Studying Inactive Catholics

A few weeks ago, I saw this Rhode Island Catholic piece by Emily Donohue featured on the CNS News Hub, and I’ve wanted to post on it for awhile. This is my last “free” time before Christmas, so here are my thoughts.

Bob Dixon, director of the Australian Pastoral Projects Office, came to speak with Providence diocesan clergy and laity last month. As many Catholic parishes face declining Mass attendance, concerned people look for reasons.


Dixon’s country isn’t doing nearly as well as the US in Mass attendance. Does he have anything we need to hear? Do the reasons Catholics don’t go to Mass in Australia give us Americans a clue?


A 1996 survey queried almost 4,500 Catholic school parents. Their number one answer for not attending Mass? 54% said they “no longer feel being a committed Catholic requires going to Mass every week.” Rather than simply divide Catholics into “active” and “lapsed,” Dixon says in his country, a significant third group don’t attend Mass regularly but still consider themselves committed Catholics.


I think some Catholics would be quick to categorize this third group into the blanket second category of not-us: the lapsed, the heterodox, the heretics, the liberals, etc.. Not so fast, I think. Dixon and his research team interviewed forty-one inactive Catholics in depth. All over Australia, they asked questions and listened. The team wanted to dig deeper into the reasons why self-identified Catholics no longer worship on Sunday—and no longer feel it’s necessary to do so and be a good Catholic.


The top reasons given: the irrelevance of the Church, the misuse of the Church’s power and authority – including clergy sex predators and the cover-up by bishops, the role of women, problems with a particular priest, lack of intellectual stimulation, i.e. boring or repetitive homilies, concerns about the parish, especially a lack of welcome, a sense of exclusion by Church rules.


Dixon also studied how people evolve into inactivity. It often happens gradually, with people missing an occasional Sunday, then missing more often until significant time lapses between going to church. Dixon found that many of those surveyed lacked an adult faith, something that contributed to the “crisis of faith” many interviewees described to the survey team.


Dixon also found that many middle-aged adults cease church attendance once their children are grown. No need to keep up appearances for the kids? Or does discipline falter as empty-nesters reorganize their own lives?


Is there any good news from Down Under? Most inactive Catholics were open to return to regular Massgoing. What would bring them back? “Let’s do some inviting,” Dixon said.

“We’re in a culture that’s not friendly to the values that we hold high. And the problem is only exacerbated as the Mass-attending population continues to age and young people continue to fall away from the Church,” Dixon said. “As the proportion of young people who are at Mass diminishes and they move on into mid-life and have children, their children have less chance to be socialized in the Church.”

Like good editing, I don’t think clergy and pastoral ministers can rely on anything other than their own hard work to bring inactive Catholics back to Mass. Clearly, the young aren’t the only problem. Dixon’s mention of it is the first time I’ve heard of empty-nesters ditching church after their kids are gone? Do you think this is true elsewhere besides Australia?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to Studying Inactive Catholics

  1. Liam says:

    In my experience – most of my friends are inactive Catholics, most of whom used to be very active Catholics – the most common reasons are idiosyncratic ones that are then given post-hoc rationalizations that fit into answers pollsters lump together for convenience.

    Which is another way of saying: it’s much more about them and their culture* than the institution and its ministers (clerical and lay) writ large.

    Which means that said ministers trying to figure it out have the equation largely backwards.

    Which is not to say said ministers could not improve things. It just means they should expect very little correlation of increased activity to said improvements.

    * A culture that scorns any social pressure to be active, and if anything scorns being “too” active. Especially for adult males. A culture that has zero appreciation for the ontological, that is relentlessly functional and utilitarian. Et cet. *Some* evangelical Christians have built a formidable quasi-counterculture to combat it, and even then it only works in part. Recovery programs have become a functional replacement for some, but hardly all in need of them and far more.

  2. I think some Catholics would be quick to categorize this third group into the blanket second category of not-us: the lapsed, the heterodox, the heretics, the liberals, etc.. Not so fast, I think.

    While it does not necessarily do to cast aspersions the reasons that are listed are not exactly calculated to break this stereotype in the conservative mind.

  3. KiwiNomad06 says:

    Just a comment here as an ‘inactive’ Catholic. I ‘left’ as a young person with lots of questions I could see no way of answering. I still have many of the same questions, but it is difficult to find anyone to discuss them with.
    I have recently met a priest I have had some good contact with. He is able to listen without being judgemental, which is important, as it means I can say what I want to say. He is also able to put his point of view, in a way that makes me think about it, without being ‘squashed’ by it.

  4. Marilyn says:

    sometimes – often, I’d like to be an inactive Catholic with regard to involvement outside of Mass, all the squabbling, etc….but it’s impossible because the Mass is what keeps me actively involved and a part of the very faulty but glorious work of the church.

    I stayed more on the fringe before I had children and wonder if I’ll stray to the outside again once they’re grown…I think I’ll resist that since it is a very good thing to stay involved and help acclimate new parishioners and younger people starting out – there’s never enough outreach in the parish and it can make all the difference for a person and family to have some regular connections they can turn to in the parish.

  5. Steve Bogner says:

    I’m late to this one… but I have seen family & friends quietly leave the church even though their kids are in parish/Catholic schools, and still consider themselves Catholic. They seem to be saying that they no longer ‘get’ much from being active in the parish, or from attending mass. You can only go so long in a one-sided relationship.

    Overall, I think it’s mostly a problem is miscommunication and unmet expectations.

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