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.


All bets are off...

My pre-conclave post focuses on two bets about the future of the Catholic Church. On the first wager I wouldn’t even put something on the table (but I'll offer some advice) and for the second I am taking my chips off... 

1) The Next Pope
Who will be the next pope? Novelty betting lines overseas currently place the most favorable odds on Cardinal Turkson (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace) and Cardinal Scola (Archdiocese of Milan). My advice to anyone looking to put a wager on the outcome of the conclave is to find a wiser investment. However, one predictable pattern in the last 100 years has been that it takes, on average, 3 days for a decision with 7 ballots cast. It is interesting to see how bookies and journalists alike have framed the conclave as a likely choice between a European (likely an Italian) and someone from the Global South (likely Latin America or Africa).
Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown offers up the following observation that may help guide some wagering: most of those choosing the next pope are Europeans. 


At the same time, nearly half of the world’s Catholics (47.6%) reside in the Americas. Sixteen percent live in Africa and 12% in Asia. This distribution of the population is the result of changes in the last century with falling fertility rates in the developed post-industrial world as these have remained higher elsewhere. Life expectancy rates have also risen across the globe (often with declining maternal and infant mortality rates). With these changes the population of the “developed” world has grown more slowly than it has in the “developing” world. One side effect of these demographic shifts has been a blooming of global Catholicism ( measured by the Vaticans ASE counts or Pews recent research on global Christianity). The framework of the Church has not always kept pace with these changes and continues to be “lean” toward Europe. Unlike most institutions, Church history spans millennia rather than decades. It operates on a different clock. I believe it will continue to shift gradually to meet the new realities that have emerged in the last century. The selection of a pope from the Global South would likely reflect a quickening of these adjustments. At a minimum I think it might be a safe to predict that this could be one of the last conclaves where a majority of the voting cardinals were born in Europe.

There was a time early in Church history when some of the laity (e.g., nobles, officers, judges) actually had a role in the selection of the pope. You can relive a bit of this history yourself in 2013 by taking part in a some research conducted by Canadian social scientists. Their site periodically shows results of their study and thus may also provide some insight into what social scientists refer to as the wisdom of crowds” that may guide your novelty wagering (Religion News Service also has a voting site with result here).
Fr. Reese also highlights a myth in some of the media coverage of the conclave in the notion that American Catholics don’t really care about who the next pope is because “nobody listens to him.” Former New York Times food writer Frank Bruni has done his best to trumpet this line of reasoning (he even manages to work Top Chef into the column). Yet his imagination falls a bit short of reality as even simple Google search trend data indicate more U.S. interest in the last week in Pope Benedict XVI than other news story topics falling above the fold in many newspapers. It is also the case that data reveal that American Catholics have a much more complex makeup than
Bruni’s caricature. For example, a recent Pew survey concluded that, “While about half of U.S. Catholics (46%) say the next pope should ‘move the church in new directions,’ the other half (51%) say the new pope should ‘maintain the traditional positions of the church.’” 

More important perhaps, no matter what U.S. Catholics may feel issue by issue, they generally like and approve of the leader of their Church. In fact, they like him more than their president—even as they may more consistently agree with the president on specific policy issues. Pew has a summary of some of the approval data for John Paul II and Benedict XVI here. I’ve added some CARA data and news media surveys to Pew’s publicly available data for Benedict XVI (...that I could analyze) in the figure below.

Even looking at Pew’s data (pg. 15) for all Americans (Catholic or not), the Pope has often had an approval rating higher than that of U.S. presidents. In light of these data it is interesting to read all the media narratives about the “Church in crisis.” For example, a recent story from The New York Times begins with the phrase, “In the waning hours of his troubled papacy...” If 74% approval among U.S. Catholics represents trouble in America, how should we characterize most recent U.S. presidencies given much lower levels of approval from the general public? Popes, perhaps rightfully so, are held to a much higher standard of approval than presidents. Can you imagine the media coverage if President Obama was ever able to achieve 74% approval? I dont think wed see too many references to a troubled presidency” ( dont see this now with his approval at 50%).

But I also want to give The New York Times credit for putting a bit of sorely needed balance in its editorial coverage of the Church by publishing Paul Kennedy’s very thoughtful piece, “Which Catholic Church?

2) The Latino Catholic Majority?
On to that second bet... At the same time many are contemplating the possibility of a pope from Latin America, something very odd and unexpected appears to be happening in the United States among those from Latin America or who have Latin American ancestry. At CARA we are often asked to “put a date” on when Latinos might make up a majority of the U.S. Catholic population. A few years ago, CARA’s demographic projections pointed to this possibly occurring around 2038. But an accumulation of new data all pointing in the same direction in the last few years has led me to take that bet off the table.

CARA has briefly alluded to some of these trends in previous posts (1, 2). In our national CARA Catholic Polls (CCP), the Latino percentage of the Catholic population peaked at 35% before the recession. It has consistently measured 32% in our polls since this time. The difference between 35% and 32% is within margins of error but with a consistent trend and other data “triangulating” these results it is likely that growth in the Hispanic Catholic population has stalled. Changing immigration patterns (1, 2), falling birth rates, and a decline in affiliation among Latino youth who are disproportionately becoming unaffiliated are all working together to forestall any possible Latino majority among U.S. Catholics in the near future. 

It may actually take something like the selection of a pope from Latin America to counter these trends (...although nationality is even more important. For example, Mexican-American Catholics may not be any more excited about a new pope from Argentina than they would otherwise be if he was from Italy). Perhaps even more worrisome than the Latino Catholic population failing to grow as it has in the past, is that many Latino Catholics are seemingly disconnected from the institutions of the Church in the United States (...even as they continue to identify as Catholic an practice their faith outside of these institutions).

In a soon to be released report for The Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project, CARA will show results of surveys conducted in-pew in nearly 800 U.S. parishes involving more than 385,000 respondents (more than 14,400 of these respondents were surveyed as part of Emerging Models project. The rest are from CARA’s Parish Surveys). Even as 32% of U.S. adult Catholics self-identify as Hispanic or Latino in CCP surveys, only 17% of the teens and adults consistently self-identify as such in-pew, in their parishes, during Mass among the more than 385,000 people we have surveyed nationally. This likely does not come as a surprise to many pastors. In the first phase of the Emerging Models project, we asked pastors to estimate the racial and ethnic composition of their parishioners. When matched up against the realities of how the people responded in-pew the pastors estimates (red bars) turned out to be accurate (blue bars are Emerging Models in-pew surveys and the green bars are CARA parish surveys). This in-pew percentage is very similar to what we see in some other Catholic institutions. For example, in U.S. Catholic schools the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) estimates that only 13.9% of students in the 2011 and 2012 school year were Hispanic or Latino even as a much larger share of the school-age Catholic population is thought to be Hispanic or Latino (...estimates vary as national surveys of school-age children with a religious affiliation question are not easy to find).

The baptism trend data we profiled in a previous post along with connecting all of the recent data about Latino Catholics has put many of my bets on the future size and composition of the U.S. Catholic population on hold, awaiting more data… The first piece of which may be finding out who will lead the Church next.

Photo above courtesy of mag3737 from Flickr Commons.


CARA Research on "State of the U.S. Church"

Update 3/13: With the election of Pope Francis here is CARA's spotlight on the Church in Argentina.

With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, CARA's phones were busy Monday. A lot of reporters were writing the same overview stories about the Church in the United States and had very similar questions. Part of CARA's mission is to help them and others find data that can answer these questions. This post, an idea from CARA researcher Melissa Cidade, serves as an index of sorts for CARA's recent research profiled on this blog which speaks to many of the questions we receive (...another great place for answers is CARA's Frequently Requested Statistics page):

Catholic Population Changes

The Catholic Church is growing, affiliation has been stable for decades, and the Catholic population is becoming more diverse. However, since the recession, growth in the Hispanic/Latino(a) Catholic population percentage has stalled. Another worrisome sign is a decline in Catholics entering the Church as measured by infant baptisms.

A Micro-scoping View of U.S. Catholic Populations
Pies, damned pies, and statistics: Is the Catholic population growing?
The Future of Religious Affiliation in America
The Reverts: Catholics who left and came back

Mystery of the "Missing" Catholic Infants
Were U.S. Catholics Raptured? ... Again?
Coming Home?

A Portrait of Black Catholics in the United States
Update 2/28: The Latino Catholic Majority?

Mass Attendance

Although Mass attendance fluctuates by region, nationally it has remained stable since 2000 when CARA began tracking this in random-sample surveys of the adult Catholic population. Mass attendance increases with age and we see this rising over time, even among young adult Catholics as they enter their 30s and 40s (i.e., life-cycle effects).

Sunday Morning: Deconstructing Catholic Mass attendance in the 1950s and now
We Know What You Did Last Sunday (…We read your diary)
Reigniting Sacramental Activity: There may be a devil in the details
“C and E” Catholics Decoded
Is there any Catholic Left in “Lapsed" Catholics?
The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future
The Nuances of Accurately Measuring Mass Attendance

Priestly ordinations have been rising slightly in recent years. However, these remain behind the pace needed to replace aging priests. Although significant numbers of Catholics express interest in priestly or religious vocations there are many hurdles for them to overcome to live out this calling including discouragement from family and friends and issues related to education loans.

Millions of Never-Married Catholics Have Considered Vocations
Author Meets (Online) Critics: CARA Vocations Study 
Spotlight on Vocations: Interested but Discouraged
Data in Context: New Ordinations and Seminarians
Student Loans: A Drag on Vocations

Parish Life

After a decade of closures and consolidations parishes are serving ever larger communities. More and more Catholics are choosing the parish they prefer rather than attending their territorial parish. A growing number of lay ecclessial ministers are serving in these parishes.

Perspectives from Parish Leaders: U.S. Parish Life and Ministry
Parish Drive By

Twenty Years of Change and Stability: Lay Ecclesial Ministers in the U.S. Church
Who Will Be Behind (Parish) Door Number One?
The Supersizing of U.S. Catholic Parishes

How the Church Works
Far too many seem to believe in a "Dan Brown Novel" version of how the Catholic Church works. The Church is not a multinational corporation and is not the rigid hierarchical structure many assume. The reality is that it operates as a much more decentralized institution with considerable local autonomy. At the same time these institutions still tilt internationally a bit more towards Europe and North America (e.g., numbers of voting-eligible cardinals), even as the Catholic population has become much more globalized.

Spot the difference...
The College: Re-growth in Numbers but Not Necessarily in Geographic Diversity
Which is more difficult, closing a parish or establishing a new one?
Update 2/28: All bets are off...

Update 3/08: When in Rome

Catholics and the “Nones”

Many young American Nones (i.e., those without a religious affiliation) are former Catholics (...some of whom are likely to rejoin the Church later in life). Most Nones are not atheists! There has been no measurable growth in the U.S. atheist population percentage in recent decades (self-identified, beyond margin of error). More so parents trying to raise atheists kids are much more likely to "lose" them to a religion than parents of Catholic kids are to "lose" them to "Noneness.

The Schisms of the Religiously Unaffiliated
Secularization, R.I.P.?
The New “Catholic Vote”: The Quiet Rise of the None/Others

...Of course some journalists will be simply captivated by the "Next Pope" question. I think John L. Allen, Jr. said it best in noting that "The trash heaps of history...are littered with supposed experts who tried to predict the next Pope." Conclaves are inherently unpredictable. I think the closest thing the Church may have to a Nate Silver-like figure is  Rocco Palmo (...using a bit different of a methodology for a different topic). But to duplicate Silver's work one would need surveys of voting-eligible cardinals (good luck!). This is something the world will just need to wait for...


The Growing Mystery of the "Missing" Catholic Infants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catholic infant baptisms
Total births
Baptisms as a % of births
Puerto Rico
New Jersey
Rhode Island
New York
North Dakota
Arizona/New Mexico
New Hampshire
South Dakota
American Samoa
Virgin Islands
North Carolina
South Carolina
West Virginia
United States (territorial dioceses)

Photo above courtesy of Herkie from Flickr Commons.

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