For years, two truisms dominated coverage of the US Catholic Church: about one quarter of the population is Catholic and each year at Easter, Catholics entering the church offset those leaving it.
But new data suggests a new story.
A report released Tuesday by the Pew Forum finds that the total number of Catholics in the United States dropped by 3 million since 2007, now comprising about 20 percent – or one-fifth – of the total population.
And perhaps more troubling for the church, for every one Catholic convert, more than six Catholics leave the church. Taken a step further, Catholicism loses more members than it gains at a higher rate than any other denomination, with nearly 13 percent of all Americans describing themselves as “former Catholics.”
The report, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, found that in 2014, the overall share of Christians in the United States dropped to an all-time low of just under 71 percent, down about 7 percentage points from 2007.
The big winner in terms of growing numbers is the unaffiliated, or the so-called “nones,” shooting up to about 23 percent of the total population from just 16 percent seven years ago. The 56 million adults not belonging to any faith tradition outnumber both Catholics and mainline Protestants; only Evangelical Christians comprise a larger share of the population.
Big demographic shifts within Catholicism continue to change the face of the church. Hispanic Catholics now comprise 41 percent of the US church, up 6 points from 2007. And the average Catholic is getting a bit older, with the median age of 49 up four years. Immigration from Latin American countries has kept Catholic number stable in recent years, and 39 percent of American immigrants are Catholic.
More than a third of all millennials – those born between 1981 and 1996 – claim no affiliation, and just 16 percent identify as Catholic.
In the traditional Catholic hub of Massachusetts, for example, Catholics still comprise the largest Christian denomination at 34 percent, but the unaffiliated cohort is right behind at 33 percent. The share of Mass. Catholics dropped 9 percentage points since the last survey in 2007, while the unaffiliated grew a staggering 16 percent.
Rhode Island has the highest per capita Catholic population at 44 percent, and other northeast states all have percentages above 30 percent, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Mississippi, with just 4 percent, has the lowest per capita Catholic population.
The Catholic Church is 54 percent women and 59 percent white. Income wise, the church is fairly evenly distributed across four brackets, though 36 percent of Catholics have an annual household income of less than $30,000. More than half – 52 percent – of Catholics are married, and another 8 percent live with a partner, while 12 percent are divorced.
Though the Pew report shows a population decline in the Catholic Church, it includes an appendix noting that there is uncertainty among demographers about the size of the church.
Additionally, many Catholic leaders contend that Hispanic Catholics are vastly undercounted due to mistrust regarding immigration issues.
The survey of 35,071 adults was conducted in English and Spanish between June and September 2014.