Catholic dioceses plan TV ad blitz aimed at inactive members

By Duke Helfand
Los Angeles Times / September 13, 2009

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LOS ANGELES - The Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento is home to nearly 1 million Catholics. On a typical Sunday, less than 137,000 can be found in church.

Now, using a strategy straight from the secular playbook, its leaders hope to lure back those who have drifted.

The diocese and nearly a dozen others are preparing to air several thousand primetime TV commercials in English and Spanish, inviting inactive Catholics to return to their religious roots.

In addition to Sacramento, dioceses in Chicago, Omaha, Providence, and four other cities will launch the “Catholics Come Home’’ advertising blitz during Advent, the period before Christmas.

Four more dioceses will follow during Lent next spring.

“I’m hoping that a significant number of people will give us another look,’’ Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto said of the campaign. “Many Catholics have a sense of believing but not always a sense of belonging.’’

The potential audience is huge. About one-quarter of US Catholics say they attend Mass every week, and a majority go to religious services a few times a year or less, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, which conducts social science research about the Catholic church.

Researchers there also found that two-thirds of Catholics believe they can be good members of their faith without attending Mass regularly.

Inactive Catholics cite a number of reasons for their absence. Many do not believe that missing Mass is a sin, the center reported. Others say they are too busy with family or work, or, as other analysts point out, are more interested in material happiness than spiritual fulfillment.

“There is a strange pattern of people who aren’t practicing but still have beliefs and pick up parts of the faith,’’ said Mark Gray, a research associate with the center. “They may give up meat on Fridays during Lent or attend Ash Wednesday services.’’

Most people raised Catholic remain so in adulthood, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which released a study on religious affiliation in April. Pew researchers found that those who leave typically join Protestant churches or abandon religion altogether, with most saying they simply drifted away from their faith or stopped believing in its teachings.

Many who have given up their religion also said they felt unhappy with Catholicism’s firm positions on abortion, birth control, and homosexuality. The movement of some Catholics into the ranks of the unaffiliated, a trend also evident among other religious groups, is occurring even as the Catholic Church in the United States grows steadily, due largely to an influx of Catholic immigrants, primarily from Latin America and Asia.

The new arrivals have helped push the US Catholic population to more than 65 million, making it the nation’s largest religious group. Catholics account for nearly 1 of every 4 Americans.