Although the number of all Americans who declare that they have no religious identity has risen substantially in the last decade, a new Pew Research survey of 5,122 U.S. adults, including 1,016 self-identified Catholics, finds that the Catholic church’s share of the religious marketplace is down from 23.9 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in the new survey, conducted in May and June of 2015.
This survey goes beyond the standard tally of how many people say their religious identity is Catholic. It asks many questions that Pew had not asked before.
Pew found that in addition to the 20 percent who say they are Catholics, 9 percent of U.S. adults are “cultural Catholics”. Reared as Catholics they no longer identify themselves as religious Catholics. However, they still consider themselves somewhat Catholic by culture, ancestry, ethnicity or family tradition.
Pew also identified another 9 percent of Americans as ex-Catholics — “lapsed” or “fallen-away” Catholics — who were reared in the church but have turned their backs on it. This would mean that almost one quarter (9 of 38) of cradle Catholics are no longer Catholic.
“We see enormous differences between cultural Catholics and ex-Catholics,” said Greg Smith, associate director of religion research at Pew.
“Cultural Catholics exhibit a significant degree of openness to the church,” he said, “whereas ex-Catholics have cut their ties. Asked directly, ‘Could you see yourself ever returning’ to a Catholic religious identity, 4 in 10 cultural Catholics say yes, but 90 percent of ex-Catholics say no”.
Many of the ex-Catholics have become evangelical Protestants; and some have become Conservative or Reform Jews (almost half of all converts to Judaism are former Catholics).
While the Roman Catholic church is getting smaller, those who remain within the church are stronger in their faith: 7 in 10 U.S. Catholics say they cannot ever imagine leaving the Catholic Church, no matter what. That means that in the future losses should be less.
The Pew survey found that most remaining Catholics align church teachings they consider “essential” to what it means to be Catholic. Leading the list: 68 percent cite a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; 62 percent list helping the poor and needy; 54 percent cite receiving the sacraments and devotion to Mary.
But only a minority see addressing climate change (29 percent) or opposing abortion (33 percent) as “essential” to their Catholic identity. Catholics are evenly divided over whether it is sinful to spend money on luxuries without also giving to the poor. Neither do most see it as a sin to use energy without concern for the impact on the environment.
Pope Francis, the most popular Pope since Pope John XXIII, is facing a major challenge.