A good look at the Catholic community Pope Benedict XVI will be visiting this month.

A Portrait of American Catholics on the Eve of Pope Benedict’s Visit to the U.S.
March 27, 2008

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

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.