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.


Portrait of the American Catholic Convert: Strength in New Numbers

Do you want to know the best way to ensure your child grows up to be a faithful, knowledgeable, and active Catholic? It’s simple: 1) Raise them as a Protestant AND 2) Only let them date Catholics and promise to pay all their wedding and honeymoon expenses if they get married in the Catholic Church. That second step is key.

All kidding aside (...that was not a serious attempt at Catholic parenting advice!), there are hundreds of thousands of non-Catholic parents in the United States today raising children who will one day grow up to be extraordinary Catholics ( shown below). Some will join in the coming week as the Catholic Church in the United States will welcome more than 100,000 new adult Catholics into the faith through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

There aren’t a lot of data sets available to study this sub-group. One notable exception is Dean R. Hoge’s Converts, Dropouts, Returnees: A Study of Religious Change Among Catholics (1981). Hoge, a Presbyterian sociologist, noted that “past research on Catholic converts and dropouts is sketchy, since few studies have been done” (p. 8). In recent years much new attention has been given to the dropouts—those who are raised in the faith but do not remain Catholic as adults (1, 2, 3, 4). In this post we focus on the converts joining the Church by compiling all of the recent research available to produce a robust and often surprising portrait.

Hoge cites a 1954 study by Joseph H. Fichter, S.J. that estimated 75% of adult converts came to the Church through an interfaith marriage. In his own data collection in the 1980s Hoge found the most common path to conversion was marriage to a Catholic and this switch was most often facilitated by the spouse around the time of marriage. More recently, Pew’s Faith in Flux study indicates that a similar dynamic is still occurring today. As shown in the table below, 72% of Catholic converts cite marriage as an important reason for their switch in faith. The second most commonly cited important reason is finding a religion they like more. Many appear to “find” this religion by marrying a Catholic. No other factors appear to be as important as marriage and liking the faith.

Catholic converts turn out to be very unique among Americans who convert to another religion or to no affiliation. Very few other “switchers” cite marriage as being an important reason for their conversion. Many who leave the Catholic Church to become unaffiliated say they just “gradually drifted away” and those who leave for a Protestant denomination most often say their “spiritual needs were not being met” (pg. 6). Only 13% of former Catholics cite marriage to someone who is not Catholic as being an important reason for their conversion to another faith or having no religious affiliation. 

About one in ten adults (11%) we have surveyed in-pew at Masses nationally identify themselves as Catholic converts (source: Views from the Pews: Parishioner Evaluations of Parish Life in the United States). This is equivalent to about 1.9 million individuals. More broadly, about 7% of adult self-identified Catholics in the U.S. say they entered the faith as an adult (Catholic Media Use in the United States). This is equivalent to about 4 million individuals. It should be evident that the over-representation of converts in the pews (11% compared to 7% of all self-identified Catholics) means something… They are among the most active Catholics in the Church.

The differences between Catholics who entered the faith as adults and those entering in their infancy or youth are among the largest CARA sees in its more than 25 national CARA Catholic Polls (CCP). Adult converts are more likely than all other Catholics to…
  • Attend Mass at least once a month (62% of converts compared to 48% of all other Catholics)
  • Go to confession at least once a year (54% compared to 24%)
  • Be registered with a parish (76% compared to 55%)
  • Regularly contribute to parish offertory collections (59% compared to 43%)
  • Be “somewhat” or “very” involved in their parish beyond Mass attendance (31% compared to 14%)
  • Agree “somewhat’ or “strongly” that they are proud to be Catholic (87% compared to 76%)
  • Agree “somewhat’ or “strongly” that they are a “practicing Catholic” (80% compared to 53%)
  • Agree that their faith is either “the most important” or “among the most important” things in their daily life (59% compared to 40%)
  • Regularly read religious or spiritual publications (29% compared to 18%) or books (10% compared to 6%)

And finally there is one more very telling and important difference. As we recently noted, many Catholics who do not believe in the Real Presence are unaware that the Church teaches the Real Presence. This appears to be a misunderstanding that is much more common among those who entered the faith as infants and children. As shown below, eight in ten adult converts (81%) believe in the Real Presence compared to only 55% of all other Catholics.

Why would adult converts be more knowledgeable and believing than other Catholics? Perhaps it was the eight months to a year they spent studying intensively in an RCIA program?

As Pew has noted, “Those who have left Catholicism outnumber those who have joined the Catholic Church by nearly a four-to-one margin” (...this include minors who convert to Catholicism). This certainly never surprised me. The Church could gain more converts, similar to many Protestant denominations, if it lowered the requirements of entry. If one could just register and start receiving Communion you’d see many more “trying out” Catholicism. But many would not stay. It is the very commitment of RCIA, almost like a spiritual boot camp, that ends up creating active and knowledgeable Catholics. If all of the baptized are Catholicism’s “army,” the RCIA converts are its “special forces” (e.g., 13% of Catholic parish leaders, those working or volunteering in U.S. parishes, entered the faith as adults. Recall only 7% of self-identified Catholics are adult converts).

There are fewer Catholic converts than former Catholics but this certainly does not make them insignificant in number. As shown in the table below, the total number of adults entering the Catholic faith from 1993 to 2011 numbers 2.7 million—nearly the same size as the entire Presbyterian Church U.S.A. denominational membership for 2011.

At its peak in 2000, the Church welcomed more than 170,000 new adults into the faith in a single year. This number has declined since then and is now closer to 100,000 in recent years. However, just as fewer babies has led to fewer infant baptisms, the fewer marriages occurring in the U.S. may have also led to fewer conversions.

There are also geographic points of interest. In CARA’s national polls of adult self-identified Catholics (CCPs) 35% of converts reside in the South compared to 27% of those entering the faith at a younger age. Only 20% of converts are in the Northeast compared to 27% of all other Catholics. Part of this again may be related to marriage. As we’ve shown previously, Catholics are significantly more likely to marry a non-Catholic in areas of the country with lower Catholic population percentages, such as the South. 

As shown below, among the top 15 dioceses with the highest rates of conversion (i.e., Catholics per convert in a three-year period; to control for differences in the sizes of dioceses and year-to-year fluctuations) are 12 dioceses in the Census Bureaus’ South region. One diocese outside the South is exceptional. In Steubenville (OH) there are 20 Catholics per convert. The next closest dioceses are at 47 Catholics per convert (Tulsa, OK; Owensboro, KY; and Birmingham, AL). Overall, across all dioceses the rate is 204 Catholics per convert (...the Archdiocese of Los Angeles typically welcomes more than 7,000 Catholic converts per year but this only amounts to about 196 Catholics per convert).

There has been a lot of interest in whether more people have joined the Catholic Church under Pope Francis. Outside of former Catholics returning to the Church, this seems like a silly expectation to me. There are many non-Catholic religious leaders I admire but that has never made me want to convert. When it comes to conversions, the “Francis Effect” may not result in much. Something much more simple may be effective. If you are a single Catholic consider dating a non-Catholic and see where things go! They could end up being a better Catholic than you are.

Update: The demographics and background of a “typical” adult convert to Catholicism: female (59%), non-Hispanic white (74%), married or widowed (74%), of the Post-Vatican II Generation born 1961-81 (36%), in the workforce (56%), and has attended college (54%). They are more likely (i.e., statistically significant difference) than cradle Catholics (i.e., baptized as infants) to be female (+9 percentage points), non-Hispanic white (+10 percentage points), and married or widowed (+12 percentage points). The positive impacts of the RCIA experience are somewhat similar to what CARA has previously identified for individuals attending Catholic colleges and universities. It appears that having an intensive religious education experience as an adult has a more lasting effect than relying on religious education in the childhood years alone.

Reserved pew image courtesy of John Ragai.

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