September 15, 2015

Half of U.S. adults raised Catholic have left the church at some point

Some older American Catholics might remember a time when people thought of the Catholic Church like a family: hard to ignore and even harder to leave. But a new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Catholics shows that at least some of these perceptions may no longer be entirely true.

About Half of Those Raised Catholic Leave the ChurchIndeed, about half (52%) of all U.S. adults who were raised Catholic have left the church at some point in their lives. A significant minority of them returned, but most (four-in-ten of all those raised Catholic) have not.

Roughly two-thirds of those who have not returned (28% of all those raised Catholic) are now ex-Catholics. These are people raised in the church who no longer consider themselves Catholic in any way. We classified the remaining 13% as “cultural Catholics” – those who now have no religion or are part of another religious tradition (other than Catholicism), but nevertheless still identify as Catholic in some way.

Despite the temporary and lasting departures from the church, there still are deep reservoirs of loyalty to the institution. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of current Catholics say they have been part of the church their whole life. A similar share, seven-in-ten, also say they could never imagine leaving Catholicism, no matter what.

Even among younger generations, there is significant loyalty to the church: About half of Catholic adults (56%) under age 30 say they can’t imagine leaving the church.

There has been speculation that the popularity of Pope Francis and the atmosphere of change around his 2-year-old papacy might inspire many former Catholics to return to the church.

But when it comes to ex-Catholics, Francis has his work cut out for him. Only 8% say returning to the church is something they could imagine doing. More open to coming back are those raised in the church but who are now cultural Catholics: 43% say they can imagine returning to the Catholic Church someday.

So American Catholics – both in and out of the church – are still like a family, just one where not everyone is living under the same roof.

Topics: Religious Affiliation, Catholics and Catholicism, Christians and Christianity

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


  1. ELIAS h ATTEA2 years ago

    EZEKIEL 34 your answer is there

  2. Polycarp Flavius2 years ago

    Their is a God, and He is as real as anyone one of us will ever be, a major huge mistakee that I hope too NEVER repeat —– The OTHER presumption is an inordinate trust in the Divine mercy or power, consisting in the hope of
    OBTAINING glory without merits, or pardon WITHOUT repentance. Such like presumption seems to arise DIRECTLY from pride, as though man thought so much of himself as to esteem that God would NOT punish him or EXCLUDE him from glory, HOWEVER much he might be a sinner.
    St. Thomas Aquinas

    1. Frank2 years ago

      Humans lack so much humility that they think they could even grasp the concept of what a God is. Can a monkey understand advanced mathematics? No. We gage our intelligence based upon other species on this planet, so we think we are smart, but the reality is if there is a god we wouldn’t be able to wrap our brains around what a god really is.
      Religion is evil and has hidden agendas

      1. Polycarp Flavius2 years ago

        Because we cannot know what God is, but only what He is not, we cannot consider how He is but only how He is not.
        St. Thomas Aquinas

      2. Anonymous1 year ago

        No one claims to grasp the concept of what God is. We simply believe what He has revealed to us. That He is love and loves us. Then a transformation within us occurs. That is, we want more of Him because we now realize that we need Him and are nothing without Him in our lives. We become believers. Just as you are a believer of nothingness. We are both believers. One seeking goodness, the other seeking….nothingness. We are both frail and imperfect each on our own paths in life. Maybe we should both look into what the other has found and perhaps learn from each other.

  3. Patricia J Moore2 years ago

    Why are Cultural Catholics considered no longer Catholic? In the article explaining what a Cultural Catholic it says, “[b]ut majorities also point to religious beliefs and teachings as key parts of their Catholic identity”. Your article makes them sound very much like they are Catholics just maybe not as devout as people who attend mass every week.

    When you factor them in as Catholics (as opposed to ex-Catholics) that means that a bit less than 1/3 of Catholics become deconverts.

    I’d be very curious to see how all of these groups break down in terms of home ownership and the number and age of their children. You might be able to guess where I’m going here. I’m wondering if, as people settle into a community and have families, a religious identity becomes more salient.

  4. Lynn Marie2 years ago

    I am a cradle Catholic for 66 years. I love being a Catholic and use to love going to church. I was a lector, usher and sang in the choir. I quit going to church in 2007. Why? because of the little clicks and the people who lie about other people. I was approached by the priest after church and he asked me that a woman told him that I said something. I told the priest I never said this nor would I ever say it. Well he said I was lying. I asked him if this was a confession and he laughed at me and said no…I told him that in front of Christ hanging on the cross I did not say this. He said he did not believe me. The next Sunday after I was the lector and I welcomed all to the church…I then stated that someone has lied about me saying that the priest changed songs before the mass because it was Black History month and all the songs were not pertaining to the blacks of the church. I looked in everybody’s eyes and told them I never said anything like that. Of course this is before the mass and I could see the priest not being happy about it. Then the priest came to me after mass and told me he does not want me to be a lector, usher or sing in the choir ONLY because I stood up in front of everybody and told them about what someone said to me. I went to confession the next week and the priest listened and looked at me and said, I don’t believe you. He did give me absolution, I did my penance but when I went to communion he refused me. The following Sunday my beloved dog died I asked the priest if my dog went to heaven and the priest laughed in my face and said “who cares if some dog goes to heaven…why don’t you worry about all the sick people in our community”. I quit going to church we only have 2 Catholic churches in our community. I say my rosary, I pray, I still believe in my faith. I may not go to church, but I am still a Catholic.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      I’m sorry to hear about your experience. I was a Catholic for 37 yrs. I lost my mom in 2012 from cancer and struggled with my faith. My pastor tried helping me but the more I asked questions, the more agitated he became. He couldn’t understand why I stopped being a lector, singer in choir and member of the Legion of Mary. At the end of his frustration, he said “I can’t get through to you.” He wanted me to accept the loss of my mother and grandmother in 9 months without questions. I became bitter with the philosophy of the Church, stopped attending and then started visiting other churches.
      I spoke with the pastor of a local Presbyterian church and gradually started attending services at her church. Our conversations were more open, honesty, and not one-sided. I officially joined the Presbyterian Church in March. I still struggle with certain aspects but am slowly making spiritual progress once again. I don’t see myself returning to the Catholic Church. Even though I was close to the pastor and then became estranged, he received another assignment and was transferred to another church. He was a great pastor and I miss him. I don’t like the idea of archbishops moving priests around. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church is detrimental to its membership.

  5. Charles2 years ago

    Going to mass is not about FUN, but about worshiping your Creator, and the One who died for our sins.

  6. Guy M2 years ago

    It would be interesting to see a breakdown by educational level, ethnicity, first or second generation immigrant family, etc. Over 20% of Americans say they have no religion or religious affiliation, and that number is increasing. RC parish churches are being closed around the country. Three RC churches in the town where I grew up are down to one, and that one has difficulty finding priests.

  7. Charlie Sitzes2 years ago

    “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would get in.”
    Mark Twain

  8. Jimmy Mac2 years ago

    It’s easier to stay out than to get out, but once out is most likely to stay out

  9. Alfred E Sanders2 years ago

    I have not been to a Catholic Church in a long time I went abot 15 years ago to a youth mass and it was allot of fun. Now I pretty much go to the Methodist church but I am still a catholic I figue as long as I keep saying hail Mary’s.

    1. usworker32 years ago

      While I have attended other services I have never left the Church. While all are aiming for the same place .. I believe that the Church gives you more tools (sacraments) to get there –

      The beauty of the Mass (following the stipulation of Christ .. do this in memory of Me) – and without a doubt the words from his Mother … Do as He says …

      are beautiful, joyful and without a doubt inspiring and uplifting.

      Keep those Hail Mary’s going doesn’t hurt … even the Mormons are beginning to believe in them … at least on the football field.