Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


“… the catastrophic failure of modern catechesis”

September 7th, 2013, Promulgated by Mike

A few months ago CARA‘s Mark Gray noted a recent decline in the number of Catholic infant baptisms …

From 1995 to 2004 there was about one Catholic infant baptism for every four births in the United States. This is how Catholicism remains a quarter of the population … But after 2004 the pattern begins to shift with several years of more births (until the recession) and fewer Catholic infant baptisms. In 2011, for the first time since 1946, there were fewer than 800,000 Catholic infant baptisms in the United States.

Gray illustrated the decline with this chart …

2013-02-07 - Gray - CARA

Gray offered two possible interpretations for the trend he observed:

  1. Catholics are just as likely to baptize their children now as in the past but they are having significantly fewer children than non-Catholics. Possible but unlikely.
  2. Catholics are just as likely as non-Catholics to have children but are less likely to baptize these children than in the past. More probable.

So what’s the infant baptism situation in DOR? Data from the OCD[1] and the NY State Department of Health[2] can be combined to produce this chart …

OCD DOR Data-Resized

As the chart indicates, from 1997 through 2003 DOR averaged 5,232 infant baptisms per year, which represented  28.8% of all live births in the diocese during that period. From 2004 through 2011, however, the diocese averaged only 3,227 infant baptisms per year, which represents just 19.5% of all live births in its 12 counties during those same 8 years. (The 2012 DOR infant baptism number is 2,460 – 186 [or 7%] fewer than in 2011 – but NY State has yet to publish county-by-county live birth data for 2012, so the above chart ends, for now,  at 2011.)

Following Gray, it seems unlikely that DOR’s Catholics suddenly began having substantially fewer babies than their non-Catholic peers 8 years ago. Rather, it seems more probable that a significant number (about 38%) of DOR’s new Catholic parents are now less likely to present their infants for baptism than they had been in the relatively recent past.

What Does This Mean For the Future of Catholic Schools?

The number of infant baptisms in any given year is a good indicator[3] of the size of the pool of potential Catholic kindergarteners 5 years later, the number of potential Catholic 1st graders 6 years later, etc., etc. Thus it is possible to use infant baptism data to estimate the maximum number of Catholic children available to our Catholic elementary schools over time.

Here is what that estimate looks like compared with actual registration numbers[4] for the country as a whole …

USA Potential and Actual Catholic K-8 Students, 1981-2017

As the chart shows, the number of K-8 aged Catholic children peaked at 9.27 million in 2005 and has been in decline ever since, while the actual Catholic population of our Catholic schools has been in decline since 1995, when it stood at some 1.78 million.

DOR presents a similar but more disturbing picture[5] …

DOR Potential and Actual Catholic K-8 Students, 1981-2017 copy

Here in DOR the peak in the number of K-8 aged Catholic children came in 1994 when it reached 63,487 and that number has been falling off the cliff ever since (it will reach 28,274 in 2017). Furthermore, the number of Catholic children in our Catholic schools has been in decline since 1996 when it stood at approximately 14,300. In 2012 it was down to about 3,550.

The Catecetical Story at a Glance

Catholic schools are but one of two formal means employed to educate our children in the faith, with the second being Religious Education (RE) programs (referred to as CCD programs in many dioceses). One may estimate the number of Catholic children receiving some kind of formal instruction by adding the enrollment data for Catholics in Catholic schools and that for RE programs. Furthermore, this sum, when compared with infant baptism data, can also provide an estimate of the number of Catholic K-8 aged children receiving no formal education in the faith[6].

Nationally, the data looks like this …

USA K-8 Formal Catechesis, 1981-2012


As can be seen, there has been a slow but steady nationwide increase in both the number and percent of our Catholic children not involved in any formal program of instruction.  For example, from 1981 through 1983 65% of our K-8 aged Catholic children were receiving some kind of formal instruction in the faith (25% in Catholic schools and 40% in RE programs), leaving some 35% formally uncatechized, but by 2010 through 2012 only 46% of our children were in formal programs (14% in Catholic schools and 32% in RE), while 54% were receiving no formal instruction.

Here’s what that data looks like for DOR over the same time period …

DOR K-8 Formal Catechesis, 1981-2012


While the DOR data is somewhat choppier, the overall trend is clear. From 1981 through 1983 we were doing much better than the national averages, with 87% of our K-8 aged Catholic children receiving some kind of formal instruction in the faith (31% in Catholic schools and 56% in RE programs), leaving only 13% formally uncatechized. However, by 2010 through 2012 our numbers had deteriorated to slightly worse than the national averages, with just 42% of our children in formal programs (10% in Catholic schools and 32% in RE) and 58% receiving no formal instruction in the faith.

Sacraments of Initiation

In addition to infant baptismal counts the OCD data also includes totals for first communions and confirmations. The counts for these last two sacraments are mostly for children receiving them at the usual ages, but they do also include people receiving them later in life (e.g., converts). Since over 95% of all baptisms in any given year are infant baptisms, it would be expected that a similar percentage of first communions and confirmations would be made by those who were baptized as infants. In other words, ignoring the numbers of first communions and confirmations made by converts should not lead to significant error.

For the purposes of this analysis it will be assumed that those who were baptized as infants celebrated their first communions at age 6 and their confirmations at age 13.  (This is not universally true but a difference of a year or two won’t affect the results, as the numbers of first communions and confirmations do not vary significantly from year to year.)

With this in mind it becomes possible to estimate how many children born and baptized in any given year go on to receive their first communion and then continue on to be confirmed: All one needs to do is to offset the annual first communion and confirmation numbers on the chart by 6 and 13 years, respectively. When we do this for the national data we see the following …

USA Sacraments of Initiation by Year of Birth, 1990-2012

As the chart shows, there is only a 10-year period (from 1990 to 1999) in which we have baptismal, first communion and confirmation data for the same groups of children. During those 10 years 86% of the children baptized as infants went on to receive their first communions and 61% of them continued on to confirmation.

The data for DOR  looks like this …

DOR Sacraments of Initiation by Year of Birth, 1990-2012

Although the DOR data is choppier than the national data (again), it does show that in those same 10 years 77% of those baptized as infants received their first communions and just 50% of them went on to celebrate confirmation. Both percentages are about 10% lower than the corresponding  national numbers.


Citing a lack of data and being wary of what he termed “common sense” explanations, CARA’s Mark Gray did not want speculate on the precise reasons behind the drop infant baptisms he reported. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that, among the long list of possibilities he does mention, a decades-long failure of catechesis is nowhere to be found.

Fr. Joseph F. Wilson of the Diocese of Brooklyn, however, is not so reticent. Over a decade ago he wrote,

Forty years ago, we dismantled an extremely effective method of catechesis, the handing on of the Faith from generation to generation. We replaced it with coloring books, rap sessions, freethinking, freewheeling and finger painting, and that is NOT an exaggeration. At least two generations of Catholics have grown up almost entirely ignorant of Catholic doctrine, and securely in possession of a do-it-yourself morality.

And a decade before that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger proclaimed,

the catastrophic failure of modern catechesis is all too obvious.

With all due respect to Dr. Gray, the above data would seem to show that decades of abysmal catechesis is one “common sense” explanation that deserves serious consideration.



[1] Official Catholic Directory. Data for a particular year is contained in the following year’s edition. For example, data for 1990 will be found in the 1991 edition of the OCD.

[2] 1997 data may be found here. Data for any year from 1998 through 2011 is available at, where YYYY represents the 4-digit year.

[3] A good indicator, not a perfect one. Some of the reasons are: (1) The reported number of infants baptized will almost certainly include not only those less than one year of age but also slightly older children. (2) Not taken into account is the loss of DOR-baptized children due to their families having moved out of the diocese prior to the children having reached high school age. It would be expected, however, that this loss would be essentially offset by the arrival in the diocese of families with similarly-aged children baptized elsewhere.  (3) Minor baptisms would also increase the pool of potential Catholic K-8 students but they are ignored here for two reasons: (a) no national count of minor baptisms is available from OCD for any year, and (b) DOR did not begin reporting minor baptisms as a separate category until 2008.

[4] The number of K-8 Catholic school students reported by the OCD has been adjusted to reflect the fact that our schools serve non-Catholic as well as Catholic children. Thus the chart shows only Catholic children. Data reported sporadically by the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) makes this adjustment possible. This data shows that the percentage of non-Catholic students has varied almost linearly (R squared = 0.9517) from about 11% in 1981 to 15% in 2011. See chart here.

[5] It is difficult to ascertain the percentage of non-Catholic children enrolled in the DOR Catholic school system. A thorough search of the diocesan website, the Catholic Schools website, the Catholic Courier website and the Catholic Courier online archives has produced no such number for any year. However, there do exist online articles which indicate that, if anything, the percentage of non-Catholics in our schools is higher than the national average.

See, for example, this excerpt from a 1986 article in the Courier Journal, when the nationwide non-Catholic enrollment was 11.5% …

In Monroe County, the average Catholic elementary school serves 16 percent non-Catholics, according to the Urban School Study, which was conducted for the diocese by Taddiken, a consultant for the Center for Governmental Research. In the City of Rochester, however, the average school includes 31 percent non-Catholic students. And the percentage in some individual city schools is as high as 90 percent.

And in 1997, when the nationwide figure was 12.8%, the following comment appeared in the Catholic Courier …

… non-Catholic students make up the majority — from 85 to 90 percent — of the student bodies in Rochester’s inner city Catholic schools, according to Timothy Dwyer, diocesan superintendent of schools. Dwyer added that about 20 percent of the students in schools located in outer Rochester and the suburbs are non-Catholic. In schools outside Monroe County, 10 to 15 percent of the students are non-Catholic, he said, with a lower percentage, 4-5 percent, particularly in rural areas.

Given this, it seems appropriate to apply the NCEA’s non-Catholic student percentages to the number of DOR Catholic school students reported by the OCD. Doing this should, if anything, result in a slight over-estimate of the actual number of Catholic students in our local Catholic schools.

[6] The OCD does not collect data on home-schooled Catholic children. Since they attend neither Catholic schools nor RE programs this analysis will necessarily include them in the formally uncatechized group. However, an estimate from 5 years ago places the size of this group at 80,000 to 100,000 nationally (presumably including high schoolers), or less than 2% of the calculated size of the formally uncatechized group.

Locally, the St. Thomas Aquinas Homeschoolers of the Rochester Area (STAHRA) is an organization which provides “information, experiences, and a supportive community for Catholic families who choose to educate their children at home.” The organization reports a membership of approximately 60 families. Even if one assumes a generous 5  K-8 aged children per family (i.e., 300 children in all), the local Catholic homeschooled children would only represent about 1% of the calculated number of formally uncatechized children in DOR.

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8 Responses to ““… the catastrophic failure of modern catechesis””

  1. avatar Susan of Corning says:

    Thanks for pulling all these stats together, Mike. I hope this issue is a top priority for our new bishop.

  2. avatar Scott W. says:

    I remember when I was the catechist for high schoolers and I asked in an off-the-cuff manner who Our Lord and Savior was. Blank stares. So I said, “Oh well, back to the beginning I guess. Let’s break down the Creed. Lesson 1: I believe in God”.

  3. avatar Richard Thomas says:

    Vorheis appears to be accurate when hesays the Catholic Church in America will shrink because of these reasons.

    It’s too bad they no longer use the Baltimore Catechism. Perhaps they should bring it back. Coupled with the preaching of significant topics and putting to rest this mindless stuff they call catechesis

  4. avatar Mike says:

    Scott W.,

    I hear you. Next Sunday I begin my 10th year as a junior high catechist and the last few years I’ve used the first class to give a quick quiz just to give me an idea of what I’m up against. The quiz is short – usually about 10 questions – and the kids take it anonymously. The questions include things like: Who is God? Who is Jesus? What is the Church? Why are we here on earth? What is the Mass? Etc.

    I’ve learned not to be shocked by the answers I get. For example, a few years ago I had 9 kids in an 8th grade class – all baptized Catholics and most of them also in Confirmation class. One of my questions was how often they attended Mass.

    2 of those kids attended regularly with their families, another attended only when it was her turn to serve, and the other 6 showed up on Christmas and Easter – if it wasn’t too inconvenient.

    Each year it seems like I’m beginning at the beginning.

  5. avatar Mike says:


    I think you may be referring to the July 17th Vortex (video here, transcript here). I saw that episode as I was in the process of transcribing OCD data to an Excel spreadsheet and was just beginning to get an idea of what some of the trends looked like. Some were so negative that I was wondering if I had made a mistake somewhere, but then Voris confirmed – in general terms at least – that he was seeing the same thing.

    In that Vortex Voris states,

    One thing is fairly clear – in the next 20 years, at current rates, the Catholic population will more than likely be cut by a quarter to a third from current levels and in the next 40 years it will be reduced by nearly 2/3.

    What he doesn’t say – but what the data also indicate – is that well over half of that remnant will be effectively uncatechized.

  6. avatar Diane Harris says:

    Mike, this is a highly credible and worthy piece of work for publication. I hope you will seek out a journal to publish as well. It deserves much wider attention than CF can give it. Thank you for this great effort and its result!

  7. avatar Thinkling says:

    This is a nice piece of work, I actually am surprised the numbers do not come out more distressing than they are.

    I think the potshot at Gray was gratuitous and not really becoming the,otherwise fine work however. That said, you missed a conceptual deficiency right at the beginning. He seemed to look at a false dichotomy of causes, either lower birth rates, lower baptism rates, but not the possibility of both. A good data scientist knows there are no “zero effects”. Only inconsequentially small ones perhaps, as suggested for births, known only after the fact though. But this oversight does not detract from your results.

    Responding to Diane’s suggestion, I do not think this level of work would be publishable (peer reviewed) without considerable extension and bulking up. But certainly someone like CNS or similar might be interested in using it, perhaps as a source for a fuller article about the topic. One technical suggestion if you do follow up with anything: don’t use barcharts like that, use just points for each year/data value and join the common points by a line. Much less harsh on the eyes, but no loss of information.

  8. avatar Rich Leonardi says:


    You ought to get this published or at least circulated more widely via sites like The PulpIT.



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