Pandemic expected to make many trends in Catholic statistics even worse

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(CNS photo/Jason Cohn, Reuters)

With America gradually reopening in the wake of pandemic-induced shutdowns, will everything revert to being as it was before, as many people hope, or will this painful experience prove to have been, as one writer puts it, “a pivotal point in history that fundamentally alters the way we live”?

As with many questions about the post-pandemic future, the obvious answer to this one is that nobody knows. But at least it’s reasonable to expect big changes — some pleasant and some definitely not. Many will reinforce trends existing long before anyone heard of the coronavirus. Marriage and family life in particular seem likely to be affected — not only in society but also in the Church.

What the numbers show

Money problems arising from lockdowns and business closings are all but certain to produce this result. The situation is reflected in the fact that since the middle of March more than 35 million people have filed for unemployment benefits. The U.S. unemployment continues to hover around 15%, though economists expect that to improve significantly by year’s end.

Among other outcomes, the downward trend in people getting married that preexisted the pandemic likely will continue and may even grow as unmarried couples worried about their economic future put off marrying until boom times return.

In itself, this hardly is new. The rate at which Americans marry was dropping well before the coronavirus arrived. The National Center for Health Statistics reported in April that in 2018 the U.S. marriage rate plummeted 6% to 6.5 marriages for every 1,000 people — the lowest rate since the government began keeping these numbers in 1867.

Similarly negative trends in marriage have existed for years among American Catholics and now may get worse. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the annual number of Catholic marriages in the U.S. fell from just over 426,000 in 1970 to 143,000 in 2018.

Figures on childbirth also have been grim for years. The overall U.S. birth rate fell from 18.4 per 1,000 in 1970 to 11.6 per 1,000 in 2018, while the fertility rate for women recently dropped to 1.73 children per woman, far below what it takes to keep the population at a steady level.

As in other areas, Catholic numbers mirror these trends, with infant baptisms dropping from 1.089 million in 1970 to 615,000 in 2018. The number of Catholics also has been shrinking lately — from 81.2 million in 2005 to 76.3 million in 2018. In at least one category, though — ex-Catholic adults who were raised in the Church — the number has gone up, from 3.5 million in 1970 to 26.1 million in 2018.

Taking a financial hit

Now, barring some difficult-to-imagine turnaround, the numbers could look even worse. Already, the crisis has created serious problems for cash-strapped parishes cut off from Sunday collections, spurring talk in some places of parish closings and mergers.

Dioceses, too, have been hard hit. In Phoenix, for example, the diocese, citing an estimated $6 million revenue shortfall, cut 21 jobs and terminated the diocesan newspaper. In New Orleans, hard hit by COVID-19 deaths, the archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the face of impending settlements with survivors in sex abuse cases dating back decades, coupled with loss of revenue because of the virus. And in St. Louis, the archdiocese announced that it would close three Catholic elementary schools.

Some fear that may be only the tip of the iceberg for Catholic schools. They may be particularly vulnerable just now, when and if financially hard-pressed parents choose to cut costs by sending their children to tuition-free public schools instead of paying the cost of Catholic schooling.

If that happens, then here, too, the negative impact of the coronavirus crisis will be reinforcing already existing negative trends. Long before the pandemic, parochial schools were suffering a steep, ongoing enrollment decline. According to CARA, between 1970 and 2018 students in parochial schools dropped from 3.4 million to 1.3 million and in secondary schools from 1 million to 568,000.

Classical functions of marriage

Some social and behavioral scientists believe the spike in the number of workers staying home during the lockdown — either because they lost their jobs or because their employers turned to telecommuting to fight the virus — together with home-bound children whose schools adopted online instruction, may actually have been a boon to family life.

Others, however, hold that having people bouncing off each other all day in confined quarters is a formula for heightened tensions and angry outbursts. This may be an area where both things are true, depending on particular families.

But at least one academic expert on marriage and family life believes that what has been happening has delivered a well-deserved death blow to the idea of “soulmate” marriages. According to University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, the soulmate model dates back to the 1970s and considers a perfect marriage to be one in which the partners find self-absorbed gratification in their relationship and feel free to walk away from it when it stops delivering the goods.

This may be feasible for the affluent few who can afford it, Wilcox said in during a webinar sponsored by the Institute for Family Studies in Salt Lake City, but is a source of frustration for couples of limited means who can’t.

But now, as a result of economic and health-related pressures generated by the pandemic, Wilcox predicted, “the meaning and the practice of marriage will be changing in ways that make this soulmate model less compelling and less realistic,” with its place taken by a return to “the classical functions of marriage — kids and kin, putting bread on the table and a roof over one’s head.”

“We have seen divorce fall by about 20% since the last Great Recession, and I would expect that the divorce rate will fall in even more dramatic fashion in the wake of this COVID-related recession,” he said.

Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw writes from Maryland.