By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Two experts in religious sociology addressed the U.S. bishops this afternoon, each in a way making a simple point. They might be summarized as follows:
•tChristianity in America is being “de-Europeanized” through immigration, especially among Hispanics and Asians, with the Catholic church looming as a bellwether of demographic transformations that will eventually engulf other churches and the entire society;
•tPractice of the sacraments is declining across generations, but enrollment in Catholic schools remains a powerful way of boosting the likelihood that a given Catholic will have an active sacramental life.
Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, presented the results of a recent Pew study of America’s religious landscape, while Mark Gray of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University summarized two recent surveys about Catholics and the sacraments.
Lugo began his presentation by greeting the bishops in Spanish, and then quipped that he’d just offered “the essence of my entire presentation.”
Lugo summarized the widely publicized results of the recent Pew study, which among other things concluded that ten percent of Americans are former Catholics. Of those who have left the Catholic church, nearly half have become Protestant Evangelicals, a good chunk have become part of the country’s burgeoning population that professes no religious affiliation, and a few have become mainline Protestants or have joined other faiths.
Noting that 2.6 percent of the American population is composed of people who converted to Catholicism as adults, a sizeable pool of some six million adults, Lugo quickly added, “It’s not as if there’s no evangelizing activity going on." He said a disproportionate share of these converts to Catholicism is concentrated in the Midwest and the South.
Despite those gains, Lugo said, Catholicism in the United States shows a sharp loss in the transition from childhood to adulthood, with defections substantially outnumbering new recruits.
“For every four people we interviewed who said they were raised Catholic but who are no longer Catholic,” Lugo said, “we only found one who said he or she was not raised Catholic but later converted.”
Given that reality, Lugo asked, why is the overall share of the American population that identifies as Catholic holding steady at roughly 25 percent? The answer, he suggested, lies in immigration, especially a mushrooming Hispanic population in America that’s disproportionately Catholic.
Among native-born Christians, Lugo said, Protestants outnumber Catholics by a roughly 2-1 margin. Among the foreign-born, however, Catholics have the same 2-1 edge. Immigration, therefore, is gradually “tilting the balance in the Catholic direction.”
Right now, Lugo said, 23 percent of American Catholic adults are foreign-born, a rate four times higher than among Protestants. He said that if children were added into the mix, the numbers would be even higher.
Lugo said the Pew study found that roughly 30 percent of the Catholic population in the United States is today Hispanic, roughly where the percentage of the overall American population is projected to be by 2050 (up from 14 percent today.)
In that sense, Lugo argued, “the future of the United States is here in the Catholic church.” Catholicism, he said, represents “a harbinger of what we’re going to see for the country as a whole.”
Moreover, Lugo said, immigration in the United States is reinforcing rather than undercutting the Christian character of American society, which he said is "in stark contrast" to the impact of immigration in Europe.
Lugo cited a sociologist to the effect that immigration is leading "not to the de-Christianization of America, but to the de-Europeanization of American Christianity." Lugo called that claim perceptive, and said the data "backs it up."
Compounding the effects of immigration, Lugo said, are differences in fertility rates between whites and Hispanics. The white fertility rate in America, he said, is 1.8 percent, well above comparable European rates but still below what demographers call the “replacement rate” of 2.1, meaning the average number of children women need to have by the end of their child-bearing years in order to keep a population constant. The Hispanic fertility rate, by way of contrast, is 2.9.
Taken together, Lugo said these trends augur the “browning of American Catholicism,” and said that what’s visible on the ground today is merely “the tip of the iceberg.”
Lugo drew three implications:
•tThe geographic distribution of American Catholicism is shifting along with immigration patterns, moving from the Northeast to the South and the West;
•tEducation and income levels of American Catholics are also changing, as Hispanic immigrants are seven times less likely than whites to have completed high school, and two and one-half times more likely to earn less than $30,000 a year. In that sense, as American Catholicism browns, it also becomes poorer;
•tThe charismatic and Pentecostal impulses in American Catholicism are likely to gather strength, as Hispanics are several times more likely to identify themselves in those terms. For that reason, typically Pentecostal practices such as miracles, healings and speaking in tongues are likely to become more common in Catholic spirituality.
“Major changes are afoot in American society and in American religion, and the Roman Catholic church is the leading edge of that transformation,” Lugo said.
For his part, Gray presented extensive data on the practice of the sacraments among American Catholics, much of which pointed to sharp declines across generations in the percentage of Catholics who attend Mass on a weekly basis and go to confession regularly, and similar declines in the percentage of Catholics who have been confirmed. The drop-off is most pronounced in the so-called “millennial” generation, Gray said, meaning Catholics born since 1983.
Paradoxically, those millennial Catholics who do attend Mass and practice the other sacraments tend to resemble Catholics born before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) in their attitudes and practices, with strongly traditional views of many matters.
One consistent finding in the CARA data, Gray said, is that across age groups and other categories, those Catholics who have attended Catholic schools are significantly more likely to be active in practice of the faith, including the reception of the sacraments.
In that regard, Gray suggested, bishops concerned about promoting sacramental practice would do well to ensure that Catholic education remains a realistic option for today’s families. Only 29 percent of “millennial Catholics” have ever attended a Catholic school, Gray said, a far lower share than in earlier generations. The most decisive factors cited by parents to explain why their children are not in Catholic schools, Gray said, are the cost of tuition and the lack of tuition assistance.
Keeping Catholic schools “viable and affordable,” Gray suggested, thus leaps out from the CARA data as a pastoral priority.