Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Town and Country Catholics

In CARA’s early days, in the 1960s and 1970s, we had a series of research reports under the label “Town and Country” which documented the life of the Church in rural America. Two years ago, we showed how the population of rural and small town America is shrinking—even as many say they would prefer to live in that environment.

Economic changes have drawn population out of rural communities. Some manufacturers have closed shop and shifted to overseas factories using cheaper labor. Many small farms have been eaten up by industrial agriculture and the creation of a new mode of food production, which often relies on a mobile work force that does not permanently reside in the communities where the work is done. Jobs increasingly are found in the cities and suburbs rather than in small towns and the countryside.

Yet rural America still remains the home to many—including Catholics and their parishes. In our national surveys we know whether respondents live in a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) or outside one of these. An MSA is a Census term for a metro area with a core urban area consisting of at least 50,000 residents (dark green areas of this map). In the analysis below we compare Catholics residing in a MSA as “non-rural” and those residing outside one of these as “rural.” Overall, 85% of U.S. residents live in a MSA and 15% outside of these (Census Bureau's March 2015 Current Population Survey). Looking at the Catholic population more specifically, CARA estimates that 88% live in non-rural areas (approximately 69.0 million) and 12% outside of one of these (approximately 9.6 million). This matches well with estimates from the General Social Survey (GSS). By comparison, in the early 1970s, the GSS estimates 21% of Catholics lived in small towns or rural communities. No state today has a larger Catholic rural population than Texas numbering at about 602,000, followed by Ohio with 595,000 and Wisconsin with 564,000.

We have also been interested in exploring some of the “flyover state” anecdotes often used by commentators as another overlapping dimension. We compare Catholics living in coastal states with access to the Atlantic Ocean or the Pacific Ocean. Overall, 49% of U.S. residents live in a coastal state and 51% in an interior state. Catholics are more likely to live in coastal states than non-Catholics. Fifty-three percent of Catholics live in a “coastal” state (approximately 41.8 million) and 47% in a “non-coastal” state (approximately 36.8 million). These categories are not mutually exclusive. Of course one could live in a coastal state and a rural area or in a non-coastal state but also in a non-rural area.

So are there any differences that emerge from these comparisons? Yes. Quite a few. A pattern emerges quickly. Catholics in coastal or non-rural (i.e., metropolitan) areas are less likely than those living elsewhere to be involved in the life of a parish. In the first figure, you can see that Catholics living in non-coastal or rural areas have more frequent Mass attendance than those living elsewhere. A majority, 51% of Catholics in rural areas attends Mass at least once a month and 47% do so in non-coastal states. By comparison only 41% of those in coastal states and 43% of those in non-rural communities attend with this frequency. Nearly 4 in 10 of those in coastal states “rarely” or “never” attends Mass.

Although there is certainly no requirement than one must be registered with a parish, typically those who are are more active in parish life. It is often a prerequisite for religious education and sacramental preparation. The pattern continues here again with two-thirds of Catholics in rural communities being in a household that is registered with a parish (66%) compared to just more than half of those residing in coastal and non-rural communities (52% and 54%, respectively). Fifty-eight percent of Catholics residing in a non-coastal community are registered with their parish.

Catholics in rural and non-coastal communities are also more likely than those living elsewhere to say they regularly give to the weekly collection at their parish. A minority of Catholics residing in a coastal state say they regularly give to their parish (48%).

In 2013, CARA conducted a survey with an over-sample of teen-age Catholics. The results below represent the 764 Millennial Generation Catholics surveyed between the ages of 14 and 24 in that poll. The results here present another consistent rank order pattern.

Thirty-six percent of young Catholics residing in rural areas attends Mass weekly and overall seven in ten attends at least once a month. A majority of those in non-coastal communities attends Mass at least monthly (52%). Only about one in five of those living in non-rural and coastal communities attends Mass weekly (20% and 18%, respectively) and minorities attend at least once a month (45% and 43%, respectively).

It is the case that young Catholics in rural communities are less likely than those living elsewhere to ever have attended a Catholic school (K-12) or college, they are by far the most likely to have been enrolled in parish-based religious education. Only one in ten went without any formal religious education. By comparison about a quarter or more in all other areas had no formal religious education.

Young Catholics in rural areas are also most likely to hear about their faith at home. Four in ten say they had discussions with their parents at least weekly about their faith during their high school years. Thirty-five percent of those in non-coastal communities report this. About a quarter or fewer in other areas report this.

We’ve noted before that although young adult Catholics generally have low Mass attendance rates, many continue their conversation with God through prayer. When young Catholics were asked by CARA about the importance of prayer in their lives, 86% of those in rural communities either said this was “among the most important parts” of their life  (20%) or “important, but so are many other areas of my life” (66%). By comparison 70% in non-coastal communities responded a such as did 66% in non-rural communities and 65% in coastal communities.

Overall, the differences aren’t necessarily large but they are consistent. Perhaps masking all of this on the ground is the population drain out of rural communities. There may be fewer in the pews in rural America but they are more connected to their faith and parish life than those anywhere else in the country

Farm and road image courtesy of Mike.


How Many Catholic Converts Stay? A Quick Back of the Envelope Reality Check

It is Lent and Easter will soon be upon us. This is the time of year when the Church welcomes many new adults into the faith after they complete the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). One of the most common inquiries we get at CARA is a request for “retention rates” for those who went through RCIA. How many stay Catholic? How many stay active in parish life?

Here is an example of an RCIA director seeking and discussing these figures on a Catholic message board:

Hello! I am the RCIA director at my parish. The first class after Easter, I like to hit the class with a cold, hard statistic that I once heard. For new converts, 50% will not be attending Mass regularly one year after Holy Saturday. Is there any credible source for statistics like this? In looking around my parish, it seems that number is just about right. This is in spite of students attending classes every week for a year, making both 1/2 day retreats, Rite of Enrollment, Rite of Election, three scrutinies, and a 2-3 [hour] marathon Mass to welcome them into the church! Then, it seems they kind of just vaporize.”

At CARA we often hear even lower estimates. Some assume as few as 10% stay after becoming Catholic. Unfortunately there is no current and “credible source” for these statistics. The Church tracks the number of people entering the Church but does not observe how many remain after a year or some other period of time. Retention estimates are anecdotal.

Two years ago we presented a statistical profile of adult converts to Catholicism. At that time we noted that most who convert do so because they marry a Catholic and want to share the same faith. They also turn out to be among the most active and informed Catholics in the pews. It makes sense because they have taken a half year or more to formally educate and form themselves in a faith. Yet one could argue we are only studying those who go through RCIA and remain Catholic. What about those who don’t?

That got us thinking… A provisional English translation of the Rite became available in the mid-1970s and in 1986 the approved Rite was released. For most years since this time (and up to 2014) we have data from The Official Catholic Directory and the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae on the number of adult baptisms and receptions into full communion. If one sums the number of entries recorded here you get a total just over 4 million.

Aggregating over multiple years and studies, CARA’s national surveys of self-identified adult Catholics (CARA Catholic Polls or CCP) indicate that 8% entered the Church as adults. Three-quarters of these adults (75%) say they went through an RCIA program. Thus, we can assume that 6% of all adult self-identified Catholics are converts who have been through RCIA.

How many Catholic adults are there? According to the Census, the U.S. population in 2014 was 318.9 million. Of this, 245.2 million were adults. CARA’s aggregation of national surveys for 2014 (Pew, Gallup, PRRI, GSS) estimates that 23.2% of this population self-identified as Catholic at that time. This means there were 56.9 million Catholic adults. Six percent of these adults, who we estimate entered as adults and went through RCIA, represents a total population of 3,413,199.

We know about 4 million have entered the faith as adults since 1986. Surely, some of these people have passed away or moved outside of the United States (…also some who entered the faith in another country may have moved to the U.S. and been captured in our surveys). Yet, even if assume none have passed away or left, then 84% of these entries still self-identify as Catholic and as we have described before they tend to be very active in the faith. For example, 62% attend Mass at least once a month (compared to 48% of cradle Catholics) and 54% go to confession at least once a year (compared to 24% of cradle Catholics).

So why do so many RCIA directors, pastors and others assume retention and activity is so low? Why don’t they see the people they formed in their pews? Because many really did leave that parish. But that doesn’t mean they are not Catholic and not active in their faith in another parish. Remember 72% indicate one of the main reasons they convert to Catholicism is marriage. What do people do in and around the time they get married? They move, buy homes, start families, start careers, and have kids. Don’t take it personally that they aren’t in your pews. It’s a safe bet that they are in another parish’s pews. Actually it’s more than a safe bet. Eleven percent of people CARA has surveyed nationally in-pew, during Mass, self-identifies as a convert to Catholicism. That is higher than their share within the self-identified Catholic population (8%). This is because they are more often attending Mass than other Catholics.

The 84% retention estimate is likely on the low and conservative end. At the same time this involved surveys and there are margins of error involved. It is still a very “back of the envelope” estimate. If anyone is interested in commissioning a study to confirm this please contact us here at CARA!

Image courtesy of Dennis van Zuiglekom.


These Are Not the Evangelicals You Are Looking For…

If you’ve been watching the coverage of the early caucuses and primaries you’ve heard a lot about Evangelicals. I feel like I have an intimate understanding of what Evangelicals like for breakfast and what their Oscar picks are. Yet virtually nothing is being said about Catholic, Jewish, or other voters—including the fastest growing religious identity group in the country, those without a faith (i.e. Nones). Are we all just Evangelical or not now? No, instead the media organizations that develop the exit and entrance polls with Edison Media Research have decided that only Evangelicals really matter at this stage. It’s the only thing they find interesting when it comes to religion.

I asked Edison Media Research in an email why no religion questions are being used this year as in past years. Alicia Colomer responded, “Each state questionnaire is decided upon individually and members from each of the networks comprising the National Election Pool determine which questions will be asked in any given state. The questionnaires for future primaries and elections have not yet been determined so it is not known at this point if the religion question that has been used in the past will be on future questionnaires.”

So am I just a cranky social scientist? Yes. But I also want to note that if you only ask respondents if they are an Evangelical or not, the data you get back is, for lack of a better term, crap. This is no secret to most social scientists who study religion (or elections). For example, here are results from the 2014 General Social Survey that show the religious affiliation of those who said they were “born again” or an Evangelical and those who said they were not.

Only 78% of “Evangelicals” are Protestants or other Christians. An additional 13% are Catholic, 2% are some other faith (including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.), and 7% have no religious affiliation at all. More important, among the 78% of Evangelicals who are Protestants or Christians, many have different definitions or conceptions of what an “Evangelical” is. It all makes for good television and graphs but in reality doesn’t amount to much of anything real in a sociological or theological sense. Regardless of measurement errors I will admit it is still an interesting group to study. It just does not reflect the group that most journalists assume they are actually talking about. Did Donald Trump win the Evangelical vote in South Carolina? Who won the “real” Evangelical vote?

The GSS above is no outlier. This is a fairly established pattern in surveys where respondents are asked the religious affiliation and the Evangelical question. For example, in the Pew Research Center’s original Religious Landscape Survey conducted in 2007 anyone who self-identified as a Christian was asked an Evangelical identity question. Only 61% of those who said they would describe themselves as “a ‘born-again’ or evangelical Christian” were members of Evangelical Protestant churches. An additional 27% were members of other Protestant churches. Eleven percent were Catholic and less than 2% were members of some other Christian faith (i.e., Orthodox Christian, Mormon).

The most remarkable thing about the media’s blind spot regarding voting behavior by religious affiliation is that this is likely the story of the 2016 election. In that story Evangelicals are no mystery. They will be voting as a majority for a Republican for president. Nones will be voting Democratic by a large majority (approximately 7 in 10). Although predictable, what makes the Nones so interesting is that they are growing and they are young. Will they turnout?

The most interesting group, arguably, is also the least predictable. It might be good to have data on an unpredictable group! Catholics will likely decide who wins the presidential election. They are the only major religious affiliation group which can “swing” from one party to the next in elections (for more see our analysis in OSV). They also have solid record predicting the winner of the popular vote. Every presidential candidate knows that it will be very difficult to win the presidency without a majority (or plurality if a 3rd candidate wins substantial votes) of Catholics. When will the media wake up and start tracking the Catholic vote? I have to thank the Pew Research Center for doing some of the first polling on this during this election season. I hope they continue to do so.

On other election and political news...

Secretary Clinton’s “Catholic” Emails
The Wall Street Journal has a feature where you can keyword search some of Hillary Clinton’s emails (i.e., those that have been released to date) while she was serving as Secretary of State. I searched for “Catholic” and “Pope.” What resulted? Not much. Out of 27,721 emails 96 include Catholic and 39 include Pope. I think the most shocking thing for me is how many of these emails are simply sharing news articles or asking staff to print paper copies of news articles. Who knew the press mattered so much for our international diplomacy? Not much else is interesting reading.

There is a Michael Tomasky article that Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills sent to Secretary Clinton in May 2012 about President Obama possibly switching from Biden as Vice President to Clinton. The article notes that Biden, “helps a bit with white working-class and Catholic voters.” There was no response to Mills by Secretary Clinton.

Perhaps the single most interesting exchange about anything Catholic-related is between Secretary Clinton and President of the Center for American Progress Neera Tanden. Tanden emails Clinton in March 2012 about an opinion piece she wrote in The New Republic about contraception. She notes she was on MSNBC discussing this piece and then praises Clinton for a recent speech. A few days later Clinton responds simply noting, “Can you believe we are still fighting this battle?” Tandeen responds to this noting that her article has had a lot of exposure because Planned Parenthood sent it out to a list of subscribers. She ends the email noting, “At least the WH [White House] is over its super panic on this. The [Catholic] Church still scares the crap out [of] a lot of these guys.” That is a semi-inside take that is certainly new to me. I’ve never had the sense that the Obama Administration is afraid of the Church. Even if they were this would certainly not be classified or top secret. Other than this bit of gossip there is not much else interesting reading other than old news articles about Northern Ireland and Cuba.

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© 2009-2015 CARA, Mark M. Gray. Background image courtesy of muohace_dc.