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.


A Portrait of Black Catholics in the United States

Surveys don’t often allow for one to say much about Americans who self-identify their race as Black, African American, Afro-Caribbean, or African and who also self-identify their religion as Catholic. It is all a problem of numbers and random selection. In a typical survey of the U.S. adult population only 1,000 people are randomly selected and interviewed. Of these, fewer than 10 respondents would be expected to self identify as a Black Catholic—far too few to make any inferences whatsoever. Even in a typical CARA Catholic Poll (CCP), in which the sample typically includes at least 1,000 randomly selected adult Catholics, fewer than 50 of the respondents would be expected to self-identify as Black or African American—still too few for an acceptable level of sampling error for this sub-group.

To obtain even a somewhat reliable portrait of the Black Catholic population in one survey requires a specially designed over-sample of this group or a very, very large survey (which is often financially prohibitive). Two of the latter have been done in recent years—The Religious Landscape Survey by Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2007 and the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) in 2008. The results presented in this post are generated from the Pew survey data (in this survey an unweighted total of 35,957 adults were interviewed of which 252 self-identified as Black and Catholic; resulting in a margin of sampling error for this sub-group of ±6.2 percentage points).

Of all adults in the Pew survey who self-identified their race as Black in the United States, 8.2% also self-identified their religion as Catholic (representing 4% of all adult Catholics in the U.S.). Extrapolating the results to the total population in 2010, it can be estimated that about 3.5 million U.S. residents self-identify as Black and Catholic (this estimate includes adults and children). 

So who are the adult Black Catholics in the United States today?
  • 83% indicated that they were raised Catholic and 17% said they converted to Catholicism at some point after being raised in another faith
  • 96% say their religion is “somewhat” or “very” important in their life (70% “very” important only)
  • 40% describe themselves as a “Charismatic” Catholic and 16% as a “Pentecostal” Catholic
  • 42% also self-identified their ethnicity as Hispanic compared to only 4% of Black Protestants (the non-Hispanic Black Catholic population represents 2.5% of the overall adult Catholic population)
  • 36% are foreign-born (20% are non-citizens)
  • 46% are married (including those married and currently separated) and 82% of these Catholics have a Catholic spouse
  • 65% describe their political views as “moderate” (33%) to “conservative” (24%) or “very conservative” (8%)
  • 39% have attended college
  • 25% make $50,000 or more per year
  • 30% are age 18 to 30 and 10% are age 65 and older
A significant number of African Americans were raised Catholic and have subsequently left the faith. The “retention rate” for Black Catholics is lower than for Catholics overall.  This rate is the percentage of those raised in the faith who are affiliated with that faith as an adult. Overall, for Catholics in the U.S the retention rate is 68%. However, among African Americans who are raised Catholic, only 57% remain Catholic as adults. Thus, 43% African Americans raised Catholic are estimated to have changed faiths at some point.

Where do these former Catholics go? Nearly two-thirds (64%) affiliate with another Christian faith. Three in ten (30%) either identify with “nothing in particular” (28%) or say they are agnostic (1%) or atheists (1%). This result is also different from the overall pattern among adult Catholics in the United States who are less likely to adopt another Christian faith if they leave Catholicism and instead are slightly more likely to identify with “nothing in particular.”  Thus, African Americans who have left the Catholic faith are more likely than all former Catholics in general to choose another Christian faith.

It is important to note that these results are only based on 252 randomly selected individuals (N=851 when using the Pew weights).  There is a need for a sampling design that increases the number of interviews in future studies for this sub-group of the Catholic population to ensure a more reliable portrait is available. Also, both the Pew and ARIS studies are based on questionnaires intended to be used by people of all faiths. Thus, there is limited content that can speak to issues that are specific to Catholicism. At the same time, these sources represent the best available data to study this sub-group of Catholics.

For those interested in more information, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Subcommittee on African American Affairs (SCAAA), the National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC), and Xavier University's Institute for Black Catholic Studies (IBCS) have additional information and resources regarding Black Catholics in the United States.

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