Msgr Pope in the Archdiocese of Washington DC asks an excellent question: Is the Bottom Really Falling Out of Catholic Mass Attendance? and quotes some valuable CARA statistics in doing so.
Based upon all the work we've done here for Making Disciples, (it's fresh in my mind having just finished finalizing the content for a 500 per son Making Disciples weekend in LA in January) I 'd just like add a few things to the conversation:
1) The single most important overall finding of the Pew US religious Landscape survey is that the majority of Americans of "all backgrounds" have chosen to leave the faith of their childhood at some point in their life - usually as a teenager or young adult. (Most Catholics are gone by age 23, the majority by age 18.) It is true across the board. It isn't just a Catholic thing. Roughly 53% of US adults have done and only about 9% "reverted" back later.
It is a universal cultural wind that basically means that the majority of our young adults feel that it is part of becoming an adult to re-evaluate the faith (or lack thereof) they were raised in and find one for themselves - one that "fits" their understanding of the world.
Sometimes this dynamic works for us. Among those raised without any faith, it means the majority (54%) will choose a faith for themselves as an adult.
Sometimes it works against us. Among those raised with a faith, it means that they probably won't simply "accept" the faith in which they were raised but will pass though another stage of personal discernment and decision-making which for the majority, involves leaving.
Overall, it means that faiths who evangelize - that is, who intentionally foster the personal faith commitments of individuals rather than depending upon inherited identity and culture to retain membership - are doing much better than those who depend upon inherited faith to retain loyalty. It means that "cultural" Catholicism and "cultural" Lutheranism are equally vulnerable.
2) A Lutheran leaving for a Methodist - linked congregation is NOT equivalent to a Catholic becoming an evangelical or "nothing". For the majority of Protestants, it is the spiritual and experiential equivalent of moving from one Catholic parish to another for us.
I think it is critical that we understand that "denominational" loyalty among Protestants has lost most of its meaning among the majority of Protestants over the past 30 -40 years. For most Protestants today, it is almost always the quality of the local congregation, not the overall denomination, that is the key issue. Because when they refer to the "the church" they usually mean their local congregation while we mean the Church universal in communion with the Pope.
In any case, many denominationally affiliated local Protestant churches now obscure or even hide their affiliation. For instance, the famous Saddleback Church in southern California is nominally Southern Baptist but that is hardly ever mentioned. Almost everyone regards Saddleback as its own "brand". Hardly anyone involved would regard a family leaving Saddleback Church for Radiant Church because they moved from Orange County to Colorado Springs as "leaving" the Southern Baptist denomination. It wouldn't enter the equation for anyone - the family who are moving, the people who knew them at Saddleback or the pastor of the new church in Colorado Springs.
So while it is technically accurate to say that Catholics have more "brand loyalty" than say, Methodists, it really is apples and oranges. In our current climate, the only sort of intra-Protestant move which has the same significance as a Catholic leaving the Church would be a conservative or Pentecostal Protestant intentionally joining a liberal congregation or someone from a very liberal Presbyterian background joining an strongly evangelical congregation like University Presbyterian in Seattle. Increasingly only true denominational insiders and ecclesial nerds care much about "denomination" in the Protestant world. Average members look for a local congregation that seems to meet their needs and the needs of their family.
3) The really critical finding regarding Catholics are the generational findings (which I got from CARA and confirmed with Mark Grey on the phone.) Pew found that Catholics have by far, the biggest fall-off in attendance between the pre-WWII Builder Generation and Gen X (30's and early 40's) Millennial (teens and 20's) Catholics. And that results in more positive "all-ages" percentages that mask our real danger.
Per CARA, only 15% of Gen X Catholics and 17% of Millennial Catholics attend Mass regularly. The ones who do are, as a group, highly committed - the JPII generation. But over 80% of their generation is missing altogether - and we are talking about 80 % of the ones who have retained the identity, not those who were baptized but have dropped the name "Catholic" altogether and vanished.
Here's the real stunner: Pew stated that the best guarantee of regular Catholic church attendance as an adult was for a Catholic to become Protestant. About 63% of Catholics who become Protestant attend church regularly; only about 21% of cradle Catholics do so.
And here's the really critical factor that I found when looking very, very closely and that we never talk about. Mass attendance is directly related to and goes up and down with the number of Catholics who believe it is possible to have a personal relationship with God. This was a factor that Pew actually studied while CARA, to my knowledge, has not.
Only 40% of 20 somethings who have retained the name "Catholic" are certain that it is possible to have a personal relationship with God.
Post-moderns don't do things just because their parents did it. They do something because it is personally meaningful. Why show up at Mass if you don't believe in a personal God who desires a relationship with you?
And that's where we need to start in our evangelization efforts with the majority of Catholic young adults.