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.


Is Partisanship Trumping Faith?

The electoral system in the United States (first-past-the-post with single member districts) generates a two party system. Sociologically speaking, this is not a great outcome. It leads to resilient party bonds almost like a form of tribal membership. In dichotomies, people tend to operate with strong in-group, out-group attitudes and behaviors. They favor their in-group, often to irrational extremes, and disfavor the out group strongly. The in-group is believed to be ideal—especially when it is compared to the evil incarnate out-group. In the age of cable news and social media this quasi-tribalism has developed a new wrinkle—fandom. People have begun to operate as if their party affiliation is the core of their personality and worldview.

For Catholics there is an additional hurdle. They are essentially politically “homeless” in this two party system. Both party platforms have major components which conflict with Church teachings and directives. It is argued that Democrats are often out of step in terms of life issues, with the exception of the death penalty, and Republicans are often inconsistent with issues regarding the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable—including the social safety net and the treatment of immigrants and refugees. Again arguably, there are many other inconsistencies. At the same time, each party is consistent with the Church on some issues as well.

Most Catholics in the U.S.—more than 8 in 10—enter the Church as infants. They acquire an awareness of the political system and partisanship in their tween and teen years—often taking cues from parents, other family, and peers. Some never choose to politically affiliate or switch affiliations at some point. So how does one come to be a Catholic Democrat or a Catholic Republican? Well, more often than not, Catholicism takes a back seat to party and people gravitate toward emphasizing the issues in which their party is consistent with the Church when the topic of religion comes up.

The U.S. bishops, in their election document Faithful Citizenship, explain, “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position [emphasis added]. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.” In short, when choosing who to affiliate with or vote for, Catholics should not affiliate with or vote for a party or candidate specifically because they hold a position inconsistent with Church teachings. However, they should vote for a candidate or party because they specifically do offer policies that are consistent with Church teachings. 

In one sense, Catholics have actually become less partisan over time. In 1972, according the General Social Survey (GSS), about seven in ten Catholic adults identified either as a Democrat or as a Republican. This has declined over time and in 2016, only 58% identified with a party (23% don’t identify with a party but “lean” towards one and 19% are independents or support some “third” party). This shift occurred as fewer Catholics affiliated with the Democrats (54% in 1972 to 36% in 2016) and more with the Republicans (15% in 1972 to 22% in 2016).

Thus, today, 42% are “non-identifiers” with either major party. They’ve embraced their political homelessness, for now. Even without a party home one could still believe in an ideology—which is also an important component of American political culture. In 1974, according to the GSS, 24% of adult Catholics identified as a Left or Right “ideologue” (extremely liberal, liberal, conservative, or extremely conservative). In 2016, 32% claimed a liberal or conservative ideology. Most Catholics, 68% are either moderates (42%) or only “slightly” liberal (11%) or “slightly” conservative (15%). Once you combine ideology and partisanship together you get this distribution:

About one in ten Catholics are liberal Democrats (9.8%) and slightly fewer are conservative Republicans (8.2%). Most are unaffiliated and non-ideological (30.5%). The rest are some combination of party affiliation without ideology or ideology without affiliation, and then one last group where party affiliation and ideology are seemingly inconsistent. These Catholics “in the middle” are presumably those most open to policies and candidates that do not meet the rigid partisan and ideological positions of the two major political parties. They may be more able to find a space for their faith in their political discernment and choices.

Altogether 21% of Catholic adults have a partisan affiliation and a conservative or liberal ideology. As shown below, this is the same as adults without any religious affiliation (i.e., Nones) and similar to other non-Christians. However, one in four Christians who are not Catholic have a partisan affiliation and are ideological. Only the religiously unaffiliated are more likely than Catholics to be unaffiliated with a political party and without a conservative or liberal ideology.

Over time, the number of unaffiliated and non-ideological Catholics has grown. In the 1970s, 28% of Catholics were without party or ideology and this remained stable through the 1980s and 1990s. In the 2000s, this group increased its share to 33% of Catholics and has inched up another percentage point in the 2010s. A key difference in terms of religious practice is that those with partisan affiliations and ideologies are more likely than those without these to be in the pews at Mass regularly. About a third of the affiliated and ideological attends Mass weekly (another 24% attends monthly) compared to only 19% of the non-ideological and unaffiliated attending weekly (another 24% attends at least once a month).

Politically, issue-to-issue, there are not large differences between Catholic Republicans, Democrats and those unaffiliated with a party. Yet, there is a high-profile basket of issues—often those most likely to be in the news where sharp divisions, even polarization, emerges. Sometimes Democrats are out of step with the Church and at other times Republicans are.

For example, look below at the distribution of respondents, by party affiliation, for the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) question about abortion. Yes, Republicans respond differently than Democrats but not to the extremes seen in many other questions. Note that there are many Democrats who do not support abortion as a matter of personal choice (50%) and there are Republicans who do (29%). Many Catholics simply do not take the cues from their political parties on abortion as they do on some other big issues. They also often aren’t agreeable with what the Church teaches.

Data from the GSS, over time, show that Catholics, all U.S. adults, and every other conceivable sub-group that can be measured (including weekly Mass attending Catholics) have a divided opinion on abortion. It all comes down to circumstance more than political party or faith. A majority of Catholics do not support legal abortion for “any reason,” pregnancy without marriage, being unable to afford more children, or just not wanting more children. Majorities support legal abortion if the pregnancy is a result of a rape, that the woman’s health is seriously endangered, or there is a strong chance of birth defect with the child. This divide has been stable over time since the 1970s.

Also in the GSS, strong majorities of Catholics oppose assisted suicide for people who are tired of living and who are ready to die. They’ve consistently opposed this since the late 1970s. At the same time, majorities of Catholics have also supported and continue to support allowing for assisted suicide if a patient has a disease that can not be cured and has a desire to die. (...The only life issue showing significant change over time has been a rising opposition to the death penalty for convicted murders. Currently, 41% of Catholics oppose this compared 27% in 1988).

There is a greater divide among Catholics, by party, on an issue like gun control. Seventy-seven percent of Catholic Democrats support making it more difficult in the future for people to buy a gun. Thirty-seven percent of Republicans agree but a majority would like to keep the rules for gun buying the same (56%). Few, of any affiliation, would like to see it become easier to buy a gun in the future. Just as a note, the USCCB’s Faithful Citizenship cites the importance of “supporting reasonable restrictions on access to assault weapons and handguns.”

There is undivided support among Catholics for increases in federal spending on dealing with crime (The USCCB also notes the importance of “effective responses to violent crime”). Seventy-two percent of Republicans support this as do 69% of Democrats, and 66% of those unaffiliated with a party. About a quarter of each group would like this funding kept the same. Few of any party affiliation would like to see this funding decreased.

What about immigration? Here too Catholics are not always fractured by party as some might assume. As shown below, majorities of Catholic Democrats, Republicans, and those unaffiliated with a political party favor unauthorized immigrants now living in the United States to remain and qualify for U.S. citizenship if they meet certain requirements (i.e., “like paying back taxes and fines, learning English, and passing background checks”). Indeed, one in four Republicans would like to make all unauthorized immigrants felons and then send them back to their country (along with 8% of Democrats and 13% of the politically unaffiliated). Yet, three in four Republicans would seek to allow them to remain under various scenarios. On the part of the USCCB they would like to see “comprehensive immigration reform that offers a path to citizenship, treats immigrant workers fairly, prevents the separation of families, maintains the integrity of our borders, respects the rule of law, and addresses the factors that compel people to leave their own countries.”

Support for the children brought by unauthorized immigrant parents to be allowed to stay is even more widespread. Seventy-three percent of Catholic Republicans support this as do 87% of Democrats and 81% of those without a party affiliation. Yet, there are some immigration questions with less consistency across party identifications. For example, 75% of Republicans oppose allowing Syrian refugees to come to the United States (6% favor this and 19% neither favor nor oppose). Democrats are no mirror image. Despite the Church’s call to support refugees only 33% of Catholic Democrats favor bringing Syrian refugees to the U.S. (32% oppose it and 35% neither support nor oppose this). The USCCB is clear in noting, “The Gospel mandate to ‘welcome the stranger’ requires Catholics to care for and stand with newcomers, authorized and unauthorized, including unaccompanied immigrant children, refugees and asylum-seekers, those unnecessarily detained, and victims of human trafficking.”

There is one immigration issue where political polarization is very clearly evident. Sixty percent of Catholic Republicans favor building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. By comparison, 65% of Democrats oppose this. As shown below, non-partisans have a divided opinion about the wall. Echoing a sentiment he has made numerous times, Pope Francis remarked to a general audience in February 2017 that “In the social and civil context as well, I appeal not to create walls but to build bridges.” The USCCB has advised, “The right and responsibility of nations to control their borders and to maintain the rule of law should be recognized but pursued in a just and humane manner.”

As one might expect there is also a divide on an issue like climate change but upon closer inspection there remains some common ground. This of course is an issue that Pope Francis has focused a lot of his attention on. The USCCB is clear as well, “Our Conference offers a distinctive call to seriously address global climate change.” Fewer than one in five Catholics of any partisan affiliation believe that rising global temperatures occur mostly through natural causes. Where a difference emerges is in just how much the human contribution to climate change is. Democrats are divided on whether it is mostly human activity (44%) or equally human activity and natural causes (40%). Republicans are more likely to believe there is some natural causes contributing along with human activity (60%) rather than humans being mostly responsible (21%). Regardless, whether Democrat or Republican there is common agreement that human activity is contributing to climate change. There is disagreement in how much. Those unaffiliated with a party have views similar to Democrats.

Oddly, perhaps the greatest polarization among Catholics, likely caused by partisanship, is related to issues of wealth and poverty—one area of policy and law that should be clear to any Catholic from the Gospel to the Catechism, to Faithful Citizenship. While previously noting the agreement among Catholics of different party affiliations regarding federal funding for dealing with crime, there is not the same shared point of view for federal funding for aid to the poor. Sixty-two percent of Democrats would like to see this increased compared to only 31% of Republicans and 34% of those unaffiliated with a party. Nearly half of these two latter groups would like this funding to stay at current levels. More than one in five Republicans would like to see this funding decreased (as do 10% of Democrats and 18% of those without a party affiliation).

Divides are also evident in responses to questions about government involvement in reducing income inequalities (note: there is broad and strong agreement among Catholics of all party affiliations for laws requiring employers to pay men and women the same amount for the same work). Democrats strongly favor, at 78%, increasing income taxes on people making over $1 million a year. While a majority of Republicans do as well (54%), many oppose (20%) or neither favor nor oppose (26%) this proposition. Those who are unaffiliated with a party closely mirror Democrats.

Finally on the economic front, a slight majority of Democrats favor the government trying to reduce the difference in incomes between the richest and poorest households (56%). Fewer Republicans (30%) and those unaffiliated with a party (40%) favor this method of reducing inequality. Sizeable numbers of all groups neither favor nor oppose this step and Republicans are most likely to oppose it (46%).

While there is some polarization—largely driven by partisanship—among U.S. Catholics, there is common ground as well. Perhaps more important, a sizeable number of Catholics aren’t rooting for either “team.” Looking back at the figures above, if you focus on the purple bars—representing those unaffiliated with a political party—you’ll notice that these Catholics are the most consistent with the Church’s positions on issues, with one important exception. Republicans are more consistent with the Church’s position on the legality of abortion than any other group. That’s not saying much when the total share of Republicans who are congruent is just 19%. However, 40% of those unaffiliated with a party believe abortion should be legal as a matter of personal choice, which is about as far from the position of the Church as one could get.

On other issues though, the “purple” non-partisan Catholics, as a majority, support: more gun control (57%), that unauthorized immigrants be allowed to remain and qualify for citizenship if requirements are met (63%), that unauthorized immigrant children who have lived in the U.S. for at least 10 years and graduated from high school should be allowed to live and work in the U.S. (81%), that aid to the poor should not be reduced (82%), that employers should be required to pay women the same amount as men for the same work (87%), and increasing taxes on people making over $1 million a year (72%). As a plurality this sub-group opposes building a wall on the border (43%), believes climate change is caused mostly by human activity (41%), and favors the government taking steps to reduce income inequality (40%). Neither Catholic Democrats nor Republicans are this consistent with the positions of the Church.

In recent elections, Catholics are the only major religious group that has switched the party it votes for over time. Protestants vote Republican in each election. Non-Christians and the religiously unaffiliated vote for Democrats each time. According to Exit Polls, in 2000, 2002, 2006, and 2008 Catholics voted in the majority for Democrats. In 2004, 2010, 2014, and 2016 Catholics voted for Republicans (2012 was a 50/50 split). I believe this is related to a metaphorical “drinking problem.” There is realistically only red and blue “Kool-Aid” on the table in our party system. Have Catholics, over time, been mixing these into something purple? Unfortunately, in any given election you have to choose one or the other (I’ll stay “politically sober” and stick with clear water). The key for the Church is to have Catholics choose, using their informed conscience, but to then not buy so strongly into the tribalism and fandom of partisanship as it exists today. Doing so could prevent Catholics from seeking common political ground that is more consistent with their common faith. That ground does exist in many of the figures shown above. Yet the issues where polarization is evident tend to burn more brightly at this time...

This post is a summary of what I presented at “Overcoming Polarization in a Divided Nation Through Catholic Social Thought” on June 4, 2018. This event was organized and hosted by Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. For more about Catholic partisanship and voting check out Catholics and US Politics After the 2016 Elections: Understanding the Swing Vote (Eds. Marie Gayte, Blandine Chelini-Pont, and Mark J. Rozell. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). I wrote the chapter on “Catholics and the 2016 Elections.”

Inkblot image courtesy of Håkan Dahlström.


Is It Healthy to be Catholic?

Religion and health are a thing. There is even a journal devoted to the topic. The correlations between being religious and being in good health are numerous (extensive meta-analysis here). Religious people are less likely to smoke and more likely to exercise than non-religious people. Religious people eat healthier diets and have lower blood cholesterol levels than the non-religious. Yet, those healthier diets and more exercise have not led religious people to necessarily have lower body weights, on average, than the non-religious. Healthier lifestyles of religious Americans do appear though to impact heart health and blood pressure relative to the outcomes of non-religious people in the country. The religious also have higher functioning immune and endocrine systems, on average. Religious Americans are even less likely to get cancer than the non-religious and when they do get a diagnosis they often have a better prognosis for recovery. All of this leads to a rather surprising conclusion:

“The most impressive research on the relationship between R/S [religion and/or spirituality] and physical health is in the area of mortality. ... At least 121 studies have examined relationships between R/S and mortality. … Considering the 63 methodologically most rigorous studies (quality ratings of 8 or higher), 47 (75%) found R/S predicting greater longevity (two at trend level), whereas three (5%) reported shorter longevity. Another systematic review and two meta-analyses have confirmed this relationship between R/S and longer survival. The effects have been particularly strong for frequency of attendance at religious services in these three reviews. Survival among frequent attendees was increased on average by 37%, 43%, and 30% (mean effect being 37% across these reviews). An increased survival of 37% is highly significant and equivalent to the effects of cholesterol lowering drugs or exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation after myocardial infarction on survival.”
–Harold G. Koenig, M.D., Duke University, “Religion, Spirituality, and Health: The Research and Clinical Implications

The potential pathways for these outcomes are numerous. Religious people tend to be members of religious communities and these offer support in a variety of ways. Being religious may also reduce stress and have other positive psychological benefits that are related to physical health outcomes. Religious people, on average, also appear to be less likely than non-religious people to engage in behaviors that come with increased health risks.

But how healthy is Catholicism? According to the General Social Survey (GSS) the average Catholic adult male is 5 feet 8 inches and weighs 189 pounds. The average adult female is 5 feet 4 inches and weighs 158 pounds. Body Mass Index (BMI) combines this information into a single number that indicates whether one is underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese. The average Catholic adult has a BMI of 27.2. This is lower than people of other affiliations. Overall, 36% of adult Catholics are of a normal weight (a small percentage are underweight). About four in ten are overweight and about a quarter are obese. Again, these numbers are generally better than those of other religious affiliations and similar to those with no religious affiliation (“None” are also disproportionately younger with an average age of 40.6 compared to 47.7 for Catholics and 50.5 for other Christians). As existing research shows, the GSS confirms that religion and spirituality are not linked to lower weights. However, among the religious, Catholics appear to be the least likely to be obese.

Most Catholics say they are in excellent or good health and are more likely to say this is excellent than those of other religious affiliations. Those without an affiliation are just as likely to say they are in excellent health. There is a relationship between one’s BMI and their self-reported health. Americans of a normal weight are most likely to report being in excellent or good health. Those who are overweight are less likely to do so and those who are obese are least likely to self-report this.

Catholics are less likely than those of other religious affiliations to report they have ever been diagnosed with high blood pressure, arthritis, depression, or diabetes. Those without a religious affiliation have a similar health profile to Catholics with an additional reduced risk of arthritis (again likely related to average age differences). Here again, with each illness, the higher your BMI, the more likely you are to have had a diagnosis. Thirty-eight percent of obese adults have been diagnosed with high blood pressure compared to 13% of those with normal weights. Twenty-two percent of obese respondents indicated they had a diagnosis of arthritis compared to 10% of those with normal weights. Fifteen percent of the obese have diagnosed diabetes compared to 4% of those with normal weights. Even depression is slightly more common among adults with obesity than those with normal weights (18% compared to 13%).

Thirty-eight percent of those with normal weights report that they are very happy (an additional 55% are pretty happy). Only 28% of those with obesity say they are very happy (61% say they are pretty happy). Christians in America, whether they are Catholic, Protestant, or some other affiliation, are more likely than those of other religious affiliations or no affiliation to say they are very happy.

While the GSS offers only one snapshot for these questions it is a remarkable one in that Catholics appear to be among the healthiest of Americans in body and mind. We can assume spiritual health likely correlates well with these aspects. The GSS does show that Catholics who attend Mass more frequently are more likely than infrequent attenders to say they are very happy.

Overall differences in health between Catholics and others are small but consistently positive. While no one should be writing prescriptions for Catholic baptisms yet it does appear that there are certainly no ill health effects from being a member of the faith in the United States. 

Update: I had a reader ask about running regressions and I took a look with OLS and Logit (where appropriate) to test the findings further. Catholics, controlling for age, gender, and years of education have a lower BMI (by 0.83) than non-Catholics (p = .03). Catholics are also less likely than non-Catholics to have been diagnosed with hypertension (p = .01). Note that non-Catholics includes those with religious affiliations and those without a religious affiliation. The relationships between Catholicism and self-reported health, arthritis, depression, and diabetes do not achieve statistical significance controlling for these other factors. More highly specified models may reveal more but it is safe to say two important health factors, BMI and hypertension, passed regression analysis with standard controls. There is indeed something more here to explore...

Doctor photo courtesy of Alex Proimos.


A Dip in the Adult Catholic Population

The U.S. adult population grew by 6.3% from 2010 to 2016. Growth in the numbers of adults self-identifying as Catholic have not kept pace and are falling into negative territory, according to an analysis of survey data in combination with Census numbers for adults. Since 2010, the adult Catholic population in the United States has declined by 0.9% (equivalent to a net loss of 511,558 adults affiliating). The number of adult Catholics declined from 59.1 million in 2010 to 58.6 million in 2016. The rate of decline has been nearly identical for Hispanic adult Catholics (-0.8%, 176,296 fewer affiliated) and non-Hispanic adult Catholics (-0.9%, 335,262 fewer affiliated).

The share of U.S. adults who self-identify as Catholic declined from 25.2% in 2010 to 23.5% in 2016. The share of Hispanic adults who self-identify as Catholic declined from 63.1% in 2010 to 53.8% in 2016. At the same time, there was strong growth in the overall Hispanic adult population of 16.3% between 2010 and 2016. So even with the drop in Catholic affiliation, the share of all adult Catholics who self-identify their ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino did not change from 2010 to 2016 and remains at 35.4%.

What is Happening?
Population changes have several components. There are births, deaths, and immigration factors to consider. When looking at adult populations specifically because the Census does not ask religion questions and surveys are generally only done with those 18 and older, one must also consider changes in the cohorts entering the adult population over time. Finally, one must account for changes in religious affiliation (i.e., people converting in and switching out).

In 2009, the overall fertility rate in the United States was 2.0. This is very near the “replacement rate” of 2.1 where the population is “replacing itself.” Fertility fell with the recession and had not recovered by 2015 when the fertility rate was 1.84. Americans are having fewer and fewer children, even as they report similar numbers of “ideal numbers of children” in the General Social Survey (GSS) as respondents did in the past.

What about Catholics? Religion-specific fertility rates are not something that can be calculated by the Census Bureau or CDC with existing data. However, in the GSS we can derive estimates of the number of children Catholic women are having over time. As shown in the figure below, there was a big shift from women born in the 1920s and 1930s (having children in the late 1930s to as the early 1980s) to women born in the 1940s and on. However, a generally shared pattern is evident across cohorts from those born in the 1950s to the 1990s. In the data we can see, it appears Catholic women are, on average, having children just above the replacement rate by their 50s. It is far too early to know if this will continue for Catholic women born in the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, there is nothing in the data now that points to a significant change.

The best indicator of the numbers of infants and children entering the Catholic Church is in baptism data (from The Official Catholic Directory or OCD). Here is the first sign of something amiss. The figure below shows the number of new people entering the Church as minors and as adults annually. In 1996, there were 1.15 million new entrants (87% under the age of 18 and 13% age 18 or older). In 2016, these numbers had declined by 28% with 828,702 entering the Church (88% under the age of 18 and 12% age 18 or older). The declines have been similar for both minor and adult entries.

This means there are fewer new Catholics entering the faith every year. The light green bars consist mostly of infant baptisms. Thus, most of these entries are not yet adults from 2001 and later. These declines are not yet measured in national polls but will become evident in the coming years. Where they are very evident now is in enrollment numbers at Catholic schools and parish-based religious education programs. In fact, those baptized in 2003 or later are the next Catholic generation coming of age after the Millennials. At CARA, we have chosen to call them the iGen Catholics. They are on track to be a smaller cohort than their Millennial elders.

If Catholics are continuing to have children at similar rates as in the past why are baptisms decreasing?  Why would a Catholic parent not bring a child to the Church for baptism? Here it might be related to another sacrament—marriage. According to the GSS in the 1970s, nine in ten Catholic mothers between the ages of 18 and 49 were married. In the 2010s, only 62% are married. Nearly a quarter have never married. These parents may be reluctant to come to the Church for baptism of a child. In fact, there is one category of baptisms that is increasing in the Church in the United States. These are baptisms of children and teens (i.e., age 1 to 17). Some Catholic parents are perhaps waiting to baptize until they are married? (Note: we have explored alternative hypothesis).

With marriage there is another potential complication. While the number of Catholics marrying had been in a bit of decline since the mid-1990s, this began to change in 2011 as the economy came out of recession, as shown in the figure below (estimates are made using government data on marriages, surveys, and the number of Catholic marriages reported in the OCD). At the same time, now more than ever, these marriages often do not occur in the Catholic Church. In 1970, three in four Catholics who were getting married got married in the Church (426,309 marriages out of an estimated 565,124 Catholics marrying in this year). This fell below 50% for the first time in 1982 when 347,445 Catholics married in the Church. Yet, as recently as 1996, half of Catholics marrying were still getting married in the Church. After 1996, a slow decline began and by 2016 only 144,148 unions were celebrated in Catholic parishes (29% of all Catholics marrying in this year).

Thus, even among Catholic parents who are married and have had their first child, there may be some hesitancy to bring that child to the Church for baptism if they had not married in the Church. If they had children before marrying (…or were simply living together at the same address) they may also be hesitant to seek marriage in the Church.

It is also important to note that marriage in the Church has an important “rebound” effect on adult entries. The most common reason given by adults converting to Catholicism for switching their religion is that they are marrying a Catholic. Fewer marriages in the Church between Catholics and non-Catholics will result in fewer adult entries into the faith. In 2015, 23% of marriages in the Church were between a Catholic and non-Catholic spouse. In 1996, 31% of marriages in the Church were between Catholics and non-Catholics and there were more marriages celebrated overall.

Even with the declines in total annual entries, more than 700,000 new Catholics under 18 added to the population every year is still a significant sum. But how many of them stay Catholic? This is another issue of concern when thinking about population changes. According to the GSS, prior to 1994, about eight in ten or more adults raised Catholic remained Catholic as adults (i.e., when surveyed). This “retention rate” fell into the 70%-79% range through 2008. Since that time, about two-thirds of adults raised Catholic remain Catholic now (there are even higher retention rates among adult entrants. Also it is important to note that some Catholics who leave return later as “reverts”). The figure below shows recent changes in retention rates among Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholics. What is notable here is a drop in retention rates among Hispanics raised Catholic from 77% in 2010 to 69% in 2016.

This drop in retention has resulted in a decline in the affiliation rate for Hispanics. As previously noted, in 2010, 63% of Hispanic adults in the U.S. self-identified as Catholic. Only 54% did so in 2016. Retention and affiliation rates among non-Hispanic Catholics have remained stable in the short-term. Declining affiliation among Hispanic Catholics should be of great concern to the Church because a majority of Catholics under the age of 18, those of the iGen, are Hispanic.

To put these changes into a bigger context we can look at what changes occur over time among U.S. adults by ancestry to a particular country (as reported in the GSS). As shown in the figure below, descendants of people who immigrated from countries where Catholicism is widespread often show diminishing affiliation over time. Coming from a very Catholic country to one with abundant religious pluralism and religious freedoms is a dramatic cultural change. It should not be surprising that religious switching out of Catholicism occurs across generations. I often think of this as a “regression toward the mean.” That mean in the United States is about a quarter of the population who self-identifies as Catholic. If this is the case, we might expect Hispanic Catholic affiliation rates to continue to fall in the coming years. It is also the case Hispanic affiliation rates are dependent on where Hispanic immigration is coming from. In the United States, majorities of self-identified Mexicans, Dominicans, and Salvadorans self-identify their religion as Catholic. However, minorities of Cubans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans say they are Catholic.

Another factor to consider is mortality. Assuming that Catholics are not more or less likely to die than others in the United States we can use Gallup’s Catholic affiliation percentage along with government data on deaths to estimate the number of Catholics who die each year. This can be subtracted from new entrants. Here the Catholic Church has long been in positive territory and remains so today. There are more new Catholics entering the faith each year than those who pass away. Yet the margins are tightening.

In 1996, there were an estimated 578,750 Catholic deaths. By comparison, 1.15 million entered the faith in this year. That’s a net difference of more than 570,000. Parish reported funerals for 1996 indicate that about 80% of Catholics who passed away in that year received a Church funeral and/or burial. In 2015, there were an estimated 640,076 Catholic deaths. Nearly 870,494 new entrants joined the faith in this year for a net gain of 215,044. Also notable, only 63% of Catholics who died in this year likely received a Church funeral and/or burial. Just as with baptisms and marriages, we have a bit of a mystery. Why are fewer Catholics coming to the Church to bury their elders who have passed away?

The last factor to consider, which is difficult to estimate, is immigration. But we do know that 39% of foreign born adults in the United States self-identified their religion as Catholic in 2016 compared to 50% in 2006. That is a big shift. In addition to Hispanic Catholic retention rates and affiliation rates falling it also the case that some foreign-born Hispanic Catholics who used to reside in the United States have left. In some cases, the numbers moving out are larger than those coming into the United States (see: More Mexicans Leaving Than Coming to the U.S.).

In the end, a net Catholic population loss of -0.9% or -511,558 adults between 2010 and 2016 is a relatively minor event. At the same time, there seem to be a lot of moving parts to the shifts in the Catholic population going on underneath this change. Understanding the decline in new entrants is essential. This is a dynamic that is happening at the level of the family where it meets the parish community. Something is disconnected. Trends in retention rates are also troubling. The median age young Catholics are leaving the faith is 13 with about half joining another religion and the other half having no affiliation.

Is this all the canary in coal mine? No. Globally, the Church continues to grow and the United States represents less than 6% of the world’s Catholics. What I have described above is the best current view of the data we have in this country. I’ve presented a few hypotheses. There are many more. It is also easy to think these changes are related to something that the Church specifically is or is not doing. Yet many other affiliations are experiencing much more significant declines. Generally speaking, these trends are also likely to be related to broader shifts in popular culture, the economy, the family, and to bring it back to the iGen—technology. There is so much more to explore. Stay tuned to this blog...

Resources used for these estimates:
U.S. Census and CDC
General Social Survey
Pew Research Center, Hispanic Trends
Child Trends
The Official Catholic Directory

Search This Blog

Blog Archive

© 2009-2017 CARA, Mark M. Gray. Background image courtesy of muohace_dc.