Diversity of the Catholic Church in America

CRUX reported on a new study commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (here). Surprisingly, there are no links to a more detailed report, nor does the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, which issued the report, have one on their site. This omission is remarkable.

The study is unusual in that it actually employed “in-pew” surveys, based on a complex multi-stage research design. Most studies use more straightforward consumer research techniques like phone surveys, based either on random dialing or targeted lists. The present study thus reflects actual church-goers. Normally, about twice as many respondents claim to be church goers than is actually the case.

Overall, there are nearly 75 million Catholics in the U.S. About 57% are white, and 40% Hispanic. There has been a huge increase in Hispanics, who are very different demographically than the traditional white Catholic.

The median age for white Catholics is 62, versus 39 for Hispanics. This is striking in several ways. First, white members of the Catholic Church are very old. The younger generation is leaving in droves. Second, median age of 39 for Hispanics is relatively old. Nationwide, the median age is only 29. I suspect that many Hispanic children no longer attend the Roman Catholic church. Similarly, the report shows that 75% of white Catholics were born before Vatican II (1962-1965), while 54% of Hispanics were born after 1982.

In other words, traditional white ethnic Catholics are dying off. Most of their children have left the Church. The absolute size of the Church has held relatively steady due to the influx of many Hispanics. However, it appears that younger Hispanics are also leaving the Catholic Church in large numbers. Since Hispanics are, on average, much less wealthy than whites, the Church must be getting squeezed financially. This is particularly important since American Catholics are the Roman Catholic Church’s largest patron. Furthermore, the long-term trend does not bode well for it.

I suspect the Church understands the problem. But it is highly conservative and resistant to change. It's always fighting the last war - or an even earlier one. Vatican II was a radical attempt at reform, but has largely been undone. The Church seems to be looking for minor tweaks that will have miraculous effects, but this is unlikely. A Hispanic pope may help, but won’t solve the problem. It has already lost a great deal of its market, and has a limited time to fix its problems, since those leaving the Church are highly unlikely to return. Within a relatively short period of time, the Church may be a mere shadow of its former self.

Technical note – The multi-stage sampling design of this study is similar to that used by the Census bureau. Almost no commercial survey organizations use this approach. It is not only more complex to design and analyze, it is far more difficult to implement. Very few survey organizations can handle it. I would not be surprised if there were technical problems with the survey, though the broad trends are consistent with other data.