There are some surprises and interesting trends regarding the U.S. Catholic population in the newly released 2010 General Social Survey (GSS) data. This post is the first in a series describing some of the CARA analyses of this survey. To begin with, the 2010 GSS indicates (again) that the U.S. Catholic population continues to grow. One in four adults in the United States self-identifies their religious affiliation as Catholic.
This percentage has remained consistent (within margin of sampling error) in major surveys all the way back to the 1950s. As the total population grows, that 25% represents more Catholics in real numbers each year. The 2010 GSS represents the second consecutive estimate in the series where a minority of Americans self-identifies as Protestant (47%). The unaffiliated "Nones" continue to grow and are now estimated to make up 18% of the U.S. adult population.
The margin of sampling error for the Catholic sample of the GSS varies by year as the total number of respondents has changed over time. Overall, in the 2010 GSS 2,044 individuals were interviewed resulting in a margin of sampling error of ±2.2 percentage points (e.g., the table above; click to enlarge). This included interviews with 482 Catholic respondents resulting in a margin of error of ±4.5 percentage points when looking within this sub-group specifically.
The GSS indicates that the Catholic retention rate is continuing to slowly decline. In the 2010 GSS, it is estimated that 68% of adults in the U.S. who were raised Catholic, continue to self-identify as Catholic now.
In 1973, the Catholic retention rate was 84%. The current 68% estimate is identical to the Pew Religious Landscape study in 2007. If the current rate of decline continues (click the table below to enlarge), the Catholic retention rate is expected to be 54% in 2050.
Many assume that the only way the Catholic population could be maintaining its 25% share of the adult population is through immigration. Yet, clearly something more complex is going on. For one there is not enough immigration to fill the gap (more on this in a future post). Second, the GSS indicates that growth in the foreign-born Catholic population may have unexpectedly halted for a time.
The percentage of Catholics in the GSS reporting that they were foreign-born has dropped from 29% in 2006 to 23% in 2010. This difference is within the margins of error for the two surveys but there is a consistent downward trending observation in 2008. More so, these percentages have been expected to increase with real growth. It is too early to say this is a real decline but it certainly indicates a potential stalling in the growth of the foreign-born Catholic population.
In retrospect there was some evidence that this could be occurring. The Pew Hispanic Center has documented recent declines in segments of the non-citizen population. The sharpest decline in immigrant numbers occurred between 2007 and 2008—just as the U.S. entered a severe economic recession. Estimates of the non-citizen population have yet to reach 2007 levels again.
There is additional evidence of these changes in the responses to ethnicity and ancestry questions in the GSS. For example, the percentage of Catholics who self-identify their ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino has dropped from 38% in 2006 to 32% in 2010 (click the table below to enlarge; note the best data for analysis are from 2006 to 2010 when the GSS began to employ Spanish language interview options). Again, these results are within margin of error but a trending pattern is emerging and this is another figure that was expected to show some growth at this time. More specifically we can see this data pattern among those who have emigrated from Mexico.
Some of what is occurring is likely related to recent immigration trends. However, some of it can also be attributed to declines in Catholic affiliation among Hispanics/Latinos. The GSS estimated that 70% of Hispanics/Latinos in the U.S. self-identified their religion as Catholic in 2006. This has dropped slightly to 63% in the 2010 survey.
The GSS does not show any drop in the Catholic affiliation percentages of non-Hispanic white adults in the United States during this period (22% in the three surveys since 2006).
The GSS is the primary social science source for representative data on the adult population in the United States (the American National Election Study series is another but this is limited to adult citizens). The GSS, based on face-to-face interviews with representative samples of the U.S. population, has been conducted since 1972. It is often featured in trend analyses in major studies of religion such as Pew’s report for the Religious Landscape Survey (example: pg. 18) and in Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s recent book American Grace (example: pg. 11).
Unfortunately, when the GSS is released there is no big press coverage or report of findings to read. Instead it is rather quietly made available to researchers (and the public). Literally, thousands of publications including journal articles, dissertations, and books have and will continue to cite these data. If you are interested in looking at the GSS data visit the Survey Documentation and Analysis (SDA) site from the University of California, Berkley. One note of caution, as shown in the last table above, when looking specifically at the results for Hispanic/Latino respondents it is best to focus on the surveys done in 2006, 2008, and 2010 when Spanish language interviews were available.
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.
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