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.


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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