Catholics on the decline -- Why should we care?
'Fourth Plan' teaches New Evangelization is solution to eroding numbers

Heather Gilbertson, youth minister at the Church of St. Peter in St. Peter, talks to over 70 ninth through 12th graders about the Communion of Saints at their religious education session Jan. 12. She knows that evangelizing youth is a key component in her parish’s and the diocese’s efforts to offset a declining Catholic population. (Photo by Sam Patet)

Heather Gilbertson, youth minister at the Church of St. Peter in St. Peter, talks to over 70 ninth through 12th graders about the Communion of Saints at their religious education session Jan. 12. She knows that evangelizing youth is a key component in her parish’s and the diocese’s efforts to offset a declining Catholic population. (Photo by Sam Patet)

by Sam Patet
The Prairie Catholic / February 2014

NEW ULM – As 5:30 p.m. Mass gets out the evening of Jan. 12 at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in St. Peter, 70 ninth through 12th graders break away from their families and gather in a nearby room for their weekly religious education class. It’s been three weeks since they last met.

Heather Gilbertson, the parish’s youth minister and religious education coordinator for junior and senior high students, greets the youth as they walk in the door. As they settle in for their pizza dinner, she visits with them, asking them if they had a good Christmas vacation.

Half an hour later the tables have been cleared and chairs have been moved into a semicircle near one end of the room. After a quick prayer with her adult leaders, Gilbertson turns her attention to the youth. With a smile on her face and energy in her voice, she introduces the topic for the night: the saints.

“Tonight our hope is that you come to a better understanding of … what we mean when we talk about the Communion of Saints and that they are our family, as well as our need and our call to all become saints,” she tells them. “You are called to be a saint.”

Watching Gilbertson interact with the students during the hour-and-a-half session, you wouldn’t think she ever gets nervous talking to others about the faith. If she can talk with confidence to teens about abortion, chastity, and homosexuality, what could possibly faze her?

The answer: other adults.

“I’m pretty comfortable with the teens, but less comfortable when I’m talking to parents or my peers,” she admitted. “I never want to come off as self-righteous or like I have it all figured out.”

Still, that fear hasn’t stopped her from talking to them about Christ and how he’s impacted her life. Not only has she had conversations with her family and friends about the faith, but she’s also invited fellow parishioners to parish activities she participates in, including a mothers’ group and a Bible study.

“For me, it’s exciting. I love, I love to see other people get excited about their faith,” she said. “I have found so much joy and fulfillment within the Church – within following God’s plan for my life – and I want others to know the same joy and peace.”

Catholics on the decline

Gilbertson embodies the vision presented in the “Fourth Plan for Parishes” for how Catholics are called to be “other Christs” in the world. By imitating Christ in his priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices, Catholics not only are living out their baptismal vocation, but also are ensuring that Christ’s saving message is being passed on to future generations. 

Proclaiming that message will be needed even more in the years ahead if current population trends continue in the Diocese of New Ulm. Put simply, Catholics are on the decline, even in cities that are growing in population.

Take St. Peter. While the city’s population has grown by nearly 20 percent since 1990, its Catholic population hasn’t. According to data from the annual parish self study, the number of registered households at St. Peter’s declined 4.3 percent between 2002 and 2012. When put in terms of registered parishioners, the numbers are even more telling: In 2002 there were 2,419 parishioners at St. Peter’s. By 2012 that number had dropped to 2,040, a 15.6 percent reduction.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to St. Peter’s. Parishes across the diocese have been experiencing a decline in membership for over a decade. Twelve years ago the diocese’s total Catholic population was 70,406; in 2012 it was 60,391.

In an effort to help the Diocese of New Ulm plan for the future, the “Fourth Plan” takes a look at the diocese’s general and Catholic populations – past, present, and future. Using data from the annual parish self study, the decennial U.S. Census, and a number of other resources, it provides a thorough analysis – complete with over 30 accompanying charts and graphs – of why the diocese’s Catholic population is on the decline.

Outmigration at root of overall population decrease

It starts by looking at the diocese’s general population. Between 2000 and 2010 the population of the 15 counties that make up the Diocese of New Ulm decreased by 1.9 percent (“Fourth Plan,” p. 85). Furthermore, the Minnesota State Demographic Center in 2012 projected that the diocese’s overall population would decrease by 0.2 percent between 2010 and 2040 (“Fourth Plan,” p. 89).

The reason the “Fourth Plan” gives for these changes is outmigration.

“Outmigration is the phenomenon of people leaving a geographical area, for whatever reason,” said Dan Rossini, coordinator of staff for the diocese who served on the committee that wrote the “Fourth Plan.” “We talk about ‘net outmigration’ when the number of people leaving an area exceeds the number of people moving into it over a period of time.”

According to Rossini, this has to be why the diocese’s population dropped 1.9 percent during the most recent U.S. Census period. Between 2000 and 2010 the diocese’s birth rate exceeded its death rate (see Figures 3.31 and 3.32), meaning there should have been an increase in population. The only explanation, then, for why the population decreased is because more people moved out of the diocese than in, Rossini said.

For Tom Keaveny, diocesan director of pastoral planning, one of the biggest reasons why outmigration has been occurring in the last 40 years is because of changes that have taken place in an economic sector that historically kept families in the diocese: farming.

High school students in the 1980s and 90s were encouraged to go to college, he said. There, many of them pursued non-agricultural degrees, meaning they didn’t return home to help run the farm. Not only that, but advances in technology – from bigger tractors to genetically modified crops – have reduced the number of people that are needed to take in a harvest, he said. “The technology has just taken out the labor,” he said.

While the “Fourth Plan” notes that the diocese most likely will not see a further reduction in its population due to a decrease in agricultural jobs (see p. 88), it does conclude that people continue to move to large, metropolitan centers (of which the diocese has none) for employment.

“People – especially young people – leave in search of economic opportunity. They find it in larger cities, which have more available jobs,” the “Fourth Plan” states. “The lack of a large city in or close to the diocese goes a long way to explain why it has a difficult time maintaining its population” (p. 87).

Outmigration isn’t only explanation

Outmigration on its own, however, can’t explain why the diocese’s Catholic population has decreased as much as it has over the last decade. The numbers don’t support it.

To start, the diocese’s Catholic population decreased by 11.1 percent between 2000 and 2010, as compared to its overall population, which only went down 1.9 percent during the same period. If outmigration was the only factor (besides similar birth rates and similar death rates) affecting the diocese’s Catholic population, one would expect changes in the two populations to be very close.

Furthermore, before 2002 the diocese’s Catholic population was fairly stable, around 70,000 (see Figure 3.22). If outmigration has been a part of the diocese’s history for 40 or more years, why would it start affecting the diocese’s Catholic population so drastically in 2002, and not earlier?

The “Fourth Plan” also shows that outmigration can’t be the only explanation by comparing how many people should have become Catholic with how many actually did. Based on data found in a study published by the Southwest Regional Development Commission, the “Fourth Plan” estimates that approximately 1,500 Catholics left the diocese between 2000 and 2010 due to outmigration. During that same time period, 2,050 more baptisms were celebrated in the diocese than funerals, and 1,040 people entered into full communion with the Church through the RCIA.

So, using these three pieces of information, the diocese’s Catholic population should have increased by about 1,600 between 2000 and 2010. But it didn’t. Numbers from the parish self study show that it decreased by 7,100 (“Fourth Plan,” p. 98).

Finally, outmigration can’t explain why the diocese’s Catholic population has dropped so drastically because nearly all the towns in the diocese whose populations are increasing – such as St. Peter – aren’t experiencing a corresponding increase in their Catholic populations.

Figure 3.9 of the “Fourth Plan” lists all municipalities in the diocese that grew in population between 1990 and 2010. Of the 53 towns on the list, 32 of them have a Catholic parish. Out of those 32, only four of them saw an increase in their Catholic populations between 2002 and 2012, as measured by the number of registered parishioners. The rest experienced a decrease, ranging from 1.9 to 46.1 percent. And of the four towns that experienced an increase, three of them did so because they received parishioners from nearby parishes that closed or were transitioned to oratories (see Figure 3.25).

Catholics choosing not to practice faith

So if outmigration isn’t responsible for the reduction in the diocese’s Catholic population, what is?

The answer the “Fourth Plan” gives is something that dioceses across the United States have been trying to combat for years: Baptized Catholics are choosing not to practice the faith.

For Keaveny, one of the most telling indications of this is the number of registered parishioners who attend Mass every Sunday. Fourteen years ago, 33,430 Catholics attended Mass every week, nearly 50 percent of the diocese’s total Catholic population. By 2012, that number had dropped to 22,753, just 37.7 percent of the total Catholic population (see Figures 3.26 and 3.27).

In addition, fewer Catholics are choosing to participate in the sacraments each year, as shown in Figures 3.33 and 3.34.

Finally, since 2000 the diocese has seen an increase in the number of people who are not affiliated with any religion. According to data from the U.S. Religion Census, published by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, this group has increased dramatically over the last two decades. They made up 15.9 percent of the diocese’s total population in 1990; by 2010, that number had jumped to 24.6 percent (“Fourth Plan,” p. 95; see Figures 3.28 and 3.30). The “Fourth Plan” concludes that “many people in the latter group are former Catholics” (p. 98).

Solution: the New Evangelization

So, while outmigration helps explain why the 15 counties of the Diocese of New Ulm have a difficult time in maintaining their populations, it can’t account for the decrease in Catholic population that’s occurred over the last decade.

The only way the diocese will be able to reverse this trend is by inviting baptized Catholics who no longer practice the faith to come back to the Church, as well as inviting non-Catholics to join the Church.

“As Bishop LeVoir has said on many occasions, the solution to the drop in Catholic population is the New Evangelization,” Rossini said. “As Catholics, we need to demonstrate the appeal of living a life conformed to Christ in our words and in our actions.

“How we go about that,” he continued, “will depend on the gifts and talents of each person. Since we’re called to imitate Christ in so many ways – summed up in his three offices of priest, prophet, and king – we have many opportunities.”

That’s exactly what Gilbertson has been doing at St. Peter’s. She’s presenting the Gospel to her family, friends, fellow parishioners, and students with joy and enthusiasm.

“God calls us to make disciples, to tell people about his saving love,” she said. “That will most likely require us to die to ourselves, to feel awkward, to be called a fanatic, especially in the increasingly secular world we live in. But if we speak from our experience with gentleness and love without condemnation, people are likely to listen. … We have to be fearless in our invitation and hospitality.”