The number of Catholics who say they go to Mass every week has dropped by 14% since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Pillar's new Survey on Religious Attitudes and Practices.
That decline could explain a proportional decline in parish collections: In March, The Pillar found parishes experienced a 12% average decrease in collections during 2020 as compared to 2019, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown orders implemented in many localities.
New information about Mass attendance is available from The Pillar’s Survey on Religious Attitudes and Practices, which aims to better understand the religious perspectives, identities, and perspectives of American adults. We’re reporting the results of that survey this week in a series of special reports.
In part one of this series, The Pillar looked at America’s changing religious landscape. In part two, we look at what factors influence lifelong Catholic religious practice, and why people say they leave the Church. In part three, we took a look at what can be learned about religiously disaffiliated Americans.
In this installment, we look at the COVID-19 pandemic has begun reshaping parish life.
If you’re interested in the technical details of our survey work, here they are: The Pillar worked with research firm Centiment to conduct the survey, which was conducted online with 2653 members of Centiment’s nationally representative research panel. This included a nationally representative sample of 1564 Americans and an oversample of 1089 additional respondents who had been raised Catholic, which we used in order to better understand those raised Catholic who still identify as Catholic, and those who now call themselves members of other faiths or of no faith at all. We’ll publish our full-data set later this week.
Mass, by the numbers
Our survey asked respondents how often they usually went to religious services at a church or other place of worship before the pandemic, and how often they participate in religious services now — including remote web streaming of religious services. The results, both for Catholics and for other Christians, were surprising.
Forty-one percent of those who describe themselves as Catholic reported going to Mass at least once a week before the pandemic.
Another 41% said they went less frequently— in a range between a few times a month and less than once annually. Eighteen percent of Catholics said they never went to Mass before the pandemic.
Since the pandemic, those numbers have shifted. Only 36% of Catholics say they now to Mass at least once a week — including streaming Masses. The number going at less frequent intervals has also dropped, and the number who say they never go to Mass has increased to 29%.
The numbers are similar for non-Catholics who describe themselves as Protestant or Christian.
The difference between 41% and 36% of Catholics attending Mass weekly might at first seem small. But there is another way to look at the change:
The number who attend Mass weekly — in person or via streaming — has decreased by 14% since COVID.
The number of Catholics who never go to Mass has increased by 62%.
The pews, they are a-changin
Here’s another way to imagine things:
Suppose that before COVID-19, there were 100 regular weekly Mass-goers at your normal Sunday parish Mass.
11 are going between one and three times a month.
Two are only going a few times a year.
One is down to once a year.
Eight now say they “never” go to Mass.
Of course, there are some new faces in the pews too:
10 people who used to go less frequently are now going to Mass at least once a week.
But the total number of people at Mass is smaller. Only 86 are showing up every week, where before there were 100.
Who are the Catholics who went to Mass every week pre-Covid, and now say they never go, even by watching a streaming Mass online?
On average, they are slightly older. The average age of adult Catholics attending weekly Mass is 46, while the average age of those who went weekly before Covid, and now say they never go, is 50. But only 19% of those who have stopped going to church are 65 or older.
It turns out that another sacrament has some interesting correlations to Mass attendance: Confession. Or, at least, the frequency with which people self-report going to confession.
Among Catholics who go to Mass at least once a week, 50% say they go to confession at least once a month.
But among people who say they go to confession monthly, 85% of pre-Covid weekly Massgoers have returned to weekly Mass.
Among people who never go to confession, only 56% of those who went to weekly Mass before Covid have returned to weekly Mass.
Covid and parish ministry
Our survey asked those who attended church services at least once a month about how their church had handled things during the pandemic.
Among Catholics who attended Mass at least once a month prior to the pandemic, 53% agreed that their church kept members safe. 27% said that their church made accommodations such as outdoor services or video streaming to keep Mass and the sacraments available.
Few Catholics specifically criticized their parish’s handling of the pandemic.
Fourteen percent said that “My church just shut down during the pandemic” and 9% specifically agreed that their church was too quick to shut down sacraments. Eight percent felt that their church had taken unnecessary risks. And 7% felt they had become more alienated from their parish during the pandemic.
Overall, 17% of Catholics who went to Mass at least monthly pre-pandemic said their parish came together during the pandemic, while 12% said that their parish became more divided.
Will changes in Mass attendance be permanent? What will be the “Covid-effect” five years from now? It’s too soon to tell. But as most of us learned during the pandemic — very little about the future is easily predicted.
Part one of this series brought you a look at overall trends in the American religious landscape. Part two told you why some people raised Catholic leave the faith, and others stay. Part three took a deep dive into the demographics of the “nones.”