Tuesday, October 12 is the 518th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas (at a location in what is now The Bahamas). Although we know Columbus was Catholic there is still some debate of his nationality and ancestry. Most believe that he was from Genoa, in present-day Italy.
The story of Catholicism in America is deeply rooted in waves of immigration that followed well after Columbus. These waves are often remembered today in how American Catholics self-identify their ancestry, which we can measure in polls. For some there is no knowledge or memory of this and these people often just say they are of “American” ancestry. While others still deeply identify with the country of their grandparents or great grandparents, etc.
Yet when one looks at polling data on ancestry for Catholics there are always a few surprises. Perhaps the biggest is that Irish Americans are more likely to be Protestant than Catholic. This has been noted among academics (e.g., “How the Irish Became Protestant in America” by Michael Carroll in Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 16, No. 1 and “The Success and Assimilation of Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics in the United States” by Andrew M. Greeley in Sociology and Social Research, Vol. 72, No. 4) but is less well known among the media and general public who often assume that Irish and Catholic are virtually synonymous.
On average, only 35% of Americans who say they are of Irish ancestry self-identify their religion as Catholic. By comparison, nearly half of this group (47%) indicates their religion as Protestant.
It is the case that Americans of Italian ancestry are more likely to be Catholic than any other faith (on average between 1994 and 2008, 65% of Americans of Italian ancestry self-identified as Catholic. Although in the most recent GSS survey, in 2008, only 59% of Italian Americans indicated they are Catholic). However, few Americans may realize that there are almost as many adult Catholics today who say they are of German ancestry as there are who say they are of Italian ancestry (even with only about 17% of those of German ancestry self-identifying as Catholic. More Americans claim German ancestry than any other).
The graph below shows the average percentage of adult Catholics in the United States who identify ancestry with countries that have had significant immigration to the Americas in the last 150 years. Each bar represents a decade average with the orange bar showing the last decade.
Overall, the biggest recent shift has been in the number of adult Catholics who self-identify their ancestry with a Latin American country and specifically with Mexico. We have commented elsewhere about the generational shift in the racial and ethnic composition of the Catholic population. Along with this change, Mexican ancestry has grown larger than Italian or Irish ancestry among American Catholics. In the most recent GSS survey, 69 percent of American adults of Mexican ancestry self-identified as Catholic.
Above photo courtesy of Dominic's pics at Flickr Creative Commons.