Here comes everybody!

By  Catholic News Service
  • April 11, 2008

James Joyce once described the Roman Catholic Church as "Here comes everybody!" In the United States, his description rings true. American Catholics are a diverse and somewhat unruly bunch and attempts to paint them into categorical corners usually founder on the facts. Pope Benedict XVI will no doubt find this out for himself during his visit April 15-20.

There have been several attempts recently to draw a picture of American Catholics with public opinion polling. One of the more interesting was released earlier this year by the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life . It offers a statistical portrait of Catholics in America that is sometimes surprising. You'll have to read it yourself to plumb all its dimensions; here I'd just like to examine one aspect.

One of this survey's claims has raised more than a few eyebrows down south. It is that the rate of leakage, shall we say, away from the Church is rather high. According to the Pew Forum, "No other major faith in the U.S. has experienced greater net losses over the last few decades as a result of changes in religious affiliation than the Catholic Church. Nearly one-third (31.4 per cent) of U.S. adults say they were raised Catholic. Today, however, only 23.9 per cent of adults say they are affiliated with the Catholic Church, a net loss of 7.5 percentage points. Overall, roughly one-third of those who were raised Catholic have left the church, and approximately one-in-10 American adults are former Catholics."

That's a lot of lapsed Catholics walking around down there. Thank God, though, for Hispanic immigrants. Since more than half of immigrants to the U.S. are Catholic, they are taking up those places in the pews vacated by American sons and daughters. The proportion of Catholics in the American population has remained stable over the last five years at roughly one-quarter. This is, in small part, because of converts, but largely because of immigrants. In fact, says the Pew study, almost half of Catholics under age 40 are immigrants.

This is changing the American Church in ways no one really has a handle on yet. We're starting to see more and more Spanish-speaking bishops and priests and Spanish-language Catholic publications, or Spanish sections in existing Catholic publications. And they are certainly rejuvenating parish life. Though, it must be said, parish life in the United States has traditionally been lively, certainly far more lively than in Europe and, judging from my own limited experience, more often than not more lively than up here in the great white north.

Pope Benedict has written often, at least when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, on Catholicism in Europe, but not much on the Church in the United States, though he is certainly aware of the vast gulf between Europe and North American when it comes to religion and culture. He has recognized the American Church's vitality and volunteerism so it wouldn't be surprising if he is looking forward to visiting a country where people embrace religion quite happily in public and expect it to play a role in public life. 

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.