CINCINNATI -- Michael Mason was a happy member of a Protestant church when he began studying the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the great theologians of the Roman Catholic Church.
His studies led him to believe that the Catholic church offered a better, truer model for following Jesus Christ, so he and his wife, Jennifer, converted in 2013. They moved to the Tri-State that same year, and Michael now teaches at a parochial school, Roger Bacon High School in St. Bernard.
“The Church breaks through the glass ceiling of evangelicalism to a deeper, more well-rooted Christian experience,” Mason, 36, said.
Local Catholics would like to have more Michael Masons. But national statistics tell them that for every one convert like him the Church gets, six more leave the Church, said Mike Schafer, director of the new office Department of Communications & Mission Promotion for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
That fact is reflected in the count of how many people go to Mass on given Sunday. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati makes such a count every October, and information about October 2017’s count just became available from Schafer.
Schafer declined to give the total number of attendees at the archdiocese’s 211 parishes, but said that there were 1.9 percent fewer than in October 2016. Attendance has declined from between 1.3 to 4.3 percent every year since 2012.
Similar figures were not immediately available from the Diocese of Covington.
So then, Mass attendance is on the decline. What about the other sacraments of the church, like marriage and baptism? What do those numbers look like?
Not so encouraging either.
Ten years ago, there were more Catholics in the archdiocese, more marriages and more baptisms, said Father Thomas Gaunt, executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which tracks figures like this for the entire country.
Gaunt said that according to the Official Catholic Directory, in 2017, the archdiocese had:
- 450,000 Catholics, 8 percent fewer than in 2007;
- 5,347 infant baptisms, 17 percent fewer than 2007;
- 1,631 marriages, 25 percent less than 2007;
- 285 diocesan priests, who typically serve as parish priests, 10 percent fewer than in 2007;
- And 697 nuns, or 32 percent fewer than 2007.
The numbers for the Diocese of Covington also show declines:
- 88,874 Catholics, 4 percent fewer than in 2007;
- 889 infant baptisms, 24 percent fewer than 2007;
- 352 marriages, 32 percent fewer than 2007;
- 88 diocesan priests, 5 percent fewer than 2007;
- And 323 nuns, 7 percent fewer than 2007.
The numbers don’t look too bad from the point of view of the rest of the nation’s Catholic population, except for one (see chart). The number of Catholics nationally rose to 68.5 million in 2017, an increase of 6 percent from 2005 to 2017.
Immigration of Catholics from places such as Latin American, where 60 percent of the population is Catholic, explains most of the growth, Gaunt said. “If there were no immigration at all, the Catholic population would remain flat,” he said.
One reason dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest are losing Catholics is because they are moving to the South and Southwest, he said. In areas with booming population growth like Atlanta, he said, dioceses can’t build churches fast enough.
Lower birth rate among Catholics, who were once known for their large families, is a reason baptisms have decreased. With millennials postponing marriage, the number of marriages has fallen for the United States as a whole, not just Catholics, Gaunt said.
Another reason why the numbers are falling is because the fastest-growing religion in the country is “none,” Schafer said. People aren’t even saying that they’re spiritual but not religious, he said, adding that they don’t even pray anymore.
“We live in an increasingly secular society and one that is violent toward God and religion in particular,” said Matthew Kelly, founder of Erlanger-based Dynamic Catholic, a nonprofit that tries to get Catholics excited about their faith.
“Lay people have two voices in the Church -- their feet and their money. They are telling us with their feet that we are not feeding them,” he said. “Until we fix that, I don’t see the trend reversing.”
In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, at least, it could be argued that parishioners have voted “yes” with their money.
The archdiocese created in 2014 the Catholic Community Foundation to raise funds for various causes, such as care for retired priests and for other charitable purposes. It was the archdiocese’s largest fundraising campaign in half a century, and had the goal of raising $130 million in pledges.
The campaign as of this month had raised more than $167 million in pledges, with a little more than $90 million of those having been paid, said David Kissell, secretary of the foundation and chief development officer for the archdiocese.
About one-quarter of the 160,000 families in the archdiocese, nearly 39,000, have made pledges, Kissell said. The average pledge is about $4,300.
“It’s a positive affirmation of the commitment level families here have toward the local church,” he said. “It’s been a huge success.”
Another positive sign for the archdiocese is the number of men studying to be priests at The Athenaeum of Ohio in Cincinnati. There are now 82, the most in more than 30 years.
The Diocese of Covington has 18 men studying for the priesthood, said diocese spokesman Tim Fitzgerald. Roger Foys, who became bishop of Covington in 2002, has ordained 36 new priests, about half the active priests in the diocese, Fitzgerald said.
The diocese's annual fundraising effort, the Diocesan Parish Annual Appeal, has exceeded its goal for 15 straight years, Fitzgerald said. The 2017 goal was $2.5 million, he said, and $3.7 million was raised.
He said another hopeful sign for the diocese is that St. Timothy parish in Union opened a school in 2016, the first new parochial school in the diocese built since the 1960s .
But the news about parochial schools isn't all good, either.
Gaunt said in 2007 the diocese had 26 elementary schools with 8,200 students, and it now has 28 schools with 6,000 students. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati had 102 elementary schools in 2007 with 32,000 students, he said, and it now has 83 schools with 26,000 students.
When the Masons’ three children are old enough, they will attend the parish school at St. Gertrude in Madeira, where the family worships.
From what he's seen of local parochial schools, Michael Mason thinks the leadership is doing a great job responding to the challenges of our culture.
“To pass on the Christian faith to young people today is a challenge,” he said, and not just for Catholics.