Catholic Losses Are Baptist Gains

In the zero-sum game of competitive markets, one company’s misstep is often a rival’s gain. But what about in the marketplace of religion?


A new study (PDF here) titled “Substitution and Stigma: Evidence on Religious Competition from the Catholic Sex-Abuse Scandal,” by Notre Dame economist Daniel Hungerman, looks at whether other religious faiths gained from the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. Using data from 1990-2007, Hungerman finds significant spillover effects on other religious groups.

The big winner? Baptist churches, both financially and in membership growth.

Here’s the abstract:

This paper considers substituting one charitable activity for another in the context of religious practice. I examine the impact of the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal on both Catholic and non-Catholic religiosity. I find that the scandal led to a 2-million-member fall in the Catholic population that was compensated by an increase in non-Catholic participation and by an increase in non-affiliation. Back-of the- envelope calculations suggest the scandal generated over 3 billion dollars in donations to non-Catholic faiths. Those substituting out of Catholicism frequently chose highly dissimilar alternatives; for example, Baptist churches gained significantly from the scandal while the Episcopal Church did not. These results challenge several theories of religious participation and suggest that regulatory policies or other shocks specific to one religious group could have important spillover effects on other religious groups.

Though the numbers are rough, they do speak to the size of the impact. A loss of two million members constitutes about 3 percent of all Catholics. The $3 billion in donations it generated also represents about 3 percent of all religious giving per year. Hungerman uses this helpful chart to track the post-scandal increase Baptist churches saw in membership, particularly in areas where there were a lot of allegations of sexual abuse.

 That fleeing Catholics choose to substitute into “dissimilar alternatives,” such as Baptist churches, rather than seeking what would likely be more familiar environs, such as Episcopal churches, indicates just how damaging the scandals were. Those who left sought an experience as completely different as possible in a lot of cases.

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  1. Russell says:

    I would expect that one’s first religion would be largely dictated by family history and culture. Having reached a decision to quit the Catholic Church, this is most likely the first opportunity to choose their poison – or to leave organised religion altogether. No wonder people are moving far from their origins.

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  2. Bill Walker says:

    Didn’t ANYONE think to just put ALL of this behind him ?

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  3. James says:

    Just like with anything else, there is great diversity in the membership of the Catholic Church. Perhaps some members like the church primarily because of its teachings on sexual and reproductive morality; these members would likely see the Baptist church as being similar to (or at least a second choice to) the Catholic Church. Perhaps other members like the church primarily because of its traditions, rituals, order of the mass, and the like; these members would likely see the Episcopalian Church as being similar to the Catholic Church. There are probably other groups of Catholics, but I’ll ignore that to keep my point simple.

    Now, when a sexual abuse scandal hits the church, which group will be more shaken? I would think the first group would be; the scandal hits at the very things they value strongly in the church. They would be more likely to seek a new home, and would be more likely to see the Baptist Church as an alternative. So, it might not be that people are looking for something different; they just see different lines of similarity than other people do. Just my opinion, anyway.

    It might be possible to test this opinion in the future. The Vatican has issued a new and somewhat controversial translation of the mass on the Catholic churches in the United States. I’m not sure whether enough people would end up leaving the church over this to be measurable, but if it were, I would guess that they would head for the Episcopalian Church, not for the Baptist Church.

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  4. Dr. RJ Nicholas says:

    Well as a Catholic who has interviewed many of these apostates, you can have them. Most of these people never knew their Catholic faith and although they claim to have been raised Catholic do not seem to know much about the Church. The Catholic Church is the only Church established by Jesus Christ and the only church that expresses the fullness of Christian traditions (not only the Bible, but also the sacrifice of the Mass and 2000 years of writings and traditions of faith)/

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    • PaulD says:

      The scribes and Pharisees probably felt the same way about the motley group of tax collectors and fishermen who left their ranks…

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