The Catholic Church is larger than any other single religious institution in the United States, with over 17,000 parishes that serve a large and diverse population. In spite of its size and influence, the church in recent decades has faced a number of significant challenges, from a decline in membership to a shortage of priests to continuing revelations that some Catholic clergy sexually abused minors and (in many cases) that their superiors covered up these actions.
Here are seven facts about American Catholics and their church:
1 There are roughly 51 million Catholic adults in the U.S., accounting for about one-fifth of the total U.S. adult population, according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. That study found that the share of Americans who are Catholic declined from 24% in 2007 to 21% in 2014.
2 Catholicism has experienced a greater net loss due to religious switching than has any other religious tradition in the U.S. Overall, 13% of all U.S. adults are former Catholics – people who say they were raised in the faith, but now identify as religious “nones,” as Protestants, or with another religion. By contrast, 2% of U.S. adults are converts to Catholicism – people who now identify as Catholic after having been raised in another religion (or no religion). This means that there are 6.5 former Catholics in the U.S. for every convert to the faith. No other religious group analyzed in the 2014 Religious Landscape Study has experienced anything close to this ratio of losses to gains via religious switching.
3 Catholics in the U.S. are racially and ethnically diverse. Roughly six-in-ten Catholic adults are white, one-third are Latino, and smaller shares identify as black, Asian American, or with other racial and ethnic groups. The data also show that the share of U.S. Catholics who are Latino has been growing, and suggest that this share is likely to continue to grow. Indeed, among Catholic Millennials, there are about as many Hispanics as whites. (For information on the demographic characteristics of U.S. Catholics, including age, education, income and more, see “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.”)
4 Compared with some other religious groups, Catholics are fairly evenly dispersed throughout the country: 27% live in the South, 26% in the Northeast, 26% in the West, and 21% of U.S. Catholics live in the Midwest. Since many American Hispanics are Catholic, the continuing growth of this community as a share of the U.S. population is gradually shifting the geographic center of U.S. Catholicism from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and the West. Indeed, three-quarters of Hispanic Catholics reside in the South or West, while six-in-ten non-Hispanic Catholics live in the Northeast or Midwest. Overall, the share of U.S. Catholic adults who reside in the Northeast and the Midwest declined by 5 percentage points between 2007 and 2014 (from 53% to 48%), while the share of Catholics who live in the South and West grew by an equal amount (from 47% to 52%).
5 Many U.S. Catholics say they want to see the church make significant changes. For example, six-in-ten say they think the church should allow priests to marry and allow women to become priests. And nearly half of U.S. Catholics say the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples. Support for these kinds of changes is lower – though still substantial – among Catholics who attend Mass regularly than it is among those who attend Mass less often.
6 Politically, Catholic registered voters are evenly split between those who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party (47%) and those who favor the GOP (46%). In their partisanship, U.S. Catholics are deeply divided along racial and ethnic lines. Most Hispanic Catholics identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 54% of white Catholics today identify with or lean toward the GOP.
7Large majorities of U.S. Catholics have admired Pope Francis throughout his tenure, but there are growing signs of discontent. In 2014, 54% of American Catholics gave Francis “excellent” or “good” marks for his handling of the church’s sex abuse scandal. But in a Pew Research Center poll conducted in September 2018 – shortly after recent reports about sex scandals in the U.S. Catholic Church – the share of Catholics saying this had fallen 23 points, to 31%. The recent survey also found that the pontiff’s overall approval rating among U.S. Catholics had dropped to 72%, down from 84% in January of this year.
Note: This is an update of a post originally published Sept. 4, 2018.