NEW YORK — Pope Francis insists that attending Sunday Mass isn’t just an obligation of the faith, saying last year that “only with the grace of Jesus, with his presence alive in us and among us, can we put into practice his commandment and be his credible witnesses.”
Yet, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center, many Americans choose not to attend religious services because of practical or personal reasons — not because of a lack of faith.
“Why Americans Go (and Don’t Go) to Religious Services” aims to make sense of the decline in regular attendance at mass, synagogue, mosque, or some other house of worship. Released on Wednesday, the study finds that the primary reason for attendance is straightforward: People want to be closer to God.
It’s making sense of why they don’t go that is more complicated.
While 81 percent of respondents said they attend services regularly to grow closer to God, 69 percent said they do so in order that their children will have a moral foundation, 68 percent said they do so in hopes of becoming a better person, and 66 percent said it’s an important comfort in times of grief or sorrow.
The most common reason among adults who only attend religious services a few times during the year, however, is that they practice their faith in other ways. Other secondary reasons were that respondents did not like the sermons or they hadn’t found a church or congregation that they liked.
Among the respondents, the largest group of Americans who eschew attending religious services regularly, yet give reasons other than nonbelief, are Christians. Among that subset, Catholics are the largest population, at 47 percent, to say they find others ways to practice their faith.
Even so, unlike other Christians who are surveyed, the sermons did not appear to be as large of an issue for Catholics.
“Catholics who attend Mass regularly are significantly less likely than other Christian churchgoers to say that the sermons they hear are what keeps them coming back. Indeed, among those who attend church regularly, Protestants are roughly twice as likely as Catholics (71 percent vs. 36 percent) to say valuable sermons are a very important reason,” according to Pew.
Professor Timothy O’Malley, director of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Liturgy and author of the recently released book Bored Again Catholic: How the Mass Could Save Your Life, told Crux that such a finding is not surprising.
“Catholics who have endured multiple waves of the sexual abuse scandal would not be especially affected by the scandal of bad preaching. Instead, they come to Church because there they encounter the Eucharistic Lord, who comes to bring peace to the nations,” he said. “They love Christ, they love the Church. And at Mass, they receive the fullness of this love in the consecrated species.”
The study also found that those who chose to practice their faith in other ways outside of regular services are “less involved in a variety of communal, charitable, and social groups than are those who attend religious services regularly.”
In addition, the report found that the population who rarely or never attends religious services is younger than those who attend regularly — a particularly salient finding for Catholics as Francis prepares to convene a Synod of Bishops this October on “Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment.”
As for the demographic profile of non-churchgoers, the study found that Democrats are less likely to attend religious services regularly than Republicans, and that those not attending are also likely to be higher educated.
In terms of those who do attend religious services, only 75 percent of Catholics said they do so in order to grow closer to God — by contrast, 90 percent of evangelicals responded with that as their primary reason.
However, Catholics and mainline Protestants led the field for religious attendance due to “a sense of connection to a longstanding tradition,” compared to evangelicals who are more likely to attend for “a sense of God’s presence.”
While those results may come as a disappointment to Francis, who asked last year, “What kind of Sunday is it for a Christian if an encounter with the Lord is missing?” this most recent data from Pew is nonetheless instructive as Catholics have three major events on the horizon — the World Meeting of Families, the Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment, and World Youth Day — which could prove fertile ground for turning these trends around.