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.


also, the typical Baptist scandals involve a philandering minister, e.g. MLK and are apparantly more tolerated and genetically correct than the aforementioned Catholic scandals

Jon Xavier

There is nothing similar in scale, or depth of corruption. Moreover, at least MLK did a lot of actual good and consciously put his life on the line while popes do nothing but yap and, apparently, protect pedophiles rather than accept responsibility. How much corruption can a supposed moral and spiritual institution be? Really? Because that cuts to the very heart of its alleged purpose.


"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."

I'm not sure I agree with this analysis.

Take the set, "People who flee from the Catholic church as a result of the priest abused scandals." Divide the set into roughly two subsets: those who move in a more liberal direction and away from faith altogether, vs. those who move in a conservative direction and into accordingly conservative churches.

The Episcopal church might have a style of worship that is familiar to Catholics, but the church's theology is significantly more liberal.

The members of the subset who leave the church altogether would not be measurable among the uptick in other churches. The members of the subset who retrench and become more conservative would be expected to join conservative congregations. The Southern Baptist Convention is the most "mainstream" of extremely conservative religious denominations. Assuming that studies of non-denominational conservative churches are next to impossible, one would expect to see the greatest correlation in the SBC.

This would also reflect a general trend in religion: successive generations are not adopting liberal faiths; numbers suggest people either leave church altogether, or else they join conservative churches. The religious landscape, then, is gradually shifting to the right with each passing generation.



Prof Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University has written a lot about the Catholic sex abuse scandals, claiming for starters that there is no evidence that Catholic clergy are more likely to abuse children than any other group, including various Protestant churches.

Of course individuals may feel that other Christian churches reacted more sensibly than the Catholic Church did. But if people switched allegiance based on a sensationalist media narrative of the 'paedophile priest' then this is a strange and maybe significant phenomenon.

Joe J

The media does love the Catholic sex scandal, while down playing other sex scandals. Partially due to old ones coming out all at once, partially due to medias biases.

To put some numbers into perspective, over 50 years there were about 11,000, accusations against Catholic ministry. Making it roughly 200 in a year. A horror and a tragity, that they should definately have done things better with.
However, to put things in perspective; one local high school had several accusations in just the past year. Accusations against teachers and other school employees, the number I've heard was about 20,000 accusations per year.

So 200/yr and you are the but of every sex abuse joke, 20,000 per year, and you get a pass by the media.


Which religion’s beliefs and practice are more similar to Catholicism: Baptist or Episcopalian? While one can argue that the form of worship in an Episcopalian church is similar and that Episcopalians formally hold many beliefs in concert with Catholics, a pretty good argument can be made that today Baptists and Catholics share more in common than Catholics and Episcopalians. In the U.S. , Episcopalianism is a rapidly aging religion, while both Baptists and Catholics are maintaining a more balanced demographic profile (on average). Baptists and Catholics may disagree on purgatory, but they tend to agree on hot-button moral topics of the day such as homosexuality and abortion. It isn’t clear to me that people who left Catholicism for one of the Baptist denominations were really looking for something as dissimilar as possible to their religion of origin. Perhaps they were just looking for group of Christians who appear to hold those beliefs with sincerity?



This also does not take into consideration the effect of the massive proselytizing done by Baptists, as well as other Evangelical Protestants, directly at Roman Catholics. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on converting Catholics to Protestant faiths, and the numbers lost by Catholicism of its members to Protestant faiths can also be attributed to this Protestant missionary activity, although certainly the sex-scandals aid the Protestant missionaries in their mission.

Steve O

Hundreds of millions of dollars? You've got to cite something like that.


The abstract above seems to indicate that Catholics are leaving the Catholic faith and joining the Baptist faith. However, to me, the graphs would indicate just that membership in the Catholic church is shrinking while the Baptist church is growing. Couldn't this be due to the proselytizing found in that faith, and gains in membership by those who were already close (but perhaps not members) of the church? I'm thinking about throngs of teenagers and young adults joining en masse, not former/lapsed Catholics.


Aren't Baptists and Catholics also similar in that they attract lower middle case individuals, while Episcopalians are more likely to be upper class ?


As a rule coming from a mixed marrage (Baptist,Calothic) she being Baptist the two couldn't be further from the same. I'm not sure what churches any of you went to, or Hungerman for that matter. The history of the Baptist church would never lend well to a catholic converting. The idea of having to deny all the sacraments that one achieves in the church would be like forgeting a lifetime. I'm not begrudging anybody their choice of religion, it makes the world go round, but Hungerman be served better if he truly understood what he was talking about.


I attend a large Evangelical church, and I remember one day the pastor asking for a show of hands: How many of you were Catholics growing up? I think at least 30% of the congregation raised their hands, myself included.

It is not true that Baptists (or other Evangelicals) have no sacraments; they observe the sacraments instituted by the Lord; namely, baptism and communion. Perhaps the biggest difference between a Catholic Church and a Baptist Church is that in a Baptist Church there is the general expectation that you actually believe the Church's doctrines; at a Catholic Church you may well be attending from force of habit.


I'm sure that it's not force of habit, as much as the work i put into it for me. There are quite a few things that the Catholic Church and I don't agree upon. I can agree to disagree and alow the world to spin. I don't need to "jump ship" to express myself or make changes. It's great to be an adult. Those that make that choice, begs the questions:
How active were they?
Did they achieve sacraments?
Did the sex scandal disenfranchise them? If so why?
Do they understand the history of the Baptist Church?
If they did would they still join? If not why?


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.

Bill Walker

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


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.


Dr. RJ Nicholas

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)/


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