How does the U.S. Catholic population percentage remain 25% as it has measured in surveys for decades? Robert Putnam and Bruce Campbell provide a typical argument for the religious studies field: “Such stasis in the aggregate is possible only through an influx of Catholics from another source—immigration” (American Grace, pg. 299). Yet rarely do you ever see anyone actually run the numbers to see just what the precise estimated effect immigration is having on the Catholic population. Below is an attempt to do just that. In doing this we may be discovering the impact of something else: some Catholics come home.
Let's use 2007 as an example. This is a year in which a number of major studies on religious affiliation were conducted (e.g., Pew, Putnam and Campbell, and ARIS in the following year) and it is also a recent year in which we have all the available data we need to make the calculation (there is always a lag in data collection and reporting whether it is Vatican Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, or the Department of Homeland Security). It is the case that surveys typically only include adults age 18 or older. Thus, simply applying the percentages of some of these studies to total population figures (including those under 18) may not reflect reality precisely. However, it is likely that the Catholic percentage of the under 18 population is even higher than it is for adults. Latinos in America—of which more than 60% self-identify as Catholic—are more likely to be of parenting age than those of other races and ethnicities and have a higher fertility rate than non-Latinos. Thus, there are reasons to believe that applying the adult Catholic population percentage to total population figures actually underestimates the total size of the U.S. Catholic population. It is also the case that without the Census including a question about religion, surveys are the best data source we have to study this question.
In 2007, the U.S. total population numbered about 299.4 million. Twenty-five percent of this figure is 74,849,500 and represents the survey estimated total Catholic population for this year (note: The Official Catholic Directory always lags behind survey estimates as its Catholic population figure is more of an estimate of parish-connected Catholics—excluding those who self-identify as Catholic but who are not registered with a parish nor regularly attend Mass). In 2008, the U.S. total population numbered about 301.6 million. Twenty-five percent of this figure is 75,405,289. Thus, the survey-based estimated growth in the Catholic population from 2007 to 2008 is +555,789. (Note that multiple surveys continue into 2010 to estimate the Catholic population percentage to be 25%; margin of error is not a significant issue).
So how many new Catholics can we account for in 2007 from other data sources? 1,000,118. This is the total number of additions in the U.S. through infant baptism (878,922), adult baptism (42,898), and receptions into full communion (78,298) recorded by parishes nationally in The Official Catholic Directory 2008 (excluding other territories reported there; e.g., Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico). Twelve percent of this total includes adults.
But there are also always Catholics lost in any given year. Most of these occur as older Catholics pass away. The Church recorded 442,729 deaths in 2007. However, not all self-identified Catholics have Catholic funeral services/burial. A better estimate is to assume that about 25% of all deaths that occurred in the U.S. in 2007 were Catholics (there is no reason to assume Catholics have higher mortality than non-Catholics). There were an estimated 2,423,712 deaths in the United States in 2007. Twenty-five percent of this figure is 605,928. Note that there were 1.45 infant baptisms for each Catholic who passed away in 2007.
There are also people raised Catholic who leave the faith in each year (about half losing any religious affiliation and the other half adopting a new faith). Pew estimated that 10.1% of all adults in the United States in 2007 were former Catholics. In 2007, the adult population was 225,746,092 and 10.1% of this figure is 22,800,355. Yet nowhere near 22.8 million people left the Church in one year or even one decade. CARA research and others estimate a fairly stable annual retention rate over time. Most often those leaving do so as young adults (median age of 21). CARA research indicates that the annual percentage of former Catholics leaving in any one year recently has ranged from about 2% to 3% of the total. If we assume that 2.5% of all former Catholics left in 2007, the total leavers for the year would be 570,009. Adding deaths plus those leaving the faith leads to an overall Catholic population loss estimate of 1,175,937.
That means additions to the faith through infant baptism and adult conversion in 2007 total 1,000,118 and losses by deaths or leaving the faith are estimated at 1,175,937. That leads to an estimated population deficit for the year of -175,819. Thus, through baptisms and conversions alone the Catholic Church can nearly maintain its population but not grow at the rate of the total population (175,819 represents only 0.2% of the total Catholic population of 2007). The gap between the +555,789 growth estimate for the population as measured by surveys and the estimated deficit from the inputs and outputs noted above represents 731,608 Catholics unaccounted for.
The Department of Homeland Security estimates that about 901,000 individuals arrived in the U.S. as legal permanent residents or as undocumented immigrants in 2007. Pew and other researchers estimate that the Catholic percentage of this population is typically about 46%. Thus, we can assume that at least 414,629 Catholic immigrants came to the United States in 2007. This figure narrows the unaccounted for gap noted above to 316,979.
However, note that with the addition of the immigration estimate there is now measurable Catholic population growth that can be accounted for with new American Catholics in 2007 totaling 1,414,747 and Catholic losses still estimated at 1,175,937. This puts the known net Catholic growth for the year at +238,810 (which would be a growth rate of +0.32% compared to +0.74% for the total U.S. population).
But survey estimates of the Catholic population post-2007 continue to measure that about 25% of the U.S. adult population self-identifies as Catholic (e.g., the 2008 General Social Survey estimates this to be 25.1% which is identical to the ARIS estimate of the same year). So who are the 316,979 other unaccounted for Catholics? They are “in” the survey data so where can we find them in the population?
First, it is likely that immigration estimates are slight undercounts and the Catholic percentage of immigrants may be higher than estimated. Thus, immigration could matter a bit more than estimated but immigration cannot be the only factor in maintaining the Catholic population percentage at 25%. Note that Catholic immigrants are estimated to account for about 24% of all new Catholics in the United States in 2007. And after 2007, as the recession hit, there was a decline in the number of Catholics who are foreign-born as many immigrants returned to their country of birth. Yet still in 2010, the General Social Survey estimates the U.S. Catholic population percentage to be 25.2%.
Second, it is quite possible that the estimates for the number of Catholics leaving the faith are too high. Or...
Third, the unaccounted for growth may also be related to some degree to former Catholics who have “come home.” This merely implies a renewed self-identification as Catholic and may not reflect Mass attendance. It is an understudied phenomenon. Most research in recent years has analyzed religion in terms of a single change—from a childhood faith to a new adult faith (or no faith). Yet, more switching is undoubtedly occurring. This includes those who leave their childhood faith—most likely to have no affiliation at all—who then later return to that same faith as they marry, have children, face difficulties in life, or begin to think of their own mortality.
No systematic, national, faith-specific estimates for just how many people do this annually are available from any recent studies (although we can more directly measure this in other countries where a religion question is on their census). It also appears that survey questions currently used to measure affiliation and retention may not be accurately measuring religious change in the United States.
There are some diocesan estimates of the numbers of Catholics who come home associated with specific “Catholics Come Home” campaigns. However, these fall short of something scientific and reliable as the comparison is almost always made between a diocese’s Mass attendance rate during these campaigns in Lent or Advent (where Mass attendance is always higher) to regular diocesan October headcounts (where Mass attendance is lower). This is an “apples and oranges” comparison and I would imagine that all dioceses have higher Mass attendance numbers during Lent and Advent than in October—with or without such campaigns. It is also the case that the estimates in this post pre-date any campaign by the Catholics Come Home group. These are very well-done ads I am just not aware of any scientific measurement of their effectiveness or lack thereof (although I do know of one forthcoming study that will assess the long-term effects). There are also some aspects of the fact claims made by this organization that I do not believe to be measurable (e.g., “souls returned to Church”). At the same time, regardless of any effect(s), these are great videos with really good messages.
The next phase of research on religious change—or the religious marketplace as it is often termed—should have some focus on these Catholic “returning customers.” My hunch is that once this is done the Catholic story of population growth will be more than “if it weren’t for immigration…”
Above photo courtesy of The Intrepid Traveler at Flickr Creative Commons.