Catholic leaders often whisper about “Christmas and Easter Catholics”: people whose names are found on parish membership rolls, but who are rarely seen in the pews – except during crowded Christmas and Easter rites.
Thus, any study of the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial impact on America’s nearly 17,000 parishes had to start with the early lockdowns that turned Easter 2020 into a virtual event, with millions of Catholics stuck at home, along with their wallets and checkbooks.
Journalists at The Pillar, an independent Catholic website, collected online materials from 100 parishes in 10 strategic church provinces and found that total offerings were 12 percent lower in 2020 than the previous year. It was clear when the crisis became real.
Data researcher Brendan Hodge noted donations at Christmas – “perhaps in combination with secular notions both of making donations before the end of the tax year and of making resolutions for better tithing in the new calendar year” – and then Easter.
“But in 2020, the normal Easter surge in giving was reversed: The very lowest weeks of tithing came during the Lent and Easter weeks, when nearly all U.S. parishes were closed,” Hodge noted, in the first of two investigative reports.
After the Easter collapse, tithes and offerings seemed to find a new normal, with a consistent pattern of giving that mirrored 2019 numbers – only about 12 percent lower. Clearly, many faithful Catholics stayed the course, offering their usual financial support while taking part in online services and whatever in-person rites could be held under social distancing regulations.
This raised an old issue: Why are some Catholics – in good times and bad – more loyal than others? This question is part of a pattern religious leaders have seen for decades, with about 80 percent of the work and support in most congregations coming from 20 percent of their members.
“In most cases, you have a minority of people in the parish who donate at all,” said Hodge in a telephone interview. When clergy scan the pews, “it’s easy to see that the people who are most faithful in worship are almost always the ones who are consistently giving.
“This is how parishes tend to work, so we can assume the 80/20 rule was part of what was happening” in 2020, he said. Thus, the pandemic was an “acid test” that exposed old realities while raising new questions.
The Pillar study included major regions in U.S. Catholic life, with several symbolic provinces added to the mix. Southern California, Texas and Florida, for example, provided numbers from heavily Latino parishes. Louisiana offered information from many Black parishes.
Hodge said he thought they would see lower offerings in areas with high death rates, but this wasn’t true. One North Dakota parish – in the study’s county with the highest COVID-19 death rate – actually saw a 16 percent rise in giving.
One safe assumption held true: There was a clear correlation between declining donations and rising local unemployment rates. But there was no positive link between a high percentage of college graduates in specific ZIP codes and giving patterns in local parishes. The number of local households with incomes above $100,000 also had “no correlation with 2020 changes to collections,” noted the study.
It appeared that rural parishes might fare better than urban ones. “But when we put all the demographic factors” into a linear regression model, “we found that population density simply was not a significant predictor of how collections change.”
In future studies, Hodge said, it will be important to ask other questions about strengths and weaknesses in parish life. For example: Do clergy meet with parish members to discuss tithing, the tradition of giving 10% of family income to church projects? Does a parish have a thriving Catholic school? How many members go to Confession? Are parishes dependent on funds raised in festivals or through rentals of church facilities?
“You can study a parish bulletin and see when things are working,” he said. “You can see when a priest is emphasizing the things that parishes exist to do. You see it in worship schedules. You see it in mission projects.
“You can see when there’s more to a parish than bingo night,” said Hodge. “That’s the kind of parish that has people who can handle tough times.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.