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Issue Date:  March 7, 2008

Catholics lose more members than any other group

Religion News Service

In the marketplace of American faith, Catholicism is the big loser.

Catholics have lost more members to other faiths, or to no faith at all, than any other U.S. religion, according to the new survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The survey, based on interviews with 35,000 U.S. adults, found that 31 percent of Americans were raised Catholic, but only 24 percent still identify as Catholic.

Perhaps more worrisome for church leaders, while 2.6 percent of Americans converted to Catholicism, four times as many -- 10.1 percent -- of cradle Catholics have left for another faith or no faith at all.

Roughly 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics, the study reported.

Believing but not belonging
Why are young people dropping out of organized religion? Why do a third of cradle Catholics leave the church? Does marriage affect one's religion? Researchers from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life examine these questions. Listen.

Still, despite the loss, Catholics remain steady at one in four of all Americans, the nation’s single largest religious group. That stability is fueled in part, researchers said, by waves of Hispanic immigrants, much like generations of Irish and Italians built up the church in earlier generations.

The study found that almost half of all immigrants coming to U.S. shores are Catholics, most of them from Latin American countries.

Latinos now represent 45 percent of Catholics ages 18 to 29, but only 20 percent of Catholics in their 50s.

Much of Catholicism’s loss can be chalked up to previous generations of immigrants who assimilated into American culture and as a result became less faithful to their ethnic identities and religions, Green said.

“That kind of assimilation is typical for any ethnic group,” said Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. “And it affects all religions -- not just Catholicism.”

Gautier listed interfaith marriages, a dwindling supply of priests and insufficient church facilities as challenges to keeping people in the pews.

Others, such as Fr. Allan Figueroa Deck of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, cited a lack of manpower.

“The church is falling behind,” said Deck, executive director of cultural diversity for the bishops. “We don’t have enough foot soldiers.”

Deck downplayed the idea that church teachings are out of step with the times. The church’s stand on birth control has alienated many Catholics, observers say. Deck said there simply aren’t enough teachers to communicate the faith.

“It’s our mission to evangelize,” he said, noting that part of that job involves changing hearts and minds, “and we are failing that.”

The Catholic church also struggles to reach out specifically to the needs of minority communities, such as blacks, Asians and Hispanics, said Deck, who has spent his career in the Hispanic ministry. And the assimilation of immigrants into the church and also into American culture is a tricky balance, he said.

“We have to be very careful,” Deck said. “Our role is to promote the Gospel, not any particular culture -- not even American culture.”

William D’Antonio, a fellow at the Life Cycle Institute at The Catholic University of America and one of the authors of a series of studies on American Catholics, lauded the Pew report, particularly for the size of the sample. “It allows you to go into depth with even Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists,” he said in an interview with NCR. D’Antonio said he and several colleagues have already begun to dig into the data to further interpret the findings.

The numbers, he said, confirm their own studies and point to areas that should be of continuing concern for Catholic leaders.

He said the losses are occurring among the “Vatican II” generation, referring to those who were heavily influenced by the reform council of the 1960s, and succeeding generations. D’Antonio estimates a loss in real numbers of around 12 million Catholics beginning in the late 1990s. He also said that his earlier studies showed that by the second and third generation, Hispanics “look like everyone else.” That is, said D’Antonio, like other Catholics they “value their autonomy” and have a high regard for individual conscience, two elements that have consistently marked Catholic practice in the United States.

NCR contributed reporting to this story.

On the Web
You can read more reports on this landmark survey by visiting the Daily News Feed on
You can listen to an interview with the principal authors of the report in the Podcast section of

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2008

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