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.

2.07.2013

The Growing Mystery of the "Missing" Catholic Infants


If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that despite a decade of turmoil and change many things among the adult Catholic population have remained quite steady. Mass attendance levels have shown no significant change since CARA began measuring these nationally in 2000 (...even among adult Millennials). Affiliation has hovered just under a quarter of the population for decades with a considerable number of reverts coming back to the Church after leaving in their youth. Immigration has also bolstered Catholic ranks—albeit not to the magnitude most assume. But there is also a potentially significant problem looming.

Remember at the end of the movie Back to the Future when Doc tells Marty … “You’ve got to come back with me. Back to the future. … You and Jennifer both turn out fine; it’s your kids. Something has got to be done about your kids.” That is what someone needs to say about Catholicism in the United States now, before it becomes apparent in national polls in the next decade.

Polling has a big blind spot. We generally only survey people ages 18 and older. We often don’t notice changes occurring among youth. Last week Melissa Cidade and I were looking at baptismal data from The Official Catholic Directory (OCD) to project potential future Catholic school enrollments for Catholic Schools Week. We noted that schools may face a challenge as Catholic baptisms have been down in recent years. This fits the general pattern of fertility decline occurring in the United States since the recession began in 2008. But then I matched the baptism data to the CDC’s vital statistics data for births per year in the United States and was a bit stunned. These trends are not traveling together.



From 1995 to 2004 there was about one Catholic infant baptism for every four births in the United States. This is how Catholicism remains a quarter of the population. Some leave before reaching 18 and some of these people come back later in life. Immigration also adds numbers. But after 2004 the pattern begins to shift with several years of more births (until the recession) and fewer Catholic infant baptisms. In 2011, for the first time since 1946, there were fewer than 800,000 Catholic infant baptisms in the United States. In another first (...since 1989 when more sacramental data became available in the OCD), there were more First Communions celebrated nationally in 2011 than infants baptized. 


In the graph below I show U.S. Catholic infant baptisms as a percentage of all live births in the United States for each year from 1943 to 2011 (i.e., the most recent year with available data from the Church or the CDC. OCD publication years include data from the previous year
). The U.S. birth cohort for 2011 was 20.1% Catholic. It has never been this low in the post-World War II era (...note there were slight changes in how the OCD collected/reported baptismal data beginning in 2006 that reduced the likelihood of any child baptisms being counted as infant baptisms. The data from this point on most accurately measures infant baptisms. As shown below, the decline in baptisms begins before the OCD changes. More than nine in ten children entering the Church do so within the first year of their birth).


This leads to two possibilities-one being more likely than the other:

  1. Catholics are just as likely to baptize their children now as in the past but they are having significantly fewer children than non-Catholics. Possible but unlikely.
  2. Catholics are just as likely as non-Catholics to have children but are less likely to baptize these children than in the past. More probable.

It is the case that some parents choose to baptize children later in life. But this would “catch up” in the data with more of these baptisms rolling into later years. This is unlikely the case now with a declining trend over so many years (...unless they are letting children wait to adulthood to decide for themselves). Let me emphasize that these are real data—counts of births and baptisms. We’re not dealing with surveys that would have margins of error. This is really happening. We just don’t notice it yet because much of the research on religious affiliation in the United States is derived from polling data of adults and not many of these surveys ask respondents if they are baptizing their children.

The type of ground being lost by the Church will not be easy to make up. Without many baptisms of tweens and teens the Catholic population percentage will begin to decline later in the next decade as older Catholics from higher Catholic population percentage cohorts pass on to be replaced in the adult population by these smaller percentage younger cohorts (...note that it is possible for population percentages to decline even as a population continues to grow in absolute numbers). In the last five years of data combined, the Church has baptized more than 4.5 million infants and fewer than 300,000 other children/minors. One could hope for a big uptick in Catholic fertility rates and baptismal decisions that mirror the period between 1958 and 1973 when infant baptisms regularly measured more than 30% of all births in the United States (the peak year is 1965 with 1,274,938 infant baptisms and 3,760,358 births). But this seems unlikely.

But the news may be even worse. Not all those baptized remain Catholic as adults. Many who leave the faith do so before reaching the age of 18. So to estimate “how Catholic” these post-2004 birth cohorts are likely to be when they are adults we must account for the likely Catholic retention rate (i.e., the percentage of those raised in a faith who affiliate as such as adults). It is true that the Catholic retention rate is among the highest of any of the Christian faiths. But this has also been declining in recent years. For example, in the 1973 General Social Survey (GSS) it is estimated that 88% of Americans raised Catholic remained as such as adults. In 2007, a major study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimated that this had fallen to 68%. This fits right into the pattern identified by the GSS and other studies. If we assume that this retention rate continues to decline at its historical pace (...which admittedly is not always a wise assumption), retention could fall to about 55% when those born in 2011 come of age in 2029. this would result in a 2011 native-born cohort being about 11% Catholic by the time they reach adulthood at age 18 (...excluding later child baptisms of those born in 2011 or immigrants born in that year who were baptized elsewhere who come to the United States). If the retention rate in the future is able to recapture what it was for someone coming of age in 2010 (i.e., 68% in the GSS applied to those born in 1992) this would still result in this future cohort being only about 14% Catholic.


Why is this happening? It’s difficult to say. Jumping to common sense conclusions can often lead to embarrassing results once the data are all in. Recall that after Pew’s 2007 study many seemed to think that the Catholics who had left the faith must have done so in response to clergy sex abuse of minors (Note this was not the conclusion of Pews researchers and instead the conventional wisdom of many religion reporters/commentators). But when Pew did a follow-up study in 2009 they found that few who had left cited this as a cause in their own words in an open-ended question or when it was listed as one of many potential causes in a closed-end survey question. I’d also be hesitant to say this is simply secularization (another favorite theory of those who report/comment on religion but who seem mostly unaware of the academic research on the topic) as it does not appear some of these parents are personally leaving the faith themselves. 

There are other possible explanations: 
  • Are some Catholics in interfaith marriages navigating the baptism decision differently than Catholics who marry other Catholics? 
  • Are Catholics who have children outside of marriage less likely to baptize them as infants? 
  • Are many foreign-born parents taking their infants to their country of origin for baptism? 
  • Has there been a shift in culture regarding the appropriate age for baptism? 
  • Has a reversal of immigration patterns since the recession led to fewer Catholics of child bearing age in the U.S. population?  
  • Are changing conceptions of God, heaven, and hell creeping into baptismal decision making (i.e., “my child doesn't need baptism right away”)
  • Is this simply a case of Catholicism losing its periphery with self-identified Catholics who used to baptize children but rarely go to church no longer even choosing to baptize (...while maintaining their own Catholic identity)? 

It’s a mystery to me… for now. There are too many potential causal factors to consider. Perhaps the most curious thing about these changes is that we don’t see significant shifts in Catholic affiliation among young adults of parenting age. With that said there is an alternative hypothesis regarding retention. If U.S. Catholicism is losing its “periphery,” perhaps among the remaining “core” we will see retention rates rise (...although they would be unlikely ever to approach 90% or more, still resulting in a decline in the Catholic population percentage) as the infants being baptized may be in families with more frequent Mass attendance who may be more likely to shepherd them through the childhood sacraments or enroll them in Catholic schools. This may result in a smaller but more active and observant Catholic population in the future. It’s a possibility.

Projecting into the future can be very risky business (...I teach a class on the subject). But in the baptismal data we see a future that is already here in children already born. We may one day call the post-2004 Catholic cohorts the Baby Buster Generation” if current trends continue. I am often one to caution overreactions to any piece of data. But its hard not to think that there is a pressing need to solve this mystery. Oddly it’s not about what so many others highlight about Catholics personally leaving the faith. Instead it’s about too few infants entering it. Stay tuned for more research on this topic... 

Until then we provide a look at the infant baptism and birth data sub-nationally (the latest data from the CDC for this level of analysis is for 2010). Comparing these baptismal cohort percentages to Catholic state adult population percentages we see few states “keeping up.” Notably, those that are include California, Illinois, Colorado, and Oregon. In most other states Catholic baptismal cohorts represent a smaller percentage than one would assume given the size of the adult Catholic population (survey-based, self-identified).

Baptisms and Births at the State/Territory-level, 2010

Catholic infant baptisms
Total births
Baptisms as a % of births
Guam
1,699
3,416
49.7%
Puerto Rico
20,467
42,153
48.6%
California
182,931
510,198
35.9%
New Jersey
38,116
106,922
35.6%
Rhode Island
3,804
11,177
34.0%
Massachusetts
23,791
72,856
32.7%
Illinois
53,572
165,200
32.4%
Connecticut
11,491
37,708
30.5%
New York
69,451
244,375
28.4%
Wisconsin
16,332
68,487
23.8%
Nebraska
6,142
25,918
23.7%
North Dakota
2,151
9,104
23.6%
Nevada
8,109
35,934
22.6%
Louisiana
14,068
62,379
22.6%
Pennsylvania
30,576
143,321
21.3%
Minnesota
14,094
68,610
20.5%
Texas
78,122
386,118
20.2%
Kansas
7,972
40,649
19.6%
Arizona/New Mexico
22,408
115,327
19.4%
Iowa
7,323
38,719
18.9%
Colorado
12,286
66,355
18.5%
New Hampshire
2,370
12,874
18.4%
South Dakota
2,108
11,811
17.8%
Florida
32,680
214,590
15.2%
Michigan
17,317
114,531
15.1%
American Samoa
182
1,234
14.7%
Ohio
20,158
139,128
14.5%
Oregon
6,470
45,540
14.2%
Delaware/DC/Maryland
13,207
94,330
14.0%
Hawaii
2,469
18,988
13.0%
Indiana
10,899
83,940
13.0%
Vermont
792
6,223
12.7%
Washington
10,876
86,539
12.6%
Missouri
9,561
76,759
12.5%
Wyoming
937
7,556
12.4%
Virgin Islands
178
1,600
11.1%
Idaho
2,419
23,198
10.4%
Maine
1,347
12,970
10.4%
Montana
1,216
12,060
10.1%
Virginia
10,290
103,002
10.0%
Kentucky
5,049
55,784
9.1%
Georgia
10,915
133,947
8.1%
North Carolina
8,850
122,350
7.2%
Utah
3,744
52,258
7.2%
Oklahoma
3,754
53,238
7.1%
Arkansas
2,564
38,540
6.7%
Alabama
3,763
60,050
6.3%
Alaska
691
11,471
6.0%
South Carolina
3,168
58,342
5.4%
Tennessee
3,995
79,495
5.0%
Mississippi
1,912
40,036
4.8%
West Virginia
902
20,470
4.4%
United States (territorial dioceses)
819,688
4,047,780
20.3%
 

Photo above courtesy of Herkie from Flickr Commons.

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