September 3, 2015

Who are ‘cultural Catholics’?

The share of Americans whose primary religious affiliation is Catholic has fallen somewhat in recent years, and now stands at about one-in-five. But according to a new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Catholics and others, an additional one-in-ten American adults (9%) consider themselves Catholic or partially Catholic in other ways, even though they do not self-identify as Catholic on the basis of religion.

Who Are Cultural Catholics?Who are these “cultural Catholics”? Often, they think of themselves as Catholic in one way or another even though many belong to another faith tradition (such as Protestantism). Others are religiously unaffiliated, identifying as atheist, agnostic or simply “nothing in particular.”

Most of these cultural Catholics (62%) say that for them personally, being Catholic is mainly a matter of ancestry and/or culture (rather than religion). But majorities also point to religious beliefs and teachings as key parts of their Catholic identity. For example, 60% of cultural Catholics say that having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is essential to what being Catholic means to them. Likewise, 57% say the same about believing in Jesus’ resurrection. A similar share (59%) say that working to help the poor and needy is essential to their Catholicism.

Sizable minorities of cultural Catholics also participate in some of the church’s rituals. For instance, about a third of cultural Catholics (32%) say they attend Mass at least once a year, and roughly a quarter (26%) say they receive Holy Communion at least sometimes when they attend Mass. A third (33%) say they gave something up or did something extra for Lent this year, and about four-in-ten (41%) say it would be important to them to receive the sacrament of the anointing of the sick (sometimes part of “last rites”) if they were seriously ill.

Roughly two-thirds of cultural Catholics (65%) were raised Catholic or had at least one Catholic parent. And about six-in-ten (62%) of these cultural Catholics who have immediate family connections to Catholicism say that this family background is the reason for their link to the Catholic faith.

Among the cultural Catholics who were not raised Catholic and did not have a Catholic parent, a plurality (36%) say that they have an affinity for the church. And 15% say that a previous or current marriage to a Catholic is the reason they see themselves as having a connection to Catholicism.

Cultural Catholics tend to show warm feelings toward the church. For example, nearly three-quarters (73%) expressed a favorable view of Pope Francis when the survey was conducted in May and June, compared with 59% of ex-Catholics (i.e., those who were raised Catholic but no longer identify as Catholic on the basis of religion or in any other way).

Some of these cultural Catholics may in the future even return to Catholicism – 43% of cultural Catholics who were raised Catholic say they could see themselves returning to the church someday, while only 8% of ex-Catholics say the same.

Topics: Catholics and Catholicism, Christians and Christianity, Religion and Society, Religious Affiliation, Religious Beliefs and Practices

  1. Photo of David Masci

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Barbara1 year ago

    Is this a term Pew invented? A cultural Catholic. To be catholic, doesn’t one need to be practicing? I know when one is confirmed or goes through RCIA, it is explained what is asked of each person. If for example, you are not going to mass and confession, how can one say they are catholic? Shouldn’t one be studying, practicing and living Catholicism? This isn’t like an ethnic question, like are you Irish; or whether you are even male or female (which people dispute these days). If one isn’t going to live the Catholic faith and follow church teaching, are they really Catholic. If I once was involved with an organization, but no longer am, am I considered still a member of that organization? I would say the answer is NO.

    1. Eric1 year ago

      It is funny because before this study came out, I knew of many friends and family and also myself who identified with Catholic culture but not as a religion. I know many people attracted to going to mass a few times of year for the ritual and especially the silent prayer times one can have. Many people like the idea of having milestones in life for their children such as first communion and confirmation, even if they don’t necessarily follow Catholic doctrine. Many people went to Catechism and enjoy the fact that they know the Beatitudes when many other Christians don’t. Many have the Our Father and Hail Mary memorized and might take solace in the fact we do, even if we are unsure if God really exists when we say them (just like Mother Theresa did). Many people like the message of being servants to God and servants to others (as opposed to the warrior ethos so often proclaimed by both many in the Catholic Church’s hierarchy and other denominations) and like to practice Lent as a testament to a giving of ones self to something greater, even if it is just an acknowledgement of one’s own identity and ancestors. While many might have once called themselves cafeteria Catholics, I think that over time many secular people have found solace and identity in their Catholic heritage just as many secular Jewish Americans do.

  2. cradle&practicing catholic1 year ago

    I pray for those who cannot see the importance of practicing their faith for the mental and spiritual strength and blessings they are missing out of. Many moments in our marriage was strengthen by the grace of our faith in Christ. Receiving communion at Mass, while in the state of grace , and for those who are unable to recieve,the Mass helps to give you the spiritual strength needed to live your life as a child of God. What better way to show Him our love and gratitude for all that He has given us.
    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to post my thoughts.