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National Parish Inventory (NPI)

Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate 
Georgetown University, Washington, DC (CARA) 

CARA: a national-level, university-affiliated center for research on the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission:

  • to help advance the Church's process of self-understanding using social science research,
  • to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers, and
  • to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism.

It is simultaneously an official Catholic organization with a bishop as chair of its board of directors and a university research center with a research team comprised of faculty-appointed professors from a variety of social science disciplines. CARA's research is primarily focused on the Catholic Church, but not exclusively so. A number of projects are ecumenical or interfaith in design, and others focus on social service issues or community needs consistent with a Christian concern for social justice. CARA strongly promotes sharing and transferring its experience and research on the Catholic world across other faith traditions.

Currently, CARA has five full-time faculty appointed researchers as well as a number of research support personnel and adjunct researchers who assist in specific aspects of CARA's work on a regular basis. As a symbol of its independence and unique status, CARA receives no subsidy from the Catholic Church in the United States. Instead, it enjoys stability in the form of an endowment Church leaders have helped to create over the past few decades, along with a combination of contracted and foundation-funded research activities. CARA publishes The CARA Report four times a year. That publication is designed to disseminate among as wide a public as possible current findings across the entire spectrum of Catholic research. CARA has also just published Catholicism USA, a compendium of CARA and other research and statistics on the Catholic Church in the United States.

Selected CARA Projects Related to Congregation Research

Of CARA's current projects, perhaps the following are most related to a congregational level of research:

The National Parish Inventory (NPI). This is a database on all Catholic parishes in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands (the area of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops). It was first conducted in 1998, with a follow-up in 2000. It is designed to cover every Catholic parish in the United States and counts on the help of the 193 U.S. dioceses and eparchies, as well as the individual pastors and staffs of each parish. While no funding has yet been obtained to develop the project in 2001, an effort is currently underway to collect NPI information over the Internet by using a Web survey approach. Efforts are also underway to develop a user-friendly report format parishes can use as a guide to their work, but funding has not yet been obtained.

The CARA Catholic Poll (CCP). This is designed to track Catholic trends at least once a year, sometimes more frequently. In January and February 2000, CARA completed the first such poll, a sample survey of over 2,500 Catholics (with oversamples from particular regions, the total number surveyed exceeded 4,000), but the CCP is designed to never have fewer than 800 completed interviews with randomly contacted Catholics. The CCP has been funded by combining a number of foundation and Church organization survey requests into a single tool, thus providing more reliable data on Catholic involvement in local congregational life. About five questions are asked of all those contacted, whether Catholic or not, thus providing opportunities for comparative research.

Parish Assistance Surveys and Services (PASS). This is a standard, tested set of questions based on seven key areas of Catholic parish life and tailored to the needs of each parish or set of parishes that use them. They are typically given to all worshipers on an in-pew basis. PASS also involves a set of presentation and consultation services based on the research, that CARA provides at an individual parish's request. While our findings over the years cannot be generalized back to all Mass-attenders due to the lack of a random sample of parishes, CARA's NPI does allow for some weighting of the results. Further replication of some of the trend questions on the CCP allows for comparison between self-described Mass-attending Catholics and non-attenders in the context of a national random survey of all Catholics.

Surveys of Priestly Life and Ministry. Over the past few months alone, CARA completed surveys of over a half dozen diocesan presbyterates (all the priests of a diocese). In some cases the total cases were quite large-the study of the priests of Chicago, for example, included some 500 priests. CARA is currently completing several more such studies and beginning plans for a possible national level telephone survey of Catholic priests. The national study would replicate questions used in local dioceses as well as build on the more than one dozen focus groups of priests (across as many ecclesiastical provinces) that CARA has analyzed over the past year. Funding remains an issue for the national level survey.

Surveys on Specialized Issues in Congregational Ministry. Congregations depend on the work of specific ministries, whether conducted by the same person or not, whether conducted by volunteer or paid, professional staff. Over the past few months CARA has recently completed a study analyzing surveys of parish directors of religious education (DREs), pastors, and diocesan DREs, together with focus groups of DREs, on religious formation at the congregational level. CARA plans to begin web surveys of parish DREs this year. CARA has also completed diocesan level studies of youth ministry and stewardship, and plans to follow those studies up with parish-levels surveys.

Selected Issues and Findings for Congregational Life

  • Most Catholic parishes consist of several congregations in one.
  • Levels of participation in Church life vary more by generation than the life course, and religiosity is poorly measured by examining attendance patterns.
  • Parishioners are generally content with the quality of parish life they experience, and rank the sense of community they feel and quality of worship as key, along with activities that help pass on the faith to the next generation.
  • Priests report relatively high levels of satisfaction; older baby boomers and those in mid-size parishes with limited staffing typically have higher levels of stress or dissatisfaction.
  • Most Catholic congregational leaders (priests assigned to parishes, particularly as pastors) report high levels of satisfaction, including an interest in serving in the pastoral ministry at some level as long as their health permits it.
  • As specialized ministries become increasingly professionalized, the challenge to deepen community sensibility necessary- for ministry- success often increases. Specialized ministries are often most successful when they share resources across congregations and bring in family and community based alternatives to traditional classroom models. But these efforts often face threats of over-specialization and bureaucratization.


Bryan T. Froehle
CARA Executive Director
Associate Professor
Georgetown University
Washington, DC
froehleb @ georgetown.edu




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