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.


Laudato Si’: Catholic Attitudes about Climate Change

A year after Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, Catholic adults in the United States are generally more likely to be concerned about climate change than other Christians according to a new survey conducted by CARA. Catholics are also more likely than other adults to believe they have a moral responsibility to personally do what they can to combat climate change according to results from the poll conducted May 16 and May 26, 2016.

Overall, 63% of U.S. adults agree that temperatures on Earth are getting warmer, on average, in response to higher concentrations of heat trapping greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane. Additionally, 24% neither agree nor disagree with this. Only 13% disagree. Sixty-five percent of adult Catholics agree with the statement regarding climate change, 12% disagree, and 23% neither agree nor disagree. Evangelical Christians are the least likely to agree with the statement at 51%. Seven in ten or more of those with a non-Christian affiliation (71%) or no Christian affiliation (70%) agreed with the statement.

Sixty-seven percent of U.S. adults agree that increasing concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere like carbon dioxide and methane are largely a result of human activity (e.g., industrial activity, transportation, as well as energy and food production). Twenty-one percent neither agree nor disagree with this. Only 10% disagree. 

Sixty-eight percent of Catholics agree that increasing concentrations of heat trapping gasses is largely a result of human activity. Evangelical Christians are the least likely to agree that this is the case (59%). Other Christians have similar levels of agreement with the statement as Catholics (68%). Seven in ten or more of those with a non-Christian affiliation (79%) or without an affiliation (70%) agree.

Sixty-percent of Catholics agree with both statements (strongly or somewhat) that the planet is becoming warmer in response to higher concentrations of heat-trapping gasses and that the increase in these gasses is largely a result of human activity. A minority of Evangelical Christians agree with both statements (46%).

Catholic attitudes are similar to that of all U.S. adults combined. However, level of agreement with both statements is higher among those with a non-Christian affiliation (67%) or without an affiliation (65%). Note that disagreement levels are much lower and many choose to neither agree nor disagree with the statements.

Twenty-eight percent of U.S. adults recall that they heard or read about Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment a year ago. Generally, the public has low awareness of specific papal statements and are often more generally aware of what the Pope has been saying or how he has been appearing in the news. Questions about specific documents often have low awareness. The Associated Press conducted a survey in March 2015 asking the public if they were aware that Pope Francis was about to release an encyclical about global warming. At that time, 6% of adults indicated an awareness of this.

In July 2015, after the release of Laudato Si’, the Associated Press found that 31% had heard of the encyclical. The current survey, a year later, shows awareness has fallen just a few percentage points over time.

Catholic recall of the encyclical is only slightly higher than the general public at 32%. Majorities of all group say they don’t recall of hearing or reading about Laudato Si’.

“Strong” agreement with the two statements about climate change, that the Earth is warming and that this is largely a result of human activities, is about 15 percentage points higher, on average, among those who recall hearing or reading about the encyclical compared to those who do not recall this.

Only about 22 percent of U.S. adults say they think they generally agree with Pope Francis about the environment and climate change. However, even fewer say they do not agree with him on this topic (19%). Given that only 28% of adults are aware of the Pope’s encyclical it is not surprising that most say they “don’t know” if they generally agree with Pope Francis on this issue. Catholics are the most likely to be sure of their agreement (34%), however half say they “don’t know.” Only 15% of Catholics are sure they are in disagreement.

Among those who say they generally agree with Pope Francis about the environment and climate change, agreement (strong or somewhat) that the Earth is warming and that this is largely caused by human activity are comparatively higher than those who say they know they are not in agreement with Pope Francis (88% compared to 28% on warming and 90% compared to 39% on the link to human activity). This result is also evident among Catholic adults based on their assessment of their agreement with Pope Francis (86% compared to 28% on warming and 87% compared to 32% on the link to human activity).

More than one in five adults, 22%, in the United States believe God has played a role in the changes observed in Earth’s climate in recent years. Even fewer Catholics believe this (17%). Evangelical Christians are most likely to agree that God has played a role with more than four in ten responding “yes” (46%). Note that a quarter responded “don’t know” or refused rather than yes or no (26% of all adults and 28% of Catholics).

Respondents who said they believe God has played a role were asked the open-ended question, “What role do you believe God has played in recent climate changes?” Although 22% said they believed this, only 14% decided to respond to the open-ended question asking them to describe God’s role. Many responses cite one of two concepts: that this is all part of God’s plan or that God has control of everything that is happening. A representative sampling of these responses are shown below.
  • All changes are part of His plan We do not need to know, or even understand the plan.
  • As stated in Bible there is a end.
  • Because he is the creator of all things. He controls everything.
  • Every thing is created by God whether it be good or bad.
  • God already knows everything that has and will happen, He gives us a free will to make our choices, but He also knows what we will choose. He knew the climate would change and knows what will come of all of it. He will direct as He feels fit to do.
  • God created a universe containing the earth and it's life (plants, animals...), which has a natural evolutionary process, which includes climate changes.
  • God decides the weather.
  • God is in complete control of all that happens, either by His active will or by his permissive allowance.
  • God set up a climatology system that has naturally occurring cycles. It repeats over time. There have been many slightly cooler periods, just as there have been many slightly warmer periods. This is nothing new.
  • I believe that God can do anything he wants to do.
  • The Bible describes the times of "Jacobs troubles." Weather will get increasingly worse, just as famine, death, disease etc. will.

Fewer than one in ten of those who believe God has played a role, say they don’t know or are not sure of what that role has been.

Fourteen percent of all adults believe that climate change is the “most important” problem facing the world today. Catholics are more likely than others to say climate change is the most important problem (18%). A majority of U.S. adults and Catholic adults believe it is either the “most important” problem or a “very important” problem (60% and 66%, respectively).

Evangelical Christians are the least likely to say climate change is the “most important” or a “very important” problem (10% and 39%, respectively). More than one in five Evangelicals combined say it is either “a little” or “not at all” important of a problem (12% and 10%, respectively).

Sixty-three percent of U.S. adults and 68% of Catholic adults say they believe it is their moral responsibility to do what they can to combat climate change. Majorities of all religious sub-groups agree with this statement. Respondents who recall hearing or reading about the Pope’s encyclical are slightly more likely than those who are sure they did not to say they believe they personally have a moral responsibility to combat climate change (72% compared to 65%). This gap largest among those without any religious affiliation (83% who recall the encyclical compared to 62% who do not).

Catholic respondents were asked directly about how the statements of Church leaders had impacted their belief that they have a moral responsibility to combat climate change. Nearly a third of Catholics, 32%, say statements by Pope Francis led them to strengthen their belief that they have a moral responsibility to what they can to combat climate change. Catholics are less likely to indicate statements by their pastor (19%), bishop (17%), or some other person in Church ministry (17%) had led them to strengthen their belief in their moral responsibility to combat climate change.

Note that responses to this question are dependent on their bishop, pastor, or other Church minister making a statement about climate change.

Respondents were also asked about their beliefs that society should take steps to address human-caused climate change.

Overall, 72% believe society should take steps to combat climate change. Note this is higher than the share who believe they personally have a moral responsibility to do so (63%). Majorities of all religious sub-groups believe society should be taking steps to combat climate change. This is also the case whether each sub-group recalls hearing or reading about the Pope’s encyclical or not. However, among respondents with no religious affiliation there is a noticeable gap where 95% of those who recall hearing or reading about the Pope’s statement believe society should be taking steps to combat climate change compared to 77% who do not recall hearing or reading about this. Among Catholics there is no difference between those recalling reading or hearing about Laudato Si’ and those who are sure they did not read or hear about this.

It may be possible that the Pope’s encyclical has had a greater impact among those without a religious affiliation than Christians, and specifically Catholics. The data may indicates that Pope Francis has strengthened the case that individuals and society have a moral responsibility to act against climate change among those who are among the least religious in the United States.

One aspect of the Catholic Church that the public, and Catholics specifically, appear to get wrong about the Church and climate change is the perception that Pope Francis is the first pope to address the Church’s position on the environment and climate change. In fact his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was often referred to (including by National Geographic) as “The Green Pope.” It is also the case that Pope Saint John Paul II was also vocal about Catholics needing to respect and protect nature. Yet, 32% of all adults agree (strongly or somewhat) that Pope Francis is the first in the Church to address the environment and climate change—including 42% of Catholic adults agreeing with this statement.

Again, given the general low awareness of specific statements made by popes, it is likely the case that Catholics and non-Catholics alike are so much more aware of Laudato Si’ than something Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI or Pope Saint John Paul II said or wrote about the environment that gained less attention by the media that they believe Pope Francis is the first pontiff to address this topic.

About the CARA Catholic Poll (CCP)
CARA partnered with GfK Custom Research (formerly Knowledge Networks), a highly respected polling firm that has assembled and maintains a large national panel of U.S. households using random probability sampling to conduct the survey. GfK was founded by academic social scientists and its methodology is highly rigorous. Their surveys are regularly used in academic research that is published in peer-reviewed journals in a variety of fields as well as by journalists and the government. Contacted initially by phone (random digit dial) or mail (randomly), each participating household in the national GfK panel of households agrees to be available for online surveys. The panel is not restricted to existing computer and/or Internet users. Those persons who are sampled and asked to join the GfK panel are supplied with subsidized internet access or a television appliance to take self-administered on-screen surveys. Thus respondents take surveys on computers, televisions, tablets, or smartphones. CARA surveys in English or Spanish at the respondent’s choice. These methods ensure that GfK’s panel is reflective as possible of the national population. The panel’s coverage of the population is very high, 97 percent, well above standard telephone polling methods. 

Interviews were conducted with 1,927 respondents between May 16 and May 26, 2016. The primary sample includes 1,010 self-identified Catholics. Additionally, 917 non-Catholics were interviewed. Of the non-Catholics, 311 are Evangelical Christians. Another 357 have some other Christian affiliation. A total of 76 had some other non-Christian affiliation and 167 had no religious affiliation (including 81 with no religion and 86 who are atheists or agnostics).

Six respondents declined to state a religious affiliation. Statistical weights, created by GfK, are used to approximate the results for the U.S. adult population. A more complete description of the study and its methodology is here. For additional information about the survey contact me at or 202-687-0885.

Image courtesy of United Nations Photo.


American Catholicism Examined in Three Orbits

In the United States, about two-thirds of people raised Catholic remain Catholic as adults (67%). Among those who remain Catholic, about half attend Mass at least once a month (47%). These two statistics can help shape a conceptual “map” of Catholicism in terms of defining a core and a periphery. Some people leave the faith, others remain Catholic but rarely attend Mass (i.e., periphery), and at the core are those who stay and actively participate in their faith on a regular basis.


In this post we explore who, demographically, is most likely to fall into the core, periphery, or out of the faith. To accomplish this we have aggregated respondents to the 2008 to 2014 General Social Survey (GSS). In all, this includes 2,921 responses from people raised as Catholic.

The first set of results, in the table below (click the table image to see full-size), show where people raised Catholic have ended up in terms of religious affiliation as adults. Although two-thirds remain Catholic, 16% have become Protestants or affiliated with some other Christian church. Fifteen percent have no religious affiliation and 3% are affiliated with a non-Christian faith. Below the top line of this table are these same results by different sub-groups. People in some of these sub-groups have been more likely to stay and others more likely to leave. These differences will be explored in greater detail below. 

The second table (again, click the table image to see full-size), shows how frequently those who stay Catholic attend Mass. Overall, 25% of adult Catholics attends weekly (i.e., every week), 24% less than weekly, but at least once a month, 29% less than monthly, but at least once a year, and 22% less than once a year or never. Here again, some groups are more likely to attend frequently and others less so. 

These data reveal several narratives that can be statistically plotted. Some of these stories beg rather simple inferences, whereas others are a bit more complex. Some groups have low retention and among those who stay, low frequencies of Mass attendance. Others have high retention and among those staying, high frequency of Mass attendance. These are the “linear groups” that fall between the blue lines in the scatter plots below. Outside of these lines are some outlier groups.


You can also think of the scatter plot as having four quadrants. Two of these are “outlier zones” for Catholics. In the upper left are those with low retention rates (i.e., many raised in this group leave the faith) but have high frequencies of Mass attendance among those who remain. In the lower right quadrant are groups with high retention (i.e., many in this group stay Catholic) but lower levels of regular Mass attendance among those who have stayed. In the figures that follow a third dimension is added—the size of the raised Catholic population of each sub-group. Thus, the size of a bubble represents the relative population size for those raised Catholic, the x or horizontal axis represents the percent of this population that remained Catholic and then the y or vertical axis is the share of those who stayed Catholic as adults who attends Mass at least once a month.

The life-cycle theory of religion predicts that as people become teens and then adults their religiosity falls a bit as they leave their childhood pattern of affiliation and worship. The teens and twenties are the most common age periods for those who leave their childhood faith to make that decision. Then as people age they may choose to marry and have children and as this happens many become more religious and strongly affiliated. Finally, as they age and move into their senior years, religiosity again often rises even further. In the thirties, forties, and later some who left theory faith may even return as “reverts.”

What we see in the figure below does not represent life-cycle theory well. It is the case that Pre-Vatican II Catholics, those born before 1943, are the most likely to have stayed Catholic (82% retention) and today exhibit the highest frequencies of Mass attendance (63% at least monthly). However, the other three younger Catholic generations are clustered together around the “average” Catholic. Post-Vatican II Catholics (born 1961 to 1981) have similar retention rates to Vatican II Catholics (born 1943 to 1960). However, the younger Pre-Vatican II group is slightly more likely to attend Mass at least once a month than those of the Vatican II Generation (27% compared to 21%).


Millennials (born 1981 or later) have slightly higher retention rates than the next two older generations but are much less likely to attend Mass at least once a month (39%). There is a real divide between the Pre-Vatican II Catholics and the younger generations that is unlikely to ever be eclipsed. We can’t expect that Vatican II Catholics or those who are younger to be where Pre-Vatican II Catholics are now when they reach the same ages. As more Pre-Vatican II Catholics pass away in the future (the youngest are now 73 years old), Mass attendance and retention rates for Catholics in the United States overall are likely to fall without them being in the pews.

Where life-cycle theory may be helpful is in predicting some movement for Millennials on this figure as they age. It is likely their Mass attendance frequency will rise to levels near Vatican II and Post-Vatican II Catholics. Their bubble will also grow as more of this generation enters adulthood. The current figure includes those born 1982 to 1996 (i.e., the youngest respondents in the GSS are 18).

Marital Status
In the last few years, the Church has examined family life issues. Specifically, questions have centered on divorced and remarried Catholics as well as on declining numbers celebrating the sacrament of marriage. The figure below provides some insight into how marriage and divorce may affect Catholic affiliation and practice. The figure is also reflective of the life-cycle with younger never married Catholics looking a lot like Millennials and widowed Catholics looking a lot like Pre-Vatican II Catholics.


Following the orange lines we can see what might happen as young never married Catholics age and approach a decision to marry with likely increasing Mass attendance. Then, for some Catholics, marriage is challenged and they choose to separate from their spouse. If they cannot reconcile they may seek a civil divorce. Mass attendance is likely to fall sharply—perhaps nearly back to where it would be if one was never married. Throughout this hypothetical phasing, retention is relatively similar to the typical Catholic. Recall, that most who leave do so as teenagers or in their early twenties—likely before marrying. But some leave when they are older. Perhaps this figure reveals when that may be more likely to happen. When a divorced Catholic chooses to remarry (in the GSS we don’t know how many sought or received annulments but it is likely a small share) retention falls but also notice, among those who continue to self-identify as Catholic, Mass attendance rises a bit. It probably does not return to rates seen by those marrying and having never divorced but it is likely to be higher than those who are never married or currently divorced.

Clearly the path outlined is not generally experienced. Many marry and eventually face a life without their spouse as a widow or widower. What this figure does speak to is the crisis of faith that likely occurs with many who divorce.

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis clarified, “It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. “’They are not excommunicated’ and they should not be treated as such” (243). He adds further, “The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment. One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. The Church acknowledges situations ‘where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate’. There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned, or of ‘those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid’” (298).

Pope Francis calls for a consideration of these circumstances in noting, “it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases” (300). How Amoris Laetitia is applied in practice may, in the future, alter some of the patterns that are evident in the figure above.

So far, the figures have shown distributions that generally lie along the predicted pattern of lower retention and lower Mass attendance and higher retention and higher Mass attendance that moves from the bottom left to the top right of the scatter plots. The story of education takes a different path. As shown below, as people raised Catholic attain higher levels of education, retention likely drops and among those who remain Catholic, Mass attendance is likely quite high, relatively speaking. Retention is highest among those with a high school diploma or less with more than seven in ten staying Catholic. Yet among those who stay with this level of education, only about four or five in ten attends Mass at least once a month.


Among those who attend some college and those who obtain college degrees retention falls to less than seven in ten but among those who remain Catholic in these higher education groups, majorities attend Mass at least once a month.

CARA is currently conducting research on why some young Catholics leave the faith. One of the most surprising themes that is coming to the surface in this research is the notion among some that the Catholic faith is incompatible with science and that some have chosen science to actually be their faith. In a popular culture that increasingly sees non-belief or atheism as “smart,” some may be losing their faith and would only return if they had, as one respondent put it, “replicable, peer reviewed, conclusive proof that a deity exists and I'm guaranteed a happy after life.” That is a crisis of faith. Not the Catholic faith but just the notion of faith in general. In a culture where atheism and smart are synonymous, faith pairs with what?

Does going to college lead some to a loss of faith? Perhaps. Or is it the nature of the 21st century curriculum? I learned evolution in a Catholic school from a religious sister. A war between Catholicism and science has never seemed real to me. But most young Americans being raised Catholic today (or the recent past) are never in Catholic schools or colleges. Most aren’t even in parish-based religious education. The data seem to indicate that among those with some college or a degree who stay Catholic are more active in the faith than those with less education. Is there any correlation between these individuals ever being enrolled formally in a Catholic educational institution or program? Perhaps... Stay tuned for more on this topic as CARA is also currently conducting a major study about religion, science, and education.

Birthplace and Citizenship
Nearly half of foreign-born residents in the United States are Catholic (45%). Most are coming from countries where Catholicism is shared by large majorities of the population. When they come to the United States they encounter a very different religious culture with many new options. They may also be in a part of the country where the Church does not have many parishes or other institutions.

As shown in the figure below, foreign-born residents who are raised Catholic are more likely than those born in the United States to stay Catholic as adults and to attend Mass at least once a month. However, there is an important difference. Typically an eligible non-citizen would need to wait a minimum of three to five years to go through naturalization. Once citizenship is attained, the data indicate that retention drops slightly but among those who remain Catholic, Mass attendance is likely to rise a bit. There are many potential explanations. One possibility is that some of the foreign-born who are undocumented non-citizens may be less likely or even able to attend Mass. For example, foreign-born migrant farm workers often are visited by Catholic ministers and clergy where they work and live because it may be difficult for them to travel to the closest parish. They may also be hesitant or cautious in joining or engaging with parish communities that are unfamiliar to them.

During the period before they might be able to seek citizenship they may also become familiar with other faiths. They may be intrigued by Protestant church that is advertising an Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration. As has been frequently observed, the bigger shift in affiliation and worship may come with the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Here, retention and frequency of Mass attendance may start to look a lot like it does for all U.S. born citizens regardless of ancestry or nationality.

Race and Ethnicity
There is one noticeable outlier in terms of race and ethnicity. Black Catholics are among the most likely to leave the faith, but among those who stay, worship levels are comparatively quite high. Only 52% of black or African Americans raised Catholic remain Catholic as adults. Yet, among those who remain Catholic, a majority attend Mass at least once a month. Only about 3% to 4% of Catholics self-identify their race as black or African American. Few black or African American residents self-identify as Catholic as well—about 6% or 7%.

Why do so many Black Catholics leave? My own hunch is that it may have something to do with peers and partners. Many black Catholics may have Protestant peers and significant others. From childhood into the early twenties they may be more likely than other Catholics to be introduced to other Christian denominations and some may choose to leave the faith of their parents for the faith of their peers or partners. There may also be something related to gender that is important. In research CARA is doing in culturally diverse parishes we’ve found that 72% percent of black Catholics born in the United States, surveyed in the pews during Mass, are female and 28% are male. This is the biggest gender gap of any race and ethnicity group.

Note that non-Hispanic white adults have relatively low retention rates and among those who stay, frequency of Mass attendance is comparatively the low. By comparison, Hispanic or Latino as well as those of other some other race or ethnicity (primarily Asians, measuring approximately 4 percent of all adult Catholics) have higher retention and more frequent Mass attendance than non-Hispanic white Catholics.


Sexual Orientation
The final comparison follows the linear path. Only 56% of those raised Catholic who self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual remain Catholic as adults. Among those who stay, Catholic only about a third attend Mass at least once a month (35%). Heterosexual Catholics are at the center of the distribution with average retention rates and frequencies of Mass attendance.

As seen in the tables above, no other sub-group is more likely to have no religious affiliation than those raised Catholic who self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (28%). They are also among the least likely to switch to a Protestant denomination (11%). While a majority remain Catholic, those who do are infrequent Mass attenders, relatively speaking. Is this an issue of not feeling welcome or included in parish life?


The Catechism instructs that gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (Canon 2358). At the same time, in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis states that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (251). Yet, he also reiterates the aforementioned teachings of the Catechism and asks pastors to “avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations” (79). He adds that “It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community.  ... No one can be condemned forever because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves” (297).

Conclusions and Implications
Since 1996, CARA has been conducting in-pew surveys of parishioners at Catholic parishes across the United States. Today, we have done this in nearly 1,000 parishes. About nine in ten surveyed say their overall satisfaction with their parish is “good” or “excellent.” In part, this is because increasingly Catholics are looking for and finding a parish they like best rather than attending their territorial parish. We ask parishioners what attracted them to the parish they are in. Overall, 86% say they were attracted by their parish’s “open and welcoming spirit” and the same percentage say by the “sense of belonging” they feel in their parish. The only other factors attracting them a bit more are the quality of the liturgy (89%) the quality of the preaching (87%). There are many out there selling a secret formula for parish renewal. At CARA it’s always been simple: a good pastor and ministry staff along with an overwhelming sense of welcome. If you build that it is very likely a community will form and grow—from the core, periphery, and perhaps even further out into orbit.

Demography is not destiny and there are undoubtedly many anecdotes that do not fit the stories that emerge from the data described above. However, probabilities are useful. The patterns in the GSS data reveal which groups the Church in the United States is retaining and engaging most. The table below shows how different (and similar) these core, periphery, and formerly Catholic parishes are in the United States today:

Image courtesy of Gregory Gibson.


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.

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