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A Portrait of American Catholics on the Eve of Pope Benedict’s Visit to the U.S.

When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United States on April 15, he will find a Catholic Church that is undergoing rapid ethnic and demographic changes, and whose flock is quite diverse both in their religious practices and levels of commitment, as well as in their social and political views. And, as this portrait of American Catholics underscores, the pontiff will also find a church that again is likely to play a key role in the outcome of a U.S. presidential election.

I. Demographic Portrait of U.S. Catholics

Impact of the Growing Latino Population Changing Geographic Patterns Differences in Education and Income

According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey recently released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Catholics account for nearly one-quarter of U.S. adults. By comparison, more than half (51.3%) of the adult population is Protestant and almost one-in-six (16.1%) are unaffiliated with any particular religion. The proportion of the U.S. population that identifies itself as Catholic has remained relatively stable in recent decades, but this apparent stability obscures the major changes that are taking place within American Catholicism.

No other major faith in the U.S. has experienced greater net losses over the last few decades as a result of changes in religious affiliation than the Catholic Church. Nearly one-third (31.4%) of U.S. adults say they were raised Catholic. Today, however, only 23.9% of adults say they are affiliated with the Catholic Church, a net loss of 7.5 percentage points. Overall, roughly one-third of those who were raised Catholic have left the church, and approximately one-in-ten American adults are former Catholics.

At the same time, findings from the General Social Survey, conducted between 1972 and 2006 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, have shown that the proportion of the population identifying as Catholic has remained relatively stable, at around 25%, over the last 30 years. During the same period, the Protestant share of the population has steadily declined, and the proportion of the population that is religiously unaffiliated has increased significantly. Why has the Catholic share of the U.S. population held steady even though so many people have left the Catholic Church?

Part of the answer is that the Catholic Church continues to attract a fair number of converts. The Landscape Survey finds that 2.6% of U.S. adults have switched their affiliation to Catholicism after being raised in another faith or in no faith at all. Nevertheless, former Catholics outnumber converts to Catholicism by roughly four-to-one, so other factors must account for the relative stability of the Catholic population. One obvious factor is immigration: The Landscape Survey finds that nearly half of all immigrants to the U.S. (46%) are Catholic, compared with just 21% of the native-born population.

The vast majority (82%) of Catholic immigrants to the U.S. were born in Latin America, and most Catholic immigrants from Latin America (52% of all Catholic immigrants to the U.S.) come from just one country – Mexico. Catholics are also well represented among immigrants coming to the U.S. from Western Europe, Eastern Europe and East Asia; more than one-in-four of all immigrants from these regions are Catholic.

Impact of the Growing Latino Population

Recent demographic analyses conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center indicate that the Latino share of the U.S. population will grow significantly in the coming decades. Indeed, there are likely to be nearly 130 million Latinos in the U.S. by the year 2050 – more than three times the size of the Latino population in 2005 (42 million). These estimates project that Latinos will account for 29% of the U.S. population by 2050, up from 14% in 2005.

Hispanic Population in the U.S.

As the Latino share of the U.S. population grows, the proportion of American Catholics who are Latino is likely to grow as well. The Landscape Survey finds that Latinos now account for nearly a third (29%) of all Catholic adults in the U.S. Perhaps more significantly, Latinos account for nearly half of Catholics under age 40. In contrast, older Catholics are predominantly white. For example, only 12% of Catholics age 70 and older are Hispanic.

Age and Racial Composition of Catholicism

According to the Landscape Survey, white, non-Latino Catholics are significantly older than the population as a whole. Hispanic Catholics, on the other hand, are much younger than the overall population. More than three-quarters (77%) of Hispanic Catholics are under age 50, compared with just half (51%) of white Catholics. And 28% of Hispanic Catholics are under age 30, compared with only 13% of white Catholics.

White Catholics Are Older than Latino Catholics

Changing Geographic Patterns

Changes in the ethnic composition of the Catholic population have the potential to change the geographic center of the Catholic Church as well. Historically, a greater proportion of Catholics have lived in the Northeast than in other parts of the U.S. Even today, close to one-in-three Catholics (29%) live in the Northeast, more than in any other region. But while two-thirds of white Catholics reside in the Northeast (35%) or the Midwest (31%), the overwhelming majority of Latino Catholics – nearly three-in-four overall – reside in the South (32%) or the West (42%).

Geographic Distribution of Catholics

Another way to gauge these geographic changes is to examine differences in the ethnic composition of the Catholic population in different geographic regions. For instance, white Catholics account for the vast majority of all Catholics living in the Northeast and Midwest (79% and 84%, respectively). By contrast, only 17% of Northeastern Catholics and 11% of Midwestern Catholics are Latinos. But Latinos account for more than half of all Catholics in the West and more than one-third of all Catholics in the South.

Ethnic Composition of Catholics

In the Washington, D.C., and New York City metropolitan areas – the two cities on the pope’s itinerary – more than six-in-ten Catholics are non-Latino whites (63% in Washington and 61% in New York). Latinos account for 23% of the Catholic population in the Washington area and 34% of the Catholic population in the New York area. The Washington area also has a significant number (14%) of Catholics who report their race as black, Asian or another race.

Differences in Education and Income

Overall, Catholics are about as well educated and as wealthy as the general public, but there are significant differences in the socioeconomic profiles of white Catholics compared with their Latino counterparts.

Education and Income

More than four-in-ten Hispanic Catholics (42%) have not finished high school, a number seven times higher than among white Catholics (6%). Hispanic Catholics are also much less well-off financially than white Catholics. More than half (55%) of Hispanic Catholics make less than $30,000 per year, while only one-fifth of white Catholics are in this income category. At the other end of the spectrum, six-in-ten white Catholics make at least $50,000 per year, while less than a quarter (24%) of Hispanic Catholics make that amount.

Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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