It's the largest Christian church in the world and by far the largest church in Vermont-- 118,000 Vermonters today call themselves Catholic. But the numbers are shrinking. Vermont had 149,000 members just 10 years ago; 157,000 in 1980. That's a drop of nearly 25-percent over the last 30 years.
"It's not a Catholic issue," said Monsignor John McDermott of the Burlington Catholic Diocese. "I think it's an issue of the state of Vermont."
Why are the pews emptier than they once were? Church leaders blame it on an aging population and a low birth rate.
"In our own diocese over the last five years we've had 2,000 more funerals than baptisms. Well that's going to affect the number of people in the pews," McDermott said.
Vermont's Catholic Church has also been plagued by bad publicity in recent years due to several priest sex abuse cases.
"Has it affected us? Yes," McDermott said. "But is it the reason why the numbers look the way they are? No."
McDermott also says the decline in membership isn't as drastic as it appears. Attendance today is calculated differently than it was just five years ago and he says previous numbers were overinflated.
The Catholic Church isn't alone when it comes to declining numbers; most mainstream Protestant churches have also seen a sharp decline in membership, especially here in New England. And most have seen declines on a similar scale. Recent studies indicate changing demographics may not be entirely to blame. A 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life ranks Vermont 45th for overall worship attendance and dead last in the country for belief in God.
"I think that with everything going on in the world people have a hard time turning to faith. They want a definite answer and sometimes you can't always find that in the church," said Kyle Marlow, a Catholic.
The Catholic Church is especially seeing a decline in 20 to 40-year-olds. Some say it and most other mainstream churches are simply too boring, lacking the energy of newer, less traditional churches.
"It's very drawn out. The same thing every day," said Jim Hughes, a Catholic.
But not all is bad for the Catholic Church. Students say the faith is still alive and well on campuses like St. Michael's College in Colchester.
"This campus wouldn't be here without the college students who believe in it and in the Catholic faith," said Darren Cheung, a Catholic.
And nationwide, church membership is actually on the rise, especially in parts of the south and southwest where the church is growing by leaps and bounds.
Thursday, December 5 2013 12:11 PM EST2013-12-05 17:11:34 GMT
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