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Trouble Ahead

Pew report details declining numbers of millennials identifying with Catholicism

By Jason Godin

Recently Pew Research Center released “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” with results from survey of 35,000 adult Americans. The first in a series of reports to be published in the coming year, based on findings found from its 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, it examined trends in religious identity, religious upbringing, religious intermarriage, as well as the demographic characteristics of a variety of U.S. religious groups between 2007 and 2014.

This column aims to analyze the report’s numbers solely from the Catholic perspective, to unearth some reasons behind one of its most startling statistics: just 16% of millennials in the United States – native-born and immigrant adults born between 1981 and 1996 – identified themselves as Catholic in 2014 (p. 11).

A deeper dig into the four chapters and five appendices of the report yields at least two factors in that outcome:

Childhood Retention
Although 59% of today’s Catholic adults raised as Catholics still identify with Catholicism, 41% don’t. Breaking down that 41% in detail shows 20% of former Catholics now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated “nones,” 10% as evangelical Protestant, 5% as mainline Protestant, 4% as other faiths, and 1% as within the historically black Protestant tradition (p. 39).

Low generational replacement levels appear to have influenced that outcome. Only 50% of millennials raised Catholic remain Catholic, the lowest among all the generational cohorts surveyed. By contrast, 67% of millennials raised as unaffiliated “nones” in their childhood stick to that description (p. 41).

Racial and Ethnic Composition 
Millennials are celebrated routinely as a very racially, ethnically diverse generation. The report shows that the same could be said about Catholicism in the United States. The percentage of white Catholics declined 6% (65% to 59%) as the Latino population increased by 5% (29% to 34%) between 2007 and 2014 (p. 52). The report also found about 40% of all the adult Catholics surveyed are either first-generation (27%) or second-generation (15%) Americans, with most of them emigrating from Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada (p. 53).

Yet young immigrants are not sticking with the Church. Among adult immigrants born outside of the United States who arrived in this country in 1990 or later, 37% (from 1990-1999), 35% (2000 or later) (p. 75). In other words, the younger the immigrant, the less likely they identify with Catholicism.

Most media attention toward the report has focused on the report’s introductory overview, which highlighted an increasing number of adults not identifying with any organized religion (from 16.1% to 22.8%) as the total population share of all Christians in the country declined during the same period (from 78.4% to 70.6%). It also discovered this trend taking place across all generations of adults, particularly the millennial generation.

A quantitatively low level of America’s youngest adults identifying with Catholicism forecasts a bleak future for the Church. It shows her increasingly unable to keep her children into adulthood. It exposes how she can’t find enough adherents to replace the ones she’s losing. Though the U.S. Church is racially and ethnically more diverse than in the past, the report also illustrates that many young individuals who were Catholic when they arrived in the United States tend to drift away. Such sad statistics should give Catholics of all ages, across the country, cause for serious concern.

Jason Godin is associate editor of Fathers for Good.