A census of religious adherence in the U.S. that reported a 5% decline in the U.S. Catholic population associated with a specific parish suggests that some dioceses need to “catch up” with Catholics new to their areas.
“Our data indicate there are fewer than 60 million Americans associated with a specific Catholic church,” said Clifford Grammich, a research associate with the "Religious Congregation & Membership Study 2010."
The study also found that there are “more than 75 million Americans who identify themselves as Catholic. In other words, there may be more than 15 million Americans who identify themselves as Catholic but who are not associated with a specific church,” Grammich told CNA May 3.
The study aims to provide the most complete data on U.S. religious affiliation and attendance. The data for 236 religious groups were published by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. The census study was released May 1 at a press conference during the annual meeting of the Associated Church Press in Chicago.
The Cincinnati-based Glenmary Research Center is responsible for the collection of the Catholic data for Latin and Eastern-rite parishes throughout the U.S.
In 2010, the census found 58.9 million Catholics affiliated with 20,589 congregations. Since 2000, the Catholic Church showed a loss of 1,202 congregations and 3.1 million adherents, a decrease of 5%. About 19.1% of the U.S. population is affiliated with a specific Catholic parish.
The religious census asked each Catholic diocese to provide the number of registered households, registered individuals, infant baptisms, deaths and weekly Mass attendance.
While the census’ numbers come close to official Catholic figures in most dioceses, many dioceses report that a number of Catholics live in the diocese but are not affiliated with a specific parish or mission.
Grammich said some dioceses, especially those with rapid population growth, may need to “catch up” with new Catholics.
There may be 15 million self-identified Catholic Americans not affiliated with a specific church, he said. If these Catholics were a denomination, their numbers would comprise the third-largest religious body in the U.S. after the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptists, who have 20 million adherents.
“Why those persons may identify as Catholic but not with a specific church could be an important question for the Catholic Church in the United States,” he told CNA.
Some of the changes in the Catholic population surveyed since 2000 may be a result of what Grammich called “accounting changes” and differences in methodology. The new Catholic data is focused more on the church-level than in the past. This makes the Catholic religious census data more comparable to that from other religious bodies, but less comparable to Catholic data reported in the past.
These questions aside, the results show a clear decline in some regions.
More than 30 U.S. dioceses, especially those of the Northeast, are witnessing more funerals than infant baptisms. This is causing a natural decrease in the Catholic population.
The Northeast, long a Catholic bastion, still has the highest Catholic population, with 18.3 million adherents. However, the U.S. Catholic population has shifted to urban areas of the West and South.
The Catholic Church showed gains in 11 states, including Georgia, Nevada and Oregon.
“As in decades past, the total population has grown more in the South and West than in the Northeast and Midwest. So total population growth alone means there will be more Catholics (and persons of other faiths) in the South and West,” Grammich said. “Also, to the extent there has been migration from the Northeast and Midwest to other regions, particularly to the South, there has been movement from more Catholic regions to less Catholic ones, which would boost the Catholic population there.”
Los Angeles County, with 3.5 million Catholic adherents, is the United States’ most populous Catholic county. Massachusetts has passed Rhode Island as the most Catholic state, with 44.9% of the population being Catholic.
Grammich found it striking that the Catholic numbers have shifted but the number of Catholic churches has not. This means the average number of Catholics per church has increased to more than 4,000 throughout the West, with nearly 8,000 Catholics per church in California.
About 25% of U.S. adults, more than 75 million people, identify as Catholic. However, only about two-thirds of these say they attend religious services more than once a year.