November 6, 2014

The number of U.S. Catholics has grown, so why are there fewer parishes?

The recent decision by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York to effectively close dozens of churches in the coming months falls in line with a larger nationwide trend of Catholic parish closures.

The number of Catholic parishes is on the decline.The downsizing in New York was described by The New York Times as the largest reorganization in the diocese’s history. The archdiocese, which stretches from Staten Island, Manhattan and the Bronx through the seven suburban counties in the state that are immediately north of New York City, will merge 112 of its parishes into 55 new parishes.

In 1988, there were 19,705 parishes in the U.S., while there are now 17,483, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.

The current number of parishes is about equal to the number that existed in 1965, even as the number of self-identified U.S. Catholics has risen in the past half-century, from 48.5 million to 76.7 million between 1965 and 2014, according to CARA’s data.

However, the share of U.S. Catholics who reported attending Mass at least weekly fell by nearly half – from 47% to 24% – between 1974 and 2012, according to the General Social Survey (GSS). And the Times reported that as of last year, according to the New York Archdiocese, only 12% of its members regularly attended Sunday Mass.

The number of Catholic priests and nuns is declining.There are a few other possible explanations for the apparent paradox of the growing number of Catholics and the now shrinking number of parishes. For one, the number of priests (as well as nuns) has declined steadily over the past 50 years, potentially leading to staff shortages at parishes. In fact, according to CARA, there are now 3,496 parishes without a resident priest, more than six times as many as there were 50 years ago. Also, the financial ramifications of the clergy sex abuse scandal – including legal costs, settlements and declining donations – have caused economic problems for some dioceses.

Indeed, some parish mergers have been driven by the need to more efficiently use staff and financial resources. Some of these mergers could create what CARA researchers call “million-dollar parishes,” so named because they have large budgets and serve much larger populations. So, in some cases, there are fewer parishes in a diocese serving more people.

Finally, the reduction in parishes has varied by region. Many dioceses in the South and West actually are growing as a result of immigration from Latin America and elsewhere, while the number of parishioners in the Northeast has shrunk in recent years.

Topics: Catholics and Catholicism

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Katlyn2 years ago

    I had a question and you didn’t answer it!!!:(

  2. WM PAUL2 years ago

    I live across the street from a Catholic Church. Growing up I attended mass every Sunday. Today my kids will not even attend. I see the same people almost every week. Very few young families attend mass. It’s mainly senior citizens. I don’t see how the RC parishes will survive going forward. They simply have not and can not adapt to current mores in society.

  3. Cathy Farrell2 years ago

    Why I left the church?

    I went to a priest for advice. I was having trouble in my second marriage. He told me I was to leave my second husband since I was living in sin. I had a child. I left crying horribly.

    They never got rid of priests accused of child abuse. They should not let any priest accused of child abuse continue to do priestly duties until they can have a trial for them to determine if they did what they are accused of. They should be let go if they are found out to be child abusers. The excuse of shortage of priests just doesn’t hold water.

    I only know of one good priest and I never met a nun who I thought was holy enough to imitate. I went to a Catholic school 1 to 12.

    I know some Catholics who think they are better than everyone. Their idea of being holy is just going to church on Sundays.

    I don’t like the Pope. I didn’t realize how many Catholics idolize him and can’t wait to see him. I don’t think we should kiss his ring and act like he is the greatest thing on earth.

    I feel bad that there are statues in the church that are chasing away Protestants who don’t believe in them. We shouldn’t have them in the church if they keep people away from the faith.

    Catholics don’t make you feel like family like Protestants do. Protestants as least care if you go to the church and make you feel welcome. But I just don’t feel like I belong in a Protestant church, because I was raised Catholic and still have Catholic beliefs.

    Donations for the church are mandatory more so than when I went. I don’t believe Catholics should put money in envelopes so they get credit for them.

    When I was young and went to church, I felt like praying when I went in. Now I can’t get that feeling again. They lock the doors so you can’t go in and pray when you really need to. I understand why but I feel the loss of being locked out.

    When you go to a priest, you always feel you are imposing. They are not there for you. They are too busy for you. If you tried to go to a nun, she would not have time to talk to you. I’m talking outside of a Catholic school. You can’t even tell that some women are nuns anymore.

    Catholics only help Catholics. If you are not Catholic, they just won’t help you.

    I get tired of priests and nuns celebrating their own feast days. Why don’t they use the money to help the poor.

    The main reason why many don’t go to church is because they don’t feel welcomed there or missed when they don’t go. They can’t find people who are truly Christian anymore.

    So many Catholics have been hurt by what a priest or nun has done. It has made them bitter.

    I feel I can remain Christian by not going to church. I can’t get past what has been done to me by people who claim to represent the catholic church. Church pastors on T.V. only care about money and selling books and selling trips to the holy land. I think if priests would just be there so people could talk to them about what is hurting them, many might go back to church. I think it is called CARING.

    1. Jim2 years ago

      Your comments are correct. Stick with what the Bible says. Not mortal man.
      The Pope is a elected official dressed in fancy robes. Christ came in humility.

      Priests, Bishops, Popes, Nuns etc. All mortal man. Same as you and I

    2. Ronald Chauca2 years ago

      Hi Cathy,

      You speak of a lot of valid concerns here with much insight. My heart goes out to you because my experience has been the opposite with Catholic priests and sisters. I guess this is why I am currently a seminarian studying for the priesthood. I apologize on behalf of those whom have hurt you in the name of the Church and I ask that you forgive them so that you don’t have to carry this pain anymore. Thank you for your heartfelt sharing, I will do my best to keep it in mind.

      Good Bless,

  4. Anonymous2 years ago

    We had a priest (recently transferred) who frequently made references to hell. Admittedly, they were unspoken references, but they were CRYSTAL CLEAR: “You need to work hard to become a saint….. yadda yadda yadda… and if you don’t because a saint, [long pause] well, we KNOW what happens then.” He had the occasional direct reference to hell, generally a story about his days as a younger fallen away Catholic, followed by “I was headed straight for hell.” I think he made a lot of people uncomfortable, myself included. I think that is why so many people loved him. He did not beat around the bush and told you what you needed to hear, not what you wanted to hear, a rare breed these days.

  5. Mary2 years ago

    I don’t believe there are REALLY 77 million Catholics in the USA. I was raised Catholic but accepted Christ as my Savior over 20 years ago and am a Prostestant now. So, why am I still counted as a Catholic. Because once a Catholic, you can never be removed from the list!

    1. Imelda2 years ago

      Hi there (Mary),
      It’s funny, you’re out my whole family and friends around nearly 20 people (young and old) were in after I dreamed many times saw Jesus Christ. I’m so happy with peace to be born again Christian (Catholic).

      Before I registered RCIA, I attended Baptist, Methodist, Protestant Churches, then I ended up here. My mother was just baptized early this year.

      While Satan (gay priests molested boys) infiltrated in Church, and tried to destroy the Church, we have prayed for Priests, Bishops, Cardinal and Pope every day.

      The Church of GOD for 2000 years is always HOLY. Satan and his army will be defeated and sent back to hell by The LORD JESUS Christ.

      Take care and God Bless.

    2. Anonymous1 year ago

      Poor lost soul . My prayers go out to you . Cults like the born agains are the work of the evil one . We always hear there nonsense but the Catholic Church is growing at a much faster rate just check out the statistics !

  6. Akos Tarkanyi3 years ago

    Just about a piece of the future.

  7. Fr Jason3 years ago

    At my parish we are going to host a Called and Gifted Workshop which is the fruit of Sherry Weddell’s and others hard work. Called and Gifted as well as the Amazing Parish conferences/website are going to change the face of the Church in the long run. I am excited to be a part of this. I am going to use Eileen’s comment in my next homily as an example of people who have missed the point.

    1. Fr. Paul kaiparambadan2 years ago

      Rev Father
      will u pls read about my book that defends the Holy catholic Church?

      fr. paul kaiparambadan and his know the truth magazine

      Is there any possibility to do that mission in America?

  8. Michael Teply3 years ago

    This is the best news I’ve heard in a long time. Clergy are parasites living off the fears that they themselves have instilled in the people!

    1. Michael Teply3 years ago

      Best news I’ve heard in a long time

  9. Lana Ulrich3 years ago

    Thank God for programs like Forming International Diciples. It’s for the glory of God and the salvation of all. Amen

    1. Kerri2 years ago

      Small world Lana,just happened across your name!

  10. Mark3 years ago

    According to the CCC the Mass is the ultimate form of worship containing supplication, thanksgiving, adoration and contrition. Its communal worship, where believers come together to worship God. What you get out of it is what you put into it. The purpose of the Mass is not to recruit and retain membership. That is the task of all baptized people. Our daily lives should give witness to Christ and that is what recruits and retains the faithful.

    It could be that people that show up to Mass out of guilt, obligation, or thinking simply showing up in the pew each week is all they obliged to do before God may be actually doing more harm to the Catholic community than those that do not show up. Those that don’t participate at Mass, those that don’t recite the prayers, those that don’t sing, those that rush out before they finish consuming the Eucharist. They may be more damaging to keeping the faithful energized than those that don’t show up. They portray an atmosphere of disinterest, indifference, displaying to everyone else there is nothing special here. However, don’t misinterpret what I say, however ones level of participation in Mass reenforces or gives scandal to others, simply showing up to Mass, being present before the Lord, is better than staying away for anyone.

    Its easy to point fingers at God’s imperfect human priests, in reality we should point our fingers at ourselves. What are all the things we failed to do that contribute to the issue? How’s our parish involvement outside of Mass? How’s our witness to the faith in our daily lives? Did we (or are we) teaching the faith to out kids? Most importantly did we (are we) living our faith, so our kids know it is important to us, so it will be important to them?

  11. ralph3 years ago

    In the south the parishes are growing like crazy. Our parish has been split three time in the last 20 years. we still have 4000 families. withing 10 miles there are 5 catholic churches each with 2 – 4K families.

    I think the author missed the fact completely the there has been a huge migration of Catholics to the south. There are 2Million in Georgia- 20% of the population.

  12. June3 years ago

    I do not see this as helping members – there are no longer churches where a member can call to talk with a priest – it will make the situation worse.
    Large parishes (million dollar ones) have lost contact with their congregation – there’s nothing such as ‘family’ churches where a priest knows most parishioners by name. I am sure the bottom line is that more people will leave the Catholic Church.
    If other denominations can remain smaller and more closely untied, why can’t we? Or is it money as usual?

    1. Christian LeBlanc3 years ago

      Money? Fewer priests and more Catholics is the answer.

  13. Ralph Coelho3 years ago

    There is a tendency to blame poor homilies fro poor attendance as though the Mass is an intellectual exercise.
    Maybe if catechesis was built around the Mass Liturgy and it was reinforced appropriately by the celebrant at appropriate times during the liturgy people will find more of value than the homily.

  14. Patrick Venton3 years ago

    When interest rates were high a parish could live off of their investments. Interest rates are low, and the givings are not so giving. Rolling up the sidewalks will give way when interest rates rise….. simple, but don’t hold your breath..

  15. Eileen3 years ago

    Of course fewer Catholics attend Mass. There is nothing ever said in a homily which correleates to what is going on in the world today. They ask constantly for money when in fact the Vatican and many archdioceses around the country hold more real estate than Donald Trump. Check out Philadelphia and New York. The Catholic Church is rich in bucks but not so rich in believers. I am one of those raised in the 40’s with guilt, guilt and more guilt so I still go to Mass every week mainly to thank the Lord for what he has given me. I rarely listen to the readings which are the same every year, and the homilies are, as I said, irrelevant to today’s world. For me there is nothing to be gained at a Mass other than thanking the Lord for my life. I leave immediately after Communion.

    1. June3 years ago

      Oh, a kindred spirit…..didn’t think any were left. You are right, the Catholic church is the wealthiest corporation in the world.
      The homilies are redundant – I’d love to hear one about hell, fire and damnation once in a while as opposed to week after week hearing about God’s mercy, love and goodness – we know that, that’s why we are in Church – the Holy Eucharist – and to receive God’s grace and the wonder that pours down from heaven.
      There is so little my education from the 40s, 50s that remains…..Change is not good no matter what the Church thinks – Vatican II drove more from the church and with Vatican III around the corner, it’s scary.
      God Bless…….

      1. Sam Esposito3 years ago

        Are you even listening to Pope Francis? Guilt? Really. You need to grow up and find what matters, which is that God loves you and calls you to more than you even realize you can be. And God calls me to that as well. And everyone. We are responsible for leadng others to Christ. Stop blaming the priests and nuns and be the person your baptism made you.

        1. Richard M3 years ago

          Hello Sam,

          It’s not all fire and brimstone, but it’s worth remembering that no figure in all of Scripture talks about hell more than…Jesus Christ. And again and again, he suggests that salvation is…not exactly automatic, or universal.

          “Then the king said to the waiters: Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the exterior darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt 22:13-14)

          But June is right: One rarely hears about the Four Last Things (heaven hell, death, judgment) at all from pulpits or catechists any longer. It’s worth asking whether that has any connection with the collapse in Mass attendance (and vocations) documented here by Pew.

          All that said, I find it interesting that no Pope of late has spoken so often of the devil. He seems to believe he really exists, and actually poses a danger.

    2. JOHN PAUL3 years ago

      Focus on what you can do for the Church. Try prison ministry or ministry to those in nursing homes. Remember there was only one person that left the Last Supper early. You do not want to be identified with him. Active Christians seem to be happier than pew potatos.

    3. Norman3 years ago

      Maybe a homily’s quality depend on the priest but the readings aren’t quite the same every year as there’s a three year cycle; only is your ultra saturation of it a calling to share what you know and what you’re good at?
      I ask not because I’m clergy, but because I converted from atheism and came in to the church kicking and screaming in 2005, its just where the truth led me. Only, when I came in I realized just how few Catholics are aware of what the Vatican teaches and since I had just spent a few years going over EVERYTHING, I offered to help out at RCIA. I’ve been doing that for five years now and I went from atheism to my favorite three hours of the year being at the Easter Vigil.
      You’re about my mom’s age and she’s likely as enthused as you are about church, but I’ve also noticed she could be giving advice to younger parents on parenting. She didn’t do a thing except love me when I renounced God, and miraculously, brought ne back full throttle.
      Chances are, even if its not specifically parenting advice, you have a lot of experience that would benefit others in the Church.

    4. Kirsten Jarrell3 years ago

      The first person to leave the communion meal before the closing was Judas. Please have enough respect for God, since it is lacking for the church herself, to stay until the end. You might consider looking up some books on the spiritual reality of the mass. However, I share your sentiments about lackluster homilies. My sisters and I lament thier vapidness all the time. I am from a generation much after the forties, as I am only 39, but I still long for a return to some of the traditions lost after Vatican II and wish there was in increased focus on the Eucharist along with more outward signs of respect. What we show on the outside is a sign of an inward reality (so long as we dont make hypocrictal displays). Showing up to mass in shorts and tank tops does not show the appropriate respect to our Lord in the Eucharist nor does neglecting to do a proper examination of conscience before mass. I see lines and lines of people for communion but none for confession, because I never have to wait in line for that. Amazing to me. People leave to go to other churches for better music and the like trying to feel more united to Christ not realizing they are leaving the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord in the Eucharist. So Sad!

    5. Jack3 years ago

      So you go to church for communion and to thank God for what you have. What do you give back? We are Christ’s body on earth. We are the way. More of us, myself included, need to act and live what we say we believe. Most parishes have study groups if you want to learn more about the faith. God bless…

    6. Anniem3 years ago

      Find a church where the priests TEACH in every sermon/homily. We live on the west coast and a nearby parish is staffed by 5 priests from a very orthodox religious Order. Perhaps finding a parish run by Order priests, one that has continued to serve the needs of the people, one that has frequent confession (5 or more times a week), spiritual talks on a regular basis, a lively Legion of Mary, St. Vincent de Paul society, cetechesis for children and teens but MANDATORY catechesis of their parents (instruction in the Faith became a joke after Vatican II in many parishes). Perhaps that’s a lot to look for, but worth it. If we are not growing in your love of Christ and His Mother on a daily basis, you need to find a parish that will help you do that. Best of all, do the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius under a good priest-director. You will hit the highway to heaven!

    7. mike3 years ago

      What a sad statement. The homilies I listen to are full of life, and information that can be applied to our lives. The priests I listen to rarely bring up finances. Your complaint of the Church’s financial security? I never would complain that the institution I hold dear is solvent. I am glad. The guilt, guilt, guilt thing? Come on now, let’s deal in reality, not anti-Catholic stereotypes. The same old readings? That’s called the Bible, the Word of God. Maybe the homilies are “irrelevant to today’s world” because you want them to agree with today’s world, and not to agree with God’s teachings. Leaving after Communion? Yeah, we have that in every Parish, people very anxious to get back to “todays world.” Sad.

    8. Christian LeBlanc3 years ago

      When I hear griping about how Faddah ain’t doin’ thus and so, my first reaction is well, what are you doing? Are you knocking yourself out for Jesus’ church? If you are, great. I reckon you’ve earned the right to criticize the priest for whatever he ain’t doing, such as delivering vibrant homilies. But after the crit’s done, then what? And although I do hear excellent homilies, they comprise maybe 15% of my faith formation. As an adult Catholic, that’s my responsibility. It ain’t Faddah’s job. A sheep ain’t a beached whale.

    9. Sam Esposito3 years ago

      Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? That is what has to be at the core of this. We can’t rely on cultural Catholics any more. We need, as Sherry Weddell has repeat, intentional disciples.