US Catholic trends

From CARA:

From 1972 to 2010, what happened to the proportion of the general U.S. population for religious groups?

  • Protestants went down markedly, from 63% to 47% of the population.
  • Catholics held steady, from 27% to 25% of the population.
  • Nones grew dramatically, from 5% to 18%.
  • Others went up from 5% to 9%.

Perhaps it isn’t just immigration holding up the Catholic numbers: the percentage of U.S. Catholics who are foreign-born, or whose parents or grandparents are foreign-born, seems to have decreased slightly since 2006.

Catholics’ ability to retain their own is sliding. In 1973 the retention rate (percent of those raised Catholic who identify as Catholic as adults) was 84%. In 2010, the Catholic retention rate is estimated to be 68%. If this decline continues, by 2050 the Catholics will be retaining only 54% of their own.

Full write-up, interesting details, and helpful graphs here.


  1. It is good that CARA is providing this analysis of the GSS now before others do.

    They appear less defensive than they have sometimes when responding to other studies. Yes they do continue to point out that the Catholic percentage has stayed the same, and that Catholics have increased in numbers. But that hides a lot of important things that are going on underneath.

    It is particularly good that they have presented the data on retention. Note that we do not get into much of a real decline in retention rates until the late 1980’s. (Pay attention to the green dots, not the fitted line). Kind of hard to blame declining retention rates on Vatican II, the evils of the 1960’s, or the 1973 missal (people put up with that Missal for a decade before retention rates went down).

    Let’s see JPII? Wonder if he could have been driving some Catholics away at the same time some people might have been attracted to Catholicism by him? Food for thought for those who like “post hoc, propter hoc” augments, or have to contend with them on this blog.

    More likely the decline of retention has a lot to do with the decline of ethnicity which often aids in helping people retain their religion.

    I’m looking forward to how CARA deals with the attendance data.

  2. What isn’t said here is what percentage of adults indentifying themselves as Catholic, attend Mass on a regular basis. It’s very easy to say “I’m Catholic” but am I a practicing Catholic? To me that is the real issue.

    1. Attendance: the “pro” s for its importance.

      Yes, church attendance is very important and indeed has become for social scientists the single most important measure of religiosity, not for any theoretical reasons let alone theological reasons but because of the very practical reason that it shows the greatest number of positive relationships to other important things in life, both social and psychological e.g.

      1) giving of voluntary time not only to churches but also civic organizations
      2) giving of money not only to churches but also other non profit organizations
      3) life satisfaction
      4) physical health

      So if we are looking for a simple measure of people who are truly religious and whose religion has very strong relationships to beneficial things in their lives and in society, that measure is church attendance.

      However, no social scientist would restrict the definition of who is a Catholic solely to those who attend church regularly for the simple reason that all the relationships about church attendance are equally true of Protestants. Religiosity (i.e. church attendance) marks the difference not whether one identifies as a Catholic or a Protestant. Religious Catholics are more similar to religious Protestants on many variables than they are to non-religious Catholics, i.e. Catholics who do not attend church very often.

      You could make a strong argument that only religiosity (church attendance) is important, and that it does not matter (in terms of social and psychological benefits that would be widely valued in society) what religion you are. I doubt you want to make that argument.

  3. I’d really like to see statistics on Eastern Catholics: numbers over the years, numbers of clerics, increase and decrease, etc. Maybe even the number of instances of sexual abuse by clerics.

    For perspective.

    1. The GSS is a survey which is currently done every other year; originally it was done every year. Unfortunately a prohibitive simple size would be required to get any information about smaller groups such as Eastern Catholics and Orthodox.

      Unfortunately the census does not include information about religion.

      In regard to Eastern Orthodox, the Hartford Institute has a page dedicated to research on them:

      CARA may have done some research for Eastern Catholics, but a lot of their materials tend to be internal rather than for publication.

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