so massive that some people refer to California as “Mexifornia.” One of the big questions affecting both the US as a country and the Catholic Church in America is whether the majority of Hispanics will assimilate by learning English as other immigrants historically have done, or whether they will form almost a separate region within the United States, resulting in a “Balkanization” of America.

On the handling of the Hispanic immigrant population rests the real future of the Church in the US. Even though the Church in the US is large, it still trails Brazil (144 million), Mexico (126 million), and the Philippines (70 million). Obviously, these three countries, all of which could be classified as “developing,” do not now match the United States in wealth or power. This is also reflected in ecclesiastical “politics.” The US has 13 cardinals, as opposed to Brazil with 8, Mexico with 5, and the Philippines with 2. Another way of evaluating American influence is to consider that American votes in the recent conclave outnumbered all of Africa. Naturally the universal Church and its particular churches in countries cannot be measured only in statistics, but it is clear that the stature of the Church in the US plays a significant if not predominant role in the universal Church.

For example, Catholics in the US make up six percent of the global Catholic population, but 12 percent of the bishops in the Church and 14 percent of the priests. The US alone has more priests than the top three Catholic countries combined (41,000 in the US to 37,000 in Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines combined). This makes talk of a “priest shortage” in the US almost laughable, at least in comparison with many countries struggling to care for much larger Catholic populations.

Priesthood and Religious Life: Key Indicators

Now we can move on to the state of the priesthood — always a key indicator when considering the state of the Church. In many ways, statistics in the US mirror those of Europe, whether as a result of the post-World War II secular hedonism in Western Europe or the effects of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe. In any case, the primary cause of the quasi-collapse in the levels of practicing Catholics, whether in America or in Europe, was post-conciliar malaise and utter confusion. But that is another article.

Let’s look at the numbers in the US first. In 1965, at the end of the Council, there were 58,000 priests. Now there are 41,000. By 2020, if present trends continue (and there is no sign of a dramatic upsurge in vocations), there will be only 31,000 priests, and half of those will be over 70. (To offer a personal example of the effect of these demographics, I was ordained in 1981 at the age of 27. Today, at the age of 52, I can still attend gatherings of priests and find myself one of the younger members present.) In 1965, 1,575 new priests were ordained. In 2005, the number was 454, a decrease of more than two-thirds — and remember that the Catholic population in the US increased during these years from 45.6 million in 1965 to the 64.8 million of 2005, a rise of almost 50%.

The Venerable John Henry Newman said, “Growth is the only evidence of life.” By his definition, the Church in the United States has been and continues to be in sharp decline. Clearly, there has been a steep drop in the number of seminarians in these years. Between 1965 and 2005, the number of seminarians fell from 50,000 (some 42,000 of which were high school and college seminarians, while another 8000 or so were graduate seminarians) to today’s approximate 5000, a decline of 90%. The increasing affluence and integration of the American Catholic into society has been responsible for part of this change, as entry into the priesthood became only one of many routes to professional status. Also, the average size of the American family (influenced by affluence and the increased availability of contraception) went from seven to four, meaning fewer men were being born into fewer generous families that might encourage a son to entertain a call to the celibate priesthood. This trend had already begun as early as the 1940s, when the number of priests per Catholic layperson began to decline, well before the Second Vatican Council. While there has been a modest increase in seminarians and an up-tick in ordinations, a large upsurge in priestly vocations in the US is unlikely, at least in comparison to the high-water mark of 1965.

On the other hand, younger bishops who were ordained during the pontificate of John Paul II are taking a more aggressive and positive approach to recruiting young men to the priesthood. Several dioceses have had considerable success with this approach. Another development should also play a role in future priestly vocations. As I write, a Vatican-mandated nationwide investigation of American seminaries has begun. This investigation was mandated over three years ago as a result of the explosive revelation of priestly sex-abuse scandals in the years 2001–2003. Clearly this crisis was brought about in part by the presence of active homosexuals in the seminary and in the priesthood. We can anticipate that the conclusions and recommendations emerging from the investigation of the seminaries, combined with the recent Vatican-issued document forbidding the entrance of homosexuals into the seminary, will lead to seminaries more strongly faithful to the Church’s teaching, improved in moral atmosphere, and thus more successful in attracting virile, pious young men.

Finally, the powerful priestly example of recently canonized men like St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Pio of Pietrelcina and St. Josemaria Escriva, along with the inspiring priesthood, long pontificate, and recent death of Pope John Paul II, surely will attract many young men to the priesthood. Mention should also be made of the gradual appearance in the US of the various new ecclesial realities (so favored by Popes John Paul and Benedict), such as the Neo-Catechumenate, that are already providing vocations to the diocesan priesthood.

The number of men and women taking vows in religious communities has declined even more precipitously in the US since the close of Vatican II. In 1965, there were 22,707 priests; today there are 14,137, and a much higher percentage of them are elderly. Religious brothers have declined from 12,271 to 5,451, and women religious went from the astounding number of 179,954 in 1965 to 68,634 in 2005.

I should mention here that the attrition in religious priests, brothers and sisters, as well as diocesan priests, results not only from deaths and a dearth of priestly or religious vocations but also from massive defections. Naturally, this exodus also has a depressing effect on young men and women who might be called to the religious life. The radical change or abandonment of historical rules, community life, and clothing by many religious congregations also hampers recruitment and in many cases discourages perseverance in vocations. As a result, there are now many more American women religious over the age of ninety than under the age of 30. The number of Catholic nuns — 180,000 in 1965 — has fallen by 60%, and their average age is now 68. The number of teaching nuns has fallen 94% from the close of the Council. The number of young men studying to become members of the two principal teaching orders — the Jesuits and Christian Brothers — has fallen by 90 percent and 99%, respectively. There is little sign of revival in this part of the Church in America. However, the advent of some new religious congregations and the revival of others offers hope.

The only religious congregations showing signs of life and attracting many vocations are strongly faithful and evangelizing men’s congregations like the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and the Legionaries of Christ. Similarly, among women, congregations that wear full habit and have a strong prayer and community life are drawing many vocations — the Nashville Dominicans and Mother Angelica’s Poor Clares being outstanding examples. The traditional Carmels also continue to attract a steady stream of young vocations.

Schools of Hard Knocks

We can now examine the state of what was the pride and joy of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church in America: the educational system that extended from grammar school through hundreds (yes, hundreds) of Catholic colleges and universities. In the history of the Church, there had never been such an extensive and (at least in appearance) fundamentally sound educational system. Elementary education was taken care of by the parish, following the pioneering work of St. John Neumann. Parishes also directed many high schools, but many others were founded by armies of men and women religious. Most of these high schools were single-sex, while some were co-institutional (admitting both boys and girls in the same building but educating them separately). Naturally the combination of stable marriages, relatively large families, and strong catechesis produced not only many vocations but also well-formed men and women who lived their faith in a coherent way in their professional work, in public life, and in their marriages. All that has virtually disappeared.

Almost half the Catholic schools open in 1965 have closed; 4.5 million students attended Catholic schools in the mid-1960s, while today there are about half that many students. Even more troubling is the religious education offered in those remaining schools: many of these catechetical programs are taught and presided over by poorly formed lay Generation X Catholics who have serious difficulties with aspects of Catholic doctrinal and moral life. Only 10 percent of lay religious teachers accept Church teaching on contraception; 53 percent believe a Catholic woman can get an abortion and remain a good Catholic; 65 percent say that Catholics have a right to divorce and remarry; and, in the late nineties in a New York Times poll, 70 percent of Catholics aged 18-54 said they believed the Holy Eucharist was but a “symbolic reminder” of Jesus.

Let’s move now to the topic of higher education. Today, there are 224 Catholic colleges and universities formally recognized by the US bishops as Catholic. Two of them, Georgetown and Notre Dame University, are generally included among the top 25 universities in the US. However, the word “Catholic” tends to be very loosely applied; in many cases only the name and the statuary remain to signify the Catholic origins of the universities. If one judges the most important part of any Catholic university to be the faithfulness of its theology department, only some fifteen of the 224 (less than 10%) have theology faculties who have as a whole received the Mandatum (the authority from the local diocesan bishop allowing faculty to teach Catholic theology) from the competent ecclesiastical authority as required by the Congregation of Catholic Education, according the Apostolic Constitution on Higher Education (1990), Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Nonetheless, there are signs of hope. Over the last 30 years or so, a dozen or more new Catholic colleges have been founded, partly in reaction to the increasing secularization of the nominal Catholic institutions. Most of them are flourishing, though many are not large institutions. Franciscan University of Steubenville, the University of Dallas, and the newly founded Ave Maria University stand out among the larger faithful institutions, while Thomas Aquinas College and Christendom College stand out among the smaller schools. All have a required core curriculum for the liberal arts, including theology and philosophy.

Another sign of hope appears among some of the larger universities. The University of Notre Dame seems to be gradually returning to catholicity, spurred in part by a new president and by a better catechized student body and also by alumni demand for a return to faithfulness to the Church’s teaching. If Notre Dame indeed returns to total loyalty to the Church in its teaching and campus environment, it may serve as a bellwether for other mainstream “Catholic” universities to return to their roots. Other good signs: some bishops are now informing colleges that they can no longer refer to themselves as Catholic without earning the title by moral and doctrinal orthodoxy, and at least six new Catholic colleges and universities are under development.

Living the Faith

As we come to an end, we now can look at some of the quantitative participation of lay Catholics in the sacramental life. Before the Second Vatican Council, approximately 75% of Catholics attended Mass on Sundays. As of 2004, approximately 32% of American Catholics attend Mass every Sunday. On any given Sunday as many as 40% of American Catholics may be attending Mass even though some of them do not attend Mass regularly. Thus there are only more or less half as many Catholics attending Mass now as before the Council. This may also suggest that there really is no priest shortage at all, although there clearly is a surplus of Church buildings since the practicing congregations are nowhere as near as large. This accounts for the multiple closings of parishes, particularly in large metropolitan areas, over the last fifteen years.

More distressing is the American custom of reception of Holy Communion by virtually every layperson who attends Mass on Sunday. Given the dramatic decline in the reception of the Sacrament of Penance and the drop in belief in the Divine Presence in the Eucharist, there must be many objectively sacrilegious communions. Much catechetical work needs to be done.

Of interest from a cultural viewpoint are the changing voting patterns of American Catholics over the last 40 years. Since the 1960s, there has been a clear shift towards the Republican party and away from the Democratic party by Catholic voters. When the polls differentiate between church-going and non-church-going Catholics, Republicans dominate by a wider margin among the church-going, and Democrats among the non-church-going. I would extrapolate that the more orthodox in belief and regular in church attendance the Catholic American, the more likely he is to vote for Republicans, whose national platform, particularly on non-negotiable matters such as abortion, homosexual marriage, and embryonic experimentation, is more in sync with the Church’s teachings.

How do American Catholics currently live out the moral aspects of marriage and family? The statistics available are somewhat less exact. Catholics are 30 percent less likely to divorce than the rest of the population. Active Catholics are 50% less likely to divorce than unaffiliated/secular Americans. About 20% of all Catholic marriages in which at least one spouse attends Mass weekly end in divorce.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Catholics tend to contracept at the same rate as the rest of the world. Hence the number of children per Catholic family is not significantly different from that of non-Catholics. Catholics tend to have fewer abortions than the rest of the population, but not by a large percentage. The key in interpreting all such statistics is how to define “Catholic.” On these moral issues, there is a huge difference between the Catholic who worships weekly and the one who attends a few times a year. I would suggest that one of the major issues for the Church in the decades ahead will be clarity as to who is considered a practicing Catholic and who is not. This may result in a smaller but much more fervent and evangelizing Church, ready to carry out the New Evangelization in the United States that can bear so much fruit in the 25 years ahead, both at home and throughout the globe.

Father C. John McCloskey, III, STD, is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei and a research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, DC. His website is

For a short historical essay on the history of the Church in the US (“Evangelization in the US: Past, Present, and Future”), and a fictional essay on what might be coming (“2030: Looking Backwards”) go to These essays will put flesh on the statistical analysis above and place the present state of the Church in the United States in a historical context.




Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved