Whether Mitt Romney wins the Republican nomination for the presidency or not, his serious-contender candidacy has sparked an explosion of empirical research on Mormons in the United States. In due course, this research should serve not only to enhance public respect for the Mormon minority, but also to give Catholics some clues about how to strengthen their own faith community.
In a report issued in January 2012, “Mormons in America: Certain of Their Beliefs, Uncertain of Their Place in Society,”  a research team representing the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that most Mormons are regular churchgoers and that more Mormons (73 percent) believe that “working to help the poor” is “essential to being a good Mormon” than believe the same thing about “not drinking coffee and tea” (49 percent).
According to a new study previewed on March 15 by an expert panel convened at Pew’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practice what they preach about helping the needy. Led by Ram A. Cnaan, a renowned Israeli-born social-work scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, the study concludes that churchgoing Mormons “are the most pro-social members of American society.”
On average, Mormons dedicate nine times as many hours per month (nearly 36 hours) to volunteer activities than other Americans do. The comparison stands up even after one subtracts from the Mormon totals the work of young, full-time Mormon missionaries.
Mormons reliably tithe to their churches and also give about $1,200 annually “to social causes outside the church.” Even Mormons who have relatively low household incomes both tithe fully and give more of their income to assist non-Mormons in need than other Americans do.
What is behind these differences? At the Pew panel, David E. Campbell, a University of Notre Dame political scientist who is a Mormon, quipped that while Mormons are even more “hierarchical” than Catholics, hierarchy is definitely not the answer. Nor, he said, does the fidelity of individual Mormons to particular Mormon religious tenets explain the differences.
Rather, research suggests the secret to filling church coffers and packing the pews while simultaneously stimulating robust ministries that benefit needy nonmembers is what a religion does to induce intrafaith friendships, transcend Sunday-only ties and foster widespread participation in faith-motivated, civic good works for people in need.
Cnaan’s surveys were administered to Mormon congregants in four different regions of the country after their usual three-hour worship services, which are typically followed by many members and their families intentionally socializing together.
Let’s face it, in too many Catholic parishes, the minority of self-identified Catholics who attend Sunday Mass regularly expect it to take not more than an hour, punctuated by a contrived communal “sign of peace” wave or handshake and followed by a post-Communion dash to the parking lot.
By contrast, last month I attended standing-room-only evening Purim services (complete with costumes, small children running in the aisles and raucous noise at every mention of Haman) at an Ortho-dox synagogue in New Orleans. I was joined by a small group of Catholic undergraduates who were on an interfaith, service-learning trip.
As one Catholic student put it, hearing the all-Hebrew singing-reading of the Book of Esther took well over an hour but was “a blast,” as was the communal after-party that included eating, drinking, card-playing—and collecting donations for the poor.
Catholic bishops should pay as much attention to how much time churchgoers spend together at or after Sunday Mass as they have recently paid to which words get used (consubstantial!) during nearly empty worship services. The bishops should continue to promote annual donations to wonderful Catholic nonprofit organizations like Catholic Charities, which also attract thousands of Catholic community-serving volunteers. They and all Catholics should also strive to make our churches places where ever more Catholics come to worship, socialize and serve neighbors in need.