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.


An Italian American Mystery

In previous posts we have looked at shifts in the racial and ethnic identities of American Catholics as well as changing identifications with national ancestry groups. Within these changes is a mystery that many may not have noticed. The percentage of adult Catholics claiming Italian ancestry has fallen off a bit in recent decades (from 18% in the 1970s to 13% in the 2000s). However, the percentage of all American adults claiming Italian ancestry has been relatively stable at about 5% to 6% from 1972 to 2010. Reading between the lines, the proportion of Italian Americans who self-identify their religion as Catholic must be falling. As the graph below shows, it is.

This is not an easy group to study, given its overall size in the total population. Generally, samples for Italian Americans are small in the General Social Survey (GSS). However, the GSS provides repetitive independent samples that can be tracked over time. Even when accounting for margins of sampling error (the bars extending out from each data point on the graph) a clear pattern of decline is evident.

If one takes the point estimates literally (ignoring margin of error for a moment), Catholic affiliation among Italian American adults has fallen from 89% in 1972 to 56% in 2010 (-33 percentage points). If you’re an optimist you can assume the higher margin of error estimates are more accurate and if you’re a pessimist go with the lows. Either way, the decline in percentage points is essentially the same. Note as this drop has occurred the overall Catholic affiliation percentage for U.S. adults has remained unchanged at 25%where it has been for decades.

Is there anything similar happening among Italians in the “home country?” No. Although the Mass attendance of Catholics in Italy has declined in recent decades, affiliation among Italians has remained in the high 80% to low 90% level (i.e., World Values Survey estimates).

It is clear that the changes in the U.S. are gradual. There is no mass exodus moment in the trend. These types of trends often speak to generational replacement. This would entail older Italian Americans who self-identify as Catholic passing away and being replaced in the adult population by younger Italian Americans who do not identify as Catholic. The socialization of Catholicism among the Italian American population appears to be breaking down.

It does not appear to primarily be an issue of children of Italian American Catholics being raised Catholic and leaving the faith. The retention rate (the percentage of those raised in the faith who remain Catholic as adults) for Italian American Catholics is actually quite high and has fallen more slowly than the overall U.S. Catholic retention rate. In the 1970s, the Italian American Catholic retention rate was 88%. This dropped a bit to 85% in the 1980s and a bit more, 82%, in the 1990s. Yet, even in the 2000s it averaged 77% (the retention rate for all Catholics in 2010 was 68%). The fall in the Italian American Catholic retention rate is not as extreme as the drop in Catholic affiliation for Italian Americans in general.

Instead, some Italian American Catholics must be choosing to raise their children in another faith or no faith at all. Why would this happen? I think (just my opinion; no real data) it has something to do with many post-World War II Italian Americans moving out of the “Little Italies”—those urban ethnic enclaves of their immigrant ancestors and into the suburbs. Here they were less likely to be around other Italians and/or Catholics and became less connected to Italian culture, language, and tradition (CARA parish surveys indicate the number of Masses celebrated in Italian have dropped by a half or more in the last decade). 

Data on the religion and ancestry of the spouses of this sub-group of the population are hard to find (i.e., even smaller samples). What is available does indicate that Italian American Catholics are increasingly likely to be married to spouses who do not share their faith. Many of the Italian American Catholics who left the old neighborhoods are no longer with us, but their kids and grandkids are. Some of them don’t share the faith of grandma and grandpa.

In the 1970s, only 11% of Italian Americans self-identified their religion as Protestant. In the 2000s this had nearly doubled to 19%. A similar increase in the non-affiliated or “Nones” has occurred, with 7 percent of Italian Americans self-identifying as Nones in the 1970s and 14 percent identifying as such in the 2000s. Again these changes exceed the pace of the drop in Italian American Catholic retention so it’s not primarily and issue of leaving. Instead it’s a story of a faith failing to be reproduced among this ancestry group.

The mystery is by no means solved and I’m no detective, but these are my deductions and data on this topic so far. Regardless, as the grandson of an Italian Catholic grandmother (the family name was Filippini) it makes me sad to see the link between this ancestry group and the Catholic faith weaken.

Above photo courtesy of nmcbean at Flickr Creative Commons.

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