WASHINGTON — A Pew study on the increase in the number of religiously unaffiliated people and a sharp decline in the number of those who consider themselves Protestant may show no drop in numbers of Catholics, but analysts say it’s still a cautionary tale for the church.
The “‘Nones’ On The Rise” study released Oct. 9 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life needs to be taken by the church as guidance to focus more on the basic teachings of Jesus, said several people who work in shaping leaders in Catholic ministry.
The study found that in four years, the percentage of Americans describing themselves as unaffiliated with any religion grew from just more than 15 percent to just less than 20 percent. It found that a third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation, compared to 21 percent of the next older age bracket, 30-49, 15 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds and 9 percent of those over age 65.
Most of those who said they are “nothing in particular” or otherwise unaffiliated with a faith (including atheists and agnostics), apparently previously identified as white Protestants, whose numbers were down to 48 percent nationwide from 53 percent in 2007. Black and “other minority” Protestant churches showed no decline in the same period.
The number of self-identified Catholics has remained relatively constant, changing from 23 percent in 2007 to 22 percent in 2012.
Mark M. Gray, director of Catholic polls and a research associate at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA, said that while most of Pew’s data fits with what CARA has found, he disagrees with one oft-repeated explanation for the unchanged percentage of Catholics in the country.
Pew senior researcher Greg Smith said the percentage of Catholics is likely unchanged because immigrants are balancing out those who leave the church. But Gray said the math for that assumption doesn’t add up.
The rate of immigration has leveled off, he said. So as the overall population rises, if the number of Catholics was dependent upon immigration, the percentage of Catholics in the country would be showing more of a decline. Instead, Gray said “reverts,” or Catholics who return to the church after a time away, account for some of the steady numbers. He also thinks that Catholics who don’t practice the faith regularly may be more reluctant than Protestants to identify themselves as unaffiliated.
CARA’s studies show “there are a lot of nonpracticing Catholics who still identify as Catholics,” he said.
Gray said Pew’s numbers for people under 30 who are unaffiliated with any faith is a sign for concern, however.
The study said just 18 percent of Catholics are between the ages of 18 and 29, while 35 percent of the country’s religiously unaffiliated are in that age bracket.
Younger Catholics are living in a society that’s more integrated across faith lines, Gray noted, adding social pressures to a natural tendency of young adults to distance themselves from their parents’ religion.
Two professors who work in the area of Catholic evangelization see in the study clear signs for what the church needs to do.
“We have to view this as a call and an opportunity,” said Julie Burkey, coordinator of the Center for Workplace Spirituality and adjunct professor of pastoral theology at Seton Hall University and Immaculate Conception School of Theology in South Orange, N.J.
She noted that this month, bishops and other leaders from around the world are attending a synod on evangelization, called by Pope Benedict XVI to address this very issue, among others.
“Pope Benedict says we’ve not done a good job” of making the Gospel of Jesus the first thing people hear, she said.
Pew found that more than two-thirds of the unaffiliated say they believe in God and more than half say they think of themselves as spiritual or religious.
“There’s an opportunity here, when you hear that people are not affiliated but they believe in God,” she said. “Deep inside the human person there is recognition of a God, a creator.”
The study noted that more than two-thirds of the religiously unaffiliated say faith institutions are too concerned with money and power, focus too much on rules and are too involved with politics. Burkey said that also presents an opportunity.
Pope Benedict has been saying “let’s put forth who Jesus Christ is first,” Burkey said. “That relationship, that love, that importance in our lives makes others want to be a part of it: If you want to be a part of it, the rules help you do that. If one is going to value a relationship with Jesus Christ, then going to Mass, receiving the Eucharist, are what you want to do.”
Thomas Ryan, professor at Loyola University, New Orleans, and director of its Institute for Ministry, said he thinks the study points to the need for better Catholic ministry to young adults.
“The church has put a lot of effort and money into youth ministry, which I think is very important,” Ryan said. “But I wonder about putting the same effort into young adult ministry. Without faithful, young adults we won’t have any youth for youth ministry.”
He said young adults need to find more in their parishes to keep them involved.
Like Burkey, Ryan said the church should try harder to encourage “the faithful to be heralds of good news.”
For instance, preaching should be inviting, engaging people on the “good news” of faith, he said. “What do young adults want? Are there parishes where young adults are online, with a robust social media presence and events that cover young adults’ range of interests? Do events take place at times and places that are convenient for them? Can young adults see themselves in the church?”
Ryan, a church historian by training, said Catholicism has always faced ups and downs in people feeling like the church was relevant to them.
For example, he said, in 13th-century Europe, urban populations were growing fast and the church’s monastic structure was poorly equipped to deal with that type of growth. But the mendicant orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans arose, with a focus on preaching to this new urban population, Ryan said.
At the time, he said, “that was a very strange thing to do. But for the people not being ministered to it was what was needed.”
He cited the Jesuits’ founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, saying “we need to go in their door so that we can invite them out our door.”
“It’s really important to listen to young adults, go in through their door,” he said.