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Counting U.S. Catholics: Signs of Growth and Decline on the Road to 100 Million

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There is only one U.S. religious group, propelled in part by an enthusiastic group of young followers, that is expected to grow to 100 million adherents by the middle of the century.

Yet, to hear some critics focus on generational shifts showing declining Mass attendance and doctrinal commitment among white Catholics, one might think the Catholic Church is slowly sinking in the U.S. religious landscape.

So which is it for the nation's largest religious group, growth or decline? The answer is some of both in a church that, as it has through much of its history, reflects the changing face of America, researchers reported at the recent joint meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association.

There are problems, including a dramatic loss of support among white women and a culture that is increasingly more amenable to personal decision making than claims of eternal truths.

But there also are substantial reasons for optimism.

In 1950, nearly half of Catholics could be found in the Northeast. Today, spread out nearly evenly across the country, they continue to grow along with the U.S. population in the South and West. And, unlike the GOP, the Catholic Church is receiving a welcome infusion of active, dedicated members from the growing Hispanic population.

While some analysts focus on the loss of white faces in the pews, many researchers portray a more complex picture of an institution that retains enduring, if evolving, strengths among all its members heading into the future

"Whatever its problems," Baylor University historian J. Gordon Melton said in an interview during the recent meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, "the Catholic Church is the strongest ... religious entity in the country."

Breaking The 100 Million Barrier?

The Religious Congregations & Membership Study, using self-reported data from congregations, found there were about 59 million active members of Catholic churches in 2010, a drop of 5 percent from its 2000 study.

But many other surveys indicate a pattern of steady growth as the Catholic Church over several generations has attracted about a quarter of a rapidly growing U.S. population.

In 1948, 22 percent of Americans in Gallup Polls said their religious preference was Catholic; in 2011, 23 percent reported being Catholic. The Pew Forum's American Religious Landscape Survey found 24 percent of Americans identify themselves as Catholic. Twenty-five percent of respondents to the 1978 General Social Survey identified themselves as Catholic. In the 2010 General Social Survey, 23 percent said their religious preference was Catholic.

The official count in the U.S. Catholic Directory reports the U.S. Catholic population rose from 45.6 million in 1965 to 66.3 million in 2012. The number of people self-identifying as Catholics in surveys is 78.2 million, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.

Taking into account U.S. Census projections and the historical pattern of Catholics representing about a quarter of the U.S. population, one mid-range estimate is that the Catholic population could grow to close to 110 million by the middle of the century, according to CARA researcher Mark Gray.

That does not mean the church is not facing significant challenges.

Generational Shifts

There have always been generational differences in religion, with older persons generally being the most religious and many young adults drifting away from active participation before returning as they get married and have children.

But these differences have grown dramatically among recent generations. For example, 54 percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics, those born in 1940 or before who came of age before the dramatic changes in the church, attend Mass weekly, compared to 23 percent of millennial Catholics, those born from 1979 to 1987.

If the pews in your local parish seem emptier, it is in part because that older generation, which represented 31 percent of Catholics in 1987, makes up only about 10 percent of Catholics today.

Other areas of concern for the church include dramatic declines among non-Hispanic women and fewer people holding on to central Catholic teachings, CARA senior researcher Mary Gautier and University of New Hampshire sociologist Michele Dillon reported at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion meeting. They used data from the American Catholic Laity Project, a national survey taken every six years since 1987.

In 1987, more than half of Catholic women reported attending Catholic Mass weekly, compared to 38 percent of men. By 2011, the gender gap was gone. And for the first time in the 2011 survey, women were less likely than men to say the Catholic Church was among the most important parts of their lives.

Catholics also are less likely to hold on to key theological claims.

For example, nearly a third of the Catholics surveyed, including 15 percent of highly committed church members, said one could be a good Catholic without believing Jesus rose from the dead.

In a culture that exalts personal autonomy, many Catholics are increasingly comfortable making their own decisions on issues from same-sex marriage to the need to attend Mass regularly, researchers indicated.

When someone like New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan talks of affirming the "authentic teaching" of the church, "I think that, most Catholics, when they hear that, are saying ... 'Where are you coming from?'" Dillon said.

Strong identity

Yet the "church of immigrants," as voices as diverse as Catholic Worker movement leader Dorothy Day and Dolan refer to the church, also finds much promise in its future, starting with the boost from the nation's growing Hispanic population.

Those active Catholics from the pre-Vatican II generation may be fading from the scene, but a new generation of active Hispanic Catholics are coming up behind them. Today, only 2 percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics are Hispanic, while more than 4-in-10 young adult Catholics are Hispanic.

And by nearly every standard, from Mass attendance to private devotions to belief in core theological teachings, Hispanic Catholics are more highly committed than non-Hispanic Catholics. Among millennial followers, Hispanic Catholics are nearly twice as likely as non-Hispanic Catholics to view devotions such as the rosary as very important to their Catholic identity.

A related demographic trend supporting growth is the church's spread from its historic base in the Northeast and Midwest to all areas of the U.S. In the mid-20th century, 46 percent of Catholics were in the Northeast, and less than a quarter of Catholics lived in the South and West. In 2010, half of American Catholics lived in the South and West, Gautier reported.

From 2000 to 2010, the Catholic Church experienced the largest gains among Christian groups in 11 states, including Georgia, Nevada and Oregon, the Religious Congregations & Membership Study said.

But it is not all about demography. The Catholic Church continues to do relatively well in holding on to its own in an age when the number of Americans with no religious affiliation is growing.

More than two-thirds of Americans raised as Catholic remain Catholics as adults, a higher percentage than most Christian groups, according to an analysis of data from the Pew religious landscape survey by CARA's Gray.

And for all the issues many Catholics have with the church hierarchy, including anger over the handling of clergy sexual abuse of minors, most are committed to staying, according to the 2011 American Catholic Laity Project survey.

Nearly 9-in-10 Catholics said they were unlikely to leave the Catholic Church and at least 3-in-4 said the church is among the most important parts of their life and that it is important that younger generations of their family grow up Catholic.

No one can predict the future. But it may be a mistake to underestimate the Catholic Church.

Amid powerful and sometimes violent anti-Catholic prejudice directed largely against waves of European immigrants, the Catholic Church became the largest religious group in America in the mid-19th century.

"And they've been No. 1 ever since," Melton said.

Expect the church to hold on to that ranking, particularly if it is able to continue to provide a spiritual home for the latest generation of immigrants overcoming hostility to find their place in the American dream.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.