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.


Pies, damned pies, and statistics: Is the Catholic population growing?

Are you Catholic and in need of something to be thankful for this year? The Catholic Church in America is growing and may be primed to grow significantly in the next few decades.

What did he just say? All the Catholic-related stories in the news are about parish and school closings, a Church in crisis, and people leaving the faith…

First, the news is not always a good reflection of reality. A big part of the problem is that many reporters and commentators on religion seemingly have a limited understanding of the basic properties of a simple mathematical expression—percentages. This gets dangerous when combined with a nasty human habit of only using numbers and statistics when they fit the narrative one is seeking to display (while avoiding the data that disconfirms it).

At this point you could choose to quote Mark Twain but that will not make reality disappear (by the way Twain was neither a statistician nor the originator of the infamous phrase—he thought he was quoting Disraeli. And even this was likely an incorrect attribution).

So here is that necessary dose of reality… Since the end of World War II, on average, 25% of the U.S. adult population has self-identified in national surveys as Catholic (±2 to 3 percentage points attributable to margin of sampling error). This spans many trusted sources from commercial polling by Gallup and others, news media polls, exit polls, and academic surveys such as the General Social Survey and the World Values Survey. For example, in the Pew Religious Landscape Survey—the study most often quoted or cited in stories about the Catholic Church in crisis, the Catholic population percentage was 23.9% (±0.6 percentage points).

When cited, these historical results are often characterized as evidence of a tenuous “stability” in the Catholic population. Many seem to believe this means a lack of growth and new membership—even stagnation in the Church. This is a distortion of reality.

What if you were coming over to my house for Thanksgiving this year and as in the past I always give you a slice of pumpkin pie that is equal to 25% of the total pie dish. But in years past I always used 8 inch pans to cook the pie and this year I am using 12 inch pans. You are still only getting exactly 25%. Will you be eating more this year? Of course! The pan is 50% bigger.

The figure below shows growth, in two dimensions, of the Catholic population over the course of American history. Early estimates (pre-polling) are drawn from The Churching of America 1776-1990 (Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, Rutgers University Press, 1994) while the later rely on multiple national public polls (example). The chart tracks growth in the Catholic population percentage from 2% in 1776 (45,000) to 25% in 2010 (77.7 million). The size of the circles represents the total size of the Catholic population.

In both 1975 and 2010, the estimated Catholic population percentage is 25%. Yet the difference in individuals these identical percentages represent is 23.2 million people (54.5 million in 1975 compared to 77.7 million in 2010). Is that stability or growth? If you were baking them all pies you better consider it growth.

In the last 40 years, the Catholic population has grown by about 75%. If it did the same in the next 40 years it would be 136 million in 2050 and represent about 31% of the projected U.S. population at that time. This however is an unlikely scenario as overall population growth has slowed in the United States and is expected to slow more as the Baby Boom, and the "echoes" from it, fade.

The figure below shows a range of three projections.

The lowest estimate is based on a regression method—which ignores expected population growth as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau in the future and instead relies simply on applying an average estimate of change in the number of Catholics in each year from the historical record into the future. This is an extraordinarily conservative approach as we know some population growth is likely to occur and some of that growth will include more new Catholics. If this scenario were to unfold the Catholic population would increase by only 23% from 2010 to 2050, when it would then be 21% of the U.S. population at about 95.4 million (NOTE: This may be the most likely scenario given research conducted by CARA in Feb. 2013).

This is a good example of one of the seemingly most difficult concepts involving percentages for people to understand… The Catholic population percentage could decline from 25% of the U.S. population in 2010 to 21% in 2050 and there still would be more Catholics in 2050 then there were in 2010.  The proportion of the slice would have grown smaller but the pie has grown larger and thus the amount of pie in the slice will be bigger.

The next two projections are rooted in Census data—the actual projections the Bureau foresees for the total U.S. population.

The mid-range projection is simple. If the future replicates the past 65 years, in which Catholics have been 25% of the U.S. population, the number of Catholics in America will grow by 41% and total 109.8 million in 2050. Given several decades of history this may be the most likely future to expect. However, there are other important demographic changes ahead that may boost the Catholic population even higher…

The final and highest projection accounts for differences by race and ethnicity. In recent years, polling has consistently indicated that about 60% to 65% of Hispanics/Latinos in the United States self-identify as Catholic. However, there is also evidence that this percentage is dipping slightly lower. This projection assumes this falls even further—to only about 55% and that Catholic self-identification among the non-Hispanic population measures about 18.5%. Both assumptions are on the conservative side. However, even with only assuming 55% Catholic identification among Hispanics/Latinos, the rapid growth expected in this sub-group will likely boost Catholic population numbers significantly (this is even the case if it falls further than 55%). This projection leads to an expected growth in the Catholic population of 65% between 2010 and 2050 with a Catholic population total of 128 million in 40 years, representing 29.2% of the total U.S. population.

The Census Bureau’s 2010 Current Population Survey (CPS) estimates that 16.1% of the U.S. population self-identifies as Hispanic or Latino. This is expected to grow to 29.2% in 2050 (after registering 12.5% in Census 2000). This projection estimates that in 2038 there will be more Catholics who self-identify as Hispanic/Latino than those who do not. It is also important to note that although non-Hispanics will become a smaller percentage of the Catholic population in this projection, this segment will still be growing—just at a slower rate (by an estimated 19% between 2010 and 2050).

You likely have questions and comments (let me guess)…

Q: Didn’t Pew find that nearly “one in three” people raised Catholic leave the faith leading to an astounding “one in ten” adult Americans who are formerly Catholic? How could the population grow with losses like these?

A: This study did indeed. I have commented on this for CARA and in America where I called this the “phantom crisis.”  Let me provide a metaphor with a non-religious example. In the last year, Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times has frequently cited Catholic population losses in her coverage of the Church. I'll use The Times as my example:

The Times is currently operating in “severe” crisis. It has incurred a loss of 20% of its paid subscriptions in the last decade and its stock price has plunged 74% during this same period. Things have turned so poorly that recently the publisher announced that an eventual “stop print” date is in future sight. Also, 100% of readers of The New York Times die.

The statement above is unfair and although true, only partially so. Many other papers have and are facing steep declines in circulation and 100% of readers of all newspapers die eventually. The statistics I used above isolate The Times out of context of wider trends or comparisons to other newspapers. Perhaps what The Times is experiencing is quite “normal” or even better than what other papers are going through given the technological, cultural, and social changes occurring in the United States and around the world. The example also ignores The Times online presence and the large amount of traffic it attracts as well the effect of the recession on its stock price.

Similarly, the ubiquitous Catholic “one in three” finding drawn from the Pew study is consistently quoted without context. Most often the number is used to drive a narrative—an undeniable signal of extraordinary crisis. For example, a recent article in Commonweal, Peter Steinfels notes “one out of every three adult Americans who were raised Catholic have left the Church” and characterizes these as “devastating losses” and a sign of “American Catholicism’s crumbling condition.”

Yet, quoting the “one in three” result of the Pew study in isolation can be extraordinarily misleading. Below is a visual of the typical context provided in the media.

The different and fuller view below provides the correct perspective.

All things considered, Catholicism does a better job of keeping those raised in the faith than any Protestant denomination (68% of those raised Catholic remain so as adults). The typical response to this is “but Protestants are just switching denominations” as if moving from one denomination to another is similar to Catholics switching parishes and having your records “sent over.” In the real world (as opposed to the categorizations within sociology of religion) such a point of view seems a bit foolish.

As a term, “Protestant” has significant meaning historically and sociologically but it is not an institution and few Americans actually identify their faith as such and instead name the denomination of their church. If someone leaves a Methodist church for a Baptist church that is a real change for the individual and both churches. The churches have independent memberships, styles of worship, and are completely separate entities. I don’t think Presbyterian churches are just “fine” with losing an estimated 59% of those raised in that denomination if these individuals simply go to another Protestant denomination. I’m sure they consider these losses religious switching and real change regardless of the characterizations researchers or the media attempt to make about people “just going to another Protestant church.”

Also, the Pew study did not discover some “new” phenomenon of religious switching. This is rather old news among social scientists who study religion (e.g., see Bradley Wright, a sociologist, and Rodney Stark, an economist, commenting in “The Leavers”). However, it was news to the media and the general public who seem to believe the switching is as recent as the study and news stories about it. 

The losses that the Catholic Church has experienced are regrettable but also quite normal (and as shown above among the most minimal compared to other religions or even the “Nones”). In a free and religiously diverse country, no religion will keep 100% of those raised in the faith and are unlikely to maintain even 90% or 80%. Note that Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey report estimates that 31.4% of the U.S. adult population was raised Catholic. However, you will never find a time historically in the data when anywhere near 31.4% of the U.S. population actually self-identified as Catholic. How can this be? Because losses have occurred over such a long period of time. Many believe the Pew study indicates a recent mass exodus from the Church. This is clearly not the case. Both Pew and CARA research shows the losses have occurred over many decades—the lifespans to date of all those alive now who were raised Catholic. CARA surveys indicate a half of the losses occurred before 1988 and there is no year or short period of time that stands out as an outlier that would indicate a sudden large drop in Catholic affiliation. 

The losses incurred by the Catholic Church have also most often been among a very specific group—young people. As Pew found in a follow-up to the Religious Landscape study: “Almost half of Catholics who are now unaffiliated (48%) left Catholicism before reaching age 18, as did one-third who are now Protestant. Among both groups, an additional three-in-ten left the Catholic Church as young adults between ages 18 and 23. Only one-fifth who are now unaffiliated (21%) and one-third who are now Protestant (34%) departed after turning age 24. Among those who left the Catholic Church as minors, most say it was their own decision rather than their parents’ decision.” Similarly, CARA surveys have estimated the median age of a former Catholic to be 21. Thus, the poster-image for former Catholics is not a middle-aged New Englander of European descent storming out of the pews in anger. Instead it is a disaffected teenager.

Following the Pew study, many now often frequently cite that “one in ten Americans” is formerly Catholic. What these individuals seem not to realize that one in four is Catholic. In general people don’t have a good understanding of the sheer size of the Catholic population. For example, I have noted elsewhere that the recent trend in infant baptisms is down slightly. However, there are still enough people joining the Catholic Church each year to sustain the population. In 2009, The Official Catholic Directory reported 857,410 infant baptisms, 43,279 adult baptisms, and 75,724 receptions into full communion in U.S. dioceses. This totals 976,413 in one year (and does not include the number of former Catholics who have returned to the faith or immigrants who entered the Church elsewhere and who moved to the U.S. in this year). To put that in context, the number of new Catholics in 2009 would make this one-year cohort of new Catholics approximately the 26th largest membership Christian church in the United States (also similar in size to all Jehovah’s Witnesses or about half of all Muslims in the United States).

Q: The Catholic Church is inflating their numbers. There is no way this many people are still Catholic.

A: The Church has very little to do with the data utilized here. They are derived from polls over which the Church has no control or influence as well as U.S. Census data. The polling estimates are based on “self-identification” of respondents and these are almost always larger than the Church’s own estimates either in The Official Catholic Directory or Vatican statistical publications.

Q: Aren’t surveys only conducted with adults?

A: Yes, surveys typically only include adults age 18 or older. Thus simply applying these percentages 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. Why? Latinos in America—of which about 60% to 65% currently 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-Hispanics. Thus, there are reasons to believe that applying the adult Catholic population percentage to total population figures underestimates the total size of the U.S. Catholic population.

Q: What about all the parish closures. This is a sure sign of decline. How can the Catholic population grow at a time like this?

A: As one can see from the first figure above, few Catholics resided in the United States at its founding. Nearly all have come later as immigrants and continue to do so. For generations Catholic immigrants have often started their new lives in industrial urban areas. They created parishes where others spoke the same language. Sometimes a Polish parish would be built across from a parish where Italian was the language in use. The sheer number of people involved led to a boom in parish construction and along with schools—often in close proximity to each other. Yet, in the post-World War II era things began to shift. Many Catholics moved to the suburbs and away from the Northeast and Midwest into the Sunbelt. New waves of Catholic immigration from Latin America have led to even more growth in the South from coast to coast. The Catholic population has realigned itself in the course of a few generations. People move, parishes and schools do not. Many of the parish and school closings one reads about are in inner cities of the Northeast and Midwest where Catholic population has waned.

Another factor in parish closures is the priest shortage. Yet, even in these cases adjustments are often being made. New models of parish ministry are emerging to ensure the vitality of parish life including the use of shared ministries, clustered parishes, and Canon 517.2. Also, international priests continue to step in to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population.

Q: What about the clergy sex abuse crisis? I know people who have left the Church over this.

A: Some have, but the data indicate fewer than many assume. Pew found that fewer than 3% of former Catholics cited sex abuse when asked to describe in their own words the main reason for leaving the Catholic Church. When presented with a list of potential reasons from which they could select all that applied to their decision, 27% of former Catholics who are now unaffiliated cited sex abuse as one of the reasons for leaving and 21% of those who are now members of a Protestant denomination responded as such. For those now unaffiliated 71% said they just “gradually drifted away.” Among those now members of a Protestant denomination 71% said their “spiritual needs [were] not being met” by the Catholic Church and 70% said they “found a religion they liked more.”

If one extrapolates, using the percentages from the Pew surveys and population data, to estimate the number of adults who have left the faith primarily (i.e., the main reason in their own words) because of the sex abuse crisis, this totals about 700,000. If one also includes all those who cited it as one of multiple reasons there are more than 5.6 million former adult Catholics who are estimated to have left the Church in-part because of the sex abuse crisis—although other issues were important to their decision as well. Note, these individuals could have left at any time in the last six decades having had local knowledge and experience with this in addition to the other reasons they cite for having left the faith and not necessarily post-2002 when this became a national story (as noted above, there is no uptick in disaffiliation in the data for the 2000s). If these 5.6 million former Catholics had remained affiliated the Catholic population percentage in the U.S. would currently be 26.8% rather than the estimated 25%.

Q: Who cares if the Catholic population is growing while Mass attendance declines?

A: Although Catholic Mass attendance did decline in recent decades from a peak in the 1950s, there has been no decline in Mass attendance percentages nationally in the last decade. Just under one in four Catholics attends Mass every week. About a third of Catholics attend in any given week and more than two-thirds attend Mass at Christmas, Easter, and on Ash Wednesday. More than four in ten self-identified Catholics attend Mass at least once a month.

As I have noted in OSV this current stable trend in Mass attendance along with Catholic population growth will likely limit the possibility of additional parish closings in the future.

I am also always confused by individuals who ask a question or make a comment like this. Isn’t the hope of the Church to bring infrequently practicing Catholics back to being more active? Isn’t that what many recent diocesan media campaigns have focused on and the whole point of something like Catholics Come Home not to mention more broadly New Evangelization? Is the Church supposed to ignore the growing number of people in the United States who identify themselves as a member of that faith and focus only on those attending each week? To do so seems like it might even accelerate losses rather than stem them.

Q: If a growing numbers of Catholics self-identify their ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino doesn’t that mean the non-Hispanic Catholics left the Church?

A: Depends on what you mean by “left.” The primary engine behind the growing diversity in the Church is immigration and higher fertility among many of these immigrant communities. A population can shrink dramatically—in a matter of a few generations—if it does not biologically reproduce itself (let alone culturally reproduce itself). Catholics of European ancestry have not replaced themselves at the same rate of Hispanic/Latino Catholics. A couple must have two children to replace themselves, and more children to account for growth. It is not that non-Hispanic Catholics are leaving the faith as in getting up out of the pews and storming out of the Church. Instead many are ‘leaving’ by passing away without ever having contributed to population growth. However, as noted in the projections above, the non-Hispanic Catholic population will continue to grow in the future—just at a slower rate than Hispanic Catholics. 

Q: But I believe the headlines because I have several close friends who used to be Catholic and are just nothing now.

A: Your friends are very unlikely to be a sufficiently-sized random sample of the total or Catholic U.S. adult population. I’m sure they are nice people but what you are presenting is an anecdote. This means little in terms of scientific measurement.

Q: I don’t believe you.

A: That’s OK. I don’t take it personally and the future will unfold as it will regardless of our opinions. If you would like something else to read try this story from TIME Magazine. Take the Catholic population on the day this story went into print and add about 30 million and you’ll have the total for 2010.

Above photo courtesy of pauladamsmith at Flickr Creative Commons.

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