Thursday, July 17, 2008

Conversion Ratios

Awhile back I inquired whether there were any reliable statistics of Christian conversions between Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism. This was prompted by my wondering if there were many Protestants who had made the move, or instead just a few isolated but well publicized such moves.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things, in his Public Square section of the August/September 2008 edition, shares some news of a possible answer (here, subscription required):

"That “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” issued by the Pew Research Center last February continues to be sliced and diced by various analysts [Thos.: I recently discussed some of its information here], including Robert Benne, who writes in The Cresset, a magazine published by Valparaiso University. “Continuing the list of surprises about Catholicism,” Benne writes, “ten percent of all Protestants are former Catholics but eight percent of Catholics are former Protestants. That eight percent represents a considerable number, around five million. Converts to Catholicism usually are far more intense about their faith than cradle Catholics, so I suspect that this eight percent injects new vigor into the Church.” He also notes that a striking number of Catholic converts are prominent intellectuals. A young man who is active in Catholic ministries at an Ivy League university speaks warmly of their cooperation with evangelical ministries such as Campus Crusade for Christ. Ecumenical cordiality, however, does not preclude an element of evangelistic rivalry. “The big difference,” he says, “is that they aim at the weakest Catholics while we aim at the strongest evangelicals.” The claim is that evangelicals who are more theologically versed and religiously committed are more open to Catholicism, while Catholics who become evangelicals were, for whatever reason, alienated from Christianity. Put differently, religiously serious evangelicals are more likely to become Catholic, while religiously lapsed Catholics are more likely to become evangelicals" (emphasis added).

I, for one, was surprised that the "delta" between conversions to X and conversions to Y was only 2%. It would be interesting to compare fertility rates of these two pools of Christians (and perhaps other factors that a statistically savvy person could hammer out) to make some forecasts if present patterns were to continue. I mean, it is not a given that a +2% in favor of Protestants = long term Protestant growth. I'd still like to know the Orthodox rates, though they are a much smaller pool for statistical purposes.


Principium unitatis said...


The 10 and 8 percents do not seem to be *rates* but percentages of present membership. Is that right? If so, then it doesn't tell us anything about the respective growths or movement. The chart shows Protestantism declining, and Catholicism with a little upturn. I suspect that the *rate* of Protestants becoming Catholic is growing (especially in the last 15-20 years), while the rate of Catholics becoming Protestant (at least in the states) is either decreasing or staying the same. That's my guess. The membership loss in Protestantism is primarily in the liberal mainline denominations, I think. Evangelical Protestantism is probably growing, even as Protestantism overall is decreasing.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Thos said...


I agree with you. I'm afraid that if I took a logic class with you, I wouldn't do so well! I should have spoken of a "converts" delta vice a "conversions" delta, no? And then I shouldn't have discussed fertility *rates* in the next sentence, as it was confusing. I suppose we can infer some rates, at least rates past, from the present former-other membership, and in that case it would be interesting to consider how fertility *rates* as well as conversion rates will change the future prior-affiliations of the memberships.

The chart was a further element of confusion, as it was purely for looks. I agree that most Protestant losses (from out of all losses, not just conversion losses) probably come from the mainline denominations. I also imagine that most former-Protestant Catholics come from more liturgical denominations that have liberalized beyond the particular convert's tolerance (e.g., ELCA or Episcopalian). In other words, the PCA convert, or the Southern Baptist convert, probably does not make up a huge part of the 5 million former Protestants that are supposedly in the Catholic Church.

Peace in Christ,

Bob said...

I think it's interesting that if Protestants take their religion seriously, there is some movement into the Catholic Church. If all Catholics were to take their religion seriously, then that would slow the movement into the Protestant churches.

So, it's a "win" for Catholics if we ask everyone to take religion seriously. However, in the sense of ecumenism and salvation, everyone wins if we ask everyone to take religion seriously.

May the peace of Christ be with you,

Tim A. Troutman said...

Oo a post about statistics & Catholic conversions I'm in hog heaven.

I don't think any of this is really a big secret - it's pretty well known that converts to Catholicism tend to know their faith well and converts from Catholicism almost without exception know their faith very little.

I am fully convinced that I could make a better defense for Protestantism than 99% of Protestants. But how many converts to Protestantism from the Catholic Church could say the same (of their former faith)?

We're not really comparing apples to apples though. One does not "convert" to Protestantism, he just stops being Catholic and starts going to Protestant services instead of mass. But converting to the Catholic Church is usually a process which takes about a year and has certain requirements that need to be met.

Whereas if I wanted to revert to Protestantism, that wouldn't be a process it would just be me not showing up to mass next Sunday and going to my old PCA community instead. They'd welcome me right back and heck I could even take communion if I happened to show up on the right Sunday (whenever it is that they do it).

It also depends on how the questions were worded and how the people interpreted it. For example, I conducted a survey at my work to classify how many of our donors were Protestants/Catholics/Jewish etc.. I would find that some respondents would skip over the "Protestant" option and write in "Baptist" or whatever. Then I had respondents reply "other" with no qualification and the same ones had indicated that "Jesus" was a "very important" part of our ministry so who knows what they meant...So did the interpreters drop those kinds of responses or lump them in with the Protestants I suppose?

I'm not doubting the validity of this survey by any means I'm sure it is accurate. I'm just running my mouth because I like talking about statistics and conversions and well... I just don't get the opportunity to talk about them both in the same combox often so I felt I should say something.

~Joseph the Worker said...

Thanks for an interesting and insightful post! As a convert to Catholicism myself I found this most interesting. Keep on searching and God bless you for discernment on where to go in your spiritual life.

Thos said...


Thanks for the reminder on how questions were asked. I will say that I have read about this Pew survey in a wide variety of media, and none of it has been critical of the methodology. None is perfect, of course, but it seems to me that they gave an honest go of it.

Re: the generalization that P-C are much more devout than C-P needs this thought added (and I think the Neuhaus article I cited discussed this): many "converts" from P to C are must be doing so purely for purposes of marriage or family pressures, etc. I think the article opined that those were much more common in the past (marrying across party lines), but I'm sure than many such converts, or converts in both directions are wishy-washy and do so only for marriage.

But anyway, it's all fascinating. I wonder where the Spirit will lead things next.

Peace in Christ,

Thos said...


Thank you for sharing. I enjoyed your blog, and hope to make a habit of checking in there.

Peace in Christ,