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.


U.S. Partisan Temperatures Are Rising but Catholics Stay Somewhat Cooler

The number of “strong partisans” is rising in the United States and is most prevalent among older Americans. Since 1972, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked a representative sample of U.S. adults, “Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a Republican, Democrat, Independent, or what?” Following this they are asked about the strength of this identification. The share that say they are strong Democrats or Republicans peaked in 2021 for each generation. 

Nearly half of Silent Generation Americans (born 1925-42) are a strong partisan. More than four in ten Baby Boomers (born 1943-60) are strong partisans. Younger generations trail behind these two older cohorts with a third of Generation X (born 1961-81) and about one in five Millennials (born 1982-2005) identifying as strong partisans.

Among the Silent Generation, the share identifying as strong Democrats is at an all-time high of 28% and those identifying as strong Republicans is at 20% just below its 21% peak in 2004. Twenty-four percent of Baby Boomers self-identify as strong Democrats and 18% as strong Republicans. These are also peaks for this generation. Generation X has never had so many self-identifying as strong Republicans at 16%. This is similar to the 17% identifying as strong Democrats (although 18% identified as such in 2008). Fifteen percent of Millennials are strong Democrats, an all-time high for the group, and 6% are strong Republicans just below their high of 7% strong Republican in 2006.

One of the segments of the adult population that is not keeping up with the rise in strong partisanship is self-identified Catholics. Since the mid-1980s, Catholics have been less likely than non-Catholics in the United States to either be a strong Democrat or a strong Republican. Generally, about 18% to 30% of Catholics have typically been strong partisans during the 1972 to 2021 period. Since the early 2000s, 30% of more of non-Catholics have been strong partisans.

In 2021, Catholics had never been more likely to be strong Republicans at 13%. More are strong Democrats, 17%, but this share is well below the Catholic peak of 23% strong Democrat in 1972. In 2021, non-Catholics were more likely to be strong Republicans than at any time since 1972 at 21%. Fewer non-Catholics in 2021 were strong Democrats at 17% (below a peak for this group of 21% strong Democrat in 1972).


Catholic Mass Attendance Returning to Normal in Polls… How About in the Pews?

In the previous post we showed that Catholic affiliation was relatively unaffected by the pandemic. Now, there is also evidence that Mass attendance may have returned to pre-pandemic levels among U.S. Catholic adults. Weekly attendance dipped to 17% in late 2020 and early 2021 according to the General Social Survey (GSS). Yet, at this year’s end, it appears just fewer than a quarter are attending Mass weekly—or at least that is what they are reporting in CARA’s polls. This is similar to results in CARA and GSS surveys in years prior to the pandemic.

The changes shown above generally track with what CARA estimates using Google Trends data. What do you see in your parish? Are the numbers of people in the pews back to what you remember before the pandemic?


Some Americans Disaffiliate During the Pandemic: Catholics Hold Steady

The number of U.S. adults saying they do not have a religious affiliation rose sharply during the pandemic. In the 2018 General Social Survey (GSS), 23% of U.S. adults reporting no affiliation. In the 2021 GSS survey, 29% responded as such. The shift spans across generations. Millennials saw the steepest rise at +7 percentage points unaffiliated, followed by Generation X (+5 percentage points), the Silent Generation (+4 percentage points), and Baby Boomers (+3 percentage points).

Why the sharp increase? I am not sure there are sufficient questions in the GSS at this time to ground an answer in data. However, my hypothesis would be that as many were unable to go to religious services some adjusted to a new way of life. Yet, it’s not just as if Americans shifted the practice of their faith inside their home. In 2018, 56% reported daily prayer. In 2012, just 44% indicate this.

The share of the population affiliating as Catholic in 2018 was 23% and measured 22% in 2021. This change is statistically insignificant and within margin of error. More noticeable was the decline in numbers affiliating as some other Christian which was 48% in 2018 and 42% in 2021.

Like others, Catholics didn’t necessarily take their faith “home” during the pandemic. In 2018, 60% of Catholics reported daily prayer in the GSS. This fell to 50% in 2021. Also, not every Catholic who attended Mass weekly prior to the pandemic was back attending weekly again in 2021. Weekly Mass attendance measured 22% in 2018 and 17% in 2021. 

Note that these trends are very similar to what the Pew Research Center found using a different set of data.

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