The Impact of Religious Switching


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© 2008 CARA 1 The Impact of Religious Switching and Secularization on the Estimated Size of the U.S. Adult Catholic Population1 Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University How many Catholics have left the faith? In February 2008, The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released results from their “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” partially addressing this important question. Pew’s report for this study and many of the media stories2 that followed it highlighted the following statements regarding the U.S. adult Catholic population: “Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes. While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic. These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration” (p. 6). “...the Catholic share of the U.S. adult population has held fairly steady in recent decades, at around 25%. What this apparent stability obscures, however, is the large number of people who have left the Catholic Church. Approximately one-third of the survey respondents who say they were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic. This means that roughly 10% of all Americans are former Catholics. These losses, however, have been partly offset by the number of people who have changed their affiliation to Catholicism (2.6% of the adult population) but more importantly by the disproportionately high number of Catholics among immigrants to the U.S.” (p. 7). The Catholic Church has indeed lost the most in terms of total population but it is important to remember that the Catholic Church is also the single largest faith in the United States and proportions matter. In the discussion of those who leave their faith, the Pew study did not highlight some important results in their “Summary of Key Findings” regarding the varying likelihoods, by denomination, that one will leave the faith they were raised in. As bad as the Catholic losses are, they would have been even worse if the Church was losing its young faithful at the same rate as every other U.S. Protestant denomination. Retention rates are reported by Pew in two separate tables in the report. The first is on pages 30, including Catholics, and the other is on page 31, including Protestant denominations.3 The table on the following page combines these Pew results and ranks retention rates for all faith groups that account for at least million adult members. The Pew study indicates that the Catholic Church has retained 68 percent of those who grew up Catholic. 1 For questions or comments about this document contact Mark M. Gray, Director CARA Catholic Polls (CCP), at 202-687-0885 or [email protected] 2 For example: The Washington Times story was titled, “Catholic tradition fading in U.S”, the Chicago Tribune went with “Many US Catholics, Protestants leave their churches”, and the Orlando Sentinel highlighted “Study: Immigrants keeping American Catholic Church afloat.” 3 The only retention rates reported in the summary of key findings were ...

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