How might the pandemic affect religious practice? A look at the current data

Filip Mazurczak is a journalist, translator, and historian. His writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register, First Things, Tygodnik Powszechny, and other publications.

Catholics attend a special national Mass on the feast of St. Joseph at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles on March 19, 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Isabel Cacho, courtesy Archdiocese of Los Angeles)

There is much pessimism across the West about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on religious practice. Luxembourg’s Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, for example, has grimly predicted that the disruption of normal religious life may have accelerated the secularization of Europe by a decade. If this proves true for Europe, the same phenomena will likely occur, in some way and to some degree, in North America, Australia, and other outposts of Western culture.

A close look at some sociological research from numerous countries, however, suggests that there is reason to think that most Catholics will return to religious practice in the months ahead.

Polling reveals a more optimistic picture than the one presented by Cardinal Hollerich. According to an international survey of fourteen industrialized countries, an average of 10 percent of people claim their religious faith has grown during the pandemic. The country registering the highest increase is the United States, where more than one in four people (28%) claim to be more religious now than before the pandemic.

This is not entirely unprecedented. After the shocking terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, more Americans claimed to pray (although this trauma-induced uptick in religiosity proved short-lived). Apart from the disruption of normal parish life, the pandemic has also led to the personal tragedies and suffering of many people, which often inclines people towards God and deepened faith.

Late Summer 2020: Did Catholics come back to Mass?

When the initial cases of the COVID-19 virus were reported in Europe and North America in February and March 2020, most people heard such terms as “lockdown” and “social distancing” for the very first time. Previously, few entertained the thought that even the most aggressively secularist governments in Western democracies could and would order the closing of churches for worship, yet that is exactly what happened. After all, even during the drama of the Blitz, September 11th, and Hurricane Katrina services were held in London, New York, and New Orleans.

In the summer of 2020, people spent more time outdoors, as research has confirmed that sunlight greatly weakness the potency of the COVID-19 virus. As the number of infections and COVID-related deaths fell, life started to increasingly resemble normalcy, and restrictions were eased in many countries last summer.

However, in the summer of 2020, the churches were less full on Sundays than before February. Research reveals, however, that this had less to do with growing religious apathy and more to do with cautiousness.

According to a survey done in Italy by Ipsos, in July 2020 Italian Mass attendance had decreased by one-third compared to before the pandemic. Although this might sound like an alarming decline, 40 percent of Italian Catholics who did not attend did so out of fear, while another 20 percent did so because of problems with mobility. Tellingly, the authors of the study note that most of those who had ceased attending were over-aged sixty-five and older, while in September 2020, after the season of summer travel, churches were filling up.

A survey done by CBOS in Poland in September 2020 has similar results. It found that 83 percent of Poles claimed the pandemic had no effect on their religiosity. Furthermore, 87 percent of Poles who attended church weekly before the pandemic did so with the same or greater frequency in September; 48 percent had attended religious services at least once in the previous month. Although the authors of the study note that 40 percent of Poles, much more than before the pandemic, claimed to not practice at all, 31 percent of those who did not participate in religious services in September 2020 watched Mass online or on television or listened to it on radio, which suggests that many of those who did not go to church did so out of safety concerns.

In Britain, meanwhile, 93 percent of polled Catholics claimed to have watched Mass online during last spring’s lockdown, and only 4 percent planned to cease practicing after the pandemic. A similar dynamic can be observed in the United States, where 42 percent of respondents say they will attend church as frequently as before the pandemic, 10 percent will do so more often, and only 5 percent will do so less (43 percent of Americans did not practice their religion at all before the pandemic).

There is one aspect of the British survey, however, that should be somewhat alarming: 35 percent of those surveyed claimed that they would only occasionally watch online broadcasts of Mass after the pandemic. This demonstrates that there is some risk that a significant number of Catholics might forsake attending Mass in physical churches after the pandemic for the sake of convenience. Thus, when the pandemic is under control and all activities can resume in their traditional form, Church leaders should make it clear that watching broadcasts of Mass should be reserved only for people whose health may be jeopardized by congregating in a crowded church.

The pandemic and vocations

It is quite rare to hear good news about Catholicism (and Christianity more generally) from the German-speaking nations of Central Europe. Presently, there is a serious risk of schism as many of Germany’s bishops are openly defying the Vatican’s stance against priests offering blessings to homosexual couples. Meanwhile, in 2019, the last year for which there is available data, a record number of 272,771 German Catholics left the Church, while a paltry 2,330 Germans joined and 5,339 rejoined. Furthermore, fewer than one in ten Catholics in Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Heimat attend Mass.

Germany’s southern neighbor Austria, home to the arch-Catholic dynasty that once ruled half of Europe, is prone to similar trends: last year, 58,535 Austrian Catholics left the Church. Although that number is slightly smaller than in 2019, it is still astounding given that Austria is home to about five million Catholics.

Thus, it was a pleasant surprise to read that the number of Catholic vocations to the priesthood are rising in the Archdiocese of Vienna. In its article on this encouraging development from Vienna, the Catholic News Agency does not make any connection between the pandemic and the rise in Austrian vocations. In Spain, however, the Diocese of Getafe saw a 40 percent increase in the number of seminarians. The Spanish diocese reports: “For these youths, the months of confinement have served to reaffirm their calling to the priesthood, to leave everything behind and live in a community.” Thus, it could be that similar mechanisms were at work in Vienna.

The internet as a tool for evangelization

Perhaps it is an instructive sign from God that Carlo Acutis, a fifteen-year-old Italian computer geek who died of leukemia in 2006, was beatified in the very middle of the pandemic. Making websites on Eucharistic miracles and the saints, Blessed Carlo recognized the internet as a tool for evangelization long before it would become customary for parishes and religious orders to use social media; there have been calls to make him the patron saint of the internet.

The pandemic-induced social distancing forced the Church to use the internet to broadcast Masses. Some pastors have been quite effective using the internet as a tool of evangelization. Father Teodor Sawielewicz, a priest from the Archdiocese of Wroclaw, has created a community of Catholics who pray the rosary across Poland. Currently, 40,000-50,000 Poles pray the rosary with him every evening during Facebook broadcasts, while a similar number watch recordings afterward. On April 2, 2020, the fifteenth anniversary of the death of St. John Paul II, 180,000 people tuned in to pray the rosary at 9:37 PM Central European Time, the hour when the pope passed to his father’s house.

The odds that someone who is hostile or indifferent to the Church might randomly walk into a parish and hear a great sermon are slim. However, the internet could be a very effective net that could catch many lost souls in the vast online ocean, and Blessed Carlo may be the Church’s guide and inspiration in such efforts.

Cautious optimism

All of that said, public opinion polls should be treated cautiously. Remember the famous photo of Harry S. Truman holding an issue of the Chicago Tribune with the frontpage headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman”? While polling methods have improved since 1948, public opinion surveys will, for numerous reasons, never be entirely accurate or give a full picture of what has happened or is happening now.

Additionally, the pandemic is not yet over, and we are likely to experience at least several months of restrictions on public worship. Furthermore, there is a strong risk that at least some lukewarm Catholics fell out of the habit of attending Mass each Sunday or might be tempted to continue watching broadcasts after COVID-19 is under control.

The Church will have to rebuild parish life after the pandemic, not in the least because weekly donations will likely decrease. Reaching out to fallen-away Catholics should be one of the priorities of pastors, and technology, whose potency was made evident during the pandemic, could be an effective way to bring them back. However, the data from various countries presented above allows for cautious optimism that the pandemic has not quenched the spiritual hunger of most practicing Catholics in the West.