‘Strong’ Catholic Identity at a Four-Decade Low in U.S.

The Pew Forum reports:

The percentage of U.S. Catholics who consider themselves “strong” members of the Roman Catholic Church has never been lower than it was in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of new data from the General Social Survey (GSS). About a quarter (27%) of American Catholics called themselves “strong” Catholics last year, down more than 15 points since the mid-1980s and among the lowest levels seen in the 38 years since strength of religious identity was first measured in the GSS, a long-running national survey carried out by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

The decline among U.S. Catholics is even starker when they are compared with Protestants, whose strength of religious identification has been rising in recent years. About half (54%) of American Protestants – double the Catholic share (27%) – described their particular religious identity as strong last year, among the highest levels since the GSS began asking the question in 1974.


14 responses to “‘Strong’ Catholic Identity at a Four-Decade Low in U.S.”

  1. Joseph Shaw Avatar

    What an utterly meaningless survey. The percentage of people who call themselves ‘Catholics’ who go on to call themselves ‘strong’ Catholics? One completely vague and misleading self-defined category piled on another. What is this supposed to show? That the Church has attracted more people who don’t, yet, regard themselves as ‘strong’ Catholics? That Catholics have become more modest? That perceptions of Catholic identity have become more demanding?

    If fewer nominal Catholics claim to be ‘strong’ Catholics that is probably a good thing, but it depends on too many variables to be sure.

    1. Matt Connolly Avatar
      Matt Connolly

      @Joseph Shaw – comment #1:
      I don’t find this survey meaningless at all. It reflects my situation. I’d have called myself a strong Catholic 20 years ago, despite the changes that started with JPII in 1978. More and more, my friends and loved ones feel that to follow Christ one must break with a fearful and vindictive Catholic hierarchy. You may think I am (we are) wrong. This would not be a novelty. I’m married, so I’m wrong every day and many times hourly. But this survey reflects well what I feel and see. Retaining my Catholicity is a real exercise in faith.

      Maybe Pope Francis will lead the church in ways that lead me back to “strong belief” without alienating the present 27%. We live in hope.

  2. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky

    This parallels the Gallup report on Tuesday that provided us with evidence that Catholics are less religious (i.e. fewer saying that religion is important in their daily lives and that they attend church almost weekly). Gallup’s bottom line:

    Catholics, at this particular point in U.S. history, are less religious than Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians in this country. This conclusion comes from the same very large database of interviews conducted between January 2012 and January 2013. The data show that 43% of Catholics are “highly religious” compared to 51% of Protestants. That hasn’t always been the case. In previous decades, Catholics were more religious than Protestants.


    Two different organizations, different data and methodologies, same general conclusion.

    My summary of Pew study points; my comments in bold.

    While the percentage of strong Catholics has declined from 46% to 26%, the percentage of strong Protestants has risen from 43% to 54%. The percentage of strong Protestants is now twice that of Catholics.

    There is a specific Catholic problem not just a general decline of strong religion caused by secularism.

    Self-reported weekly church attendance has declined among “strong” Catholics; it has fallen more than 30 points, from 85% in 1974 to 53% last year. In 1974 strong Catholics were more likely to attend weekly than strong Protestants (55%); now strong Catholics are no more likely to attend weekly than strong Protestants (60%).

    Weekly Church attendance is no longer the Catholic marker it once was

    In 1990, 45% of both Catholics and Protestants said they were “not very strong” members of their faith. By 2012, the share of “not very strong” U.S. Catholics had increased to 62%, while the share of “not very strong” Protestants had dropped to 36%.

    The typical Catholic is now a not very strong Catholic whereas the typical Protestant is a strong Protestant.

    Viewed as a share of all U.S. adults, “strong” Protestants have remained remarkably stable over time. In the 2012 GSS, 27% of American adults identified as Protestants with a strong religious identity – exactly the same percentage as in 1974.

    In other words the decline in Protestants in the USA has occurred among weak Protestants.

    “Strong” Catholics, by contrast, have been declining both as a share of all Catholics and as a share of the U.S. public. The proportion of all American adults who identify as “strong” Catholics has fallen in the GSS from 12% in 1974 to about 7% today. The share of the public that identifies as Catholic but not “strong” Catholic, on the other hand, has risen slightly, from 14% in 1974 to nearly 18% in 2012.

    Catholics need to stop blaming the decline of strong Catholicism in the USA on secularism

  3. Jim Pauwels Avatar
    Jim Pauwels

    I’m just curious: who is the author of the post?

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      @Jim Pauwels – comment #3:
      I’m theone who linked to the site where the excerpt is from. But are you asking who wrote THAT post?

  4. Jim Pauwels Avatar
    Jim Pauwels

    Hi, Fr. Ruff, I was asking because the blog shows that this post was put up by Other Voices, which I thought meant “guest blogger”. I guess it can mean “things of interest found by the Editor” 🙂

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      Here’s what I try to do: if it’s by one person (an essay or editorial) it’s “Other Voices,” if it’s a link to another report or news story with many aspects it’s “Editor.” So I think I missed it this time. I’ll change it.

  5. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky


    Both Pew and Gallup when they publish relatively routine, straight forward data analyses such as this, don’t give a staff member(s) as author(s). The author simply becomes as Anthony said “The Pew Forum reports”

    On the other hand when they do larger and more interpretative pieces they generally identify the staff member(s) who were responsible for the selecting the data and interpreting it.

    The General Social Survey data is public data; anyone can analyze it. If Gallup had done this analysis it would likely have been very similar to what Pew is giving us.

    The rather straight forward nature of this data and its analysis is one of the reasons why I put more interpretative (bold) remarks in my comment. On a descriptive level there is not much to talk about.

    The reasons why Catholics are different than Protestants is the big question.

    Matt’s response above it interesting since it brings up the question of Catholic pride (which is not exactly the same as Catholic identity). Maybe a lot of Catholics just not longer are proud of being a Catholic. My aunt in her late eighties moved to a senior apartment complex and simply avoids the issue of religion since she got tired of hearing negative comments about Catholicism. She feels she is still Catholic but that it is not longer something she can be publicly proud of.

  6. Jim Pauwels Avatar
    Jim Pauwels

    Jack – here is my (sociology) layperson’s hypothesis of what is reported. What do you think?

    Decline in Catholic identity: is explained by generational shifts more so than formerly staunch people “falling away”. The crisis that this data may point to is an intergenerational crisis, and points to the reality that the faith has not been transmitted very effectively to the generations that are now approaching middle age and younger.

    Increase in strength of Protestant identity: Not sure what it signifies, but I suspect that at least some of it represents some movement within the umbrella called “Protestant” that encompasses a vast array of denominations and faith communities. It may point to Evangelical Christianity’s bias toward evangelizing.

  7. Jim Pauwels Avatar
    Jim Pauwels

    Jack – one more comment: I think that last summer’s “Fortnight of Freedom” was an attempt by the bishops to fan the flames of Catholic pride. But my own view is that Catholic pride needs to be restarted from scratch, as any generation younger than my parents’ (who are from the so-called “Silent Generation”) never really experienced it first hand.

    In other words, with the Fortnight for Freedom, I think the bishops thought they were tossing a couple of logs on a fire that had burnt low, and were squirting a bellows-full of air into the glowing embers. My personal belief is that that fire hasn’t really been burning on a mass scale in the US since sometime in the 1960s, and the church needs to think in terms of starting a new fire. And fires take time to build; they start very small, grow gradually and require constant and careful tending.

  8. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky

    Jim said My personal belief is that that fire hasn’t really been burning on a mass scale in the US since sometime in the 1960s

    But the problem documented by the data (look at the chart above) began in the late 1980s. Before that Catholic “strength” was above 40% just like Protestant “strength.”

    A lot of Catholics, myself included, were proud of Vatican II, John XXIII and JFK, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement. A lot of us saw our Catholic future as laity in the world rather than as priests or religious. We also saw the election of JP2, the rise of Solidarity, and then the fall of the Soviet Union as very positive. In the early 1980s I was a voluntary member of mostly voluntary pastor staff, and also involved in diocesan ministry in a small diocese. I specifically took a a public employment position so that I could retire at age 60 and looked forward to spending my retirement as a voluntary parish staff member.

    However by the end of 1980’s the retrenchment from Vatican II was becoming evident at all levels and JP2 become a problem rather than an asset. I found my “ministry” in the public mental health system rather than in a parish or a diocese. Rather than depending on voluntary ministers, priests begin recruiting paid lay ministers, and parish councils became advisory whereas before many priests had treated them as collaborators and deferred to them. Parishes became nonprofit corporations rather than communities.

    Our present problem could be summed up by saying that the Pope abandoned collegiality with the bishops, the bishops abandoned collegiality with their priests, and priests abandoned collegiality with their people. No one wanted to deal with the messiness of collegiality. Everyone wanted to be a manager (i.e. exert control) rather than be a leader (i.e. be content with influence). The fire of Vatican II has largely died in our parishes as a result.

    1. Bill deHaas Avatar
      Bill deHaas

      @Jack Rakosky – comment #11:
      Jack – well said; agree ++++

      Also, by the late 1980’s, after ten years of JPII, the *cult of personality* was wearing thin for those of us who had to deal with the rigidity that was imposed (if not personally by JPII; by those who thought they were doing his bidding)

      Jack – does this data indicate at all that we can mark two shifts:
      – release of Humanae Vita
      – 10 years into JPII – by then his episcopal appointments, style, and initial MPs and encyclicals.

      1. Jack Rakosky Avatar
        Jack Rakosky

        @Bill deHaas – comment #12:


        A very important graphic is the one on

        “Percent that say they attend Church Weekly in the GSS 1974-2012”

        Perhaps Anthony can add it to this post or put it in a separate post.

        It has four lines: at the bottom are All Catholics which goes from 40% in 1974 to 24% in 2012. All Protestants goes from 29% in 1974 to 38% in 2012. Another reversal pattern

        It is interesting that in 2000 Catholic and Protestant weekly attendance rates were identical. They have diverged since 2002 with Protestants increasing as much as Catholics have been decreasing. Is this evidence of an effect for the sexual abuse scandal? What other reason would make Catholics and Protestants so different? Why else are Catholics attending less in an environment in which Protestants are attending more?

        At the top of the graphic are strong Catholics 85% versus Strong Protestants 55%. in 1974.

        Strong Protestants have only increased to 60% while Strong Catholics have fallen by more than 30 points in attendance!!!

        It is interesting that this decline in strong Catholics has only come down to the sixty percent level in the years after 1996. It appears to have had a temporary decline below 60% in 2002, and now both the 2010 and 2012 data points are at 55%. Again do we have another effect of the sexual abuse scandal this time among Strong Catholics? Why again would this happen so differently between Strong Catholics and Strong Protestants? You have to locate the differences in our internal church environment.
        When we are talking about people who say they are strong Catholics and when the measure is weekly Mass attendance which has been a marker of Catholicism, how can we attribute what is going on to the culture (since it is not happening to Protestants, they are going in the opposite direction), or even to lack of sufficient indoctrination. Really strong Catholics and Mass going Catholics have not been indoctrinated???

        Catholics are not just saying they are not longer Catholics, they are moving out of the categories of being strong Catholics and of being Mass attenders.

    2. Jim Pauwels Avatar
      Jim Pauwels

      @Jack Rakosky – comment #11:
      “A lot of Catholics, myself included, were proud of Vatican II, John XXIII and JFK, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement.”

      Jack – this list of items of Catholic pride seems to strengthen my intergenerational point.

      I don’t have a personal memory of a single one of those things, because they all happened during my infancy. Whatever I know of all those things, I’ve learned from history books.

      And today, I’m 51 – old enough to be a grandparent myself.

      I don’t minimize the impact of the sketch of history that you and Bill deHaas are discussing, on people who have lived long enough to have a personal experience of that historical arc. But for me (late Boomer), my children and, perhaps some day in the not too distant future, their children, talking about these things can be a bit like talking about the Council of Trent: interesting, and with whatever relevance historical occurrences have on today, but not really part of what is happening today.

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