Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Documenting the decline

October 29th, 2010, Promulgated by Mike

Within the last year or so the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) has added a “research blog” to its web site.  This new feature, dubbed Nineteen Sixty-four, appears to be a repository for relatively short, statistics-based articles (some of which even seem to stray just a tad from the objective professionalism of the classic CARA report – see here, for example).

One of the blog’s more disturbing entries, however, is classic CARA Catholic statistics and analysis.  In There will likely be fewer Catholic baptisms and marriages next year… again CARA points out that the absolute numbers of both Catholic marriages and baptisms have been falling since 2001.  While the rates (i.e., numbers per 1,000 Catholics) of the celebration of these two sacraments have been in overall decline for decades, the increase in U.S. Catholic population, primarily due to immigration, had been large enough to keep the total numbers rising until 9 years ago.

While the ongoing decline in the number of Catholic marriages is disconcerting, the drop in the total number of baptisms could mean even more trouble ahead for our nation’s Catholic schools.

… it is… of great concern that the absolute number of Catholic infant baptisms continues to dip annually. For example, the number of baptisms, when projected five years into the future, is correlated with entry-level Catholic school enrollment. If baptisms are falling, most likely enrollments will fall at the same pace. Are fewer Catholics choosing to baptize their children? Or are Catholics just having fewer children, as the national trend indicates?  The answer to these questions implies very different potential responses.

CARA then goes on to answer its own question.

The data indicate that almost all self-identified Catholics having children are baptizing those children (most within a year of birth and some in later childhood years). In 2009, the crude birth rate for the United States was 13.8 per 1,000 population whereas the crude Catholic baptism rate was 12.7 per 1,000 Catholics. Historically, these two rates are strongly correlated (R=.984). Most of the decline in Catholic baptisms is attributable to the decline in birth rates from the Baby Boom peak years.

Translation: U.S. Catholics, like the rest of the nation, have been having fewer kids but, by and large, those kids have been getting baptized.

The DOR Story

So how is this story playing out in the Diocese of Rochester?  Well, as the following chart shows, the rate of Catholic marriages in DOR has been running slightly higher (the average is 1.5 units higher) than the national rate, at least for the last 30+ years. (This data comes from my collection of Official Catholic Directories, which only dates back to 1977.  We are therefore looking at the equivalent of the right half of the CARA chart, above.)

The rate of baptisms, however, seems to be a story with two chapters.  In the first chapter, which runs from 1977 to 2004, DOR’s baptismal rate tracked the national rate quite closely, averaging just 0.2 units less than that rate over those 25 years. But in the second chapter, which started in 2005 and is still ongoing today, DOR’s baptismal rate has been showing a marked departure from the national rate.  Indeed, in the last 6 years we have been baptizing infants at a rate that has averaged 3.0 units lower than the national rate.

(By the way, there is no reason to believe that the actual birth rate among local Catholics has collapsed in the last 6 years. While specifically Catholic data is not available, NY State Health Department data shows that the average live birth rate in the 12 counties comprising DOR was 11.5 births per 1,000 residents from 2000 through 2004 and 11.3 per 1,000 from 2005 through 2008.)

So what does this mean for our local Catholic schools?  Well, if our baptismal rate had continued to run about 0.2 units less than the national rate over the last 6 years (as it had done from 1977 to 2004), we would have baptized approximately 26,120 infants since 2005.  However, the actual number of baptisms recorded during that period was 20,646, an average of 912 fewer per year.

Put another way, in the last 6 years DOR’s pool of potential future Catholic 1st graders has become about 20% smaller.

The obvious question is: Why?

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34 Responses to “Documenting the decline”

  1. Faithful says:

    I think it is true that the fact that Catholics are having less children effects enrollment in the Catholic School.

    However- what people fail to realize is- even IF Catholics continued to have large families as they did in the 1950’s, they most likely could not afford Catholic education anyway. Becasue education has changed since the 50’s and has become so much more costly and expensive, and complicated, Catholic schools can no longer run without having to charge tuition.

    Thus- how would it help enrollment in a Catholic school if Catholics had larger families?

  2. Mike says:


    I think that the problem is our approach to paying for Catholic education. DOR, like most dioceses, puts a large part of the financial burden of paying for a Catholic education on families with children, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If the bishop and his pastors were able to convince most of our parishioners that educating the next generation of Catholics was everybody’s responsibility (like caring for the poor, evangelization or even the upkeep of parish property), it would be possible to provide an affordable Catholic education for any child who wants one.

    That is exactly what has happened in the Diocese of Wichita, which has about a third as many Catholics as we do and also has 38 Catholic elementary and high schools which educate somewhere around 11,000 children. Each one of these schools is entirely tuition-free to Catholic students. The money comes from a diocesan-wide stewardship program which obviously has a high level of buy-in from parishioners, including very many who no longer have school age children.

    This program took about 20 years from its inception to grow into what it is today, but it does show that it can be done.

    You can read all about it here.

  3. Bernie says:

    It is my impression that Catholics are baptising their children because it’s culturally expected by parents and other relatives. Once baptised many may never enter the church building again. Fewer and fewer, then, look for a Catholic education. The prospect for Catholic education is dismal: fewer Catholic marriages with smaller families equals fewer children and while those fewer children might actually be baptised their Catholic upbringing has a good chance of ending at the baptismal party.

    I also believe the cost of tuition is prohibitive for most now that much higher salaries have to be paid to lay teachers.

    It does not look good and I have no idea on what to do about it.

  4. Bernie says:

    Just read Mike’s post @ 12:56
    I would not have thought that such an approach as used in Wichita would work. Apparently it is. We (Rochester diocese) should be out there taking notes. Seems like we’re pursuing an opposite strategy.

  5. benanderson says:

    @Mike – I applaud your efforts and your ideas. In all fairness, though, I think one thing to consider when discussing the Wichita solution is the quality of education. I know nothing of it, so perhaps someone can correct me, but my inclination is that the quality of the education there (public and Catholic) is nowhere close to what we have here in NY (especially Rochester and the surrounding areas). IOW, it’s much easier for them to compete w/ public schools there than it would be for Catholic schools to be competitive here (given the same budget). Again, I don’t have any real data, just an inclination.

  6. Mike says:


    Read the article. It addresses your concerns.

  7. Mike says:

    About an hour ago I ran into an old friend who has worked for years at various DOR parishes. We got to talking about the decline in baptisms (guess who brought that up) and my friend admitted that he/she had noted the same thing at his/her parish.

    It was my friend’s opinion that many cultural Catholics in the not too distant past would at least still opt for a Church wedding and bring their kids in to be baptized. Now, while the Church wedding still seems popular among that crowd, getting the kids baptized no longer seems all that important, unless someone – usually Grandma or Grandpa – is nagging them about it.

    (I see a similar trend among my religious ed students. In my typical class only about 1/3 will be attending weekend Mass regularly and many don’t go at all. In many cases their parents have them in religious ed only because of pressure from elsewhere in the family.)

    Our joint diagnosis of the cause: “Too many years of abysmal catechesis.”

  8. monk says:

    One of the important reasons why the Wichita model works is that their bishop understands the importance of strong parishes. Catholics are much more willing to give financially if they feel connected to their parish and pastor. The DoR is systematically dismantling the parish structure and ordained pastoral leadership. Catholic schools don’t have a chance in this chaotic environment and we see the evidence of decline year-in-and-year-out in the DoR.

  9. Faithful Catholic says:


    Your point is well taken. It is not something I had considered.

    Too bad bishops do not do something to adopt the model of Whichita. Yes, it will be a lot of work, yes things will not change overnight, but the end result would be well worth it.

  10. Faithful Catholic says:


    You also raise a good point. Baptisms are done today not becasue the parents actually have any Faith, but becasue it is culturally expected.

  11. Bernie says:

    The pressure to baptize, then, lessens as the grandmas and grandpas go on to their eternal reward.

    “Too many years of abysmal catechesis.” Can we recover from that? What a disaster.

    Sunday preaching better get a whole lot more serious and substantive.

  12. Anonymous says:

    After spending 10 years facilitating a baptismal preparation group at my parish, I concur with those here who say that baptism and even church weddings have become more of a cultural practice for many people than a sacrament in which they are seeking God’s grace. When we ask why the couples are seeking baptism for their child, most point to tradition…it’s what their parents and grandparents did. Many of the couples who come to our class are never seen again in Church, despite our admonishment that faith must be nurtured through regular practice. The Church in Rochester is hemorraging Catholics, and the only response from the Catholic leadership is to close schools and churches. It is so damaged that I’m not sure how we can bring it back. One thing would help, though–if you went to a Catholic school, or have a Catholic school at your parish, support it financially and through prayer, because once they’re gone, they’re GONE. -HCmom

  13. Mike says:


    Well said. Reaching out to alumni for financial support used to be the sole prerogative of Catholic high schools (and colleges, of course). Recently, however, a program has been initiated to help Catholic elementary schools organize their alumni. I did a post on this last fall (see here).

    This effort is continuing in the Diocese of Buffalo with an “All Catholic Elementary School Reunion” scheduled for this Sunday. DOB contacted over 200,000 of its Catholic school alumni and about 55% have responded and many of them will be attending. It will be interesting to see what comes out of this effort.

  14. Mike says:

    Bernie asked, “Can we ever recover from that?”

    Well, as the angel Gabriel said to Mary in Luke’s Gospel, “With God nothing will be impossible.”

    To be a little more specific, I expect it is going to take some very strong leadership from Buffalo Rd., which means that we will remain dead in the water for at least the next 623 days.

    That’s why I hope – and pray! – that our next bishop is both an orthodox Catholic AND an excellent teacher, someone like Detroit’s Fr. John Riccardo. If His Holiness sends us a shepherd like that, then I will be able to see a brighter future ahead.

  15. benanderson says:

    Thanks, Mike. I read through the article. Help me out – I’m not sure that it does address my concern directly, although perhaps we can infer a little.

    The article states the average cost per student in the wichita school system is:
    $3,500 per elementary student and
    $5,000 per high school student

    This NY Times article states the average public school in Kansas spends:
    $6000-7000 per student.

    (the NYT article is based on 2005 data – not sure about the other article)

    The article also states that the Wichita Catholic school system is outperforming the public schools academically. So, that’s very promising that they seem to be doing a better job w/ less funds in comparison to their public schools.

    I think it’s encouraging to think it a possibility here, but I’m not sure it’s exactly comparing apples to apples. The same NY Times article states that NY state spent 14,000 per student. Admittedly, that doesn’t mean that NY schools are nearly twice as good as Kansas’, but it is somewhat telling. I looked briefly for a state-by-state school comparison, but I’m not sure such things exist because each state comes up with their own testing standards. So, my inclination still exists that (although, I obviously don’t know for sure) NY schools in general are much better than KS schools in general and thus it would require much more funding to compete with the public school system here than it would in KS. I’m sure there must be data somewhere on how much the average DOR school spends per student. That might help us connect some dots.

    All of this brings me back to my everlasting gripe of why we should push for vouchers (and I know you’ve answered this before, Mike :-)). Anyways, keep up the great work. The effort you put into your posts is apparent and certainly doesn’t go unnoticed.

  16. snowshoes says:

    Permit me to ask, what catechism series does your parish use in its Catholic school and CCD program? What catechetical publications do you use to instruct your children? This is the main issue when I decide which parish or diocesan school (or home school) to support with my donations. If the catechism is bad, ladies and gentlemen, we’re fighting an uphill battle. If you want me to support your program, get me excited by telling me all about the excellent, orthodox Catholic series you’re using, and I’ll be there supporting you. If you’re silent on this subject, I’m wondering why… Yes, you may indeed also describe how you are valiantly attempting to subvert the namby-pamby materials you are given to use in your CCD class by your parish, and I’ll personally give you a few ducats to buy those good materials you use surreptitiously. Faith comes by hearing, and our teaching of it must be consistent and persistent! Oremus.

  17. Monk says:

    Snowshoes and all,
    Take a look at St. John Bosco School here in Rochester. You will find true Catholic teaching and is well worth your support.
    We can recover…..St. John Bosco Schools are a great start!

  18. Anonymous says:

    Yeah Monk, but that idea that they’re associated in some form with Fairport Baptist church kind of scares me. Archangel School is with St Josaphat’s in Irondequoit.

  19. Mike says:


    Holy Cross had its Catholic school closed by Bishop Clark in 2008. The religious ed program, however, continues and I am now in my 7th year as a junior high teacher in that program.

    Our program uses the “Blest Are We” series from RCL Benzinger. It is on the USCCB’s conformity list, but that’s not really saying a whole lot (see here for the reason why).

    However, I generally avoid using the textbook, primarily because it is designed for a Catholic school setting where the teacher has 100 to 150 hours a year of instructional time available, while I’m lucky if I have 25. I find that jumping around in the book, picking things from here and there, to be more trouble than it’s worth.

    This year I’m teaching 7th graders and our over-arching theme is the life of Jesus. My main resource is Steve Ray’s DVD Jesus – The Word Became Flesh from his Footprints of God series. The DVD comes with a very comprehensive study guide which I have modified for 7th graders and turned into a Power Point presentation. This has worked well for me in the past and seems to be doing so again this year.

    I will also be using Parables of Jesus which, while targeted at a Protestant audience, contains nothing I can find that is doctrinally objectionable to Catholics. This is another resource that has worked well for me in the past.

    By the way, there is nothing “surreptitious” in any of this. My DRE knows exactly what I’m doing and approves of it.

  20. Monk says:

    Anonymous 10:51. Well at first glance I can see your concern. However, the only affiliation with the Fairport Baptist Church is that SJBS rents space from them – nothing more. That is the extent of it. What a shame that the DoR will not rent any space to SJBS and believe me they have empty school facilities all over town. SJBS is the best thing that has happened to Catholic education in the DoR in a long time.
    They are growing quickly and will play a dominant role in the resurgence of Catholic education in the DoR in years to come.

  21. Mike says:


    I suspect there are an awful lot of factors involved in making comparisons between NY and KS and between public school systems and Catholic school systems.

    The “cost of education” data, for instance, is probably highly dependent upon central office and individual school administrative “overhead,” as well as average classroom size and average teacher salary, and that last item would need to be considered in terms of median household income and cost of living numbers for the different areas.

    I spent a little time this morning surfing the Internet looking for information on some of these topics and found so much that I really have no idea where to begin or how to determine what’s relevant or even reliable.

    For instance, one would think that mean SAT scores would tell us something, but it turns out that while 85% of NY seniors took the 2009 SAT test, only 7% of KS seniors took the same test (see here).

    FWIW, comparisons of median household income should give us some idea of how much Catholics in various areas of the country could theoretically afford to donate to Catholic causes like education. The 2009 numbers for NY and KS were $66,891 and $60,994 respectively so, other things being equal (and they probably aren’t), we seem to be about 10% ahead in that category.

    When I get more time I’ll take a deeper look at all this.

  22. Nerina says:

    Mike, I want to come to your class! I’d love to see all of Steve Ray’s DVDs. Your kids are very lucky.

    I taught CCD for 4 years to 6th graders and we too used the “Blest Are We” series. However, I found the text completely inadequate and I went “off-script.” Since the 6th grade curriculum focuses on covenant theology, I used Scott Hahn’s book, “A Father Who Keeps His Promises” as a springboard for looking at covenants starting in Genesis and ending with Christ. The kids really enjoyed it and it was a great way to incorporate so much of authentic Catholic teaching.

    Now I homeschool my kids in religion and we use This website offers weekly lessons and also offers adult educational studies. Right now we are working through a lesson series entitled “The Mass.” Each lesson incorporates scripture, catechism and a Saint of the day. I have learned so much. We’ve even begun learning Latin!

    It seems so many of our discussions come back to this sad reality – catechesis is horrible in our diocese. Dropping Mass attendance and dropping baptism and marriage rates are just more evidence.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the clarification Monk. It is a rotten shame that the diocese will NOT allow solid independent Catholic schools in their parish buildings, but they DO rent out to Head Start programs and/or other secular institutions. Amazing isn’t it?

  24. Mike says:


    My classes are Sunday at 11:30 am and Monday at 6:30 pm in the old school building. Love to have you!

    Yes, Blest Are We is a bit weak. I had 6th graders my first 2 years. I went by the book the first year and began supplementing in year 2.

    I’ll have to check out that web site.

  25. Anonymous says:

    How sad. They were successful in ramming all the wacko things down the throats of Catholics but in doing so, they destroyed the faith of tens of thousands. The whole thing is a pathetic mess!

  26. Anonymous says:


    I never got an invitation to the Catholic Schools Reunion. In fact, this is the first I’ve heard of it. Bummer.

  27. Mike says:


    I didn’t know you were from the Buffalo area. (This is a Diocese of Buffalo initiative, not DOR.)

  28. benanderson says:

    Mike, yes, it seems hard to find a good comparison. I’m assuming only the best students in KS take the SATs as they’re probably applying to out of state schools. I think the south is more into the ACTs.

  29. However- what people fail to realize is- even IF Catholics continued to have large families as they did in the 1950’s, they most likely could not afford Catholic education anyway.

    If people were still having large families, we would have more vocations to religious orders, which would obviate the need for lay teachers and their added expense. Today’s Cincinnati Enquirer features an obituary for a Franciscan who had ten brothers and sisters; four of his brothers took vows. An exceptional case? Perhaps. But is there any doubt that more of these “exceptions” would take place were the birth rate north of its current 2.1 level?

  30. Anonymous says:

    With both parents now working, it’s hard to accept the “I can’t afford catholic education” bit. Mom and Dad are both driving $25,000 cars, live in $150-200,000 houses with plenty fun extras around the house. I’m not saying it’s everyone, but I do know of a few couples that are in this situation. Priorities?

  31. benanderson says:

    When people say “I don’t have time for that” or “I can’t afford that” they don’t mean it literally. They mean the time that the thing would take or the amount of money that the thing would cost isn’t worth it to them. They’d rather keep their time or keep their money for something else. Honestly, with the state of our Catholic school system, I’d lean towards keeping my money for something else. I understand others have a different opinion and that’s fine. But it isn’t obvious that our kids are better off in Catholic schools vs private schools or even homeschooling. There is no silver bullet. Each parent is entitled to making their own decision for their own kids. I think everyone needs to back off the whole, “parents should do this or that” argument. Parents are entitled to their own Christian liberty in these cases.

  32. Gretchen says:

    Ben, I find your question about education in KS vs education in NY to be very interesting. Quality of education is something I’ve been pondering now for a few years.

    My family and I moved here from Raleigh, NC, three years ago. (For many of the years we were there, Raleigh was written up by various magazines as “the” place to live. Excellent public education was always mentioned.) We chose to send our kids to Catholic schools because we wanted them to have a Catholic education.

    They are all in Catholic schools here now. They have done very, very well in school here in NY, so I feel that they were extremely well prepared in NC. If I had a nickel for every person who has told me that the schools here “are so much better” (than pretty much anywhere), we could all have a nice first class trip to Rome to visit the Vatican.

    From what I’ve seen (and it is strictly anecdotal), Raleigh might actually have a better educational system than here. My children have a number of friends in NC who earned all 5s on every AP exam they have taken. I don’t know even one student here who has achieved that. To top it off, our property/school taxes here are four times what we were paying there for a house that was significantly more expensive than our house here. I have a very hard time believing that the education in NY is more than four times better than the education in NC.

    I’m not trying to flame the schools here (or anyone who defends them), I’m just trying to figure out if we really do have better schools than the rest of the country, and if we do, find the proof of it. Then I will feel significantly better about our outrageous tax bill. (If not, maybe I’ll pull up stakes and give Kansas a try! :-))

  33. Joe says:

    I attended a Catholic elementary school , Jesuit high school and Jesuit university in NYC and then moved to Wichita and subsequently sent six children to Catholic elementary school in a suburb of Wichita. The educational demands were as difficult in Wichita as they were in NYC. Wichita is a high tech area with many aerospace engineering entities (Boeing, Spirit, Cessna, Raytheon Airbus), and so the educational institutions are forced to meet the high standards of these scientific industries.

    My children had many of their classmates attend Ivy League universities so the quality of the graduates was very high.

    Several of my children attended med school and they had the Ivy League crowd in their classes.

    Ks doesn’t have the social problems of NY and the state, 450 miles wide and 230 miles long has about the same number of people as Brooklyn without the poverty. Thus the cost of educating children is much less than NYC. My friends in NYC paid more for elementary school tuition yearly for one child in Manhattan then I spent for the tuition of child in med school.

  34. Ben Anderson says:

    Joe, thanks for sharing that. I presented the option of moving to Witchita to my wife. She’s standing firm, but I think if I work on her… 🙂

    Rochester is a different world entirely, though, than NYC.

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