The canary in the baptistery? Decline in child baptisms raises concern for future of Roman Catholic Church

My story on Sunday on the state of local Catholic schools — down overall despite strong enrollment in some regions — noted that there’s a downward sacramental trend as well. The numbers of child baptisms are down in the Archdiocese of Louisville from 3,065 to 2,329 from 1998 to 2011. The trend line looks very similar with the enrollment decline, from 16,732 in 2002-03 to 12,469 in 2011-12.

And the same thing is happening nationally: Catholic school enrollment is down, and so are Catholic baptisms (and marriages and burials, for that matter).

Georgetown University researcher Mark Gray often tries to correct false impressions about the Catholic Church’s health, saying membership and Mass attendance are more robust than some claim. But he says the decline in baptisms is real and serious:

“Polling has a big blind spot. We generally only survey people ages 18 and older. We often don’t notice changes occurring among youth.

The rate of Catholic baptisms to overall live births in the United States has dropped from one-quarter in the late 1990s and early 2000s to one-fifth in recent years, wrote Gray, of Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Some parents might be choosing to baptize their kids later, but more than “nine in ten children entering the Church do so within the first year of their birth,” Gray wrote.

To be sure, Catholics aren’t the only ones worried about such spiritual vital signs. Southern Baptists, while having a different style and criteria for baptism (immersing only those old enough to make a profession of faith), have sounded alarms about their own declining baptismal numbers.

As far as Catholicism goes, Gray writes:

“The type of ground being lost by the Church will not be easy to make up. Without many baptisms of tweens and teens the Catholic population percentage will begin to decline later in the next decade as older Catholics from higher Catholic population percentage cohorts pass on to be replaced in the adult population by these smaller percentage younger cohorts. …

“But the news may be even worse. Not all those baptized remain Catholic as adults. … It is true that the Catholic retention rate is among the highest of any of the Christian faiths. But this has also been declining in recent years.

So why is this happening? Gray floats some possibilities — interfaith marriages, declines in immigration, less interest in baptism among little-committed Catholics than there used to be, particularly among those having kids outside of marriage. But if the reasons aren’t certain, the numbers are, Gray writes:

“Let me emphasize that these are real data—counts of births and baptisms. We’re not dealing with surveys that would have margins of error. This is really happening. We just don’t notice it yet because much of the research on religious affiliation in the United States is derived from polling data of adults and not many of these surveys ask respondents if they are baptizing their children.”