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.


Mexican Ancestry More Common Than Any Other among U.S. Catholics Under 65

In a September CARA Catholic Poll (CCP) we asked a national random sample of working-age self-identified Catholics (ages 16 to 64) "What is your ancestry or ethnic origin?" as an open-ended question (i.e., Census method). We identified more than 80 specific code-able ancestries from the 1,365 respondents (margin of sampling error ±2.7 percentage points). The most common response was Mexican (19.0%) followed by Irish (16.6%), German (15.7%), Italian (12.5%), and Polish (7.6%). The figure below compares this Catholic sample to the overall U.S. population.

In 2010, we posted a time-series analysis of ancestry for U.S. Catholics using the General Social Survey (GSS) entitled "On What Wave Did Your Ancestors Ride?" In the larger, more recent, and younger sample noted above, Mexican ancestry is now clearly even more common among U.S. adult Catholics under 65. This is not unexpected given recent immigration patterns and greater racial and ethnic diversity among Catholic Millennials (born 1982 or later). By comparison, in the 1970s, 18% of U.S. adult Catholics self-identified their ancestry as Italian ( ranking 4th, with more Italian-Americans no longer self-identifing as Catholic) followed by 16% Irish, 13% German, 9% Polish, and 7% Mexican.

Overall, 26% of all respondents indicated ancestry with one or more Latin American countries. Yet, some 37% of respondents self-identifies their race or ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino. About one in four Hispanic or Latino Catholics did not indicate ancestry to any specific Latin American country (27%). Fifty-two percent of Hispanic or Latino Catholics say they are of Mexican ancestry.

More than a quarter of non-Hispanic white Catholics surveyed say they are of Irish ancestry (27%). Three percent of black or African American Catholics indicate Irish ancestry as do 2% of Hispanic or Latino Catholics. Yet, as shown in the figure below, self-identification with a European ancestry is more broadly falling across Catholic generations. Feeling a personal connection to waves of Catholic immigration from Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries appears to be fading a bit into the history books (...note this is most likely occurring through generational replacement rather than anyone changing their ancestral self-identities).

On average, respondents identified with 1.2 ancestry groups. This does not vary across generations. Thus, younger Catholics are not losing a sense of ancestry or ethnic origin in general. Across all generations, fewer than one in five don't have any ancestral identities. Majorities note just one ancestry group. More than a quarter of Millennials (26%) note two or more ancestry groups.

In other recent research, CARA has identified 946 Catholic parishes in the United States (5.4%) who indicate that they currently serve a specific European-origin community including 248 Polish parishes, 236 German parishes, 199 Italian parishes, and 108 Irish parishes. By comparison there are 4,544 parishes (26.1%) who indicate that they serve Hispanic, Latino, and/or Spanish speaking communities. For more information about this topic and other related data see our recently released study, "Cultural Diversity in the Catholic Church in the United States."

Ship mast image above courtesy of eschipul.


Don't Call, Will Tell

Did you get your call from Pope Francis yet? As you might have heard he is polling the world's Catholics about aspects of family life. The phone tree is quite a bit smaller than most in the media seem to be aware of. As is often the case ahead of a synod, Pope Francis has asked the Church's bishops to provide information about their diocese. Some bishops have attempted to survey lay Catholics to provide input for their responses ( one case using SurveyMonkey, which in my opinion is like trying to make Thanksgiving dinner in an Easy Bake Oven. There are reasons survey researchers get graduate degrees. Sampling, weighting, question wording all really, really matter...). However, there is no systematic nor scientific effort in this regard and the questions from the Vatican are not really for the public in a personal and individual sense (...referencing Church documents and asking for information about the Catholic population's general awareness of and/or belief in aspects of the faith).

At the same time it is likely that many bishops will turn to polling data to answer some of the Vatican's questions such as cohabitation percentages, divorced and remarried percentages, and attitudes about same-sex civil unions and marriage. Many may look to existing national telephone polls from Gallup, Pew, or PRRI on these issues. However, there is emerging evidence that these may not provide the most precise view of public opinion and behavior for some matters.

A recent post examined the difference between self-reported Mass attendance in surveys when an interviewer is asking the question and when a respondent is filling out a survey on screen (i.e., self-administered). For certain questions, survey researchers know people are more honest when they are not interacting with a human being—things like giving to charity, voting, use of drugs, or marital infidelity. The presence of an interviewer (even just on the phone) increases the likelihood that respondents will cave to "social desirability" pressures and answer in a way that that they feel is socially acceptable, normal, and/or good. Pew recently acknowledged this creates a distortion in their Church attendance estimates (CARA's survey methods prevent much of this).

Does this matter for any of the information the Vatican is looking for? In recent years there has been a lot of attention given to changing attitudes about same-sex relationships in the United States. Since the early 1990s, American attitudes about many lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) issues have shifted dramatically. So much so, that we know this is just not happening through generational replacement (i.e., older Americans passing away and being replaced by younger Americans with different attitudes). Some are changing their minds. Yet, research has also indicated that there may be a "Bradley effect" occurring with polling on same-sex issues (1, 2, 3). The Bradley effect is named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley who was leading in the polls in the 1982 California Governor’s race but then lost the election. Some interpreted this result as being created by white voters who were unwilling to vote for a black candidate but who said they would do so when surveyed by interviewers. Some state referenda regarding same-sex marriage have done better in surveys than at the ballot box leading to the hypothesis that some people are saying they would vote for same-sex marriage but then doing the opposite on Election Day.

What is in a person's mind is not always reflected well in their answers to a survey interview. The 2012 American National Election Study (ANES) provides a rather unique opportunity to examine the possibility that there is a mismatch for some between mind and mouth when being surveyed about LGB issues. The ANES includes 2,056 face-to-face interviews and 3,860 surveys completed by respondents onscreen (online or through televisions via Knowledge Networks national panel). With a total of 5,916 interviews with voting eligible Americans we have relatively low margins of error to work with—even for sub-groups. In the figures below we show results of an analysis of the ANES data by religious affiliation. This includes three groups: Catholics, all other Christians, and those without a religious affiliation. There are not sufficient respondents with other non-Christian religious affiliations to examine this group separately.

Of course one other sub-group is key. How did the respondent take the survey? Were they interviewed or did they fill it out alone onscreen? The table below shows differences between these two samples, after the survey's weighting is applied. Those who took the self-administered survey are less likely than than those interviewed face-to-face to be independents (...this may be a related to the mode, with some feeling more socially comfortable saying they are independent in these deeply partisan times when speaking to an interviewer). Either way this does not lead to significant a partisan “imbalance” as the effect is similar for Democrats (+3 percentage points) and Republicans (+5 percentage points). The self-administered respondents are more likely to be moderates than ideologues in either direction—although again the difference is small. In sum, the self-administered sample does not appear to lean more “left” or “right” than the face-to-face sample. This is also reflected in the self-reports of their 2012 vote. There is no difference in religiosity between the samples. The face-to-face respondents are slightly more likely than the self-administered respondents to be Tea Party supporters (22% compared to 17%).

The ANES data allow one to test for a potential "Bradley-like effect" by comparing the responses of these two samples. The figure below shows only very small differences between these two groups of respondents. When asked about same-sex marriage, 44% of Catholics said they supported gay and lesbian couples being allowed to legally marry when interviewed face-to-face. Slightly fewer, 38% of Catholics, responded as such in self-administered surveys. Small differences are also apparent among other respondents. However, all of these results are within margins of error. Note the other two response options are support for civil unions or no legal recognition. Majorities of all three religious groups, regardless of mode, support legal marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples.

The next question was split-sample. One version of the question refers to "gays and lesbians" and the other to "homosexuals." Both focus on the same issue of legislation to prevent job discrimination. The differences here for Catholics and other Christians are beyond margin of error. Both groups are less likely to "strongly favor" laws to protect against job discrimination based on sexual orientation when an interviewer is not present. This result is consistent across both sub-samples/versions of the question. Note that when interviewed by a person, majorities of Catholics and other Christians appear to strongly support this legislation. However, half or fewer strongly support this when answering the question onscreen alone. Also note when "homosexuals" is used in the question wording a difference among the unaffiliated becomes evident as well.

A similar split-sample questions series explores attitudes about military service (i.e., the figure shows those "strongly favoring" the ability to serve). Here, opinion is more positive but also varies slightly by survey mode for Catholics when "gays and lesbians" is used. When this is replaced by "homosexuals" differences are apparent among all three sub-groups.

Turning to adoption, a slight difference among Catholics by mode is again apparent. Here the measurement is dichotomous—favoring legal adoption or not. The figure shows percentage saying "yes" they favor legal adoption.

Finally, the ANES employs a number of "feeling thermometers." These gauge how "warmly" or "coolly" people feel toward individuals, groups, and institutions. A score of 100 is very favorable (warm) and 0 is very unfavorable (cold). A score of 50 indicates a lack of any particular feeling (neither warm nor cold). In 2012, the ANES asked about respondents' feelings toward "gay men and lesbians." As shown in the figure below, the average thermometer scores are slightly lower when no interviewer is present. However, the differences are so small they are within margin of error.

Potential social desirability pressures are more evident in the percentages of respondents who gave scores below 50 (unfavorable, cold). More respondents in self-administered surveys than in face-to-face interviews were likely to do this across all three religious sub-groups.

The ANES also asks respondents about the number of LGB individuals among their families, neighbors, co-workers, and close friends. Significantly fewer in the self-administered surveys indicate they have a LGB family member, co-worker, neighbor, or close friend. Perhaps this explains all that has been shown above? I don’t think so. Instead, I think this is again social desirability pressures. In a face-to-face interview, saying you don’t know anyone in the LGB community could appear to some as an indicator of discrimination and avoidance.

Finally, the ANES asks respondents to define their own sexual orientation. Those with no religious affiliation, regardless of survey mode, are most likely to self-identify as homosexual, gay, or bisexual (LGB Americans are more likely than others to leave their childhood religion for no affiliation). No differences by mode are apparent.

Across all questions the differences are generally small. Any social desirability effect, if real, is weak. However, the differences are consistent across questions and consistent with existing research. Similar differences are not apparent between the samples for other questions about abortion, climate change, or affirmative action. More research is needed before making any substantial conclusions on this topic (e.g., a replication of the ANES 2012 model in future election years). The ANES also uses face-to-face interviews and the social distance of telephone interviews may reduce social desirability pressures a bit. As a single-snap shot, without replication, other explanations for the differences noted above are certainly possible.

I know some might read this post and then be tempted to run with the line, "CARA says the polls are wrong, Catholics don't support/oppose _____________." That would be a mistake. That is not what this post is saying. Instead this post shows evidence that polls requiring a human interviewer may slightly overestimate support for LGB issues among Americans—Catholic or not. That does not mean these polls are "wrong." The changes in American attitudes in the last two decades are real and in a broader context the potential social desirability effects examined here confirm this. The reason over-reports may be occurring is because respondents believe that the broader culture they live in has shifted and they feel pressure to conform to this in a social context—even when their opinions may differ. This is just as much an indicator of change as the broader trends in the polling data. At the same time, if one wants to know as exactly as possible what a group’s opinion is on same-sex issues, CARA would recommend getting rid of the interviewer.

Phone image courtesy of MoShotz.


Steady Changes

CARA had its annual board meeting and reception this week. We awarded Neil A. Parent with the Cardinal Cushing Medal for the Advancement of Church Research (CARA year is our 50th anniversary!) Neil served as the director of the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project, a joint endeavor of five Catholic organizations funded by Lilly Endowment, Inc. Prior to this, Neil served as Executive Director for 17 years at the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership, as association of religious educators from dioceses, parishes, universities, and publishing houses. Neil also served for twelve years as the Representative for Adult Education at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is the author of A Concise Guide to Adult Faith Formation (Ave Maria Press, 2009). His articles have appeared in a variety of publications as well as in the U.S. Catholic New Service’s syndicated series, Faith Alive.

I had the pleasure to work with Neil on the Emerging Models project. Before he received the CARA award I gave an overview presentation about parish life called "Steady Changes" (slides can be seen below or downloaded). Without Neil's support as well as from all the Emerging Models partners we would not know as much about many important changes occurring in U.S. parishes. The presentation below includes some of this work as well as other aspects of CARA research that speak to these topics:


"Headless" Catholics, A Trick and My Treat

Did you attend Mass this October? If you did not attend this month you don't need a costume tonight. You are already a "headless" Catholic. Most dioceses do October Mass attendance headcounts. This allows them to track the number of Catholics year over year going to Mass. Some dioceses publicize these. Others do not. While CARA and others track Mass attendance in national surveys, these are often done at different times of year. We know that nationally, Mass attendance has been steady for about a dozen years. But how does Catholic Mass attendance vary week to week?

Since we know so much about Mass attendance in October let's start there. Not only does CARA have its national surveys of adult Catholics, we also have in-pew surveys of Catholics, and surveys of pastors where we ask for their parish's October headcount numbers. These can set the October baseline of our week to week Mass attendance estimates. But then how do we know how many attend in February or June? There are a few other pieces of information we can use. CARA has asked about Mass attendance on Ash Wednesday and we've also asked about Christmas and Easter. Our national surveys estimate that about 45% percent of Catholics attend on Ash Wednesday and about 68% attend at Christmas.

To get estimates for other weeks we are taking a page from new methods used by hedge funds and the Centers for Disease Control for prediction and tracking. We've looked to Google Trends (...after first noticing the utility of this tool in 2009). You can learn a lot from what people are searching for on the most popular web site in the world. We arguably have never had so much data for what is on people's minds. Google Trends has been shown (1, 2, 3) to be predictive of car sales, opening movie box offices, unemployment claims, travel trends, the geography of Lyme disease, and so much more. Can it predict Mass attendance? Yes.

We tried several different combinations of Mass related search terms. In the end a simple two word combination worked best: "Mass times." There is a core of the self-identified Catholic population that attends Mass every week. What makes Mass attendance rise above this core are those attending monthly or only on days of obligation. When these individuals choose to attend they are often checking in with Google to see what time (and perhaps where) they need to go. What happens when we use Google Trends search volume data for "Mass times" to put our known October data points in motion? Something extraordinary. It "predicts" Ash Wednesday and Christmas attendance that is nearly identical to our survey-based estimates (...Easter is a bit lower than we expected. This may be related to Easter coinciding with Spring Break and vacations away from local parishes for some Catholics). It also shows the upticks we expect on other days of obligation. This is shown in the figure below (click to see full-size).

We use multiple years of U.S. Google Trends data to generate this figure. In doing so, we have made Easter an "immovable feast" for demonstration purposes (averaging Ash Wednesday and Easter attendance into single weeks). One can see that the lowest levels of Mass attendance are typically during February before Ash Wednesday and in November before Advent. Outside of Christmas, Easter, and Ash Wednesday the next highest level of of attendance is estimated to be in August for the Assumption of Mary. On average, across all weeks Mass attendance is estimated to be 26%. In October, we estimate that about 80% of self-identified Catholics are "headless." 

"A Trick"

Now for something completely different... Last week I gave a brief introductory presentation before a Georgetown viewing of The Exorcist. I am also teaching a class this semester on Catholicism on film and we spend a week looking at The Exorcist and other Catholic "horror" related films (...even though William Peter Blatty has said his intention was not to scare audiences).

What is most interesting to me is the historical connection between Georgetown and the film. Blatty, a Georgetown alum, became interested in the real story behind the film as a student. He like many others read this piece in The Washington Post by Bill Brinkley about the case in 1949 (documenting "one of the most remarkable experiences of its kind in recent religious history"). He ended up doing a thesis on the case and acquired a copy of the Jesuit case study for the boy named Ronald (this is often referred to as a "diary"). The film, and the book on which it is based, have little resemblance to the case study. Some of this was likely intentional to protect Ronald's identity (in the movie the child is named Regan and in real life the pseudonyms Robbie and Roland were often used). But other aspects, including much of the most gruesome horror and nearly all of the Georgetown connection was invented.

Here is an example of a story in the Catholic press that mirrors the "real story" that many people have come to know. This example was written in 1998. A year later, Mark Opsasnick, a local author and journalist, would uncover a very different story and even track down the adult Ronald living in Maryland and speak to him by phone (the last known public record related to Ronald is a 2006 traffic ticket) as well as one of the priests involved. Opsasnick's work has been used as a model for community-based investigative journalism in some college courses. He used phone books, property records, school yearbooks, and interviews with people in the community to track down a treasure of unknown details about the case. Like Blatty, he also came across a copy of the Jesuit case study. You can as well if you look hard enough. The copy I found is consistent with other descriptions I've read of the document but I cannot attest to its authenticity.

If tonight is like many past Halloweens, some will gravitate to a lot on Bunker Hill Road in Mount Rainier, Maryland. This is thought by many to be the place of Ronald's childhood home. As Opsasnick has shown, no boy resided in this home and his actual residence in 1949 was in nearby Cottage City (pictured above). The house used in the film on Georgetown's Prospect Street was only used for its exteriors and its proximity to the famous stairs. You can also find a now well known picture of Ronald if you look hard enough. It's his senior photo from a famous D.C. Catholic high school (he was raised Lutheran but converted to Catholicism). The "real" story has a much happier ending than the film version. First, no Jesuits were killed or even injured (other than perhaps a punch in the nose). Second, Ronald went on to live a "normal" life, with a career and family (...not entirely normal as he has reportedly been contacted by a few fans of the film who have "connected the dots" from Opsasnick's research) .

What the film and the former version of the "real story" get wrong is the strong Georgetown connection. According to the Jesuit case study I am aware of, Ronald's mother asked Fr. Albert Hughes, a parish priest at St. James Catholic Church in Mt. Rainer for help. He suggested using blessed candles, holy water, and prayers. He sought permission from his archbishop to perform an exorcism ( modern times, the Church has always viewed claims of possession with skepticism and required medical and psychological examinations). Ronald was admitted to Georgetown Hospital for evaluation. However, it was unlikely that Fr. Hughes had yet received any permission for exorcism (as noted below he would later receive this). There is no record of an initial exorcism at Georgetown in the case study (... thus, there is also no note of Fr. Hughes being stabbed in the arm with a bed spring at the hospital).

Ronald's family soon left to stay with relatives in St. Louis before anything else could happen in Georgetown. There, the boy came under the care of Jesuits at Saint Louis University. Permission was eventually given by the local archbishop to perform an exorcism. This did commence. At some point the family wished to return to Maryland. By this time permission had also been given locally for an exorcism. However, the Jesuit case study notes that the priests involved "tried several hospitals in Washington, but because of the nature of the case no one was willing to accept the burden." The family eventually returned to St. Louis and an Alexian Brothers Hospital and the exorcism was completed.

According to the case study, what the film and the real real story share is that the teenager played with a Ouija board and initially experienced "tantrum sleep" from which the boy could not easily be awoken. A variety of other strange phenomenon are reported in the case study but these were not directly witnessed by the priests (...however, the boy's family, his teacher and classmates, as well as Lutheran clergy did). During exorcism, Ronald is said to have exhibited "diabolical spitting" and "biting." There was "bed shaking" with "tantrum" where "strength beyond the natural power" of the teen was exhibited (in some cases it took three to five others to hold him down). Ronald used Latin, which he did not know, but it is noted that he may have been mimicking the priests. There was "violent shouting and fiendish laughter" including very foul and sexual language. There is one report of an object moving by the priests ("bottle from a dresser [moved] across the room"). Ronald said he had visions of a priest in the room being in Hell in the future. The case study reports "body markings" and "brandings." However, some possibility of these being produced by the teen is noted. There was no head spinning, levitation, or spider walking down stairs.

Hollywood frequently has to go over the top with history to make a film entertaining and compelling. However, if you read the journalism about the exorcism produced in the last decade it is just as fascinating in my opinion. For me, the most reassuring aspects of reading Opsasnick's research and the final notes of the case study is that Ronald went on to live a seemingly normal life. No matter what one's opinion is of this case, that seems to be the most important result.

I also find it weird that some Catholics seem to believe the film is sacrilegious. Blatty was and is a devout Catholic. Georgetown rarely gives permission for movies to be filmed on campus (e.g., St. Elmo's Fire was shot at University of Maryland). More so, the U.S. bishops are on record as not considering it "morally offensive." They note is is "strictly adult fare" and that it is "on shaky ground theologically" but Catholics are not in any way "banned" from seeing it... or digging a bit into history to see what really inspired the film.

To my surprise, reviewing survey data before my talk, I also found that belief in the Devil (and Hell) in the United States is actually on the rise. If this is occurring more specifically among Catholics as well this may foreshadow fewer headless Catholics in the future.

"My Treat"
I won't be needing any candy tonight. I already have the treat I need in the photo below. I grew up in Denver Colorado in the 1970s which afflicted me with Bronco super-fandom. The best man at my wedding in his toast noted he had seen me at my happiest twice; marrying my wife and in the minutes after Super Bowl XXXII. Imagine my surprise yesterday seeing this:

This is the wife of Broncos Def. Coordinator Jack Del Rio, Linda, giving Pope Francis a football signed by the Denver Broncos (...oddly enough one of my Georgetown students, doing an independent study on the Vatican and in my film class as well was present with this group, The Patrons of The Arts in the Vatican Museums). I know Pope Francis is a fan of Club Atl├ętico San Lorenzo de Almagro. American Football is not his game. But perhaps handing a ball off to Pope Francis for a moment could be a sign of more happiest moments to come (...we tried Tim Tebow and he only got us one miraculous playoff win, "The 3:16 game").

"Headless" image courtesy of Ben in CHI. Pope Francis image courtesy of Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.


Divorce (Still) Less Likely Among Catholics

There are few topics in the social sciences that create more confusion among the public than divorce. The conversation usually begins like this... "If half of all marriages fail how can your survey find that only 12% of Catholics are divorced?" The root of this problem is that there are so many ways divorce and "divorce rates" are measured, calculated, and discussed (...not to mention that the "half of all marriages" notion borders on urban legend status).

The U.S. National Vital Statistics System measures a crude rate. This is simply the total number of divorces in a year per 1,000 of the population. Using this measure one can conclude that divorce is becoming less common in the United States. In 2011, there were 877,000 new divorces or 3.6 per 1,000 of the U.S. population. In the 1980s this measure peaked above 5 per 1,000. The primary reason this number has declined is because fewer are marrying in the first place. The crude marriage rate in 2011 was 6.8 new marriages per 1,000 of the U.S. population. Just a dozen years ago this figure was above 8 per 1,000. In a longer view, it is important to remember that in the 1970s nearly three-quarters of the adult population was married. In 2012, only 52% of U.S. adults were married.

The easiest (and certainly not the best) way to measure "divorce odds" is to divide the crude divorce rate by the crude marriage rate (e.g., 3.6 / 6.8). Using this simple method one could estimate that "53% of U.S. marriages end in divorce" with the most recent data. However, this is quite unrealistic and sloppy as the number of marriages and divorces in any single year are for the most part unrelated (with the exception of those who divorce only a few months after marrying). To more accurately measure divorce odds one would need a longitudinal study involving a nationally representative panel of married couples followed over many decades. That takes time and money and many prefer the quick and the crude way of measuring divorce odds (...not to mention that a longitudinal study provides results that are likely to be dated by the time the project ends).

One other figure often used in the discussion of divorce is the percentage of Americans who have ever divorced. This is different from the percentage who are currently divorced as many who go through divorce remarry later in life. As shown in the figure below (using decade aggregated data from the General Social Survey 1972-78, 1980-89, 1990-98, 2000-08, 2010-12), the percentage of Americans ever experiencing divorce rose in the 1980s and 1990s but has remained more stable since then. Differences between religious affiliation groups are small. About one in five Catholic adults have experienced divorce in their lifetimes (this is consistent with CARA's recent research on the topic) and about one in ten currently describe their marital status as divorced in surveys (i.e., some remarry after divorce with or without annulment. More on this below...).

The problem with this measure is that again it does not account for changes in the number of Americans marrying. Without marriage you won't ever get divorced! The second figure below, using GSS data again, estimates the percentage of Americans who have ever married that experience a divorce. This is still just a series of snapshots and not the longitudinal panel one would prefer but it does provide the most accessible view of something close to "odds of divorce." It still does not provide us with "the percentage of marriages that end in divorce" as the unit analysis is the individual and not the marriage (e.g., someone could be widowed, marry again, divorce, and marry again...).

Currently, using the last two waves of the GSS for 2010 and 2012, this measure of divorce stands at 36% for the adult ever-married population. Adult Catholics stand out with only 28% of the ever-married having divorced at some point (...struggling most with "being faithful." A previous post examines religious affiliation and infidelity). By comparison, 42% of American adults without a religious affiliation (i.e., "Nones") who have married have divorced at some point. Notice the difference between the two preceding figures. Those with no religious affiliation are among the least likely to ever divorce in the overall adult population. Yet those with no affiliation are also among the least likely to marry in the first place and once one isolates those in this group who have married, the data take on a much more dismal outlook.

There are a few other religious wrinkles to examine. It takes two to marry and there is evidence that more Americans are marrying someone who does not share their faith. Does this matter? A 2010 survey conducted for Naomi Schaefer Riley's `Til Faith Do Us Part (Oxford University Press, 2013) estimates that 29% of married couples where both spouses are Catholic experience a divorce. The General Social Survey and CARA's Catholic Polls (CCP) indicate that about seven in ten married Catholics have a Catholic spouse (remaining steadily between 68% to 72% since the 1970s). This remains the case in the GSS even when one is measuring the faith of the spouse at age 16 (to control for possible conversions to a partner's faith during marriage). As we've shown in a previous post, the likelihood that a Catholic marries someone of their own faith in a Catholic parish is largely dependent on factors in their community.

As shown in the figure below, calculated from a national CARA survey on marriage conducted in 2007, Catholics who marry someone who has no religious affiliation or a Protestant affiliation are more likely than those marrying a Catholic or someone of another affiliation to experience divorce with this person. Note this CARA survey estimates that 32% of ever-married Catholics had experienced divorce compared to the more recent GSS estimate of 28%. This difference is within margins of error. Schaefer Riley's survey, with fewer Catholic respondents, estimates lower odds of divorce for Catholics married to someone without a religious affiliation (...CARA's survey uses scientific probability-based random sampling. Schaefer Riley's survey was completed with YouGov, which uses a self-selected opt-in internet panel).

In the CARA survey we also asked Catholics who had experienced divorce if they had ever sought an annulment. Only 15% indicated that they had. As shown in the figure below, requests for annulments have declined in the United States along with marriages in the Church. In the most recent year with available data there were 6.5 marriages celebrated in the Church for every single case for declaration of nullity of marriage introduced by Americans. It is important to note that 49% of Church annulment cases introduced globally in 2011 were from the United States followed by Poland (6.4%), Brazil (5.6%), and Italy (5.1%).

The National Vital Statistics System estimates that there were 2,118,000 marriages celebrated in the United States in 2011. That puts the 2011 data in the figure above in grim context. Only 163,775 marriages were celebrated in U.S. Catholic churches in that year. That's just 7.7% of all marriages celebrated in the country. Catholics make up nearly a quarter of the population and are no less likely to marry than those of other affiliations. This means that Catholics marrying these days are just as likely, if not more likely, to celebrate their marriages at the beach or country club than in their parish (...also something we've covered in a previous post). What impact does being married outside of the Church have on divorce odds? We don't know. We need another survey!

Although the Catholic "divorce rate" is lower than the U.S. average it is still a daunting figure (...yet far shy from the oft quoted "half of all marriages" myth). It is important to remember that the percentage represents more than 11 million individuals. Some are likely in need of more outreach and ongoing ministry from the Church.

Image above courtesy of jasoneppink at Flickr Creative Commons.  


What Was Behind the 1960s Vocation Boom? Not Your Mom or Dad Apparently...

In 1966 there were nearly 60,000 priests in ministry in the United States and only about 17,900 parishes. Few were concerned with the notion of a "priest shortage." There were also more than 176,000 religious sisters and 12,500 religious brothers. This was the ultimate time of plenty for the Church in America. Catholic parents must have been a big part of that.

I didn't talk to your mom about this but sociologist Father Joseph H. Fichter, S.J. may have. Especially if you grew up in Illinois. Deep in the CARA archives sits an historical gem of social science, "Catholic Parents and the Church Vocation" published in 1967 using data from 1964 Fichter survey (CARA is in the process of digitizing its public print archives for future online distribution...stay tuned on that).

As Louis Luzbetak, S.V.D., CARA's Executive Director at the time notes, "There is no diocese in the United States that has at hand such a wealth of information about the image of its priests and religious, and about the corresponding parental attitudes toward Church does the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois." Corporations frequently test products in Columbus, Ohio because it is supposed to be representative of the country as a whole. Think of Peoria being a similar type of locale for Catholicism in the 1960s ("Will it play Peoria?," middle America, sitting squarely between Chicago and St. Louis). Fichter and a group of academics and practitioners developed the survey and tested it first as a pilot survey of 1,287 Catholic parents in New Orleans in 1963. Then after revisions in 1964, fielded the survey in Peoria to 8,689 Catholic parents through their parishes. In half of the surveys the father was asked to complete the form and in the other half the mother.

These parents were asked if they had ever considered a vocation (i.e., men as priests or brothers and women as religious sisters). Six in ten indicated they had never considered this. Only 6% of the Catholic parents surveyed said they had considered a vocation seriously and 1% indicated they had entered the seminary or convent and had left. Among fathers more specifically, 5% had considered becoming a priest seriously and 2% had entered seminary and left. Seven percent of mothers had considered becoming a religious sister and 1% had entered a convent but left. By comparison, 3% of adult Catholic men today say they "very" seriously considered becoming a priest or brother and less than 1% of adult Catholic women say they "very" seriously becoming a religious sister (note that serious interest in vocations is a bit higher among never-married Catholic adults and teens and this still translates into a large number in absolute terms).

Parents were then asked if they thought they should promote vocations to their children. Surprisingly, many did not feel they should. I think this stands in stark contrast to our "memories" of this period. Only 17% said they thought they should encourage vocations. Additionally, 25% said they should just "initiate a discussion" of vocations. Parents were most likely to say their child should "bring it up first" (31%). Four percent said they should pray for their child to be interested in a vocation but mention nothing to them about this and 23% said it should be left "completely in the hands of God." I would not be surprised to see survey results like this in 2013 but it sounds a bit off coming from the parents of 1964 (...especially when we know now that encouragement is so important in fostering vocations).

Regardless of encouragement from a parent, what if a 13-year-old Catholic had interest in a vocation in 1964? What would a mom or dad think is the right course to follow? A majority of parents surveyed wanted their son or daughter to finish high school first. About one in seven thought their child should go off to study for their vocation right away at 13 and 13% wanted them to have at least a few years of high school before doing this. Thus, more than eight in ten Catholic parents in 1964 thought the path to a vocation begins as a teenager (note that even today most Catholics say they first consider a vocation as a teen).

Ironically, parents had quite different attitudes about dating. As shown in the figure below, 86% of parents surveyed thought their sons should not "go steady" with someone until he was 18 or older and 73% of parents said the same about their daughters. Thus, a significant portion of parents thought that consideration of a vocation and perhaps pursuit of this should and would begin before their son or daughter ever had a steady girlfriend or boyfriend.

Parents were most likely to say that their sons might not consider a vocation because he would be attracted to other occupations (27%). They thought their daughters might not do so because of they would be attracted to the opposite sex (33%).

If their child was interested in a vocation, most parents had no preference for a specific area of Church ministry that they enter. If they did indicate a preference, parents more often than not preferred their sons to become diocesan priests (27%) and their daughters to enter an "active teaching order" (24%).

If their daughter entered an order, many did not expect her to have much contact with them. One of the more interesting details of the study is in its testing. When the pilot was fielded in New Orleans, parents were asked if they would favor religious sisters being allowed to eat at the Blue Room, play golf on public links, attend Sugar Bowl games, and direct girl scouts. This series of questions was modified (beyond regional relevance) because the researchers found that "these suggestions were apparently too 'far out'" for the respondents to consider. The figure below shows the final question wording and results for this series in Peoria.

While most in 1964, thought that it was just fine for sisters to read newspapers, watch television, have a yearly vacation back at home, attend cultural events in the evening, and accept dinner invitations, there were more mixed opinions about them being able to eat in public restaurants, wear up-to-date clothing, or join civic organizations. 

While the results for what sisters should be "allowed" to do or for the age when young Catholics should be allowed to "go steady" may seem odd 50 years on, what is even more remarkable to me is how the parents of 1964 were not all that different to those of 2013 in terms of what they see as their responsibility to be in encouraging their children for a vocation. In fact it creates a bit of a mystery. In the heart of the biggest vocations boom this country has ever known, parental encouragement and their own personal consideration of a vocation is not far off from what it is among parents today. I guess there is some "good news" in that. There are some other X-factors out there that were responsible for that boom which could surface again some day.


Surplus and Shortage: Mapping Priests and Parishes

Every parish needs a priest. At least one. On Sunday for sure...

Yet, nearly one in five U.S. parishes do not have a resident priest pastor. Seven in ten have a diocesan priest serving in this capacity and religious priests serve as resident pastors in 11% of parishes. In 17% of parishes a priest is serving as a non-resident pastor (in a small number a "team of priests" administrates). In about 430 parishes (or 2.5% of all parishes), due to a shortage of priests, a deacon or lay person is entrusted with the pastoral care of a parish by their bishop (Canon 517.2). Yet even here, the parish life coordinator, as this person is often titled, must still do their best to arrange for priests to be available for Masses and other sacraments.

Priests cannot be in two places at once and there are only so many hours in a Sunday. We have a good understanding of how many parishes there are in the United States and how many priests are available. The map below (click for full size) shows the number of parishes subtracted from the number of active diocesan priests in each diocese. From time to time priests from outside the diocese may come and serve (i.e., externs) to fill needs. It is also the case, as noted above, that many religious priests serve in parishes as well (although their numbers are in decline). But the core of parish life has been diocesan priests serving in their diocese. In 60% of dioceses, those marked in yellow and red, there is no surplus of diocesan priests active in ministry relative to the number of parishes in the diocese.

The green areas on the map have more active diocesan priests than parishes. These include a number of urban areas. But even here the math gets tricky. An urban priest who is a pastor of one parish may be responsible for serving the needs of 5,000 registered households, while a rural priest in one of the red areas of the map may serve as pastor in three parishes in one county with 200 registered households in each parish. That rural pastor may be able to serve the needs of these communities by himself, whereas the urban pastor may need a parochial vicar and a retired priest to assist him and still struggle to meet the needs of his community. Green and red are not always as "clear" as it might seem in practice.

Yet the math does say something important. A "traditional" model of parish where one can find a priest at any time of day or night is not possible in many areas of the United States (to some degree in rural areas and the South this has always been the case and certainly has long been a reality in many other areas of the world). How will parish life change in the future if the U.S. Catholic population continues to grow while the number of priests in the country continues to decline? This would likely create more pressure to close and consolidate parishes at the very time that population growth would indicate a need for new construction.

CARA research indicates the average parish has more than 3,200 registered parishioners along with some unknown (and likely growing) number of unregistered households ( a recent national CARA survey 55% of adult Catholics said they were in a registered household. This percentage has been falling in the last decade. Only eight in ten of those surveyed in pew during Mass say they are registered). About 1,100 of these parishioners attend a Mass in a typical week. The average seating capacity of Catholic churches is about 540 per Mass. The average parish has about four Saturday/Sunday Vigil Masses per week.

In an era of fewer priests, one could reduce the number of Masses, outside of holidays, down to the "demand" capacity (i.e., enough open seats for Mass attenders). One could also reduce and consolidate parishes to the degree possible (...what is the maximum distance people would be willing and able to travel?). The Church can (...and has in the past) invited priests from overseas to serve here to balance the equation as well. In 1999, international priests made up 8% of all priests in the United States. Today, they are 16% of all priests in the country.

It is also the case that what the United States is experiencing right now is not an entirely new reality—just one many have forgotten in the pages of history. As shown in the figure below, the ratio of diocesan priests active in their diocese to parishes in the United States of 1950 was very similar to what it was in 2012.

There was about one active diocesan priest per parish then as there is now. The late 1950s into the 1970s represent an exceptional period in American history when there were significantly more active diocesan priests available than there were parishes. Age and mortality has and continues to diminish the size of the diocesan clergy population. Although ordinations have remained stable for decades, these are not sufficient to make up for the number of priests lost each year to retirement or death.

Although 2012 may not have felt all that different from 2011, it did represent a new era of parish life in the United States: parishes are beginning to outnumber a key population of priests. Coinciding with recent efforts in New Evangelization and welcoming new or returning parishioners to communities, it seems unimaginable to simultaneously be reducing the number of parishes and/or Masses. Instead, it may be time to more boldly let the country know that the Church is "now hiring."

And there may be more help on the way. Recent CARA research has shown that young men attending a World Youth Day are 4.5 times more likely than those who have not attended to consider becoming a priest or religious brother and one fifth of newly ordained U.S. priests in 2013 say they attended a World Youth Day. With more than 3 million in attendance, the final Mass of World Youth Day in Rio this year is one of the largest gatherings in human history. Somewhere on that beach may be your future pastor...

Image above courtesy of galeriaes.gaudiumpress at Flickr Creative Commons.


When Surveys Lead to Sins: An Unholy Trinity

The ethics of modern social science require that we "do no harm." But I have a confession to make. I have done some harm and I can prove it.

About five years ago CARA began to transition from random digit dial telephone polls to self-administered surveys taken with probability-based samples (households randomly selected by telephone or mail) where respondents take their surveys on a screen (i.e., either on a computer, tablet, or television). In 2005, we ended up doing a telephone poll and a self-administered poll just weeks apart. Although the samples for both surveys were demographically very similar some of the content questions produced shockingly different outcomes. It was then that I realized in my first few years here conducting the CARA Catholic Poll (CCP) that I had been encouraging a bit of lies (i.e., sin). This post is an atonement of sorts.

How many U.S. adult Catholics go to Mass each week? If you look around the survey research world you'll find estimates in the 35% to 45% range. Survey researchers and the Church have known for quite some time that these polls are off the mark to say the least. There are other methods of estimating Mass attendance from headcounts to time diaries that produce more accurate results which come in at the mid-20% range. In CARA's 2005 polls we saw this disparity:

If we took the telephone results literally we'd estimate a third of Catholics go to Mass every week. But realistically, the self-administered survey was much closer to the mark of a headcount or time-diary study at 23%. At the other end of the spectrum only 19% said they rarely or never attended Mass compared to 35% in the self-administered survey. What was going on? Social desirability bias. When taking a survey over the phone one is most often speaking to another human being. Even though the respondent knows this will be a short conversation, their responses are confidential or anonymous, and that they will never speak to this person again, some still feel shame in answering honestly. Instead they "over-report" their attendance. This is good and bad. The fact that they feel shame shows the cultural norm of attending church is still alive and well among Catholics but it also leads to dishonesty which results in a distorted view of religious practice. What is different in the self-administered survey? The respondent is not interacting with a human being. They feel more comfortable reporting their actual behavior to a computer.

We've written about this issue before but recently going through the CARA archives I was able to identify the types of religious practice questions that most often lead to over-reporting in telephone interviews. The winner of the "biggest bias" award goes to financial giving to one's parish. Three-fourths of Catholics in a telephone poll say they regularly give to their parish's weekly offertory collection. Yet only half say they do when the interviewer is removed and the survey is self-administered. This question parallels the same type of over-reporting social scientists see in national surveys that ask about giving to charity, volunteering, or voting.

Of course once one lies to a survey interviewer they may be inclined to make a future visit to their parish for the Sacrament of Reconciliation... especially since they probably lied about how often they go to confession! As shown below, 12% of adult Catholics say they go to confession at least once a month when interviewed by telephone. This falls to 2% when the survey is self-administered (I like to claim that CARA has reduced the necessity for some Catholics to go to confession by adopting these newer, more accurate methods).

These three types of questions make up a trinity of sorts. Catholics consistently over-report the frequency of going to Mass, confession, and giving to their parish when speaking to a human being. There is little evidence of social desirability bias affecting responses to most other questions. This is telling in that this trinity is what many Catholics feel guilt and embarrassment about not doing.

For example, Catholics apparently do not feel the same guilt about not giving to their annual diocesan appeal. As shown below, 29% said they did so in the 2005 telephone poll compared to 25% in the self-administered survey just weeks apart. The difference between the polls is within margins of error.

Catholics also are not embarrassed to say they don't register with their parish. As shown below, the difference between the two types of surveys is within margins of error.

CARA has gone through its archives and adjusted results from telephone polls to remove the effects of over-reporting by carefully comparing the results of 24 surveys, some conducted by telephone and some self-administered, to establish averages of over-reporting (see a related example of applying these methods to Gallup's trends here). We've reconstructed our best estimates of trends for two of the three measures most distorted by social desirability bias (this is not possible for Reconciliation as this question has not been asked in a sufficient number of surveys). CARA's trends for Mass attendance can always be found here from our Frequently Requested Statistics. The trend for Catholics giving to their parish are shown in the figure below:

Just as with Mass attendance, there has been very little change in giving to one's parish in the last decade. If one only had telephone poll results to look at this would present a much more positive outlook on attendance and giving. But the honest view above is best both for the Church and its respondents! Perhaps people would be even more honest in the confessional if they could type their sins rather than speak them? On second thought, removing the interviewer from the survey process was easy and beneficial. Removing the priest from the confessional is certainly no parallel.

Image above courtesy of emilio labrador at Flickr Creative Commons.


Catholic Colleges "Amplify" Influences Leading to Priestly Vocations

Last week, CARA researchers were at Boston College presenting results of a new study as part of a Vocations Summit with Church leaders. Based on a survey, this study focuses on the ways in which the activities and experiences of men who attended Catholic colleges and universities were similar to, or different from, those of men who attended non-Catholic colleges and universities (44% of of recently ordained priests attended a Catholic college compared to 7% of all U.S. adult Catholics). Commissioned by Boston College and the Jesuit Conference-USA, this survey was designed to specifically assess the role and influence of Catholic colleges and universities on vocational discernment. Between April 2012 and June 2012, CARA distributed the survey to a total of 5,246 men known and identified by church leaders to be in formation or recently ordained. A total of 1,575 men (30% response rate) completed the questionnaire, making it one of the largest recent surveys of men in formation and the newly ordained. 

The study documents that a Catholic college environment provides significantly more opportunity for students to discuss their faith in an academic setting in ways that a non-Catholic college environment does not. Over half (51%) of those who attended Catholic colleges report having discussed faith, religion, and prayer “frequently” during class, compared to only 11% of those who attended non-Catholic colleges. Similarly, Catholic-college attenders are substantially more likely than their counterparts to report having discussed these topics with professors outside of class (43% to 9%, respectively), and with students outside of class (62% to 40%, respectively). While 58% of those who attended a Catholic college report that a particular college course was “especially influential” on their vocational discernment, only 27% of those who attended a non-Catholic college report likewise. 

Almost two-thirds (64%) of respondents overall state that a priest, sister, or brother professor had a “significant positive influence” on their vocational discernment. Those who attended a Catholic college are much more likely to have been exposed to priests, sisters, or brothers during college. While nine out of ten of those who attended a Catholic college report having had a priest, sister, or brother as a college professor (88%), college administrator (93%) or campus minister (90%), substantially fewer of those who attended a non-Catholic college had a priest or religious as a professor (18%), administrator (15%), or campus minister (59%).

Of those who attended a Catholic college, 91% report that Mass was available daily during college, and 90% report that they attended Mass at least once a week. Of those who attended a non-Catholic college, less than half (49%) report that Mass was available daily, and 79% state that they attended Mass at least once a week. Men at Catholic colleges are also more likely to report having engaged in a devotional practice during college, and to have engaged with greater frequency in a wider variety of devotional practices, than those who attended a non-Catholic college. The only exception to this is with respect to Bible study, where non-Catholic college attenders report slightly higher levels of engagement in this particular practice.

The study revealed that one of the most influential college experiences in terms of shaping respondents’ religious vocation is having a regular spiritual director. Of those who report having had this during college, approximately two-thirds (65 percent) say this influenced their vocational discernment “very much.” Men who attended a Catholic college are much more likely than those who attended a non-Catholic college to report having a regular spiritual direction during college (62% to 30%, respectively), and to have attended spiritual direction with greater frequency during college.

Of those who attended a Catholic college, 59% report being encouraged in their vocational discernment by a campus minister, 72% report being encouraged by a professor, and 50% report being encouraged by a college staff member. Figures for non-Catholic college attenders are substantially lower: 46% report being encouraged by a campus minister, 25% report being encouraged by a professor, and 14% by a college staff member.

When asked to identify any individuals who have either encouraged or discouraged their vocational discernment, respondents are most likely to report having been encouraged in their vocational discernment by friends (72%), parish priests (71%), parents (58%), and campus ministry staff (51%). Friends and family are also identified as being among the individuals who have discouraged these men in their vocational discernment. Compared to those who attended a non-Catholic college, those who attended a Catholic college are: over three times more likely to report being encouraged in their vocational discernment by college staff (50% to 14%); almost three times more likely to be encouraged by a college professor (72% to 25%); twice as likely to be encouraged by a religious sister or brother; and substantially more likely to be encouraged parents, siblings, friends, and campus ministers.

Photo above courtesy of stevendavy from Flickr Commons.


Hypothesis Confirmed: "Knowledgeable Doubters" are Rare

Back in 2010, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted a survey that concluded, “More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ.” At the time, I cautioned about interpreting the meaning of these results by noting that knowledge may not always represent belief (...also pointing out that even 59% of Protestants state a belief in Transubstantiation). I argued that, "Strangely enough, many Catholics believe what their Church teaches without realizing that their Church teaches it." Some commenting online scoffed at the idea that this could actually be the case.

At the time the data did not exist to test this notion. Now it does in the newly released landmark study American Catholics in Transition by William V. D'Antonio, Michele Dillon, and Mary L. Gautier (i.e., the famous senior research associate at CARA). This is the 5th book in this series of research that began in 1987.

In comparison to the Pew study, D'Antonio et al. find that half of self-identified adult Catholics (50%) are unaware that the Catholic Church teaches the following about the bread and wine used for Communion: "the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ." However, 63% of adult Catholics, regardless of what they think the Church teaches, believe that "at the Consecration during a Catholic Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ."

As shown below, this creates four groups. The largest are "knowledgeable believers," representing 46% of adult Catholics, who are aware of the Church's teachings about the Real Presence and say they believe these to be true. Additionally, there is another 17% who believe in the Real Presence but who are unaware that this represents a Church teaching. These are the "unknowing believers."

The second largest group is the "unknowing unbelievers" who do not believe in the Real Presence (i.e., they believe the bread and wine are only symbols) and do not know that this represents a teaching of the Church. There is something hopeful about this group, which represents a third of adult Catholics (33%). Even though they currently do not believe the Church's teaching, they may come to believe it if they knew and understood it better. Knowledge and belief of this may even bring more of them to a Catholic parish on Sundays.

What is rare, representing only 4% of adult Catholics, is someone who knows about the Church's teachings regarding the Real Presence and who states they do not believe this teaching to be true. These are the "knowledgeable doubters" (...note that this study uses the same methods of CARA Catholic Polls, e.g., anonymity, self-administered response without an interviewer, which limit social desirability bias).

What I have noted above is just one tidbit from American Catholics in Transition, which is an extraordinary piece of research.

There are often many anecdotes (or survey results based on small Catholic samples) thrown around about what is going on among Catholics from parish life to politics. This book provides some data that confirms and denies many of these anecdotes. It spends a good deal of time disentangling generational and gender differences. The latter providing some of the biggest surprises and concerns.

I am thankful to the authors for taking the time to test one of my ideas ( helps when a co-author sits a few steps away!). I think there is some reassurance in their conclusion about the data above: "Among all Catholics who know what the Church teaches about the Real Presence, fewer than 1 in 10 (9 percent) say that they do not believe the doctrine." Now we know that lack of belief in the Real Presence is more a problem of religious education than of doubt.

Photo above courtesy of stlyouth from Flickr Commons.


The Catholic Teenager: A few mysteries solved

When kids enter their teen years they often become more peer-connected than parent-connected. They may talk to their parents less and their social life often begins to be centered more on friends rather than family. For the parent this may add a new and uncomfortable air of mystery surrounding their children’s lives that they have never experienced before.

Survey researchers often find teenagers just as mysterious as we rarely have the opportunity to interview people under the age of 18. This is unfortunate as much of the “churning” of religious identity and behavior begins in the teen years. As a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found, “Almost half of Catholics who are now unaffiliated (48%) left Catholicism before reaching age 18” (...some of them return to the faith later in life). Recently, thanks to the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) we got the chance to interview teens about their religious faith in a national survey. The overall study focused on interest in vocations. A total of 1,609 respondents were interviewed (English and Spanish) in May and June 2012. Of this sample, 677 respondents were ages 14 to 17.

If you are a Catholic parent of a teenager the study indicates that the first thing you might want to ask your child is if they consider themselves to be Catholic. Although all of the teens we interviewed had Catholic parents or a Catholic parent, some did not share this faith (...parents were presented with information about the vocations study and asked to give permission for their teen to respond. Presumably all or most these parents are raising their children as Catholic). As the figure below shows, only three in four of all teens interviewed (75%) self-identified as Catholic. Twelve percent said they did not have a religious affiliation, 6% indicated that they were affiliated with a Protestant denomination, and 7% noted an affiliation with some other religion.

Ninety-two percent of the teens with two Catholic parents self-identified their faith as Catholic (Overall, 76% percent of the teens indicated they reside in a household with two Catholic parents). Only 55% of those with one Catholic parent self-identified their faith as Catholic. Thus, some teens may be adopting the affiliation of a non-Catholic parent. It is also the case that as they become more peer-connected they may be attending services or religious programs with friends of other faiths and this may alter their religious identities. Some are “falling away” from religion generally and losing any affiliation.

All of the results presented from this point on isolate only those respondents who are ages 14 to 17 and who self-identify their religion as Catholic. This includes a total of 503 respondents resulting in a margin of error of ±4.4 percentage points for this group.

Most Catholic teens report that they were baptized as infants (94%). Five percent indicated they entered the Church as a child and 2% as a teen. Sixteen percent indicated that they have only celebrated the Sacrament of Baptism. Twenty-two percent said that they have also celebrated their First Communion (Note: some of the younger teens may not be of an age where they could receive the Sacrament of Confirmation in their diocese). Many, 62%, reported that they have celebrated Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation. Female teens are more likely than male teens to indicate they have celebrated their First Communion or Confirmation.

Eighteen percent report that they have been enrolled in a Catholic school and parish-based religious education classes at some point. The largest group, 44% said they have been enrolled in parish-based religious education only. Fourteen percent indicated enrollment in a Catholic school without having ever been enrolled in a parish-based religious education program. Thus, about one in four Catholic teens (24%) said they have never been enrolled in a Catholic school or a parish-based religious education program.

Catholic teens are a bit less likely than all adult Catholics to say they “rarely or never” attend Mass (The figure below compares teens to data from CARA’s most recent CARA Catholic Poll conducted in September 2012). This is not surprising as many Catholic teens are living with Catholic parents in their 40s and their Mass attendance mirrors their frequency (i.e., they often go to Mass with their parents). CARA research indicates many young Catholics begin to attend Mass less frequently once they leave the parental home and this often continues into their 20s before beginning to rise again in their 30s and 40s.

Although many parents may express concerns about their teens not communicating enough with them in general, many Catholic teens say their parents rarely or never speak to them about religion. Only 8% report their parents talk to them about religion daily and 20% say their parents do so at least once a week.

As shown below, 75% say their faith is important to them. A quarter (25%) say it is either not important at all or not too important to them. The largest sub-group, 45% say their faith is “important, but so are many other areas of my life.” Only 9% say it is “the most important part of my life.”

The teens were also asked about the religious activities they take part in on a regular basis. Thirteen percent indicated regularly participating in retreats. Eight percent say they regularly participate in prayer groups, 7% in Eucharistic adoration, and 7% in Bible study. A quarter (25%) said they had participated in a parish youth group at some point. Fifteen percent said they had been an altar server and this percentage is the same for both males and females.

Only 20% indicated that they read the Bible or pray with scripture at least once a month. Six in ten say they “rarely or never” do this. Fourteen percent indicate they pray the rosary at least monthly. At the same time, 71% say prayer is either “among the most important parts” of their lives (25%) or that it is “important, but so are many other areas of my life” (46%).

Sixty-seven percent of Catholic teens agree that “God is one with whom people can have a relationship.” When presented with an “image of God” question, the teens were most likely to say (69%) the following description comes closest to their view: “God is a positive influence in the word that loves unconditionally, helping us in spite of our failings.”

The teens were asked about how important a list of factors were to their sense of “what is means to be a Catholic.” They were most likely to say receiving the Eucharist (44%) and helping the poor (43%) were “very important” to their sense of this. These aspects were followed by protecting life (35%), attending Sunday Mass each week (32%), and having devotion to Mary (28%).

Many of the aspects that are considered “very important” are things the teens can do outside of their parishes. In fact, only 12% said “being involved with my parish” was “very important” to their sense of what it means to be a Catholic.

Overall, 61% percent of teens agree that “Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.” The other 39% agreed more with the statement, “Bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but Jesus is not really present.” Among those stating a belief in the Real Presence, 61% said “receiving the Eucharist” is “very important” to their sense of what it means to be Catholic. By comparisons, only 17% of those who do not believe in the Real Presence consider receiving Holy Communion to be “very important” to their sense of what it means to be Catholic.

Although use of new media and the internet is widespread and frequent among American youth, many Catholic teens do not indicate use of these tools yet to connect with content about their faith. When these teens seek out religious or spiritual content they are still more often looking to traditional media than new media. Television is the most popular choice for this.

In terms of demographics, 49% of the Catholic teens self-identified their race and/or ethnicity as non-Hispanic white and 38% as Hispanic or Latino. Seven percent self-identified their race and/or ethnicity as Asian or Pacific Islander, 3% as Black or African American, and 2% as Native American. Eighteen percent indicated that they were born outside of the United States.

Applying survey percentages to Census population data, CARA estimates that there are about 4 million Catholics between the ages of 14 and 17 in the United States today. Thus, in the survey results above each single percentage point of the Catholic teen sample represents about 40,000 individuals. Interviewed in 2012, these teens were born between 1995 and 1998.

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