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.


Catholicism in Space: Houston, do we have a problem?

Twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly (raised Catholic in an Irish-American family) are about to embark on an important scientific experiment on Friday. Scott Kelly will begin spending a year in space on the International Space Station (ISS) while his brother stays back here on earth as a control subject. NASA will be studying how extended time in space changes Scott relative to his brother Mark. Living for an extended time outside the gravity of earth and partially exposed to the radiation of space can impact one’s bones, heart, eyes, muscles, and who knows what else.

It’s probably important to start understanding and thinking more about living in space because frankly that is where the human future may be. At some point the Catholic Church will need to think about how people can “do” Catholicism in space. During the shuttle Endeavour mission STS-134 in March 2011, Mark Kelly was part of the crew on the ISS who spoke with Pope Benedict XVI. He told Kelly and the astronauts,

Space exploration is a fascinating scientific adventure. I know you have been studying your equipment to further scientific research and to study radiation coming from outer space. But I think it is also an adventure of the human spirit. A powerful stimulus to reflect on the origins and on the destiny of the universe and humanity.

Indeed the destiny of human beings is among the stars as our descendants will eventually need to get off this rock to survive (…if we don’t kill each other first). The sun is about to enter its mid-life crisis. At 4.6 billion years old it has more than a half-life to go. Well before then it is expected to get a bit brighter by about 10% in 1.1 billion years. That will begin to make life on earth as challenging as we have ever known it. By the end of its life cycle the sun will become a red giant and consume Mercury and Venus and most likely Earth as well. Before any of that happens, our galaxy, the Milky Way, will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in 3.7 billion years. It could be no big deal for earth or it might be catastrophic. Either way due to the increased output of the sun by that point life on earth will already be impossible. Perhaps the descendant of humans today will have already found somewhere else in “Milkdromeda” to call home? There are numerous other ways the planet or life on it could be doomed much, much earlier including asteroid or comet impacts, a gamma-ray burst, a wandering black hole, a super solar flare, pandemics, super volcanoes, a flip in the planet’s magnetic field… Anyone trying the “save life on earth” or the “planet” is ultimately doomed to fail.

Over the long-term, space is the place and Catholics, like most other Americans, are interested in that exploration. In general, people of faith are just as interested as those without any religion. That means religious institutions will have to figure out how their faith will be practiced in zero gravity, without directional east or west, and without sunrises and seasons. That may be easier for some than others.

So how does Catholicism work outside the walls of an earthly parish among the stars? Of course some have already practiced their faith in space. On Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian, took communion that he brought up to the moon (his crew brought a piece of the moon back for Pope Paul VI). Catholic astronauts Thomas Jones, Sidney Gutierrez, and Kevin Chilton celebrated a communion service on the space shuttle Endeavour with Eucharist they brought into space in a gold pyx in 1994. That will continue to work for short trips into space but what about a long journey or in a colony?

If a Catholic priest was on the ISS today could he say Mass? How would one keep the wine in a chalice in zero gravity? What about crumbs after breaking the Eucharistic bread? How does one purify the containers? There would be no candles. Which way is East? When is Sunday in space? When is Easter? Is it really kneeling in zero gravity? How could one confess sins without a priest on the crew?

The late Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., had presumably figured out the answer to some of these questions and was hoping to be the first priest to say a Mass among the heavens. He fell short of this dream but did get to fly at Mach 3.35 in an SR-71 Blackbird at the age of 62. It must have seemed like space flight. Someone else may have put some thought to the issues as well. The late Archbishop William D. Borders informed a surprised Pope Paul IV that he was the Bishop of the Moon. As the Bishop of Orlando at the time NASA astronauts were launching from Cape Canaveral to visit the moon he was the bishop of their home port. Thus, he was the de facto ordinary of the missionary lands they explored (six of the Apollo astronauts were Catholic). One could argue the Bishop of Orlando will continue to hold that position until perhaps China sends a crew to the Moon? That is when things get tricky. It is difficult to know as that country has multiple launch sites and sometimes multiple bishops!

There are many questions left to be answered for the practice of Catholicism in orbit or on the moon. Once you get to Mars, Europa, or go interstellar things will get even more problematic. There are not a lot of star systems with planets in our neighborhood of the galaxy. Travel to Epsilon Eridani, at 10.4 light years away, would require a multi-generational effort and a fast craft. There would be no quick returns from earth’s perspective (...after one accounts for time dilation from traveling at such extreme speeds). Of course we do not know if human reproduction is even possible in space yet. Assume that it is and we have a need for sacraments in space like marriage, baptisms, first communions, and funerals. 

I doubt there could ever be Space Cardinals (...even on Mars). There would be no way they could make it back for a conclave. The liturgical calendar would likely make little sense on any new planet. Days, months, and years could all be shorter or longer. A new planet may not be able to grow wheat and grapes. What then? On the positive side, I do think space travel might help solve one of the Catholic Church’s challenges. Think about this: Space Jesuits. That has a certain appeal. Perhaps recruitment will be less of an issue? After all more than 2,700 people have already applied for a one-way mission to Mars (...yes, I am aware of the award-winning 1996 novel, The Sparrow explores the idea of a “Space Jesuit”).

Science fiction novels and movies have rarely taken space, physics, or biology seriously. Perhaps because doing so would make for boring stories. Lightsabers are impossible. Traveling very near the speed of light would mean saying goodbye forever to anyone you ever knew. Interstellar (2014), which is released on DVD next week, is one of the first to take look at space travel with some realism (...although it does still include humans in wormholes, extra dimensions, etc). If you are a reader and have interest in the subject I strongly suggest Claude A. Piantadosi’s very non-fiction, Mankind Beyond Earth (2012). I used Piantadosi’s book in a class on the history and future of human exploration in the Fall. It got me thinking about how unprepared the Catholic Church is for the transition to space that began in the 1960s (...following the call of the first Catholic U.S. President).

A hundred years ago the idea that an average person could or would take many trips on planes in their life seeing different parts of the world seemed like a silly fantasy. Now it is quite common. I believe my grandchildren (and I don't actually have any yet) will be as regular tourists in near-earth space as we are to places around the world by plane. That is a future that deserves some thought now. It took 10,000 years of civilization to put humans on the moon. Imagine what we will accomplish in the next 10,000 years. In the long run, we should recognize that we are perhaps the greatest “weed” this planet has ever known. Our brains make us the ultimate survivors. Even if it is not a necessity, we will likely come to explore beyond our solar system. I hope the Catholic Church is a part of that journey.

Family in space photo (from Ray Bradbury’s The Gift a Christmas story in space) courtesy of James Vaughan.


Portraits of Lost (and Found) Identities

Many Catholics (and others) will express some ancestral national pride on St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day this week. More than 80% of Ireland and Italy’s populations are Catholic. Yet few may realize that most Americans who say their family is of Irish or Italian ancestry are not Catholic. In the just released 2014 General Social Survey (highlighted in the previous post) only 27% of Irish-Americans (more) self-identified as Catholic and only 48% of Italian Americans said their religion was Catholic (more). Those percentages have fallen over time.

Some things appear to get lost in translation through immigration and generational replacement. A Pew study recently highlighted the declining percentage of Hispanics who self-identify as Catholic. The largest national sub-group among this population has Mexican roots. Today, more than nine in ten adults who are of Italian (93%) or Irish (98%) ancestry were born in the United States. Only 50% of those of Mexican ancestry were born here. Most of Italian and Irish ancestry don’t have an immigration experience that they can personally recall whereas many of those of Mexican ancestry do.

As it stands now, 67% of those of Mexican ancestry self-identify as Catholic. I expect that percentage to continue to fall and converge toward other groups who came here from heavily Catholic countries. You can’t control or predict how children in the pluralism of the United States will see themselves or choose to live.

This turns out to be one statistical result and prediction that I can provide a useful anecdote for. I was recently watching the PBS documentary series The Italian Americans. It detailed FDR’s decision during World War II to brand non-citizen Italian immigrants as “Enemy Aliens,” placing some in internment camps with Executive Order 9066. Before she married and became a Gray, my grandma had an Italian last name. She had an enormous influence on my life. She is why I am Catholic ( well as the influence of my dad, her son). After watching the documentary I wanted to look back at my grandmother and her family during the period of “Enemy Aliens.” The Census has a 72-year rule. It won’t release anything with identifying information until 72 years after it is collected. This is meant to protect people’s privacy. I found my grandmother in the Census in 1920, 1930, and 1940 as well as fragments from other official documents accessed from FamilySearch (“A service provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”).

 With my grandma in the early 1990s

Before looking at the Census I knew my great grandfather was from Milan. He was a twin and their restaurant could only support one family. He left the restaurant to his brother and came to America. He worked for wineries in southern California. The Census and other documents confirmed the stories I had grown up with. What I didn’t know was that he did not immigrate directly to the United States. His wife, my great grandmother, was from Mexico. Their five children were all born in Mexico and spoke Spanish. A sixth child, born in 1920, has her birthplace listed as California. My grandma was the first citizen in her family. My great grandfather had spent more than a decade living and starting a family in Mexico. I found border records indicating that he crossed with his family in 1917 at Nogales. This is all a family history my grandmother had never mentioned to me before she passed away. It was just a lost identity.

So now I have to ask myself, am I Hispanic? That’s an odd question to first ponder in your 40s. We assume people will maintain the identities of their parents. Sometimes they don’t. When people immigrate here they don’t always bring everything with them. In my family the one thing that did survive was our faith. The Catholicism rooted in Italy and Mexico lives on in my kids but I don’t know Spanish or Italian. I love the foods of both cultures but it’s just pasta sauce to me, not Sunday gravy. When I’ve completed the Census I’ve always noted by race as “white” and my ethnicity as “non-Hispanic.” I now have to wonder how I should respond for the 2020 Census based on what I’ve learned from the 1920 Census.

Thinking back to the documentary it is interesting that in 1920 and 1930 my great grandparents went by their birth names, Giovanni and Juana. By 1940, when “Enemy Aliens” entered the lexicon they had been transformed into John and Jennie speaking English in suburbia. The politics surrounding immigrants in the 1940s may have had much to do with their transformation.

If you did not experience your family’s immigration to this country yourself I think it can be very powerful thing to see it on paper. I have yet to find any evidence of Irish ancestry in my family. Then again that is something everyone acquires on St. Patrick’s Day in the United States. I’ll celebrate my authentic heritage Thursday and now on December 12 as well.

Image of 1940 Census interviewer and respondent courtesy of The U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Beginnings of a Francis Correction? And Other Musings from the 2014 GSS


To date there has been a lot of talk but little real research possible on the “Francis Effect” (our previous thoughts). Social scientists now have their first glimpse at the potential effects in the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS). This is the primary survey used by sociologists. It is based on face to face interviews with a national random sample of adults. It began in 1972 and in the last two decades one survey has been completed every two years. Each GSS typically has interviews with about 500 Catholics. In 2014, 606 were surveyed (margin of sampling error of ±4.0 percentage points). This post pulls out some of the trends and major new findings for Catholics in 2014.

Are the U.S. Catholics of 2014 any different from 2012 and previous years in the GSS? First I present the most boring and surprising (to some) result? Catholics still make up a quarter of the adult population. To the chagrin of many reporters at secular newspapers the Catholic population will not decline like it is supposed to.

Protestants and other Christians are not fairing as well and for the first time in the GSS make up less than half of the population. A near mirror image of this decline is the continued rise of the Nones, who have no religious affiliation (although many still believe in God and have religious or spiritual aspects in their life). Catholics still outnumber Nones but this may no longer be the case, if current trends continue, when the 2016 GSS is released.

Of course a stable affiliation percentage among a growing total population means that the Catholic population is also growing in absolute numbers. Yet, there is no increase in the affiliation percentage that one might expect given the rhetoric of a possible Francis Effect. There is certainly no evidence of any negative impact either. Then again no pope since the end of World War II has had any observable impact on the Catholic affiliation percentage which has remained absolutely steady in the mid-20% range.

Another closely watched figure is the Catholic retention rate. This is the percentage of those raised Catholic who remain Catholic as an adult. In the early 1970s this was in the mid-80% range. It has been steadily declining since to a low of 65% in 2012. In a bit of a surprise this has not dipped again as the trend would predict. The 2014 retention rate registered 66%. Given recent history even holding steady is an interesting result.

Respondents in the GSS are also asked to measure the strength of their religious affiliation. Respondents can say “strong,” “not very strong,” or finally “somewhat strong.” Here there was a significant bounce among Catholics in 2014 compared to 2012 in responding “strong” (27% to 34% or +7 percentage points). There was a decline in the percentage responding “not very strong” (62% to 56% or -6 percentage points). Again this is not a massive shift by any means but it breaks a trend of consistently declining numbers of Catholics saying their affiliation is “strong” in the last decade.

Affiliation is rooted in identity and membership. Behavior is another key component of religiosity. Are Catholics going to Mass more often? Are they praying more frequently? Overall, Mass attendance in 2014 (as well as in 2012 and 2010) is less frequent than in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s. It’s very similar to what it was in the 2000s. About a quarter say they attend once a week or more often (24%) and more than one in five go less than weekly, but at least once a month (22%). In total, 46% percent of Catholics are at Mass at least monthly. “Christmas and Easter” Catholics make up 28% of the population by attending Mass a few times a year. One in ten are rarely at Mass (9%) and 17% never go to Mass. Thus, about a quarter of Catholics (26%) are almost completely disconnected from parish life. In the 1970s this group amounted to 13% of Catholics while 63% were at Mass at least monthly (for more on this blog about Mass attendance see: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

What has held steadier is the frequency with which Catholics have their own conversations with God in their daily lives. Just fewer than six in ten Catholic pray daily and this has remained relatively unchanged since the early 1980s. The percentage praying less than daily but at least once a week has dipped slightly to 20% and 12% pray less than once a week. Nearly one in ten never pray (9%). This sub-group didn’t exist in the 1980s or 1990s but has grown since 2000.

The best news from the GSS for the Church in 2014 is that some worrisome trends have halted (some assessments of other recent Church trends are here). It will take another survey wave or two of consistent results to discern a real course “correction” in the data. This survey could be an outlier. These happen with good research every once in a while just by chance. Does the GSS indicate a Francis Effect? Not in the way this term is used in the media. But it does place a question mark out there. Now we just need to wait two years for the 2016 GSS. That may be all the time we have to examine a potential Francis Effect as the Pope has just indicated he may choose to retire in the next few years.

Other notable takeaways from the GSS include:
  • About eight in ten Catholics believe in life after death (79%) and this belief is more prevalent among Catholics now than it was in the early 1970s (e.g., 70% in 1975).
  • The retention rate for Nones is 65%. Thus, those raised without a religious affiliation are likely to remain this way as adults. Four percent of those raised as Nones become Catholics as adults and 25% become Protestants or other Christians.
  • Forty-three percent of Catholics are “moderates” in terms of their political ideology. A third are “conservative” and 24% are “liberal.” The percentage of Catholics who consider themselves to be “liberal” has been in a slow decline (peaking at 32% in 1990).
  • Thirty-eight percent of Catholics oppose the death penalty. In 1990, only 19% did so. There is a trend of increasing opposition among Catholics, which is consistent with Church teachings.
  • Twenty-five percent of Catholics have a “great deal” of confidence in organized religion. That may seem low but it is similar to results in recent years and by comparison only 8% have this same level of confidence in the press (matching an all-time low in 2008). The Executive Branch of the Federal Government registers in at 13% percent and Congress at 7%.
  • Attitudes about abortion remain relatively unchanged with 40% of Catholics supporting legal abortion for any reason, 73% if the pregnancy is a result of rape, and 86% if the mother’s health is seriously endangered.
  • Forty-four percent of Catholics say the ideal number of children for a couple to have is two. Only 27% of adult Catholics have had only two children. Fourteen percent have one child and 25 percent none. A third of Catholics have had three or more children.
  • Fifty-four percent of adult Catholics are currently married. Five percent are widowed, 12% divorced, and 3% separated. Twenty-seven percent are single and have never married. That is near an all-time high in the GSS series (i.e., 29% in 2010). None of the Catholics surveyed were in a same-sex marriage (0.6% of all respondents are) although 3% self-identify their sexual orientation as gay, lesbian, homosexual, or bisexual. The average age of first marriage for Catholics is 24.4. In 1972 this was 22.7. 
  • Only 12% of Catholics believe sex before marriage is “always wrong” (compared to 39% in 1972). Eighty-three percent believe that sex with a person other than your spouse after marriage is “always wrong” (compared to 72% in 1973). For the first time in the GSS, a majority of Catholics say sexual relations between two adults of the same sex is “not wrong at all” (55%).
  • Only 16% of Catholics think someone has the right to end their own life if they are “tired of living.” However, 58% believe suicide is acceptable if one has an incurable disease. 
  • Twenty-five percent of Catholics say they have a gun in their home (compared to 42% in 1977).
  • Thirty-eight percent of Catholics self-identify their ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino. Twenty-five percent of Catholics say their family ancestry is Mexican. Twelve percent indicate Irish ancestry, 11% Italian, and 10% German.
  • Eighty-three percent of Catholics are citizens and 18 percent are non-citizens. Twenty-eight percent of adult Catholics were born outside of the United States.
  • The average Catholic adult male is 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs 189 pounds. The average Catholic adult female is 5 feet 4 inches and weighs 158 pounds. Catholics are just as tall as the average American adult of their gender however they weigh a few pounds less. A majority of Catholics, 59% say they are in “very good” to “excellent” health.
Arrow image courtesy of Bernard Goldbach.

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