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.
All bets are off...
My pre-conclave post focuses on two “bets” about the future of the Catholic Church. On the first wager I wouldn’t even put something on the table (but I'll offer some advice) and for the second I am taking my chips off...
1) The Next Pope
Who will be the next pope? Novelty betting lines overseas currently place the most favorable odds on Cardinal Turkson (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace) and Cardinal Scola (Archdiocese of Milan). My advice to anyone looking to put a wager on the outcome of the conclave is to find a wiser investment. However, one predictable pattern in the last 100 years has been that it takes, on average, 3 days for a decision with 7 ballots cast. It is interesting to see how bookies and journalists alike have framed the conclave as a likely choice between a European (likely an Italian) and someone from the Global South (likely Latin America or Africa). Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown offers up the following observation that may help guide some wagering: most of those choosing the next pope are Europeans.
At the same time, nearly half of the world’s Catholics (47.6%) reside in the Americas. Sixteen percent live in Africa and 12% in Asia. This distribution of the population is the result of changes in the last century with falling fertility rates in the “developed” post-industrial world as these have remained higher elsewhere. Life expectancy rates have also risen across the globe (often with declining maternal and infant mortality rates). With these changes the population of the “developed” world has grown more slowly than it has in the “developing” world. One “side effect” of these demographic shifts has been a blooming of global Catholicism (...as measured by the Vatican’s ASE counts or Pew’s recent research on global Christianity). The framework of the Church has not always kept pace with these changes and continues to be “lean” toward Europe. Unlike most institutions, Church history spans millennia rather than decades. It operates on a different clock. I believe it will continue to shift gradually to meet the new realities that have emerged in the last century. The selection of a pope from the Global South would likely reflect a quickening of these adjustments. At a minimum I think it might be a safe to predict that this could be one of the last conclaves where a majority of the voting cardinals were born in Europe.
There was a time early in Church history when some of the laity (e.g., nobles, officers, judges) actually had a role in the selection of the pope. You can relive a bit of this history yourself in 2013 by taking part in a some research conducted by Canadian social scientists. Their site periodically shows results of their study and thus may also provide some insight into what social scientists refer to as the “wisdom of crowds” that may guide your novelty wagering (Religion News Service also has a voting site with result here).
Fr. Reese also highlights a myth in some of the media coverage of the conclave in the notion that American Catholics don’t really care about who the next pope is because “nobody listens to him.” Former New York Times food writer Frank Bruni has done his best to trumpet this line of reasoning (he even manages to work Top Chef into the column). Yet his imagination falls a bit short of reality as even simple Google search trend data indicate more U.S. interest in the last week in Pope Benedict XVI than other news story topics falling above the fold in many newspapers. It is also the case that data reveal that American Catholics have a much more complex makeup than Bruni’s caricature. For example, a recent Pew survey concluded that, “While about half of U.S. Catholics (46%) say the next pope should ‘move the church in new directions,’ the other half (51%) say the new pope should ‘maintain the traditional positions of the church.’”
More important perhaps, no matter what U.S. Catholics may feel issue by issue, they generally like and approve of the leader of their Church. In fact, they like him more than their president—even as they may more consistently agree with the president on specific policy issues. Pew has a summary of some of the approval data for John Paul II and Benedict XVI here. I’ve added some CARA data and news media surveys to Pew’s publicly available data for Benedict XVI (...that I could analyze) in the figure below.
Even looking at Pew’s data (pg. 15) for all Americans (Catholic or not), the Pope has often had an approval rating higher than that of U.S. presidents. In light of these data it is interesting to read all the media narratives about the “Church in crisis.” For example, a recent story from The New York Times begins with the phrase, “In the waning hours of his troubled papacy...” If 74% approval among U.S. Catholics represents trouble in America, how should we characterize most recent U.S. presidencies given much lower levels of approval from the general public? Popes, perhaps rightfully so, are held to a much higher standard of approval than presidents. Can you imagine the media coverage if President Obama was ever able to achieve 74% approval? I don’t think we’d see too many references to a “troubled presidency” (...you don’t see this now with his approval at 50%).
But I also want to give The New York Times credit for putting a bit of sorely needed balance in its editorial coverage of the Church by publishing Paul Kennedy’s very thoughtful piece, “Which Catholic Church?”
2) The Latino Catholic Majority?
On to that second bet... At the same time many are contemplating the possibility of a pope from Latin America, something very odd and unexpected appears to be happening in the United States among those from Latin America or who have Latin American ancestry. At CARA we are often asked to “put a date” on when Latinos might make up a majority of the U.S. Catholic population. A few years ago, CARA’s demographic projections pointed to this possibly occurring around 2038. But an accumulation of new data all pointing in the same direction in the last few years has led me to take that bet off the table.
CARA has briefly alluded to some of these trends in previous posts (1, 2). In our national CARA Catholic Polls (CCP), the Latino percentage of the Catholic population peaked at 35% before the recession. It has consistently measured 32% in our polls since this time. The difference between 35% and 32% is within margins of error but with a consistent trend and other data “triangulating” these results it is likely that growth in the Hispanic Catholic population has stalled. Changing immigration patterns (1, 2), falling birth rates, and a decline in affiliation among Latino youth who are disproportionately becoming unaffiliated are all working together to forestall any possible Latino majority among U.S. Catholics in the near future.
It may actually take something like the selection of a pope from Latin America to counter these trends (...although nationality is even more important. For example, Mexican-American Catholics may not be any more excited about a new pope from Argentina than they would otherwise be if he was from Italy). Perhaps even more worrisome than the Latino Catholic population failing to grow as it has in the past, is that many Latino Catholics are seemingly disconnected from the institutions of the Church in the United States (...even as they continue to identify as Catholic an practice their faith outside of these institutions).
In a soon to be released report for The Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project, CARA will show results of surveys conducted in-pew in nearly 800 U.S. parishes involving more than 385,000 respondents (more than 14,400 of these respondents were surveyed as part of Emerging Models project. The rest are from CARA’s Parish Surveys). Even as 32% of U.S. adult Catholics self-identify as Hispanic or Latino in CCP surveys, only 17% of the teens and adults consistently self-identify as such in-pew, in their parishes, during Mass among the more than 385,000 people we have surveyed nationally. This likely does not come as a surprise to many pastors. In the first phase of the Emerging Models project, we asked pastors to estimate the racial and ethnic composition of their parishioners. When matched up against the realities of how the people responded in-pew the pastors’ estimates (red bars) turned out to be accurate (blue bars are Emerging Models in-pew surveys and the green bars are CARA parish surveys). This in-pew percentage is very similar to what we see in some other Catholic institutions. For example, in U.S. Catholic schools the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) estimates that only 13.9% of students in the 2011 and 2012 school year were Hispanic or Latino even as a much larger share of the school-age Catholic population is thought to be Hispanic or Latino (...estimates vary as national surveys of school-age children with a religious affiliation question are not easy to find).
The baptism trend data we profiled in a previous post along with connecting all of the recent data about Latino Catholics has put many of my bets on the future size and composition of the U.S. Catholic population on hold, awaiting more data… The first piece of which may be finding out who will lead the Church next.
Photo above courtesy of mag3737 from Flickr Commons.
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