Lapsed Catholics–Reflections on a Hospital Census

“I was raised – and still consider myself to be – Catholic, though I’m non-practicing and haven’t fulfilled my Easter duty since sometime during the Nixon years. I’m assailed by all kinds of stimulating doubts, but I do believe in God.”
— Thomas Mallon, American Novelist.

What’s the largest religious denomination in the US?  Lapsed Catholic!  (The title of this piece should have given you a hint.)   I can’t find the reference, but I’ve read that about 20% of those with a nominal religious faith are lapsed Catholics.   A recent Pew survey states that six Catholics leave the Church for every new convert entering at Easter,  which–given the birth rate for Catholics–means that the Catholic population is declining at a rapid rate.

These statistics come to mind every time I do  my volunteer stint as an aide to the Catholic Chaplain at the local hospital. At first  (1998), I was both a Eucharistic Minister (to be correct, EOMHC) giving Holy Communion to patients and a clerk, preparing 3×5 cards with patient information for the priest and other Eucharistic Ministers. After my legs, wind and energy gave out in 2011, I’ve only done the clerical work.

In order that the Catholic Chaplain might have patient information for his rounds, I convinced the IT people at the hospital to prepare a special census of Catholic patients, giving admission date, their age, marital status, home town, and of course, their hospital room location. The cards are filled out by the priest or EOMHC with the date of visit, whether the patient is a practicing Catholic, and whether he/she has received or is able to receive Holy Communion.  There is one other datum that goes on this census—a HIPAA privacy stipulation, “No Religion”, if the patient does not want to be visited by a hospital chaplain, Catholic or otherwise.    There is a general hospital census that gives patient names, hospital location and religious affiliation.  The religious categories include the Jewish, Muslim, the Protestant denominations, Roman Catholic, Byzantine Catholic, the various Orthodox denominations and even some off-the-shelf ones–WICCA, American Indian–as well as “none”, “no religious preference”.

The hospital is in a region of Pennsylvania that used to be called “coal country”.    There are many small towns–“patches”, remnants of coal company  towns–perched in the Appalachian hills and mountains.   Nowadays one is more likely to see the monstrous windmills on top of hills, rather than the culms–piles of leftover coal tailings.   The miners were immigrants–Polish, South Slavs, Irish, italians–so they were predominantly Catholic, Byzantine Catholic, or Orthodox.   In these towns there used to be a Catholic Church for each ethnicity–Italian, German, Polish, Irish–but with population decline, younger people leaving and consolidation of parishes, that is no longer the case.   Nevertheless, the plurality of patients are nominally Catholic, and since it is more likely for old people to be in a hospital than younger, there are many more older Catholics than younger (less than 40 years) on the Catholic census.

Now, I’m not going to attempt a statistical analysis of my recollections–after all, didn’t Mark Twain (or was it Disraeli?) say “There are lies, damn lies and statistics”?     But if you, dear reader, are willing to accept anecdotal musings, then please bear with me.    What I do recall is that the proportion of practicing Catholics, those who are properly disposed to receive Holy Communion, has decreased from a majority (60%?) in 1998-2001 to about 1/3 currently.   In the critical care units, there are some who do not want to be anointed–perhaps they’re thinking it’s “Last Rites”–and a few, even in the face of dying, who do not want to see a priest.   The number of divorced Catholics has correspondingly increased and the proportion of unmarried mothers has increased from about 1/4 to  almost 1/2 (and thank God, they are there, that the babies will not have been aborted).   The proportion of those who call themselves Catholic but don’t want visits from a priest or EOMHC has also increased.   However, not all of those who have the HIPAA designation really intend it to be so.   Some of those with a HIPAA designation request a visit by a priest or to receive Holy Communion, so it may be that they are confused in the Admissions interview

Do these qualitative impressions suggest that the Church is moribund here?  Are the statistics of the Pew Report confirmed?   One might almost think so, but then that impression is belied by what I see at Mass:  many old people (most of whom are younger than me), but also lots of young families with many, many children.    I think the outer dead skin of lukewarm believers has sloughed off, to leave a healthy, vibrant limb of the faithful.   And please God, let it remain so in these troubled times.


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  1. Yes, I also have experienced this when I visited hospital patients. Also came across old grandma or grandpa and the family would leave the room when I came because none of them practice the faith that the older generation worked to pass along to them.

  2. I too pray that your optimism will prove justified, Dr. Kurland. It’s so easy to become discouraged these days.

  3. I’m Catholic. Go to Mass most weeks. I was in the hospital three times for labor/delivery, and was not seen by a priest or chaplain of any kind. I assume this is the norm for “uneventful” deliveries.
    Now, my kidney stone surgery. That is different. I was visited by our then parish’s brand new priest. No Communion was offered. No offer of hearing my confession. As I recall, he looked to be wearing street clothes, but perhaps his Roman collar was hidden under his jacket ( jacket, as oppose to some kind of dress coat). Frankly, it was obvious he did not want to be there, possibly because he had no idea what he should do or say.
    A Protestant friend of mine was in a rehab place after a significant accident. A Catholic EOMHC randomly offered her Communion after a service in the commons room that she (my friend) did not attend. The EOMHC apparently went looking for patients (in their rooms) to minister to.
    If I have an over-night stay in the hospital, even if for a significant reason, I must say I’d be reluctant to ask for a visit from a priest or chaplain. Based on my experience, it’s quite awkward.

  4. When my youngest son Charles was born at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, we asked for a priest to stop by my wife’s room before we left. Lo and behold, we got a Lutheran pastor, and a lady at that.

    The priest abuse scandal has had a corrosive effect. It did not cause a drop in Mass participation right away but it has affected almost every diocese in the US. The Diocese of Pittsburgh has dropped to about 600,000 Catholics from about 750-800K just about 20 years ago. Older Catholics died. Younger Catholics moved away or quit going to Mass or both.

    I could write my own treatise explaining the drop. It will get worse before it improves. The current Pontificate is clueless and appears not to care. For the better part of 50 years, when all you hear is God is love and help the poor and I’m okay and you’re okay, then what’s the point of going to Mass?

  5. DJH, thanks for your comments. Our hospital is very big and very few of the Catholic Chaplains have visited the women’s / maternity unit. Possibly they’re embarrassed to encounter all that femaleness. I used to go there when I delivered Holy Communion, but it was a struggle to walk in and possibly interrupt a nursing mother. That’s sad about the priest that visited you and didn’t know what to do. All our Catholic chaplains receive intensive training, as do the EOMHC. And all our people are very careful about who gets Holy Communion. So, it needn’t be awkward–what’s needed is training for the priest/chaplains and the EOMHC.

  6. Penguins Fan (and so is my wife, ardently), thanks for your comment. I’m surprised by your comment about Mercy Hospital and a Lutheran chaplain visiting. As I recall from our stay in Pittsburgh Mercy was a Catholic hospital, but maybe things have changed. There are a lot of factors explaining the decrease. There was an article in Our Sunday Visitor last year that said young people left the faith because they perceived a conflict between what science told them about the world and Catholic teaching. Of course, that isn’t so as I’ve said in many blog posts and an ebook.

  7. Vatican II Catholicism, if that’s what it can be called is dying, and that is a good thing. Eventually, only a remnant of Catholics will remain and they will be both serious and better.

  8. Every time I’ve been in hospital in the last decade (for several surgeries), I have always requested anointing of the sick prior to surgery. I found it immensely helpful and comforting.

    When my husband was in hospital 2 years ago, we requested a priest bring him the Eucharist. First we got a visit from some hospital ministry staff, I suppose to gauge his level of need. Then, we got an interesting priest- he was a trip, he seemed to be from the early 1970’s. He inadvertently critisized us for attending the Latin Mass. He spoke making assumptions about us, a youngish couple under 40. We didn’t take offense, we laughed when he left, and prayed for him.

    I am not at all surprised by your anecdotal information. My husband and I realize we are a bit “odd” for our faith in this day and age. Though we are quite happy to be “odd” in this way. ?

  9. When I was 11 years old (1953), I was deathly sick from an appendicitis operation gone wrong. Our Methodist minister visited me every day and
    literally prayed over me, as I laid close to mortality. Obviously, I survived.

    Although, as a child, I regarded his “intrusions” as a unnecessary pain, I
    realized in later years that he saved me from death. (I did, in fact have a
    near-death experience during this episode.) Ironically, I have become a
    lapsed Methodist , anyway. (Who sent his two daughters to Catholic school
    – so they might receive a Christian education.)

  10. Bob Kurland: I do not think priests are afraid to visit new mothers because of “all that femaleness” – most priests I know seem to prefer women to men. But a brand new mother can be quite an interesting sort of person. (I was one, I ought to know!) And many of the new mothers these days, because they themselves probably don’t have much experience with children due to the small families they came from, are possibly even more special (again – speaking from personal experience! I could be wrong).
    I do agree that walking in a a mother, most especially a newbie, trying to learn to nurse (it is a learned behavior). No one wants to walk in to that (more personally experience here. I was crazy after the delivery of our first).
    I live in a very liberal (Roman Catholic) diocese. I think that has much to do with it. We attend a Byz Rite parish, and are attracting older reverts and some young families.

  11. In 2012 I was in the hospital for installation of cardiac stents. After the procedure I was wheeled back to my room for recovery and my friends from the parish visited me. We began a Bible study and prayer meeting. A priestess from some Protestant organization walked in on us. I invited her to join our study and prayer session. She declined, stating that she was there to determine if I had a living will. I said, “Yes, with Jesus the Head of the Church, and I just finished confession so I am prepared.” She couldn’t leave fast enough. Heretic! I got no use for godless uppity elitist liberal progressive feminism in the Church or at my bedside. Out with you. Get out!

    I told the hospital nurse afterwards that I never wanted to be visited by a priestess again. Looking around at my friends in the room with Bibles and Rosaries, she got the message.

  12. Lapsed Catholics are the Church’s most valuable resource, for that is who can teach the Church what the problem is. As example the Church is losing it’s traditional European homeland, a historic failure. Those European Catholics who have walked away are in the best position to understand why this is happening. Regrettably, the Church’s top/down, teacher/student, spiritual parent to spiritual children mindset is likely to obstruct, or at least seriously delay, the necessary learning.

    The interesting question is, how deep will the failure have to get before eyes, ears and hearts are opened to facing the failures squarely?

  13. Volunteers from my Catholic church visit the nearby hospital each week. We pray with anyone who wants prayer. We offer Rosaries and Rosary pamphlets to anyone who appears receptive, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. We are surprised how many non-Catholics are receptive to the Rosary. Please do this important work if you can. You are bringing the Blessed Mother to visit these patients as you go.

  14. St. Paul predicted a future apostasy (apostasia in the original Greek) in the Church’s future in 2 Thess 2:1ff, (which apparently is going on now), but he also indicated that it would not last forever. It is thus a case of bad news and good news or as Our Lady said at Fatima “My Immaculate Heart will triumph and a time of peace will be given to the world.

  15. I’m probably as impressed by statistics and majorities as any American. On the other hand, I’d rather have a handful of folks who care about what they’re doing – than a 99 percent majority of those who aren’t particularly interested, one way or another. Or, worse, have an ‘although personally opposed to … I won’t object’ attitude.

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